Once again using my buffet analogy, we had more than just a taste of Vienna. We may not have been completely full, but we did have a full meal: we were there one evening and four full days. This post is about four times as long as usual, so you may want to digest it in more than one sitting.
We arrived in Vienna in the early evening and participated an optional “Musical Vienna” program. We were taken to a concert hall where, along with busloads of other tourists, we were herded into a large salon. A thirteen-piece orchestra performed Mozart and Straus, there were two ballet dancers and two opera singers. I am not a music aficionado. It was representative of Vienna, and I enjoyed if for that. However, the flat room made it difficult to see much. I would suggest one save your money and instead try to obtain tickets to the opera or philharmonic to hear the best. Or you could attend the “Salute to Vienna” held New Year’s Eve in Chicago, New York, Miami, Toronto and Fort Myers (go figure) which also does it better.
The next day we had a bus tour around the Ringstrasse, a two and a half mile long boulevard with many magnificent 19th Century buildings. The boulevard(s) – it changes names as it goes around the city – replaced the old city walls and fortifications which were torn down at the instruction of the Emperor in 1857.
We then took a guided walking tour of the downtown area before returning to the ship for lunch. St. Stephan’s has interesting stained glass giving it a very unusual look. Of course, the roof is has its famous tiles.
Theoretically, we were on our own for the afternoon. But we were offered the choice of going with any one of the four program directors on an unofficial tour: Wally went to the flea market; Daniel went to the Hundertwasserhaus;
Anka went to have coffee and cakes; and Marly went to the Prater amusement park. As we planned to stay in the city after leaving the ship, we opted for the Prater. Hundertwasser was known for his boldly colored paintings and the wild facades of his buildings. I was tempted but decided to leave it for another time (we had spent lots of time with Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, and Alie and Michelle were more interested in the Prater).
The Prater is a large amusement park reminiscent of parks in the U.S. before theme parks became popular. We went for the giant Ferris Wheel built in 1897. It is 67.75 meters high (about two hundred feet) and has 15 large cabins similar to those in the original Ferris Wheel at the Chicago World’s Fair. There had been 30 cabins, but when the wheel was rebuilt after burning during World War II, they chose to just have 15. It is possible to reserve a cabin for a formal dinner with crystal and silver. I was glad we made the choice. The old wheel was interesting in itself and the views were fabulous — the sun was out! Movie buffs: the Ferris Wheel was in The Third Man and more recently in The Living Daylights.
About half the people on board were going to remain with the ship for two more weeks going to Constanta, Romania. The rest left the next morning, some heading for the airport, a few staying a while on their own and eleven of us staying for an optional extended stay.
Daniel was our guide for the next three days. After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we were introduced to the excellent subway system and went out to
Schönbrunn. The Viennese subway is on an honor system and seems to work. One buys a ticket for a one way trip good for an hour, or for a period that can last a day, two days or even a year. (The new government had just reduced the yearly ticket to 365 euros, a euro a day.) One’s ticket is time stamped on the first use and thereafter, one just boards the subway or trolley or bus. Theoretically, tickets are spot checked to see if you are cheating, and there is a large fine if you are, but Daniel thought people had proven to be honest. It is really convenient and encourages public transportation use.
Schönbrunn is a modest little imperial summer retreat of 1441 rooms. First built as a hunting lodge in 1642, Empress Maria Theresa had the place completely redesigned a century later. Emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled for 68 years and was Europe’s longest reigning monarch, was born in Schönbrunn, lived there with his beautiful wife Elizabeth, the tormented “Sissy” of movie and book fame, and after she was assassinated, spent his last years exclusively there. Unfortunately, photographs were not permitted inside the palace.
Franz Joseph was an interesting man. He is described as a “workaholic,” who spent long hours at his desk including often having breakfast and lunch there. He held regular audiences in which anyone, no matter how humble, could present their case to him — if very briefly.
Sissy, who married at 15, is somewhat of a mystery. She has been presented as a young woman who was dominated by a demanding mother-in-law who wouldn’t allow her to raise her own children. On the other hand, she might also have just been a very spoiled child all her life totally devoted to her own widely proclaimed beauty. A crazed anarchist chose to stab her with a file when his original target changed his travel schedule. Not really well known while alive, her tragic death turned her into a cult figure.
Daniel took us to Figlmüller, a restaurant in the center of town famous for its schnitzel. One serving easily served two people. We returned to the hotel to check in. We have often joked about our hotel room in Madrid that was in the attic. When we got on the elevator to go to room 410, instead of a “4” there was a “D” for Dach, the German for attic. But it was a large modern room, much nicer than Madrid. After a light dinner at a nearby deli, Michelle, Alie and I returned to Schönbrunn to explore the gardens more thoroughly.
The park and gardens are huge. They even include one of Europe’s oldest zoos. We walked for hours and believe we only covered about one-third of the area. Alie takes photos of flowers wherever we are and uses them as desktop wallpaper for her computer. Even though the weather had not yet turned warm, she had lots of roses to choose from.
It was originally thought to put the palace at the top of the hill, but that was impractical. So Maria Theresa instead had a Gloriette constructed in 1775. It looks relatively small from the palace, but when you walk up to it, you find the terrace is up a twenty meter high spiral staircase.
A concert is held almost every evening at Schönbrunn. There is a charge for some. Others are free. That evening was some Chinese group. There was a performance by the Philharmonic Orchestra the next evening. We considered it, but having been told that one had to arrive as much as three hours before the gates opened in order to get a seat, we decided against it. Standing room was available, but it was just that – one must stand; no sitting on the lawn was permitted. Perhaps the next time we will find out if that is true.
Technically our tour listed the next day as free time. Daniel, however, clearly loves his work. He is an excellent linguist and brilliant history student. He offered to guide our group, and we quickly took up his offer. We walked through the Bermudadreieck, the Bermuda Triangle, a neighborhood he said, while perhaps not sleazy, was surely tacky and not where the ladies would like to be at night. We were at the edge of the old Jewish Quarter. Also nearby was St. Ruprecht’s (Rupert) Church, the oldest church in Vienna sitting on a hill above the river and dating back to the eleventh century.
We visited a memorial installed in 2000 to the 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered under the Nazis. A nearby museum has a tunnel to a room under the memorial that shows the remains of a Jewish synagogue that was destroyed in the pogrom of 1421. A few blocks away, I noticed a plaque honoring two Jews who were killed at that place by Palestinian terrorists on 29 August 1981. Unfortunately, it seems religious-based hatred will always be with us. Young German children are taught about Nazi crimes; it is too bad many other countries don’t even recognized hate-based killing as a crime.
Daniel led us to Bretzl Gwölb, a little restaurant in a building that went back to 1241. Pretzels probably go back to Roman times and the name likely stems from a medieval word for bracelet. Philadelphia girls Michelle and Alie remember getting pretzels from street-side vendors, but the warm fresh German pretzels are something special. Down a winding stone staircase in charming cellar, we each had a meal. A basket of pretzels was on the table instead of bread. Each pretzel was fifty cents and worth more.
The members of the group all wanted to do something different after lunch, so we split up. Alie, Michelle and I chose to tour the Opera House. Completed in 1869, it is a rather ordinary neo-Renaissance style building. Even that façade has now been broken up by a gigantic (and rather ugly) television screen that offers the public outside free opera viewings. But the interior is just the magnificent setting in which one imagines an opera ought to be staged. Neither of us is a fan of opera. I think it might have done better in the U.S. if more were in English. I have only attended an opera four times, three of which were on my 1967 hitchhiking trip. I am sure I would have done better had I
understood more. But I do remember being in Vienna hearing Christa Ludwig sing. I had never heard of her, but at age 39, she was probably in her prime. Even my untrained ear knew it was hearing something special. She won two Grammys during her career. Today, each seat in the opera house has a little screen with captions in German or English so that you can follow the dialogue and songs. That would have been nice, but probably wouldn’t have made any difference to me; her voice was truly special.
We had two days of sun in Vienna, and it was nice but the rain was back. After the Opera House, we ducked into a confectioner. One has to have coffee (or in our case tea) and a pastry in Vienna. By pure chance we stopped in Gerstner’s, the “imperial confectioner since 1847.” I don’t know if it was better than others, but it was great.
Viennese eat their main meal at lunch, eat early for dinner and go home early. By six-thirty, most of the shops were closed, and the only restaurant other than a Vietnamese pho shop was a little Italian pizza shop. It turned out to be run by an immigrant Syrian family. But the pizza was good.
On our last day, the group split up again. We chose to visit the Hofburg museums. The area around the Hofburg was on record as the seat of government in 1279. Later it became the palace of Holy Roman Emperors and Emperors of Austria. Over the years, various wings were added until it became one huge rectangle with attached wings going off that.
Today it still houses government offices. It also houses three museums which one enters for one price. One is given a device somewhat larger than a cell phone in the language of your choice, and as you go through the various rooms, you press a number to listen to a description. Similar devices had been available at Schönbrunn.
The first museum displays the tableware, dishes and table decorations of the palace. Royalty ate off gold and silver. Porcelain was for the middle classes until the Napoleonic Wars. Then all the royal silver was melted down to make coins for defense. Porcelain plates were silver-plated to look like silver. One Prince had a fondness for birds and had a huge collection of birds and flowers hand-painted on his plates. And then the fine porcelain became valued for itself, and the royal collection expanded. We expected to spend the morning in the museums and then do something else. By lunchtime, we had just finished the first museum, so we had a nice meal in the museum cafe (but very slow service). Michelle requested lemon with her tea and was given a very small pitcher of fresh lemon juice.
After lunch, we went through the narrow corridors and displays of the museum devoted to Sissy. It was packed, we were using the wheelchair, and I found myself being shoved by Japanese tourists. I was not a happy camper and was glad to move on to the Royal Apartments.
Franz Joseph, Elizabeth and their children lived here with the various royal staff. It is lavish, but not excessively so, and the explanations on the handheld devices were good. Franz Joseph, as in Schönbrunn, had a simple office decorated mostly with pictures of his family.
For the record, the Spanish Riding School is also part of the Hofburg. We chose not to visit. The Lipizzan horses have been to our little Cape Coral community a couple times since we moved there. A visit to the school was sixteen euros, and one of our group, who had been there, said the horses merely were paraded in a circle; no performance was given on most days. The next performance was June 9.
On our way into town, we had passed through the Westbahnhof, so even though we had walked back through part of the town and there was a quicker way, we went back to the Westbahnhof because we saw a bakery there that really appealed to us for an afternoon snack.
On our final evening, the entire group walked about a half mile to a restaurant Daniel knew. It was truly a local community restaurant. The food was good but not spectacular, but it was interesting just to observe the other diners.
Daniel was in the lobby at 4:00 the next morning to be sure we got our cab to the airport. Looking back at the trip, it was very good. The writer Allan Grotjohann describes his Dutch homeland as “a country where …there is not enough sun to create shadows.” I didn’t know that, and unfortunately that was the case for most of our time. On the other hand, Alie, who for the forty-four years of our marriage has generously called attractive women to my attention, pointed out that there seemed to be more beautiful women in Vienna than any place we had been. I had to agree. That, good food and good drink make up for a lot of rain.