The sunrise this morning was gorgeous. More so because of all the clouds, I am sure, and it was clear that our day ahead might be a bit dreary. After a long night of being pretty darn sick, even with the medicine, and the frustration of trying repeatedly to get the WiFi to work, I wasn’t feeling very happy. Our breakfast buffet downstairs in the dining room was huge and very crowded, but the breakfast was good. I still found some good yogurt and muesli and there were lots of fruits and pastries available. I tried one, but it wasn’t that exciting, not like the croissants in the much less fancy hotel in Budapest.
Stuff I learned on this trip: If you have two people traveling with 2 SLR’s, 2 iPhones, and one iPad to process it all, the photos will become very close to unmanageable. If I ever go to Europe again, the SLR will stay home and I will use a nifty point and shoot. Even with the SLR, my photos this time are still more about content than the kind of quality I can get with the SLR over a point and shoot. The weight isn’t worth it to me unless I am going to someplace that is incredibly scenic and I actually have the time to take some serious photos. But back to the day at hand.
It is dreary, overcast, and the temperature feels a bit chilly today. I decided to wear a jacket and my warm sweater, and carry just one stick instead of two, but then thought better of that idea. I also am wearing my Cotton Carrier for the camera, but by the end of the long days, I feel like I am in a straight jacket! Still, I couldn’t manage it any other way, since it gets incredibly heavy around the neck and over the shoulder doesn’t work at all. I love my Cotton Carrier.
After breakfast we met downstairs for our morning bus tour with another new local guide, a snarky and completely entertaining man named Gearhart. He has a bit of an “attitude” I would say about the socialist government of Austria, and told some really funny stories. He had an interesting perspective on the local culture and I loved his humor. Some of the women on the trip later made the comment that he was more focused on being “cute” than on imparting information, but I didn’t agree at all. I learned so much from him about the history of Vienna in relation to the rest of Eastern Europe. He stated specifically that Vienna is what it is today because the United States made the decision to save Vienna from the Soviets. Vienna was on the very edge of the Iron Curtain, and according to Gearhart, the rest of Europe didn’t care much about the little city out there in the east. Even though Vienna had to be rebuilt after the war, there was a huge difference in what happened to Vienna compared to what happened in Budapest and Prague, and he attributed that directly to the United States and its intervention.
As we rode across the Danube toward the city, we could see the spire of St Stephen’s dominating the skyline. The central part of Vienna is a large circle with the church at the center and surrounded by the Ringstrasse, a large beautiful boulevard that circles the city. He encouraged us to use the Metro, and to walk the city because it was almost impossible to get lost. Look for the church, walk the opposite direction to the Ringstrasse, and you know where you are. Our bus did quite a tour of the city, impaired now and then by one of the hundreds of horse drawn carriages filled with tourists, and gave us the opportunity to see where we might want to go later in the afternoon in our free time.
First on the tour was the Hundred Waters House. We emerged from the bus to a long wall of tourist shops filled with inexpensive goods that Gearhart dissed with one of his snarky remarks. We all laughed, but I did notice that on the way back to the bus, many of us were buying some of those inexpensive goods, including a truly lovely scarf that Melody found. Cheap is not always a bad thing! Hundertwasser House is down a pedestrian mall and is hard to even describe. If you are interested in environmental buildings and a true greenie and creative artist, read about Hundertwasser. Quoting from Wiki:
“Hundertwasser's original and unruly artistic vision expressed itself in pictorial art, environmentalism, philosophy, and design of facades, postage stamps, flags, and clothing (among other areas). The common themes in his work utilised bright colours, organic forms, a reconciliation of humans with nature, and a strong individualism, rejecting straight lines”.
Our next stop on the tour was the summer residence of Maria Theresa (Theresia in some texts), the Schonbrunn Palace. Schonbrunn is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is supposedly the most visited site in Austria. Owned by the Habsburgs for centuries, following the downfall of the monarchy in 1918 it became the property of the Austrian government. A bit of trivia ~ John F Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev met here in 1961.
Even though we were arriving early in the day, the tour groups were already gathering in the courtyard in front of the palace for their entry times. Our guides were all paranoid about being at the gate at exactly the right minute for our entrance. I guess it is another time when it was OK to have guides to deal with all this.
Styled to imitate Versailles, the house is imposing and somewhat sterile from the front entrance. Once inside, however, it was breathtaking. Of course, we were not allowed to take ANY photos at all, not a single one of the interior, since of course they want to sell their expensive picture books in the gift shop. We didn’t buy any. The tour was accompanied by reams of information about the Habsburgs and about the Empress Maria Theresa, who was an incredible ruler who had great armies and knew how to use them to control a very large part of the world. She did all this while having 16, yes 16 babies! It was important to these royal families to reproduce, since they had unhealthy children that often died and passing on the monarchy was of utmost importance.
Another little tidbit. If someone was called “The Good”, instead of “The Great” or “The Strong”, it probably meant that they were sickly and would die fairly young. These families repeatedly married first cousins to keep the royal blood pure. Epilepsy was a severe problem in the family and grew worse over the centuries.
Once we finished the tour of the interior of the house, we were given just half an hour to find our way back outside to the gardens. There was a lot to see here, and once again, our timing was much too short. Melody walked as fast as she could all the way to the sculpture at the far end of the garden while I tried to have enough time to appreciate the perfectly symmetrical hedges and trees and take some photos. Even in the overcast light, the gardens were beautiful.
Our guide again mentioned that all these sites are actually owned by the Austrian government, including the famous Opera House, and there are more than 60 different operas performed there in a year. You can come for a week and see a different opera every single night. Of course, this is all paid for by the state, meaning the people’s taxes, and Gearhart made another snarky comment about thinking that maybe the government could make do with 40 different operas per year instead of 60. He told us that children aren’t very popular in Vienna, and people also hate to pay taxes, and the cost of living is very high. Somehow the equation doesn’t add up and he wonders just how long Austria can continue the way it is going with no children coming up to pay the taxes to support all this government supported “stuff”. It was interesting to hear.
Our tour part of the day ended in the center of town at the great cathedral of St Stephens. As we toured these cathedrals, it became more and more clear that a Cathedral here is most often a very large cemetery, with chapels filled with crypts and graves beneath the stones in the floors.The group returned to the hotel for the afternoon, but we chose to stay downtown, and Ellen and Roger decided to stay with us. Melody wanted to see the catacombs beneath the great St Stephen’s Cathedral, and we found the group tour was beginning within the hour. It gave us just enough time to walk around the square a bit and marvel at the architecture.
A soft spoken young man gathered the tour group and began speaking in German. UhOh. Is this tour going to be all in German? German has always seemed to me to be a somewhat harsh language, but his voice was musical, lyrical and soothing. I didn’t care if it was German, or if I understood a word. Then, he started speaking in lovely English, explaining to us softly that the beautiful copper pots surrounding us were filled with the entrails of the Habsburgs and some had the very special donation of a Habsburg heart which I guess all the cathedrals coveted. The room was quite tight and small.
As we moved deeper into the depths below the church, we heard stories of all the royalty entombed there, and then the stories of the plague and we found the bone rooms, where hundreds of dead plague victims were thrown because there was no time for burial. Later the bones were stacked like firewood and as we looked into the room, it took a minute to realize that the walls were made of human bones. To me it was interesting, to Melody it was devastating. She burst into tears and as we emerged from the church she said that all she could think of was that those people had lives and families and they were nothing more than bones in a wall. Even with the photos and the exhibits at the House of Terror, I don’t think Melody has any idea of what she would see in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. She might have to get a bit older and a bit more jaded before she visits that place.
By the time we came out of the church, it was late afternoon, and we decided that Lorena’s suggestion of “a cawfee” in Vienna was a great idea. The four of us found an outdoor cafe on the pedestrian mall, with nice big patio heaters going strong in the canopy above us. I ordered an Irish Coffee and I must say I have never had one quite so strong! And I am not talking about the coffee part! Roger had a Pilsner, and Melody a Viennese Cappucinno and Ellen had some kind of tall fruity thing that looked wonderful but cold! We all tasted each other’s goodies, and Melody and I switched!
We are all tired, and this evening is a special extra tour (an extra fee of course) to the Prater Ferris Wheel and the hills west of Vienna for a special local dinner in the area where there are a lot of vineyards. It was time to find the Metro, which was just a few feet away beneath us, figure out the tickets and the stamps, and be sure that we got off at the right stop on the other side of the Danube. It was simple and fast, and within fifteen minutes we at the Metro exit just a couple of blocks from the hotel.
I knew that the Prater Ferris Wheel would be a delight and it was. The Prater has a wonderful history, beginning in 1766, when Emperor Joseph II donated the area to the Viennese as a public center for leisure. We arrived at the magical evening hour when the light is just beginning to wane and you can see the lights of the wheel and the carousel even though it isn’t dark yet. The Prater Ferris Wheel was destroyed at the end of the war in 1945 but the city knew how important it was to the people and it was rebuilt in 1947. The ride only lasted 15 minutes, with the special dining car just below us and the view of the city in the distance. I loved it.
One of my favorite moments of all of Vienna was here when we were back on the ground at the base of the wheel. There were people eating cotton candy, there was a “hammer” and people screaming, and the ferris wheel was turning above me. Behind me were the bumper cars with kids yelling and all this was accompanied by music across the loudspeakers from the Vienna Waltzes. Somehow bumper cars and symphony music just seemed so incredibly wonderful there in the park.
Back on the bus for our tour to another part of Vienna, up a bit in the hills, to our restaurant for the evening. It was still cool and rainy, and the tourists that usually fill this small street were much fewer than during the summer months. The restaurant was warm and friendly and there were local musicians singing and playing folk music. Another large group of tourists were in the back room singing and dancing along with the band and having a great time. I wondered how many local people actually frequented this restaurant, famous for its winery.
The dinner was family style with a couple of glasses of their wine and included salads of cucumbers and tomatoes and pickles, and then huge platters of roasted pork, ham, and roasted potatoes along with some amazing tasting sauerkraut with finely minced vegetables. The glasses of wine were big pints, like beer, and by the end of the evening we were all feeling pretty warm and fuzzy. The life stories started coming out again, and the jokes and laughter were raucous and fun.
On our way home, our great bus driver Paul, somehow hit the wrong exit and ended up trapped with the big bus right at the entrance of a big parking garage. UhOh! Within a minute there was a car of mean looking policemen trying to figure out what he thought he was doing. Lorena came to the rescue, leaned over Paul, and batted her big brown eyes at the policemen while she explained our predicament. Those guys just melted, and gave us a police escort while Paul backed the big bus out to the freeway again. Lorena laughed later, and in her imitable Argentinean accent said, “I know how to play blond when I need to!”
hey sue—i am with melody about the schnitzel! i grew up on the stuff-- mom made it a lot, since she grew up with an austrian father. of course we loved saying WEENER! i have never really liked it. what is so special about flattened meat coated with bread and fried??? personally i think austrian food is terrible. ha ha ha. have eaten plenty of it and i have spent some time there too, visiting relatives and skiing. i do still love spaeztle though. and my grandpa used to make some really good things my mom called "peasant food". i think it was stuff dirt poor people would eat. one was called "ribble" and was basically old hot cereal fried in butter with sugar on top. the other was "kaiser shmaren" which means kings mess. we would save old bread ends in the freezer, then you tear it into bits, soak it in egg and fry it in butter and put sugar on top. kinda like french toast nuggets. and finally, "gruba" (no idea how to spell these things) which was a big chunk of fat, cut into bits, salted and broiled to make mini fat crispies. yum!
Photos from our first day in Vienna are posted online here