Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Monday, June 28, 2010

Vienna, Austria (Wien)

No, there are no Kangaroo’s in Austria. I loved that T-Shirt. Getting to Vienna is easy enough although we had lots of one way streets. No passport control, we just needed to exchange the Hungarian Forints into Euros at the border. Finding the exchange office was not that easy since a real border does not really exist any longer. I asked a policeman who sent me to a retired banker who had a small office set up in his house to just change Forints into Euros.
The way to Vienna is busy, busy, and busy! Finding a reasonable hotel seems impossible without previous reservations and getting a parking place in the old city? Forget about it! Vienna is the ultimate in tourist places. The art of getting the most out of tourists was written here. With a very polite, thank you, a smile but never the less a stern yes or no, the Viennese get what they want. Please do not go to Vienna expecting to find bargains. There are none! Vienna is purely business, purely nice, and purely wonderful but you must have the money. All that said we stopped at a few hotels on the way and some just looked at our raggedy clothing and smiled and said they are all booked up, even at 180 plus Euros per room. Asking a taxi driver only resulted in him telling me I cannot stop here, would I please move on. Another cabbie told me try out of town, in town is too expensive. I resorted to looking at Ibis for Euro 90 per night but, again, all sold out and no, no breakfast included and parking? We cannot help you, sorry, but with a smile. It was frustrating! I found the bridge going out of town when I rode past the Prater, the famous Ferris wheel, and found a 3 star hotel that advertised 35 Euros per night per person and I stopped to inquire. Well, we looked at the room on the 4th floor, we saw it had a small elevator; it came with breakfast and had space for 2 bikes in the backyard. To get to downtown Vienna we had to walk 15 minutes to the nearest subway station but then could get a direct train to the heart of old Wien. Downtown was 8 stops or about 25 minutes away. It was not the most posh place so we took it for one night, thinking we can find something better the next day. Let’s see how this place works out for us. Wi-Fi costs extra unless you book on line, which we did not know, of course.
We put our stuff upstairs, got into our walking shoes and off we went to explore. The first thing we had to learn was how the subway system works. There are hardly any personnel. Everything is automated. We just got on the train figuring we could buy the tickets there since we could not understand the machine on the wall. Mistake! Once we got off the subway at the Opera we were in a huge, below ground transfer station where 3 or 4 lines come together. We asked someone who looked authoritative how the system works and he guided us to a small booth and we bought a 24 hour ticket and once validated at a stamping machine, it would allow us to ride anyplace on the system. Great!
Then we had to find the exit to the Opera house, since we made this our first stop. That was a good choice since it is centrally located but once we popped up to ground level, we were a target for ticket sellers in 18th Century costumes. These folks are legitimate as I found out later but I was taken aback by being swamped as soon as I hit the pavement. I was reluctant even to talk to them. Good for Carol to keep her wits and listen, we found the info we received helpful, because the official info booth was swamped with people and they would have told us the same thing. We needed to orient ourselves; Vienna is old with twisty roads and small side street. It is easy to get lost and a map is helpful. Luckily one of those costumed ticket sellers had the right map. He also had the info about the opening time for the Opera Tours, he had tickets for a concert the next day and he told us where we could get the Hop On/Hop Off Bus tomorrow. The guy came from Kosovo, spoke English and German well and made his money on the commissions from selling tickets. All was done and said with a smile. He helped as much as he could and we never felt overly pressured but he was keen on selling his tickets, in the nicest way. We walked around a bit, looked around to find the info booth again but after some time came to realize that this guy in period custom was right and was our best bet to get started in Vienna. We went back and bought concert tickets for a Mozart and Strauss concert the next day at the Palais Auersperg, an old Palace where Mozart had played.
We just wanted to get our feet wet on this first day in Vienna and see what it was all about and our first impression was wow, this will take some time. It is impossible to see it all. To make the best of this day we had a good meal. Naturally, we had a ‘Wiener Schnitzel’, but the key was to find the right restaurant. We went back to our ticket seller guy and asked him for the best place and without hesitation, he recommended the restaurant “Figlmüller”, which has been making Schnitzels since 1905 and proclaim to serve not only the best, but also the biggest Schnitzel. So, off we went in the direction indicated.
On the way to the Restaurant we discovered the Swarovski Crystal Museum and, naturally, went in to investigate. Carol had a good time checking out the details of the place and I liked the many ideas the people from Swarovski show.
After the visit, a bit further down the pedestrian street we see the St. Stephen’s Cathedral and in comparison to the same named Basilica in Budapest, Budapest wins hands down. There is just no comparing the two, but then there never is an answer as to why one cathedral is more elaborate, or larger, etc. I think it might have to do with the money at hand at the time of building. St. Stephens in Vienna is the center of the old city. All streets seem to lead to it and, like always in Europe, it probably was the heart of the community in years gone by.
While walking towards Figlmüller we saw a sign on a house telling us that Mozart rented an apartment here for several years. Today this apartment is made into a museum by the city of Vienna. It was too late in the day to enter but on my next trip back to Vienna I will go inside and see this place.
Idling along, always towards Figlmüller, we find peculiar alleyways, which connect one street with another. These are left over passages from years gone by when the right away for people was given to the populace. You have to enter into a large doorway at a house but behind the doorway a large passage opens up with shops, restaurants and stalls on each side. These passageways extend for quite a distance; we did not finish walking all of them.
One of those alleyways allows you to enter the restaurant Figlmüller and right away, after you enter, you feel at home. Yes, it is elegant and busy but not overdone. Very efficient, very cozy with small rooms in a homey atmosphere arranged in such ways that you feel you are eating in a small house. Some parts have upstairs sections. We were lucky to be given a small table beside the window and the service was friendly and efficient. Figlmüller is a good restaurant, a pleasant place. Yes, the schnitzel was so huge that I had a hard time finishing mine. Carol could eat only about 1/3 of hers. The beer to wash it down with was a Radler; a combination of beer and lemon and very tasty. No need to order anything else, just the Schnitzel will fill you up, it is that huge!
After dinner we needed to walk, and the walk back to the Opera house did help to settle the food. Being quick learners we took the subway back to our hotel and walked another 15 minutes back to our hotel. I realized that this works well for us, taking the train into the city, having us land right in the middle of the old city, being able to walk away from it at night and getting a cheaper rate for the hotel room all worked out well enough.
The next morning, after a good buffet breakfast, which was included in the room rate, I extended our stay at this hotel for another 2 days. While we were gone yesterday, a huge load of teenagers was delivered via bus to the hotel and the morning breakfast buffet was lively and busy. There was enough space, however to accommodate all and the food was plentiful. This hotel ( is as good as it gets and we slept well and our bikes were safe, too.
Taking the subway, we again landed at the Opera house and as soon as we popped up to above ground level other folks in costumed, period attire tried to sell us a concert ticket. We, however, took the Hop On/Hop Off Bus for our ride around town. Our first trip was on the red line bus, which drove us for an hour, without letting us off, on a circle tour of the inner city. This gave us a rough overview of what the city looked like and showed us how large Vienna really is. And since Vienna is so large this Hop On/Hop Off line had 3 tours so we bought a ticket for all 3 sections. When we returned after our first tour, we had an hour to kill before the green line, our next section of the tour, took us to Schönbrunn (Pleasant Spring) Palace. This Palace was the summer residence of the Habsburgs, especially during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.
To get a focus, let me explain that the Habsburg house, the dynasty of the Habsburgs started in the year 1273, when the German Rudolf the First became the King of Germany. He was the start and through marriages, through annexations, through wars, through acquisitions and/or power plays the dynasty grew and extended. The King of Kings in German is called a Kaiser and a Kaiser who is Kaiser of more than one country is called an Emperor. After many years, after many powerful mergers, the Habsburg dynasty reached its pinnacle, many say, when the Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) was in charge. During her reign Hungary became part of the German Reich (Holy Roman Reich of German Nations). This Holy Roman Reich of German Nations was a huge concept. Established in the Middle Ages, after or during the Crusades to protect the regions from Islam and to protect the Catholic Church, it was a mutually beneficially set up. The Church took care of the Royals; the Royals took care of the Church. All this ended after World War 1 but let’s not go that far. Let us stay in Schönbrunn.
The green line bus dropped us off at the gates of Schönbrunn and, yes it is a tourist factory. Well arranged, well thought out the whole affair runs like a well oiled machine. You can pick from a menu of tours at different price levels and in different depths. You can study the Habsburgs in so much detail that it will take you years to get it right. You can spend lots of money taking a very expensive, in-depth tour. It is all on the menu. We chose the standard tour, just to give us an overview, especially since my European schooling made me into a tour guide already. Before we went into the Palace itself, I opted to take a Fiaker (Viennese Horse drawn carriage) to see the huge landscaped section surrounding the Palais Schönbrunn. These gardens, Versailles in France has a huge set up, too, were the rage of the 18th Century and Schönbrunn has one of the best representations of this extravagance of gardening. Unfortunately, for the standard price we paid, the Fiaker does not stop for picture taking but hurries along its bumpy ride, not even good enough for good pictures. Yet, the layout, the sheer size of it can be judged and it is impressive.
I put the ride in the Fiaker before the tour of the Palais because the weather looked threatening. Sure enough, once we started our inside tour of the Summer Palace, it started to rain and it rained heavily. Timing is everything, we timed it right to get the inside tour when the outside is swamped with rain.
Maria Theresa, the Empress, was a smart and cunning woman. The mother of 16 children, mostly females, she married them off for political advantages. Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis the 14th of France, was a daughter of Maria Theresa. Yes, Marie Antoinette was beheaded at the start of the French Revolution in 1789 but her mother, Marie Theresa, the Empress of Austria/Hungary had died by then. Ever planning, ever thinking how to further and promote the Habsburg line, the Empress Maria Theresa became, along with the Habsburg Dynasty the most powerful Royal House in Europe. The marriages arranged by the Empress made her the mother-in-law to many other Royal Houses. Schönbrunn was her summer residence. Carol and I, on our tour, visited mainly her living quarters. Decorated in the style of the times, opulent and baroque, it gave us an understanding of the way the Habsburgs lived. While not as gaudy as Versailles, Schönbrunn has its own style; it does show the mindset of Maria Theresa and the Habsburg line after her.
During the 18thand even the 19th Century, if you could afford it, you spent the hot summer months outside the city. Since sanitation was not what it is today, the smell of human existence drove you away from the masses in the city. So a summer residence was a normal set up for most of the elite. The gardens around the residence also helped to eliminate odoriferous living. Flowers, sweet smelling vines, perfumes, all helped in giving your nose a break. Since a bath only happened once a month at best, it was not really the best of times.
We took our tour, duly impressed with the splendor around us, but glad to be living the 21st Century and not being like the Royals or Maria Theresa who sacrificed her 16 children in the name of politics. The tour ended and we took the green line bus back to the center of town. We had to wait a few more minutes since it still rained it sheets, yet I could see the light section in the sky and knew the heavy part of the rainfall was almost over. We could have gotten off at other stops but my mind was on overload, so we opted to take a break instead and forget another Hop On/Hop Off ride.
We went to another famous Vienna Landmark, the Hotel Sacher. It is famous for the Sacher Torte, a rich chocolate cake that is the epitome of Viennese cakes. Vienna without the Sacher Torte is like Coney Island, NY without a hot dog or Paris without a baguette. Sitting in the outside café of Hotel Sacher was not as glorious as it sounds. We were allowed to eat the cake of course, even have a coffee but when we tried to take a look at the Hotel lobby, we were ushered out; this part of Hotel Sacher is only for registered guests of the Hotel, please. All said with a smile but the way was barred.
Travelling, constantly seeing new things, getting new impressions, is not as easy as it seems to be. I wanted to just zone out, wanted to just walk about but that is not easy to do either. Wherever you walk, something new is in the way to look at. We were off to find the Palais Auersperg and do some window shopping on the way. I do not buy anything while being on a trip, my bike is packed to capacity and I really do not need anything anyhow. So window shopping is really exactly as it sounds like. I look at things; look for things that are different, unique, weird, unusual, and extraordinary.
We asked for directions but it seems not many people knew exactly where the Palais Auersperg was located. In the brochure it looked lovely, old and full of gilded halls, full of old charm. So where was this place? Concert tickets in hand, we proceeded forwards slowly. We passed the city residence of the Habsburgs, now called the Hero’s Square because a large monument was set into the courtyard to honor fallen soldiers of all wars. We passed gardens and parks; we passed statues dedicated to Mozart. We approached the Austrian Parliament and finally found the Palais Auersperg. It its heyday it might have been impressive, but now it is on a busy street and no longer stands out. To call it a Palais is just a leftover of speech, I presume. Larger than a normal house, it is not a concert hall; it is not a castle so I guess it will do for tonight’s performance of the Wiener Residence Orchestra. I am a bit leery about the whole set up but it turned out to be a delightful affair. The hall was packed; the Soprano sang with a powerful voice, the Tenor as a soloist was wonderful but in a duet lost out to the Soprano. The music was Mozart and the pieces well known and light and wonderful. During the intermission I was asked “A glass of champagne Sir”? I passed at 5 Euros/glass. The program changed to all Johann Strauß after the intermission and the violinist, playing on a violin from 1776, played in outstanding form. One piece, a Czardas, really made her shine. She was an amazing violinist. Interlaced with ballet performances the whole concert was over way too quickly. The applause at the end, the encore given, would give you an idea of how the evening went. It was a great experience, totally Vienna, even if a bit touristy.
Since we were this close to Parliament we wandered over but it was closed. Walking in the general direction of St. Stephan’s Cathedral, we zigzagged our way back to the old center. Finding our way was no longer that difficult as we had built up an inner road map of old Vienna in our heads. Passing parked Fiakers, the drivers chatting among each other, hearing the rattle of closing store shutters made us realize we needed to head back to our hotel,
The next day was a bonus day. When we awoke we heard the rain and it rained hard. Checking our phone messages on the computer we needed to call Carol’s mom but with a 6 hour time difference we had to wait until at least 3 PM to call Toronto. As it turned out, it was just that her mom wanted to hear that we were ok, so all is well. We ventured out despite the rain because Carol wanted to take a picture of the Johann Strauß statue, inside the city park and we wanted to see the inside of the Opera house and the tour is only given on Saturdays. So rain or shine, we decided to go out. By now we had the routine of walking to the subway station, taking the train, even changing lines, down to a science. We enjoyed Vienna, had a lunch of Bratwurst with Sauerkraut and a beer in the beer garden and it was time to for our Opera House visit. The rain had stopped by now and the weather cooperated.
Austria, especially Vienna is a master at handling visitors, tourists. Long lines move fast, once inside the Opera House sections were set up according to languages. We took the English tour naturally, and our guide was cheery and knowledgeable. Each section of the Opera House was explained in detail and you could ask about anything you wanted to know. I learned that there is a different Opera performed each night during the Opera season. Each day the stage is broken down and a new stage is put up. Hundreds of workers work on setting up, each day. The Opera has many choirs, many singers and actors. Each performance is practiced as well and the whole place is like a bee hive.
The annual budget of this one building along is a staggering 100 Million Euros; 55% of that money comes from ticket sales or tours given or from subscriptions and the remaining 45% is subsidized by the Austrian Government. The draw of this place is huge. Connoisseurs of music visit many times during a month. The cheapest admission price is 3 Euros, way up in the balcony and is standing only. Box seats can cost you 3000 Euros for a single performance. Most nights, the place is sold out. Day in, day out, this place hums with activity. While we were given the tour, a stage back drop was being installed for the same night’s performance. The workers did not stop; they worked around the many visitors from all countries of the world. Technically the stage is the most modern set up one can imagine. Yet each Aria is sung without the use of any microphone. The performances remain pure; remains the height of the art of opera. Whoever sings here, needs to be top rated. The audience knows and can differentiate between good, mediocre or terrific. This is a top notch set up, we just came to visit and we were astounded. Once you see how all is set up, how all the backdrop works, you want to go to a performance, too. You want to just see a complete performance. Had they had the Magic Flute listed I would have gone that night. The way it is, I will come back someday and see Mozart’s Opera in this kind of set up.
Not only does the place serve Opera, but for the Ball of the Debutants, the coming our party of the young people into society, an old European custom, the whole place is transformed into a huge ballroom. Even the seating is removed to make room for the dance floor. All is done with elegance and tickets for this event, a one night affair are 17,500 Euros per person. The place is sold out long in advance, even at these prices. Each young man or young woman at 16 or 18 will attend this ball in Vienna. Without it you have not entered Society and will remain unknown. But before you can attend an audition and test of your skills in dancing a left hander Waltz is performed. These are strict old rules. You must pass these basic requirements, no matter how much money you have.
After our Opera house visit we decided to take a look at the Prater and take a ride on the landmark of Vienna, the old Ferris wheel (Riesenrad). The almost last, but certainly the most popular Emperor of Austria was Emperor Franz Joseph, the First (1830-1916).For his 50th Birthday in 1880, the citizens of Vienna presented him with this Ferris wheel, a totally new invention in its time. This gift was so much liked by all, even the Emperor that it became the symbol of Vienna in years to come. The Prater, the Ferris wheel are an intricate part of Vienna, then and now. The Prater itself is a permanent Amusement Park with the Ferris wheel being one of the oldest attractions. We visited, ate some junk food and then left to prepare for our departure from Vienna but with the knowledge that we certainly have not seen all of what Vienna has to offer. I guess we will be back; it just depends on when we find the time again.

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