Monday, October 15, 2012

Austria Powers: Our groovy trip to Vienna

The Czech Republic was great, but it's time to move on (and further east) to Vienna, where we'll have to stumble through a new language (German) and convert our valuable Czech krona to the dollar-beating euro. This is how we spent our time in Austria's vibrant capital.

The tomb of Queen Maria Theresa and her hubs.
Thu., Oct. 11: Our nifty eight-person shuttle (run by Lobo) from Krumlov to Vienna picked us up at 9 a.m. this morning. On the way — mostly along an interstate — we stopped at a rest area where we had just enough euros from our last trip to Europe to buy a bottle of water and two cappuccinos. #paystothinkahead!

When we arrived in Vienna, we metro'd to the sixth district to check into our apartment — an Airbnb rental just off the hustle-y Mariahilferstrasse. Like most apartments we've rented through Airbnb, this one's decked floor to ceiling in Ikea, but it's one of the most comfortable. It's situated just off a secluded garden courtyard, so it's super quiet, and we're within walking distance to the heart of Vienna — the Ringstrasse (pronounced Ring-strahss-a).

That's where we set our sites on our first day, doing a tour from our Rick Steve's guidebook to get oriented. The walk took us by the famous Opera House, some memorials and a spattering of the city's most famous cafes (like the one where the Sachertorte was invented), but the best stops were the Imperial Crypt (aka Kaisergruft) and Saint Stephen's Cathedral. The former is an unassuming church that holds the remains (only the bodies; their hearts and innards are buried elsewhere) of dozens of important Hapsburg royals. My favorites were the gigantic sarcophagus of Queen Maria Theresa and the late-19th century's Princess Diana, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as "Sisi." People still pile flowers on her grave, even though she died in 1898.

Saint Stephen's Cathedral was immense and beautiful, sitting right in the middle of one of Vienna's busiest, modern shopping streets. We got there too late to walk all the way to the alter, but hovering around the outskirts was all I needed to proclaim it my "Favorite Cathedral on this Trip." Sorry, Saint Vitus in Prague.

Vienna's a gorgeous city; so full of life. I can understand why people refer to it as the "Paris of Eastern Europe," with its grand buildings, Champs-Élysées-like boulevards and a cafe culture that, I have to say, one-ups the fashionable city on the Seine. We're thrilled to be here.

Parmigianino's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
Fri., Oct. 12:  After breakfast in our apartment, we shuffled to the Ringstrasse to tour the Kunsthistorisches (pronounced "koonst-something-something-something), a palatial museum that holds a ton of art the Hapsburgs collected through the years. We saw masterpieces by big-namers like Raphael, Velázquez, Rubens and Rembrandt, but my favorite piece was Parmigianino's blink-and-you'll-miss-it Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which displayed an impressive sense of depth-perception that you don't see in many Renaissance-era works. Besides the art, another unique aspect about the museum is the staff's carefree attitude. They don't glare at you from corners, wagging disapproving fingers like they do in museums like the Prado or the Louvre. You're free to snap photos (no flash!) and stick your nose right up to the works. It's a good example of the Viennese people's laid-back attitude about life.

After that we headed to the Hofburg Palace comlex's Imperial Treasury to peep a vault full of blingy Hapsburg jewels and collectibles. There were neat things here — like Napolean's son's crib and the coronation garb worn by centuries of Hapsburg kings — but I was pissed they didn't have more gems worn by Hapsburg women. The only thing of note was a couple earrings and a hair beret worn by Sisi (who apparently had hair that hung to her ankles). Really?! A vault full of royal jewels and no fabulous pieces worn by a queen? Come on!

The rest of the evening included a mini shopping spree along the Mariahilferstrasse, a nice dinner at an Asian restaurant in our hood called ShanghaiTan and our first (and only) Sachertorte (soccer-tort) at Cafe Griensteidl, a velvet-seated cafe near the Hofburg Palace. The cake was a little dry, but the plush atmosphere and snooty waiters in bow ties felt quintessentially Viennese.

Alan browsing the flea market at Naschmarkt.
Sat., Oct. 13: Vienna's a huge city. There's so much to do here that we're forced to keep a pretty strict itinerary. We're trying our best to follow it, but. inevitably, we'll spend too much time at one site and have to shift things around to make sure we have time for our No. 1 picks. A few items (a guided tour around the Ringstrasse) have moved to the back burner, while others (a hike through the Vienna woods) have completely fallen off the stove.

Today we headed back toward the Ringstrasse to tour the crypts in Saint Michael's Church. Unlike the Imperial Crypt, this musty basement holds the dilapidated coffins of hundreds of regular folk who attended the church back in the day, and a few noble families and priests. The animated guide, a little old lady I like to refer to as "the crypt keeper," led us deep under the church to see the old caskets, which, in some cases were opened to reveal some of the mummified corpses. We saw one woman in fine silk with her mouth stretched open like she was screaming, and another with her noggin turned slightly to the side as if she was in a slumber. It was creepy, but a really worthwhile visit.

From there we walked back toward our neighborhood to the Naschmarkt, a popular eating and shopping destination that has both indoor restaurants and bars, and open-air produce and food stands. Today, there was a huge flea market happening around it. There were hundreds of booths full of all kinds of knick knacks, clothing, jewelry and art. We had a great time browsing the goods, picking up some things for ourselves and even getting an early start on Christmas shopping.

The afternoon went by swimmingly but later in the evening we were faced with a dose of "things don't always go your way." At 5:30 we headed to the Opera House to wait in line for standing-room tickets to that evening's show, Mozart's magnificent Le Nozzi de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Standing-room seats sounded like a good idea for several reasons: (1) They're only 3 euros, (2) you can easily leave at anytime you start to feel bored and (3) you get to see the opera in Vienna for 3 euros!

Acting all smug with my opera specs that I'd never be able to use.
We planned ahead and got there early enough to snag a spot in the very front of the balcony's standing-room section. From there we had a too-good-to-be-true view of the stage (where everyone from Mozart to Maria Callas has performed) and theater, which was as grand and over-the-top as you'd imagine. Once situated, we still had a half-hour before the show started, so the usher told us we could hold our spots by placing a scarf or program over the rail in front of us — a tradition that's lasted for as long as the theater's been offering these types of seats. So we did that and went to have ourselves a glass of red wine in the lobby before curtain.

Unfortunately, when we returned a mustachioed middle-aged gentleman and his lady friend were standing in our spots. Alan went down to let them know we had the places reserved — and several people we met in line even chimed in to say we were telling the truth. He was defiant, though, and turned his back (red mullet and all) on Alan with a brisk, "Nein!" By the time we found the usher, the music had started and we had to face the fact that making a scene would just ruin every one else's experience, so we decided to leave.

It's a good thing we had a good 15-minute walk back to the apartment to cool our heads before bedtime. Oooooh, you should have heard us cursing!

Stadtpark
Sun., Oct. 14: Vienna's a monster of a city, so it's been hard to get a feel for its personality. And it doesn't help that we've been spending our days basically going back and forth between our apartment and all the major sites in the city's center. Today we decided to make an effort to get away from those sites to explore some of the neighborhoods. But first we had to knock one more biggie off our list: the Hofburg Palace.

This palace served as the wintertime living and working quarters of the ruling Hapsburg family. The three-part tour started with an exhibit of the family's massive silver collection; basically a bunch of grandiose place settings. It was neat at first, but after about 40 minutes looking at fancy plates and egg cups and fruit bowls I kind of wanted to stab myself with a silver knife. Next up was the Sisi Museum, my favorite part. The exhibit walked us through her entire life — from her noble upbringing in Bavaria to the day she was stabbed to death by an anarchist in 1898. Along the way we learned about her battle with depression (she abhored the duties of royal life) and an obsession with her looks that led to harsh dieting (going days drinking only milk) and an intensive workout regime. Alan thought the the whole thing was a little kooky, but I ate it up.

The final leg of the tour was a stroll through the apartments of Franz Joseph and Sisi. The best part was Sisi's dressing area, where we saw her workout gear and the dressing table where she'd sit for up to three hours a day while servants did her hair. The rest was a bunch of fancy walls and furniture and blah, blah, blah.

To accomplish our goal of seeing more of the city, we decided to take a walking tour of the Ringstrasse. While still technically the "center of city," this massive boulevard is three miles around. Circling it gave us a chance to explore the lush Stadtpark, an ultra-modern part of town along the Danube and the impressive Neo-Gothic city hall. Toward the end of the tour — which took about three hours all together — we veered off path to explore an artsy cafe- and hip-boutique-clad corner of the 7th District called Spittelberg. There's no way we can see it all in four days, but I think we gave the surface a good scratching.

Fountain on Neuer Markt Square.
Final impressions:
Vienna's a tough nut to crack. It's a beautiful city, but it takes effort to get to the soul of this town, and four days of site-seeing just won't do the trick. Its people are similar. Many of our causal interactions with locals seemed cold and uninspired, but the ones we actually engaged seemed to open up and be quite friendly. If we come back, we'll be sure to keep the Innere Stadt (Inner City) in the distance and focus on the outlying areas.

Language: Another toughie, but not quite as foreign to us as Czech. Most people we interacted with knew English, so we were able to manage fairly easily with a pocketful of phrases, most important of which is Sprechen sie English, bitte? (Do you speak English, please?).

Food: We only had a few traditional Austrian meals, which typically consists of a lot of meats and kraut. We tried a Wiener schnitzel that was pretty tasty but nothing we'd want to eat twice in four days. The comfortable, old-world cafes are the real winners here. I had one of the best espressos ever at a spot downstairs from our apartment called Pierre. The Naschmarkt is another must-do. The whirlwind of a marketplace is stuffed with food options from across the globe. We stopped at a Mediterranean stand for falafel and hummus and a yummy spread of cheese-filled figs, peppers and dates. The vendors can be a little impatient and pushy, so show up with your decisive cap on.

Money: Austria uses the euro, so our dollar lost a bit of value. Most of our meals were pretty reasonably priced, though, as we're the museum admissions. We saved money by picking up a few things at the grocery to keep at the apartment. Having access to a fully equipped kitchen is one of the main reasons we prefer renting Airbnbs.

Next stop: We're gonna eat too much paprika and soak in the hot springs in Budapest, Hungary!

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