Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Day 15: La Vie en…Vienna

The walk to the Prague bus station may have felt a little dicey at 10pm last night.  Walking through the woods at 4:30 this morning?  Is this really a good idea??!!

As per schedule, the bus arrived in Vienna at 4:30am.  I’m not sure I really slept at all, as the bathroom and coffee machine were right behind my seat – a surprising amount of traffic on the bus for a short overnight trip.  With the guidance of Google maps, I had a 7.5km walk ahead of me with my 50lbs of backpacks.  I know.  I’m splurging on a trip to Europe, I could afford a taxi or a transit ticket.  I figured I couldn’t show up at my hotel even to drop my bags off until 6am or so, and walking would allow me to see the city.  Besides, I’m not running these days…. Anyway, Google knew I was walking, so it took the most direct route – through the park.  It turns out that the park is extremely safe and seemed totally bereft of bums.  All I knew at that point was that I was on a gravel path with no lights and no people, and I was in no condition to run away if danger presented itself.  And then there were people; runners, no less!  It turns out that park is a very popular place to run at 5am. (Crazies!) When I saw the woman running alone, I figured I was as safe as I could be.  My sleepy stress level went down.

The sky was light as I reached another park – this one (Stadtpark) right on the Ring road that encircles the old city-centre of Vienna.  I gratefully put my bags down on a bench and examined some of the statues dotting the park – Strauss, Schubert and Schindler.

I was more than halfway to my hotel, so I decided to rest for a bit; it was still before 6am.  Although I would not trust the Viennese to the point of closing my eyes (and risking falling asleep), I felt refreshed after sitting on the bench for a time, leafing through Canadian Running and Impact magazine.

When I’ve raced overnight relay races, and even back to when I was working night-shifts, I found that my body gets feeling more wakeful and refreshed as the sun rises – even when I haven’t slept a wink.  Same thing this morning.  I pulled my backpack back on and set out at full speed toward my hotel. (Admittedly, my “full speed” grew progressively slower as I walked.)  The people of Vienna were already at work!  7am and shops were open, construction crews were busy, and window cleaners were finishing up their work on storefronts.  Impressive!  A very different approach from the Czechs, it seems.

After what felt like hours, I arrived at the Arcotel in Vienna.  What a relief! I dropped off my bags and cleaned up in the lobby washroom. (One of the hotel staff gave me cut-eye as I brushed my teeth.  I’m not some kind of vagrant!  Well….maybe a little bit this morning… I did spend half the night in a park.) A few minutes later, I was off to explore the city.  First on the list?  A coffee shop!

Fueled by caffeine and excitement, I found myself at the State Opera House to begin a walking tour.  No tour guide this time, just the Frommers instructions downloaded for free from TripAdvisor.  I would do my best to live up to the standard of Sandeman’s….who don’t have a presence in Vienna, anyway. 

It is as though the entire city-centre in Vienna was built in a single fit of architectural exuberance.  Every building is massive and ornate to the extreme, and with a few exceptions they all look more or less the same. The Opera House could be mistaken for the museum, except the primary museum complex is the size of a small town.  Of course, there are all kinds of other museums dotting the city.  Surprisingly, given the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian embassy is in a non-descript (by Viennese standards) building.   I loved that this was a stop on the Frommers tour, as Hungary is my next destination!

The Church of the Capuchin Friars actually looks less impressive, or at least less imposing, than many of its neighbours. Not what one would expect, given that this church houses the remains of every Hapsburg ruler since 1633.

As Roman Catholic churches all are, it was awe-inspiring on the inside.

Karntner and Graben streets are pedestrian thoroughfares or outdoor malls.  If I had more than a day in Vienna, I could see myself settling in on one of those patios and watching the world go by for hours.  But time is limited, and I want to make the most of it! (Also, I expect that if I sat down the lack of sleep might catch up with me….)

When Vienna emerged from the Black Plague, the Austrian leaders erected the Plague Column to commemorate the 150,000 dead. Strikes me as a bit of a strange thing to commemorate, but what with Stadpark and every second side-street in the old city core, the Viennese seem to love statues.

They love their churches too, as demonstrated by St. Stephan’s Cathedral.

The model included details (I presume) in Brail.  An innovative nod to the blind.

With respect, the real thing is a little more impressive!  Strange, too, though.  One gothic tower, and one mostly gothic tower with a baroque cupola. A strange insistence on aligning to “current” building styles even when construction spans hundreds of years.  The roofing tiles really drew my attention!  I have never seen such a decorative roof!  With their high-gloss, they were hard to actually see when the sun was shining.

The final stop on the walking tour was another set of statues and a fountain, but I suspect they were in some way hidden by the extensive construction going on in the city.  I walked up and down the designated street, but never found them.  I did, however, find myself back in Stadtpark. The sun was beating down, and scores of people were lazing about on the grass.  Time for a picnic lunch, I think!  I pulled out some leftover Czech cheese and some fruit, and finished the “meal” with some absinth-infused chocolate.  I even closed my eyes for a moment and enjoyed a little nap in the grass.  A short time later, surprisingly not weary, I headed back to the State Opera House to begin the second Frommers walking tour of Vienna. 

This second tour focused on more of the contemporary aspects of Viennese culture, and consequently explored beyond the Ring road.  Vienna was home to the secessionist movement; painters like Gustav Klimpt who broke away from the norms of the Vienna Fine Arts Academy.  Ironically, the Secessionist “headquarters” was in a building just around the corner from the Academy – the product of geographic availability.

Adolf Hitler was twice declined acceptance into the Vienna Fine Arts Academy.  Makes you wonder how history might have changed if his enthusiasm had been directed toward art rather than administration.

Then again, the Vienna art scene clearly does have a knack for administrative efficacy – the rival of Toronto’s MLSE.  The Vienna Philharmonic sells out years in advance, thank to the season ticket-holders. The home of the Vienna Philharmonic is the Friends of Music Building:

Across the square from the home of the Vienna Philharmonic is the Charles Church.  Built by Emperor Charles VI in the early eighteenth century, this church was not named after him, but after St. Charles Borromeo.  The people were not fooled.  This ode to imperial majesty was a response to Marie Theresa’s disappointment at the loss of the empire’s presence in Spain.  The Romanesque columns and massive cupola are singularly meant to impress. 

On the steps of Charles Church, I was approached by someone selling tickets to the orchestra for this evening. I had already inquired into a concert at Stadtpark, but decided that it was a little farther from my hotel than I wanted to go.  This one was only a mile or so away from my hotel in the other direction (a part of the city I hadn’t yet seen), in a palace.  Besides, as the salesman smoothly intoned: “Vienna is the home of music and culture.  You can’t come to Vienna and not see a concert.”  Ok, I’m getting there...  He followed with: “Is the price the problem? What if I sell it to you for half price?”  Sold.  I’m going to the orchestra in Vienna tonight! J  The genuinely kind salesman then explained a good restaurant near the palace where I would find authentic Viennese food, and then the walking tour proceeded.

The Naschmarket, a food market that sold (among many other things) red olives, and the road that originally connected Vienna and Venice rounded out the walking tour.  After six hours of touring today, I was starting to lose interest.  I returned to my hotel to freshen up and maybe catch a short nap…

Viennese food is a little less exciting than, say, Czech food.  Turkey schnitzel is nicely seasoned and flavoured, but it sort of reminds me of a really big chicken finger.  The potato dish that was served with it was very tasty, and breaded camembert is always a treat! The restaurant was a little overwhelmed (it was short-staffed, and both waiters were glistening with sweat as they ran all over trying to keep up), and so I was told that I couldn’t get the labour-intensive Viennese dessert I wanted. (“No, not tonight.  I’m sorry.” was the waiter’s reply.) All in all, I enjoyed my meal in every respect, and I got quite a kick out of the waiter’s stunned and grateful response when I gave him a very normal (by Canadian standards) tip.  He didn’t know he had a stacked deck – I was eating in Vienna, out in a garden patio, and counting down to a Viennese symphony!

The concert was great.  Some singing and some ballet, both of which I could happily do without, but they successfully accented the orchestra as opposed to being the focus of the evening.  After the string quintet the other night, it was a treat to get the full orchestra sound.  Did I mention it was also a treat to see an orchestra in Vienna? :)

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