October 13th, 2006

Vienna, Day 1; the Heights

Orienting ourselves to our map, we made our way through the narrow streets of the old city to the Stephansplatz, site of the Cathedral of St. Stephan, noting along the way the pastry shops, cafes, and stores selling chocolates--which are everywhere, especially the Motzart Kugeln, delicious marzipan-filled chocolate balls. MOZART is everywhere. Thisis the 250th anniversary of his birth, and there is a huge amount of Mozart-themed events. Men in Mozart outfits (a white wig and ornate coat is the accepted shorthand) hawk concert tickets on the street corners, and Mozart cardboard cutouts stand at the doors of the candy sellers. There are also candies named for other famous locals--Johann Strauss, and "Emperess Sisi" among others. We were amused to note even "Lippizaner Kugel". Made with real horse?--we wondered, not an entirely unlikely inquiry in a city where Leberkase mit Pferd can be bought at street stands.

The presence of "pferd" was brought to our attention as we entered the square downwind of the fiacre stand. Fiacre are horse-drawn cabs popular with tourists, and the smell of horse urine in thei vicinity was powerful and a notable exception to Vienna's usual fine air quality. We made a note to avoid puddles, especially in the Stephansplatz neighborhood--.

Outside the cathedral, the square is bustling with tourists. It becomes a pedestrian-only area after morning deliveries are completed, and then gets taken over by tour groups, street performere, and cafe chairs and tables. By contrast, the interior of the great cathedral, a Gothic work begun in the 1200's, is dim and somber. There are separate admissions for the nave, the crypt, and the tower, but you are able to lurk around the edges of the huge main space for free, and we were content to do that. On the other hand, we do tend to like to challenge ourselves by climbing monuments where available, and in largely flat Vienna, the Stephansdom spire is about what there is, so we cheerfully paid the three Euro admission and worked the flying kinks out by scaling the three hundred plus steps to the viewing platform. This climb is not for the weak nor the claustrophobic, as it goes for most of its length up a narrow spiral staircase illuminated only by small windows letting in daylight about each story. We were surprised to find a small gift shop at the very top of the tower! The guy who works there can be fairly said to have a sucky job, since there appears to be no other way to access the shop than walking up and down--no wonder he seemed grumpy when i only bought a postcard. This was one of our first hints that every single attraction in Vienna incorporates it's own gift shop, and most of them a cafe as well, the Cathedral being one of the few exceptions to the cafe rule. The views from the top were spectacular and I took pictures before we stared back down, having to pause frequently to allow puffing climbers to pass us on the way up.

We then strolled alone the Graben, which, along with the Karntnerstrasse which intersects it at Stephansplatz, is one of the premire shopping streets in Vienna, with many famous high-end brands mingling with the candy and pastry, and locally famous shops such as the Julius Meindl gourmet shop.
Some of the guidebooks we had read said that Austrians were more open about sex than some other cultures, and this certainly seemed to be the case at least in regard to lingerie stores: Palmer's, which is apparently a German company despite the English sounding name, seems to have stores in every neighborhood, as well as being stocked by numerous other shops, and there are several competitors. Imagine if Victoria's Secret could get away with having a billboard twenty feet high and fifty feet long displaying a dozen VERY scantily clad models over here--. Every store that sells women's clothing at all displays undergarments as well. I found the window shopping most interesting, but not for that reason alone--. There were many beautiful clothes and shoes, both designer and local labels--mostly at designer prices. I was rather surprised to see a gun store on the Graben, mostly handling hunting weapons, but handguns such as Glock and SIG were on display as well. I'm sure there must be rigid licensing requirements, but I had had the impression that most European countries were more uptight on guns than that. We later saw a high-end used gun shop a few streets away, and a very utilitarian gun store in the working-class neighborhood around the railroad station, so this one was not an exception.

Now well worn down, we went back to Fleischmarket, and had dinner at the Cafe Vienna which is right on the street in front of the Hotel, and found it very good. This place became our fallback eating-establishment during our stay, and everything we had was excellent. In particular, one evening, I had a fillet mignon with a cognac-peppercorn sauce which was just splendid. We found this to be very typical of dining out in Vienna. Prices were quite reasonable, portions generous, and quality excellent, although there are some things that are of course different from here. Water is not uniformly offered, since mineral water is on the menu everywhere. This was fine with us, as we often didn't order other drinks anyway. Bread or rolls will come with an entree, but not butter or margarine. The bread is good enough to eat without, or to use to soak up sauces, but this seems curious to me. An entree will come with a vegetable OR a potato OR a salad, again fine with us since portions are generous. A mixed salad, in particular, usually contains marinated cooked potato as well as greens, tomato, cucumber, etc., so we never felt underserved. We tried desserts, mine being an exceelnt apfelstrudel which was a sizeable portion of finely sliced firm apple, nicely spiced with cinnamon and a bit of cardamom with just the minimum wrapper of pastry necessary to hold it together. Georgie had palatschinken, delicious eggy crepes filled with apricot conserve. Well nourished, we strolled the few yards to our hotel to settle in, plan the morrow, and sleep. A note on beds: ours was furnished with a decently comfortable matress and two thick duvets, one for each sleeper. There were also blankets, so Georgie slept on top of her duvet with a blanket over her, and I slpet under mine, and we were both comfortable.

Vienna day 2: Horses and jewels and weapons, oh my!

The Hofburg Palace complex, primary home of the Emperors of Austria-Hungary, is a short walk from the Stephansplatz, and the existance there of the famous Spanish Riding School is prominently labled. Formal performances are infrequent and tickets hard to come by, but most every weekday from 10-1 there is the "Morning Exercise with Music" where you can see the students and the Lippizaner horses work out. This was rather fun just to watch the horses (and students) get put through their paces (literally), and to see trainers working with them on gaits and moves such as the caracole. In this mode, you can see the varying temperments and foibles of the animals, not yet worked up to the forma beauty of the performance, and see how the riders learn as well. This is rather subtle, since the horse and rider are apparently supposed to communicated by mental telepathy. Seldom if ever do you actually perceive the riders change position, or appear to actually use rein, spur, or crop, and, since the nusic was soft, it was pretty obvious they don't talk to the horses much either. I noted that all the students appear to be slim young men, and wondered what it took to be a rider there. I gather the "school" is rather more of a performing troupe than a regular riding school these days, but I wondered if you could possibly even apply if you were a bit overage, overweight, or female? Nothing I have found answers these questions.

After a couple of groups had worked out, we left the handsome and relatively austere Winter Riding Hall and made bee-line for the Royal Treasury. We ignored the State Rooms (reviewed as dull compared with other places we would see) and the Emperess Sisi Museum (more about her later), and bought a combination ticket that would admit us to the Treasury, the Armory/Musical Instrument/Ephesos Museums, also part of the Hofburg Complex, and the Art History Museum.

The Treasury is just fantastic, no other word for it. Besides the Hapsburg Crown jewels, there is an awsome collection of coronation robes for Holy Roman Emperors and a dozen kingdoms, elaborate Herald's tabards for emperors, kings, and dukes, and religious artifacts as well, including an alleged piece of the True Cross and the fabled Spear of Longinus, supposedly used to pirece Christ's side while he was on the cross. The amount of work put into some of the robes and raiments is just beyond imagining.

After that, we adjourned to the Riding School cafe for a refreshment (yes, everyone has their own cafe) since we got a discount coupon with admission for the exercise, and found the snacks good. I had my first taste of Viennese coffee here and wasn't that impressed. "Melange", which is the basic coffee drink comes with whipped cream on top, but otherwise straight. Even so, it was strong, but not that wonderful. However, I am not a coffe drinker ordinarily, so perhaps there were nuances lost on me.

The Museums in the Nuwe Berg, the newest part of the Hofburg, are not on the typical tour-package trail, and so we were often walking around in solitary splendor, able to peer as closely as we liked at the suits of armor, swords and other weapons. The Hofburg weapons collection is weighted heavily toward armor for the joust collected by Emperor Maximillian I, who was very fond of the sport, but also contains examples of weapons I had only ever seen drawings of, such as the "lantern shield", or, as we called it, the "Swiss Army shield". This early example of the gadgeteer's art is a buckler in corporating its own gaunltel dor a secure grip, and also has a small bulls-eye lantern that shines out through a hole in the shield above the boss. This was not for duelling in the dark, but supposedly to dazzle your opponent and gain you an advantage. It also has two serrated blades coming out from the gauntlet, a wickedly saw-edged eight inch spike from the boss, and a secondary sword blade that slides out from sheathe along the user's forearm!

At the end of the weapons display, you cans troll right into the Musical Instrument Museum, which is a very comprehensive collection of antique instruments of all types, many of which were new to me, and then to the Ephesos (Ephesus) Museum, which collects statuary and other objects excavated from that site in Turkey, and includes THE Diana of Ephesus. I was quite croggled to find this famous sculpture standing here quite unheralded and apparently largely ignored by the many visitors to other areas of the complex.

Vienna is quite surprising in this regard. Famous things you probably thought were elsewhere are right here. The Art History Museum has THE Blue Faience Hippopotamus you probably thought was in Cairo or New York. THE Venus of Willendorf is in the Natural History Museum. David's famous painting of Napoleon on horseback is at the Belvedere, and those are just some of the more striking ones I noted.

After that, we were museumed out for the day,and went in search of dinner before the Volksoper that evening.

Vienna, day 2 pt 2: The Gypsy Baron

For dinner, we went to a restaurant called Figlmueller. It is a well-known establishment for advertising the largest schnitzels anywhere. For the uninitiated, a "schnitzel" is a cutlet or fillet, most6 often pork but also veal or other meats, enderized by pounding it out very thin and flat, breading, and quick-frying. a "Wiener Schnitzel" has nothing to do with sausages, but means "Vienna Schnitzel," which is the simplest and most common preparation. There are a number of other ways to fix it, including Hunter's Schnitzel, "Esterhazy" schnitzel, and a number of others. Figlmueller actually has two locations, one down an alley or side arcade, which is the smaller and cozyier of the two, but by the time we came by was also full up. The one on Woolziellerstrasse nearby was more open and we were seated immediately. Figlmueller has a reputation as somewhat touristy, but we didn't really feel it, except that when we identifed ourselves as English speakers, we were given an English menu which didn't have as many choices as the German menu we had seen in the window down the street. However, we had come in for the classics and they were on the menu we had, so we were content. Note on language: Most everywhere we went, someone spoke enough English for us to get by. Most of the menus we encountered were in multiple languages, and some of the major museums either had bi-lingual display notes or English handouts. English language audio tours were available almost everywhere, but we don't LIKE audio tours and did well enough making out titles, artists' names and dates most places.

Georgie ordered the Weiner Schnitzel, which, as advertised, overhung the edges of a standard dinner plate. It was very thin, less than a quarter of an inch thick, and coated with a light, crisp breading that was totally grease-free. The meat itself was tender, moist and delicious. The dish was accompanied by one of the mixed salads we becasme used to. I myself ordered the "tafelspitz."

"Tafelspitz" is treated as somewhat of a joke by guidebooks, that tend to descibe it as "boiled beef with carrots" which makes it sound like some kind of bland British-cooking horror. Nothing could be further from the truth. I got two thick slices of juicy, tender brisket that had been cooked in a flavorful broth. Carrot, turnip, and some other root vegetable flavored the meal. it was accompanied by apparently traditional "browned" potatoes, which are like a soft hash brown servec up in a scoop like mashed potatoes, and lightley spiced with caraway. The Emperor Franz Joseph is documented to have had tafelspitz for dinner every night. I toasted his taste with a good Vienna Pilsener style beer.

Then, we took the underground for the first time to a northwestern section of the city where the Volksoper is located. The "People's Opera" was dedicated to doing opera in the German language, as opposed to the Statsoper, which tends to do them in the orginal language--Italian, English, whatever. The Volksoper also tends to do light opera and operetta more than "grand opera." Therefore , we weren't surprised that the Volksoper had no supertitles or similar, and no English program. You have to buy programs at most events if you want one, but if you get one, it is a veritable book and worth having. At the Volksoper we first encountered the phenomenon that the ushers have real authority and aren't afraid to use it, as you are required to check things like your umbrella (even Georgie's folding one), jackets you aren't wearing, hats, etc., and there is a charge for checking things. Oh, well, it keeps ushers and checkroom clerks employed.

"The Gypsy Baron" is an operetta by Johann Strauss II, and known for its lovely music and negligible plot, which deals with marriages, rank, hidden treasure, and martial glory. The Volksoper production was rather over-the-top as to design and comedically acted, such that I was surprised there were so few laughs from the audience. Just the appearance of the wealthy pig-farmer Zsupán, who resembled fat Elvis in a pink suit would have gotten a big laugh from a US audience, but the audience didn't really seem to loosen up until the Comissioner's patter song connecting the second and third acts, which we gathered probably included some topical references along the lines of Gilbert and Sullivan's "they never would be missed." Nevertheless, when it came time for the curtain call that audience gave an enthusiastic ovation in which we wholeheartely joined. Music and singing were flawless and it was all good fun to watch.

A note on the Underground: Vienna's U-Bahn (which is like most cities, mostly underground but sometimes not) is fast, reliable, and clean. You by a ticket good for a day, three days, a week, and validate it by date-stamping it the forst time you use it, at which minute the time starts to run. Travel is on the honor system, but there are inspectors, plainclothesmen who ask to see your ticket, and issue a rather expensive citation if you don't have one. We got checked on our very first trip, and a young man in our car got hauled off at the next stop, but didn't see any more inspectors for the rest of the week. We were glad we had our tickets!

Vienna, day 3: Artist's Life

This morning, we had a leisurely breakfast and strolled back down to the Hofburg neighborhood to visit the imposing Kunsthistorichesmuseum (Art History Museum). This museum is rated as one of the ten great art collections in the world, and, having seen it, I can see why. If you can name an Old Master, with the expection of DaVinci, odds are there's at least one, and often more than one, in the collection. It seemed like there were a dozen each of Titian and Tintoretto, multiples of Vermeer and Van Eyck, three Rembrandts, a collection of Carravggios, and the ten Bruegels for which the museum is noted, including "Peasant Wedding," and "Hunters in the Snow." The collection tends to be heavily Renaissance and post-Rennaissance, although I was pleased to see a couple of unfamilar Monets and a Renoir. Amazing as it was, this did not end up being my favorite art collection, which honor goes to the Belvedere, described below. Being the state collection of a famously Catholic monarchy, the Museum's collection runs heavily to religious subjects, and one can only see so many "Holy Families" (with or without John the Baptist) and Depositions of Christ without them palling, no matter how wonderful they are. Nevertheless, one of my favorite paintings of the collection was from the religious side, a very charming "Mary Magdalene." She is shown with a rather miffed expression, cheek leaning on one hand, contemplating an apparently empty gold metal jar. I imagined that this was her expression after having been chided by Judas about the ointment, and even Jesus having taken her part has not entirely relieved the sting--.

After having fished the Museum, we went back to the Graben for a light lunch at Wiener Wurstel, one of the best regarded Wurst stands. I tried a "Kasekrainer", supposely a bratwurst containing cheese, but didn't find it very cheesy--perhaps my order wasn't filled right. Georgie had a regular bratwurst, which was good and a bit more spicy than we commonly find over here. A sausage comes on a paper plate, cut into slices, with a small plastic fork, and about half a standard jar of mustard for dipping. A slice of bread is on the side. The exception to the slicing rule is the Frankfurter, which comes whole and people pick up and eat with their fingers like a banana. Every place that sells food sells alcoholic beverages as well, and wurst stands are no exception. I even saw miniature bottles of liquor in a Spar supermarket impulse rack near the cash registers along with the candy bars.

For all that the drinking age is sixteen, I didn't notice many young people drinking alcohol. Even though our hotel was on the edge of the "Bermuda Triangle", a well known club district, we didn't notice any particular rowdy behavior, even fairly late at night. Student styles seem much the same as here, with variations. There seem to be a higher incidence of young men with Mohawk or variation hairstyles there than here, and I don't know what the significance of that is. We saw the occasional tattoo parlor, but fewer visible tattoos and fewer visible piercings than over here.

Demographically, Vienna is a very white city. In the week were were there, I saw exactly three black people that appeared to be residents, and three more that appeared to be American tourists. There are significantly more Asians, both working and studying. There were some brown-skinned black-haired people present who could have been Hungarian, Turkish, Greek, North African, or any Mediterranean
people. Women dress very stylishly. Men tend to look much like they do over here, with a higher incidents of suits and sport coats. Although we found a dedicated hat store, I was most of the time the only man in sight wearing a hat. The lingerie stores emphasise stockings and pantyhose, and more women seem to be wearing them, which I confess is a look I prefer--. I think the bare legged look is getting a bit old, especially in winter. Since we had another palace tour and concert scheduled for that evening, we took the afternoon easy with window shopping.