October 16th, 2006

Vienna, day 5, part 2,“The Magic Flute”.

After the Belvedere, we walked a bit further south to the Military History Museum
("Heeresgeschlictemuseum") which occupies part of an extensive arsenal complex built in the 1840's. The museum building would have been a meeting hall or for something more like the community functions than weapon storage or manufacture, which industrial functions were presumably carried out in the other buildings. The elegantly decorated Romanesque structure has an entry hall known as the "Hall of Generals" which holds statues of all the Empire's famous military leaders from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The exhibit halls cover the 16th century up through the end of World War II, with an interesting portion devoted to the inter-war "Austro-fascist" period prior to the German Anschluss. There is also a tank park, which I found disappointing, since all the vehicles were late-or post-war Allied equipment only. The inside WWII display was more interesting, including a nice Kubelwagen (the German Jeep), a Kettenkrad (a type of halftrack motorcycle) and a rather rare Rauppenschlepper Ost, which I believe to
be the first purpose-built fully tracklaying transport vehicle. The exhibit also has a nicely preserved example of the dreaded 88MM anti-aircraft gun, complete with the "predictor" mechanisms for anti-air work, which towers grimly over the other displays.

The other periods were equally well done, with mannequins showing gear and uniforms for arquebusiers, pikemen, musketeers, Hussars, and other denizens of the battlefield, with the Napoleonic period being of particular interest since that was not covered by any
of the other museums we saw. The collection also includes banners, weapons, tents and other booty captured from the Turks in campaigns by Prince Eugene and others.

We took the underground back to our hotel and went round the corner to the Cafe Vienna for dinner. This time, I had a very nice fillet of beef with cognac-peppercorn sauce and Georgie had sole. It was excellent all around.

After a brief rest, it was back on the U-Bahn to the Statsoper for Mozart's "Magic Flute." This was a sold-out performance, and we were glad to have gotten seats in the balcony, which nevertheless had very good sightlines and we could hear perfectly well due to the hall's excellent acoustics. The auditorium is not actually that large, having seating for somewhat more than 1000 and, due to the stacking of parterre/loge seats (five levels, including balcony) no one is that far away from the stage.

Staging for this production was very avant-garde and we thought it worked well given the "esoteric" theme. The greater part of the stage was delineated into a cubical space, the side toward the audience open. The other five sides were made up of square panels, further subdivided into smaller squares which became doorways, windows, or trapdoors as needed. The major panels shifted orientation depending on the scene, and were sometimes further overlaid with projected images. It sounds busy, but the effects were used with restraint. The Queen of the Night and her women were costumed and made up in midnight shades of blue and deep green, contrasting with the sterile white worn by Sarastro and his minions. We were amused to note that Sarastro's anonymous myrmidons had bar-codes on their chests, showing that all the right and freedom is not necessarily on his side--. The production had some campy touches: the three guiding spirits, voiced by members of the Vienna Boy's Choir, initially appeared wearing "I (heart) Mozart" t-shirts. Later, they showed up in the white wig and full-bottomed coats that have become the shorthand for "Mozart" in Vienna.

Musically, the performance was flawless. In particular, Jane Archibald made the Queen of the Night's famous arias sound smooth and effortless, with no hard edges. Walter Fink as Sarastro had a rich and warm bass tone that was very pleasing. Hans Peter Kammerer and Laura Tatulescu as Papageno and Papagena were appropriately scene-stealing when on. Especially when you consider that this work is being done in repertory with 8-10 other productions this month, the perfection of the production was all the more striking. This will be a night at the opera we will long remember.

Day 6, Graz

We had determined not to spend our WHOLE vacation in Vienna, and had decided to travel to Graz, Austria's second largest city and the capital of the province of Styria. We picked Graz for whimsical reasons, partly because it might be Schnobrich ancestral territory, and partly because it has the Zeughaus, a regional armory left over from the early 19th century in working condition. (You might gather that old weapons are an interest of mine--).

We decided to travel by train, which was a good choice. The Austrian rail system is smooth, quiet, and runs on time. The railroad from Vienna to Graz winds up and through wooded mountains, giving some spectacular views that I tried to photograph from the train windows with mixed success.

On the way from the train station to the Old City, we found and marveled at the ultra-modern Art Museum (Kunsthaus), an organically shaped blue glass creation that looks like an alien sea monster plunked down in an antique square. All honor to the locals that had the guts to build it. Crossing the river Mur, we also saw the Murinsel, a structure that looks like a shell floating on the water. It houses a performance space and the inevitable cafe.

Graz' Old Town is a designated World Heritage site for its many Baroque and older buildings. (Georgie ended this part of our trip somewhat frustrated because we could have left ourselves more time just to look at the buildings and didn't--.) It truly is a beautiful area. The Armory is on the main street of the old city, and reasonably easy to find. It is a surprisingly narrow building, part of an elegant complex including offices, apartments, and spacious courtyards. The building has a historical museum display on the first floor, which goes into interesting detail on the campaigns vs. Turks, Hungarian raiders, rebels, and others that affected the development of the region.

Once above the first floor, you are in the Armory proper, and in a very different space from the formal weapons collections we had seen previously. There is rack upon utilitarian rack of arms, all maintained in rust-free and working condition. The ceilings are low enough so that the exposed beams become storage places as well, holding ranks of helmets on pegs or festooned with powder flasks. The floors start with the oldest weapons first, so the second floor has hundreds of matchlock fusils, plus falconets, mortars, and other light artillery pieces, plus the armor that would have been issued to the local levy for the period. The next level has wheellock arquebuses and pistols, and the upper levels more than a thousand flintlock muskets and other gear, plus swords, shields, spears, pikes and halberds. Each level has its own period standard-issue armor in addition, as well as more elaborate suits of plate belonging to past officers.

After we were done there (and bought a book at the shop), we walked through some of the side streets checking out restaurants that were open on Sunday. (In Graz, retail establishments are pretty well closed Sunday, frustrating, since we found a fascinating store for "trachten", or traditional garb, among others, that we would have liked to look into--). Since they all seemed busy and we felt somewhat pressed for time, we opted instead for eating at a Wurstel stand in the town hall square, and had a very good
bauernwurst (me) and frankfurter (Georgie). We also got some very nice gelato at the next stand over, and bought a bottle of pumpkin-seed oil, a local product, at a fruit stand.

We made time to visit the Schlossberg, the town-dominating hill that once held the city's castle. Being by this time somewhat footsore, we elected not to walk UP the 400+ steps to the Clock tower, but instead took a clever elevator that goes up the center of the hill for a mere 60 cents each. There we admired the views, and gingerly climbed the winding steps DOWN the cliff side before making our way back to the train station.

Night fell during the train trip home, although we did get some fine views of sunset on the mountainsides. Once back to Vienna, we stopped in at the Cafe Vienna for desserts. We were in a chocolate mood, so had hot chocolate (mine with rum in, yum!) to wash down palatschinken with chocolate-hazelnut filling and warm chocolate cake with whipped cream and chocolate sauce before retiring back to the hotel for some reading and bed.

Vienna, day 7; We shop!

Our last full day in Vienna we set aside for shopping, packing, and a little last minute exploring. We retraced steps to various interesting shops, and bought lots of chocolates, and an authentic Tyrolean hat as a gift. We walked along Fleischmarket to its far end, and explored the streets beyond, finding “Shakespeare”, a small English-language bookstore. This was our last chance to try one of the pastry cafes, so we decided to try one for lunch, which was a bit of a mistake as they were all crowded at that time. We found an Aida (a chain operation) we could crowd into, and had pieces of Esterhazy torte and another the name of which I can’t now recall, but they were good. For dinner that day, we went to Beim Czaak, around the corner in Postgasse, which was a very informal neighborhood tavern type of place. I had “hunter’s schnitzel” with the schnitzel wrapped around ham, cheese, and onions and came with the mixed salad; and Georgie had tafelspitz, which in this preparation was served in a bowl of lovely broth swimming with the vegetables, and browned potatoes on the plate. This place had some of the best bread we were served, a nice basket of white and rye rolls of various types, and real pretzel of the kind that is actual bread and not a type of cracker.

We got ourselves pretty well packed before venturing out to our last cultural event, the Ballet “Coppelia” at the Statsoper. For a Monday night performance of a ballet, we were able to obtain somewhat “better” seats, and were enchanted to find that the side parterre loge has all the features of a classical “box” seat. Loge 5 had its own separate door to the corridor, a small anteroom area with coat hooks, a mirror, and a small bench! We had a very nice view of the stage from the front row of the Loge (there are two rows of seats) and settled in to enjoy the ballet. I had wondered how a full three-act ballet could be made out of the E.T.A. Hoffman story of the mechanical doll that I chiefly knew as act one of “Tales of Hoffman.” In fact, there’s lots of material in Hoffman’s unpleasant weird tale “Der Sandmann,” but even less of it gets translated into Delibes’ ballet than in the opera. The answer, in ballet, is that it is all about the dance. So, in the first act, we learn that the dedication of the new village bell will be celebrated, by, among other things, a dance contest, and the young men and women show off their steps in anticipation of the contest. There is a town vs. garrison rivalry established as “a Hungarian officer” challenges the protagonist. We were impressed (but not surprised) that the choreography here included genuine Hungarian folkdance, rather than the thinly disguised Russian moves more commonly seen in the USA. The second act shows us the familiar part of the Coppelius story, as the village young people invade the dollmaker’s workshop and encounter his mechanical creations. The third act is the dance contest proper, which has a happy ending for all, except Coppellius, who doesn’t get much satisfaction at having had his home broken into and property damaged. There’s a love plot, but who cares? Just watch them dance! And dance they did! The Statsoper company is the equal of any we have seen for skill, vigor and precision and gave us a totally enjoyable evening. Production values were of course, high, with the set for Coppelius’ shop particularly impressive. Only one clinker: in the third act dance contest, the townsfolk dress like, well, townsfolk, including the young men. The Hungarian men and women have folk costumes, but the village girls show up in classical ballet tutus! Whose ethnic costume is that, I wondered? Oh, well—the dancing was splendid.

Homeward bound: Not out of the (Vienna) Woods yet—

We got out of bed at the indecent hour of 4:30AM to get to the airport for a 7:30AM boarding. We checked out and the hotel’s cab was there for us. We got to the airport, checked in, found our gate, and settled in, no problem so far. We were waiting for boarding to be announced, when I noticed the electronic sign at the gate blank out and be replaced with info for a flight to Stuttgart at 8:30AM. Not A Good Sign, thought I, and went to find one of the notice boards for all flights to see if there had been a gate change. I found it, but next to the flight number there was no gate number, but an ominous looking German word. “What does that mean?” I asked one of the security personnel. “Canceled,” he replied. Oh, crap. I went back to tell Georgie what I had found out just before one of the ground staff came to make the official announcement. The Alitalia flight was grounded due to an unspecified technical difficulty. We needed to retrieve our baggage at the claim area, then go to the check-in area to get rebooked on such other flights as could be found to take us where we needed to go. This of course affected not only us, but the entire small planeload of people who had been expecting to fly to Milan that morning. We dragged our bags back to the check-in hall and stood in line for an hour and a half while the airport ground staff made connections for each of the stranded passengers. When our turn came, it took only a few minutes to get us an alternative booking on Swiss International Airlines back to Chicago via Zurich. “Good” we said. I asked if anyone knew what had happened with the Alitalia flight? “Something technical and they couldn’t fix it. You know Alitalia,” the counterman shrugged. Indeed, thought I, that doesn’t inspire confidence--.

The Swiss counter was right behind us, and we went there with our vouchers. The Swiss people were very helpful getting us checked in, although they had a mechanical problem printing new baggage tags. We got boarding passes, which showed that the flight was in—ten minutes? “Can we make it?” we asked. “Oh, yes!” we were assured. Not very comforted, we essentially flung ourselves and carry-on gear at the gate security people and hastened to the new gate, to find that when the Swiss mean the flight is at 9:25AM, that’s when it starts to board—not takes off. Whew!

Swiss International flies Airbus equipment, and we found the 320 series craft that took us to Zurich quite comfortable, and the A380 that carried us from Zurich to Chicago more comfortable yet. Although we had interior seats, I think we were better seated then the Alitalia Boeing that had brought us over. I was surprised, since the Airbus we traveled to and from Ireland in was noisier and more wearing, but I suppose there are differences in individual airlines equipment and finishing that are noticeable.

On the ground in Zurich, we had ample but not excessive time to get literally from one end of the airport to the other—the two terminals are connected by an underground tram. We might have time to add some Swiss chocolate to our hoard, but we noticed that prices in the Zurich stores were posted in Swiss Francs rather than Euros—never occurred to me Switzerland wasn’t on the Euro—and we just didn’t feel like even talking to anyone to see if the stores would take the Euros we had, so we just pushed on to our next gate.

Once boarded, we were able to relax somewhat, although, as Georgie said, we couldn’t be really happy until we got to O’Hare and saw our baggage on the carousel. The Swiss cabin service was superior, although the food we had from Alitalia for main meal was better. The Swiss had nice touches like giving out warm moist washcloths just before landing, and I’d definitely consider flying with them again.

We had a very smooth flight and got into O’Hare with no difficulty and through passport control with little waiting. The baggage system did disgorge our bags, we changed our few Euro bills back to US currency, and went out to wait for the Coach Wisconsin bus. We had no problem getting it, and I phoned Henry Osier a couple of times during the trip to update him on our ETA. He met us at the Amtrak depot stop and hauled us safely home at last.


Vienna is a fine city, with enormous amounts of history and culture. I could gladly live there, and would reccomend the visit to anyone interested in art or music. I think perhaps we overdid a bit on the major museums/palaces, but I can’t think of one I would have done without, even though I regret missing some of the smaller and quirkier attractions. The food was fine everywhere we went, the people friendly and easy to deal with. We didn’t need much of the “Plan B” fallbacks I had arranged. The German phrasebook wasn’t really necessary. I had upgraded my cellphone to a multi-band phone so we could phone the hotel in case of emergency or getting lost, and didn’t need it, although I did confirm the phone worked there. A good map IS essential, since Vienna is laid out on a medieval lack-of-plan, meaning no streets are parallel or at right angles, and end or change names in a few blocks. I continue to feel that the Michelin Green guides are the BEST guides for cultural attractions, although I think “Lonely Planet” had the best shopping information. Graz was well worth seeing, although had things worked out otherwise, it would have been better to have gone there on a day when the shops were open, and perhaps stayed In Vienna on Sunday, when museums and such were open there. However, the timing of that trip was dictated by other “musts” such as the opera and ballet tickets, and you can’t have everything.