28 July Vienna
The train trip from Budapest to Vienna was only three hours, on a comfortable and reasonably fast RailJet train. We had 1st Class tickets, giving more leg room and only a 2 + 1 seat configuration rather than the more cramped 2+2. It cruises along at up to 160km/hr, although seemed so slow frequently to cater for the large number of trains on the line and stopped at around six regional stations. There was no border control into Austria, both countries being part of the borderless Europe arrangements. We spent a bit of time in the dining car, spending up our Hungarian Florints before returning to the Euro Zone.
From Westbahnhof station, we caught a Metro to our hotel, the Am Konzerthaus. The greeting was very friendly and the room quite beautiful, although it lacked the wonderful view of the room in Budapest. Once unpacked, we set off armed with maps and a few ideas of where to go to get some sight-seeing under our belt. Our current itinerary of two nights in each city is quite wearing, and despite coming fresh off a train, we had to push ourselves to move on.
Our first target was the old part of the city, walking down through the Stadtpark on the way. This is a large park area that is very popular with Viennese, particularly on weekends, and there were a lot of people out enjoying the sun. A minor canal traverses the park, part of the system created in medieval times to guard against flooding by the Danube. We stopped for the obligatory photo of the statue of Johan Strauss, who used to perform in a theatre on the edge of Stadtpark.
As we pushed on through the city, we became increasingly disappointed, finding things to be rather boring after the beauty of other cities. This was not the Vienna we’d expected, the grandeur being displaced by numerous plain post-war buildings or moderate sized modern glass and steel creations that lacked a lot in style or imagination. The streets were quiet, almost deserted in places, and it was only Saturday afternoon. We wondered just how quiet things could get on the Sunday.
Once in the old city proper, we discovered a few old buildings of interest, including the Jesuitenkirche, a 17th Century Jesuit Church, and the quaint Heilegenkreuzerhof, a collection of shops, apartments and courtyards that date back to the 12th Century, with most coming from the 17th Century. In one spot, we stopped to read the tale of a famous minstrel from times past who fell asleep on the road after a heavy night and was mistakenly picked up by the plague patrol (“Bring out yur dead!”). He awoke to find himself in the common grave and had to dig himself out, living on with celebrity status to a ripe old age. It sounded like a scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
We emerged from the narrow old streets onto the ring road, known in Vienna as the Ringstrasse. This beautiful wide avenue encircles the main central city, and is built on land that was once the city walls. It provides, roads, tram lines, bike paths and pedestrian paths, along with numerous eating areas. It is the life blood of the city.
We decided that no visit to Vienna could be complete without a good feed from a “Wurstel Stall”. These wonderful stalls sell various type of sausage, either Frankfurter types, usually served hot-dog style in a bun, or Wurst types served cut into small pieces and accompanied by heavy brown bread. We ordered a Curry Wurst and a Brat Wurst with Mustard, both big fat smokey sausages. The curry one was covered in Ketchup, Dijonnaise and sprinkled with curry powder. Washed down with a German Pilsener, it was extremely good, if not devastating for the waist line. Only two sausages between us was very filling.
The walk back to the hotel seemed extremely long, probably because we were close to collapse from exhaustion. Trams stream by along almost every street but we had no knowledge of their route or how to pay so we just walked and walked. A supermarket broke our journey, to stock up on a few bits and pieces for a meal in and we hit the room for an early collapse. Later, somewhat refreshed, we had a light dinner and settled down to watch some Olympics, not understanding the German commentary but enjoying it anyway. In fact, given the drivel that most sports commentators produce, a foreign language is a good way to go.
29 July Vienna
After some solid research on the Internet to target the best sights, we set off after breakfast to see the best of Vienna. We headed for the Vienna Opera House on the Ring Strasse to buy a ticket on the “Yellow Line Tram”. This is a tourist tram that runs on a continuous circuit of the Ring Strasse, allowing a hop-on hop-off approach and providing a multi-language commentary via headphones. It cost us 14€ each, but also gave us unlimited travel on any public transport. While we waited, we were able to admire the beauty of the Opera House, a huge stone structure that has seen some of the great performers of the World over the Centuries.
First, we did the complete circuit, to see what was on offer and to learn a few basic facts. It was soon obvious that the beautiful city we’d missed the previous day was there before us. What a lovely place, well worthy of its great reputation. After a full circuit, we went on again for one further stop to alight at the Burggarten, a magnificent garden on the Southern side of the Hofburg. The Hofburg was the palace of the Hapsburgs, the long standing Royal family that ruled much of Europe throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries. The palace did all royals proud, a huge grand structure, extensively adorned with sculptures. The Burggarten parklands set off the grandeur of the building perfectly and there were art students seated all around sketching delightful scenes. While we were wandering, the church bells rang out, calling the people to Sunday mass. For the first time in my life I regretted not being into Sunday mass, because in this case, the Vienna Boy’s Choir often sings.
Wandering around to the Northern side of the palace took us into an enormous square in which a number of tour groups congregated, on foot, using bicycles, Segways or even in horse drawn carriages. It was a picture of tourist heaven. Across the road, another huge square sported a huge memorial to Empress Maria Theresa, one of the best known of the Hapsburg rulers. The entire area simply reeked of power and riches. It must have been an incredibly exciting place in the late 18th Century.
We strolled through to the Volks Garten, or People’s Garden, which promised an extensive rose collection, but we were disappointed and decided that modern rose varieties are actually a big improvement on the old ones. We caught a tram again from a stop outside the Austrian Parliament. This building is really so ugly it is magnificent, having been built in 1874 in a Greek Revival style with huge frontal columns, loads of statues and a huge statue of the Goddess Athena dominating the front courtyard. It captures the eye, but then assaults the senses.
Back on the tram for to a change of venue took us to the area alongside the main Danube Canal or Donaukanal. This is a large arm of the Danube that was regulated in 1598. It showed a significant water flow but had little else to recommend it. It was hardly “The Blue Danube”, in fact the Danube does not even exist as an actual river around here and the water flowing through the various canals had a very distinct grey shade to it. Damn! Another piece of romance shattered!
One poignant point of interest was the site of the former Hotel Metropol, used by the Gestapo as headquarters between 1938 and 1945. It was hit by a bomb and burned to the ground in 1945, the ruins being torn down after the war to erase the memory. The land remains empty as a reminder. A small but tragic memorial remembers those victims of the Gestapo, a small cairn of granite blocks taken from the quarry at the former concentration camp at Mathausen. It was a moving piece of empty land in an otherwise built-out city.
We wandered through to the Wurstel stall we’d sampled yesterday and indulged in another feed of delicious Austrian Sausage. It is so good. I know that this type of snack would really take off in pubs around Perth but then it probably wouldn’t cost 10€ for two plates and two pints either.
Then it was back on the tram to get back to the hotel area for a rest and a toilet break. Toilets have been very hard to find in Vienna, almost to the point of being non-existent. In Budapest, they were common but all wanted 50-100HUF to “spend a penny”. This was OK because they were staffed. Here, the only stop we found was in the Volks Garten and it wanted 0.50€ in a coin slot. It only took correct change and we didn’t have any 50c coins. Some enterprising woman had jammed the door open with a toilet roll so Christine was catered for but I had no such luck. I was just thinking of ducking in with Christine when two other women came along and I chickened out. By the time I’d had two sausages and a pint of beer, I was ready to go back to the hotel for a blessed relief.
We slept well for a bit, then headed out once more to find a supermarket hopefully to buy a prepared salad for our dinner. We were amazed to find that the local large supermarket was closed up, along with all the shops and even most of the restaurants. Sunday is ultra-dead day in Vienna. It seems the Sunday trading debate is not even an issue, it just doesn’t happen. It was then that we realised that we hadn’t seen any of the small local grocers that seem so prevalent in other cities and, in fact, the only place to buy a salad of any kind was MacDonalds. We drew the line at that, and went back to the hotel, paying double the MacDonalds price but keeping our self respect.
In the evening, we had a concert booked, mainly because one can’t be in Vienna without hearing a good waltz or a bit of Mozart played. We cast aside the usual shorts and T-shirts for long trousers and something a bit more dressy and, as we trotted down the hall to the lift, Christine remarked that we scrubbed up quite well considering. I agreed with her, although I did think that her blouse was ageing and had faded a bit, I wisely didn’t say anything. Once into the lift, I saw it was inside out and I at least was kind enough to tell her so we could go back up in the lift. She did admit that if I’d waited, I would have been dead.
The concert was in the Kursalon, the famous music hall built in 1865 and the scene of many of the Strauss brothers triumphs. The program featured many well known pieces from Johann Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Some brilliant arias from Mozart’s operas or Strauss’s operettas were performed by a tenor and a soprano, while a pair of ballet dancers interpreted some of the Strauss pieces. The acoustics were outstanding, the performance from the small chamber group perfect and the night exceptionally good, one of the best musical performances we’ve experienced anywhere. Quality certainly shows. We were both very sorry when the program ended.
As we walked the short distance back to the hotel, people could be seen leaving the various concert halls in the areas, with a night of music obviously being a big thing in Vienna. When there is so much on hand, why not? Despite the reputation for being top of the classical music scene, Vienna is obviously a favoured location for other music genres as well, with posters advertising forthcoming appearances by Madonna, Jethro Tull, Tom Jones, Eric Burdon and a string of others.
30th July Vienna to Zurich
Christine’s Birthday! I got her an all expenses trip to Zurich.
First she had to cart her luggage down to the Metro, work through to Westbahnof station with a change of tubes, then find her carriage. Not a bad present really.
We leave Vienna with mixed feelings. It is a very beautiful city with lots of interesting history. However, it can be quite difficult to live in as a tourist, with clear information quite difficult to access. The level of English signage or explanation is the worst of any city we have encountered and people seem somewhat distant. Added to the fact that nothing seems to be ever open, we struggled at times to really enjoy things. While waiting for our train, I wandered off to buy a fridge magnet to add to our little collection. You would think this to be a simple chore in a large rail station but I walked around for ages. Finally, outside the station and down the street, I spied a sign in English saying “Souvenirs” so I took off, crossed two sets of lights and made my way to the shop. It was closed, the door sign indicating that it only opens from 6pm to 9pm, except on Saturdays when it opens 8am to 11am. You would need a big mark-up to make a living. The Viennese certainly value their leisure time.