24 June 2019

Vienna - let them eat cake!

Vienna is a great place from which to start a Middle European holiday. It's an easy city. There are a plethora of things to see and do, mostly within or on the famous Ringstrasse. The significant must-see that is a little further out, Schloss Belvedere, is a few minutes walk from our Etagerie Wien apartment.

Vienna is all art and music. The city has a large opera house which stages 350 performances a year, the Musikverein which has a large hall and 5 smaller performance spaces and a third venue that seems to stage more pop concert type events. We see/hear a great production of Tosca at the Staatsoper, sitting grandly in the front row of one of the best boxes, at enormous expense but worth it. If you are a poor student there are affordable standing room tickets, and if you're really hard up you can watch a whole performance on a big screen outside, free.

We hear Bruckner 4 at the Musikverein, as well as doing the backstage tour there, Mozart Requiem on period instruments at Karlskirche, and join 85,000 others in the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace on midsummer night to hear Dudamel conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in an American-themed program which starts with the Overture to Candide, included Rhapsody in Blue with a skimpily-clad Yuja Wang on piano, and finishes with the last movement of Dvorak 9. Another musical experience is the Haus der Musik, aimed at kids but enjoyable for adults, especially the bit where you get to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic with a bit of preliminary advice from Zubin Mehta to get you started. H tackles Brahms Hungarian Dance with reasonable success (there is a video).

Then there is Art, with a capital A. We  visit the Belvedere (Upper twice, Lower once), the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Albertina, Klimt's Beethoven frieze at the Secession. When we return to Vienna we will revisit the Secession to see the rest which was closed for renovation, go to the Leopold and possibly return to the Albertina and Kunsthistorisches Museum to see bits we missed.

If you are into Baroque architecture there is no shortage. We find it rather OTT, but enjoy the National Library and the state rooms at Schönbrunn, Belvedere. Church interiors (Stephansdom, Karlskirche) not so much. Our non-conformist souls are dismayed to find that very large donations were made to the Red Cross to over-decorate a memorial chapel to Franz Joseph's wife Sisi in the Franz of Assisi church (gold mosaics and too much marble).

Vienna is also made attractive by green spaces: parks and gardens, small and large, everywhere. We walk through Sigmund Freud Park, the Volksgarten, gardens of the Belvedere and Schönbrunn. We go to the Prater and hum Harry Lime in our heads as we ride the famous Reisenrad. We have a time-out Saturday afternoon in the Stadtpark, full of Viennese and visitors doing likewise.

What surprises us is how little the Danube contributes to Vienna. You could easily stay for some time and not see it at all unless you arrived by cruise boat. The Ring is completed not by a road along the river, but by one along the Danube Canal, but even that isn't particularly interesting - no major buildings. The Wien River has been put into a concrete drain reminiscent of the Moonee Ponds Creek. Being boaty people we make the effort to visit both river and canal. Donau Insel, the island in the middle of the river, and the canal banks are green and pleasant, somewhere to jog, ride a bike or push a pram, but that's about it.

We take in the Hundertwasser house on the return trip from the canal, so it's not a complete waste of time.

Vienna is famous for coffee houses, but the best known are now on what we refer to as the rubber chicken route (with apologies to Rod Quantock). We do get into Cafe Central for a very pleasant lunch without having to queue for long, but Cafe Demel is full of tour groups with a half hour wait to get in, and we are too thirsty and in need of caffeine to wait.

We tend to eat in cafes in or attached to the places we are visiting, Prater, Hofburg, Staatsoper, Schönbrunn, Naschmarkt,  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Cafe Imperial near the Musikverein. Not usually gourmet or particularly good value for money, but attractive surroundings and quite good food. Best eating experiences are our first lunch at Meinl am Graben (famous delicatessen with cafe upstairs), brunches at Belvedere and at Cafe Goldegg near our apartment, and a late meal at Cafe Führich, where the helpful staff whisk us and our very nice meals inside when it starts to rain heavily and water is coming off the umbrellas into the food. And a delicious slice of pizza at a tramstop late at night on the way back from Schönbrunn, perhaps because we were really hungry. It's been too hot for big meals, and we've been drinking beer in preference to wine as we are constantly thirsty.

We are most impressed with Vienna's public transport system. On arrival we buy 7 day passes, which conveniently run Monday to Sunday (we arrive early Monday morning). We travel mostly by tram because there is a stop 2 minutes away, but use the Metro as well for places like the Prater, Schönbrunn, Naschmarkt  Once you have your pass there is no validation process for each journey, so much easier than Melbourne's Myki. We don't see any inspectors - people seem to be trusted to do the right thing. The trams are so frequent you can do your own hop-on-hop-off tours and we do. We also catch trams when we might have walked if it hadn't been over 30 degrees.

Things we got right:

  • Accommodation - cheap and a great position. Only drawbacks are no aircon, but as it is on the east side of the building it is ok, and poor soundproofing especially if you open the windows to let some air in. We've booked it again for our return.
  • Not buying a Vienna card. Our 7 day passes are way cheaper, and we find that the seniors discount is greater than the Vienna card discount in the places that do discounts.
  • Buying and packing more lightweight clothes just before we left. Europe is experiencing a serious heatwave. The things I brought to wear in the cool of evening are all still in the bag.
  • Not paying for reservations on the train to Budapest as recommended when you buy a railpass. Just not needed.
  • Not booking a "skip-the-line" ticket for the Reisenrad. Go at dinner time - there is no line and you see the city as the sun is setting.

Things we got wrong:

  • Ordering a slice of cheesecake at Aida konditorei, assuming it would be a baked one like the delicious ones I bought at a Viennese bakery in Thames Ditton in the 70s. It was what I think of as American cheesecake, cold and very sweet. It was described as "creamy" on the menu, so I should have known better. I did manage half a small piece of apfelstrudel that came with breakfast at the Belvedere (yes really, with the boiled egg, ham and cheese), but not even Vienna can turn me into a cake person. Love the bread though, and have eaten lots of it.
  • Pre-booking a taxi from the airport. The fast shuttle would have been much quicker, and we could have walked from the station to our apartment if we'd been too dazed to work out the tram system.
  • Booking a "skip-the-line" tour for Schönbrunn. We could have seen the apartments with a self-tour audio guide with far less waiting and probably far cheaper.

Overall we found we didn't need to book ahead from home. Even our opera tickets were returns bought on standby just days before the performance (but that was from Melbourne).

We think we have enough things left to fill the final week of our trip when we return. There is the Secession, the Leopold, more of the Hofburg. Peter wants to return to the Technisches Museum (really interesting, especially a whole section on musical instruments). And we will do out-of-town excursions, to the Wachau Valley at least.

08 June 2019

Ready, set...

Just over a week until takeoff for Mitteleurop. All the big items done: airfares, railpasses, TravelSims, accommodation for the first month. Insurance. New luggage and rainjackets acquired, lists made of things to pack, sponge bags found.