We have a new routine when we arrive in a new city:
1. We go to an ATM to get local cash.
2. We buy our train tickets for the next leg of our journey.
3. We buy tickets for the local subway/transit system and get a map & guide to the city, and then
4. We make our way to our apartment/hotel.
When we bought our train ticket in Budapest to travel to Vienna, we apparently didn’t look at the tickets closely enough. Upon arriving at the Budapest train station, a porter shanghaied our bags and took us to a nice business class lounge, so we went along. When he came back about 30 minutes later, he took our bags onto the train and directed us to our seats but we found there was already another American couple sitting in the seats we had reserved. Their tickets had the same seat numbers as our tickets, but the train was pretty empty, so the porter deposited us in some other seats that had not been reserved.
“Odd” we thought. I was a little concerned about our tickets but I couldn’t find anyone on the train at that point who could help us. I did find one young man who is a server in the dining car, but he’s a waiter, he doesn’t deal with seat reservations. By this point it was too late to get off the train and straighten out the tickets, so we just went with it.
After about 20 minutes into the journey a woman conductor came along and asked to see our tickets. As she looked at our tickets a very deep frown came across her face. She pointed out that the date on our tickets were for the train on December 28 – we were on her train on November 28. Oops! To quote Maxwell Smart: “Missed it by that much!”
Now we understood why those other Americans were in our seats – those were their seats. They were also our seats – in a month. Fortunately she did not throw us off the train at the next station. She gave us a short lecture about looking at the tickets we purchase carefully. To quote: “When you buy tickets, you look!”
Now that we are in Europe, the trains have definitely gotten nicer and it feels like the tracks are in better condition; less jostling. Here’s Holly on the Train to Vienna from Budapest:
No we’re NOT hippies:
The apartment we rented in Vienna was on Taubstummengasse (try saying that fast three times), which happens to also be the name of the subway station on the corner. The proximity of our apartment to the metro made it really easy to get around in Vienna. The apartment is also very close to the Church of St. Charles (Karlskirche) and Karlsplatz Square.
Our first order of business upon arriving on in Vienna was for us to get haircuts. We hadn’t darkened the door of hair salon since Beijing and we were starting to look pretty shaggy. The first three hair joints we tried were all booked for weeks ahead (we didn’t see a Supercuts anywhere) and we began to think we were going to have to look like flower children past their expiration date until we got to Prague. Four was our lucky number, the fourth shop agreed to take us right away and we had a really nice experience. As when we had our haircuts in Beijing, it seemed like the staff enjoyed working on these American tourists. I suppose that most tourist’s trips aren’t long enough to require haircuts and the clientele of salons is almost exclusively local. Working on tourists, even annoying tourists like us who don’t speak the language, is a novelty.
Our first of many Christmas Markets – avoiding international incidents:
My first experience with Christmas markets was six years ago when we visited Germany and Finland. Kate, our first daughter, was in the midst of her year abroad program at Pepperdine’s London campus and rather than have her come home for Christmas, Holly, Rebecca and I met her in Munich (Natalie was in Argentina for her high school exchange program). As we toured around Germany, going from Munich to Rothenberg to Heidelberg, etc. we really enjoyed walking through the many Christmas markets, except for the ugly mustard incident. In Rothenberg, I had purchased a wurst at a stall and continued to stroll through the market. I made the mistake of applying additional mustard to my half eaten wurst from the pump on a mustard bottle at a rival wurst seller. Thankfully, I don’t speak German, because whatever it is the proprietor of the second wurst stand said to me, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “Merry Christmas”.
We had seen the Christmas Markets being constructed in Budapest, but they hadn’t opened by the time we left and we were really looking forward to getting our Mulled Wine (Kindepunsch for Holly) and other goodies. The sweet ladies at the hair salon told us their Christmas Markets had been open for a while already. After we had shaken off our neo-sixties look, the ladies at the hair salon directed us to the Christmas Market at the Church of St. Charles (Karlskirche). The salon ladies had very strong opinions about the quality of the various Christmas markets available in this section of Vienna – and the market at Karlskirche was the best, most authentic market with more locally handcrafted items.
We walked around the Christmas Market looking at the goods for sale. We then decided to buy our dinner at one of the many booths selling food, Mulled Wine and other hot beverages. Apparently, wurst is more of a German thing than an Austrian treat because we had a hard time finding bratwurst or much wurst of any description at the Austrian markets we visited. Nonetheless there was plenty of food and hot wine, and there were no ugly mustard incidents.
Here’s a photo of the Advent Market in front of St. Charles’s Church:
These other-worldly creatures walked through the Christmas Market while we were there:
Getting Serious about Seeing Vienna:
The next morning, we took the subway to the Stephansplatz Metro Station to start our sightseeing. As we were walking through the Metro Station, we noticed an archaeological site – a chapel discovered in 1973 during excavation work for the subway station. This medieval chapel is 12 meters under the current ground level. Built around 1250, it is possible that the chapel was originally intended as a chapel for burials. Holly in front of the Virgil Chapel ruins in Stepansplatz Metro Station:
Immediately as we emerged from the Stephansplatz metro station, we found ourselves in the shadow of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the spiritual center of Vienna. This 14th century church is the seat of the Cardinal-Archbishop. The spire is an impressive 137 meters high. It’s hard to get a good photo with many buildings very close nearby. Here’s my best picture:
I don’t have that much to say about St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Yes, it’s a very nice, very large, very impressive cathedral. The downside of taking a trip as long as this one has been, is that it is really hard to maintain your interest in another Buddhist Temple, another Russian Orthodox Church, and now in Europe, another Catholic Cathedral. Temple fatigue has morphed into Cathedral fatigue.
The interior of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the central nave:
Just around the corner from St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a shopping street called Graben. Graben means “trench” in German – so named because originally this was the site of a moat surrounding a roman fortress. The moat was filled in during the middle-ages and this street became a marketplace and center of Vienna city life.
Here’s a photo of me on the Graben with the Holy Trinity Column (Plague Column) on my left. In 1679 Vienna suffered through a major plague epidemic and Emperor Leopold I vowed to erect a mercy column if the epidemic would end – which it did eventually. I’m pleased to report that Vienna is now relatively plague-free and safe to visit.
Next we visited the Hofburg. The Hofburg was the residence of the Habsburg rulers of Austria (and many other parts of Europe as their empire expanded and contracted over the centuries) almost continuously from 1438 to 1918 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire ended. Today it is the seat of the Austrian president.
Here’s a photo of the “New Hofburg” wing. This wing is “new” because it was added to the Hofburg Palace in the 1860’s. In Vienna, building additions built in the 1860s are considered new; in the U.S. we visit Civil War battlefields from the 1860s.
Inside the Hofburg today are museums including the “Secular and Ecclesiastical Treasuries” and the “Sisi Museum”. We also visited the Royal Apartments. The museum has an unbelievable collection of silverware, china, and seemingly endless silver and gold objects on display. Evidently it was considered very poor form to show up in Vienna for an audience with a Habsburg Emperor or Empress empty-handed.
Here’s the sort of thing that would be an appropriate gift, a nice vase of roses made of gilded silver.
And of course, when someone gives you a priceless object of gilded silver encrusted with about a pound and a half of diamonds and other precious gems, you hang on to it (except when financing the Napoleonic Wars when it became necessary to melt down some of the silverware.) So over several hundred years, the Habsburgs accumulated quite a nice treasure chest. (Think “Extreme Hoarders”.)
Precious gifts of relics in beautiful reliquaries were highly valued. This reliquary contains the nail driven into Christ’s right hand during his crucifixion. Relics relating to Christ are considered especially sacred and valuable.
If one is the Holy Roman Emperor, it’s important to keep up appearances. When the King of France, Russian Ambassador, or whoever comes for a visit, the Austrian Emperor’s table service has to be that much grander and more impressive than anything they had experienced in any other capital. This was the 17th and 18th century version of Conspicuous Consumption.
Here’s a photo of only half of a Hapsburg table centerpiece made of gold. (I couldn’t get the entire table into the frame.) Imagine the centerpiece filled with fresh flowers and burning candles with their light reflecting off the mirrors in the base of the centerpiece.
Beyond the items the Habsburg rulers used to impress their guests at dinner, they also had impressive royal regalia to display their wealth and power:
People today talk about income inequality, but it struck me while touring the Habsburg’s (literally) palatial digs; in Europe prior to the 20th century there existed a true income gulf. The aristocracy and the church had all the wealth and other than a few tradesmen and merchants, everyone else lived in what we would today consider poverty. Also foreign to this proud American is the degree to which the Church and State were intertwined. I’m not defending that system in any way, shape or form, but I do appreciate the fruits of that culture. The churches, the monarchs and the aristocracy were the patrons who fueled the beautiful art, music and architecture we travel to Europe today to enjoy.
Of course Vienna is famous for music. We wanted to see an Opera at the famous Vienna Opera House, but we didn’t plan far enough ahead and the tickets were all sold out. On our next visit, we’ll definitely buy our tickets well in advance. Here’s a photo of the Vienna Opera House.
Since the Vienna Opera was not an option on this trip, we bought tickets to an evening concert at Weiner Kursalon. Like the “Beijing Opera” we attended in Beijing, this concert of Strauss and Mozart is put on for tourists and it’s a little like ordering an appetizer sampler at a restaurant. It’s very nice. You get a little opera, a little ballet, a little waltz music (with dancers) and some symphonic pieces. Not too much of any, so one doesn’t get bored, even Americans like us afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder. The concert is held on the 1st floor (the 2nd floor to us Americans) of the Weiner Kursalon pictured below:
As a sample, here’s a photo of one of the Opera singers with a portion of the orchestra:
One palace is never enough, or; So the French think they can get away with building Versailles!
In the 20th Century the U.S. and Soviet Union faced off with an arms race. The 18th Century equivalent was the competition between the Habsburgs of Austria and the Bourbons of France for Palace Supremacy. Last year, we visited France and of course spent a day at Versailles. After visiting Schonbrunn Palace, I have to say Versailles has a slight edge, mostly because the grounds at Versailles seem to go on forever. It may be an unfair appraisal on my part because we visited Versailles in summer and Shonbrunn in winter, we didn’t see Schonbrunn’s grounds and fountains in all their glory.
Schonbrunn Palace was built on the site of a former hunting lodge. Construction began in 1695 and was completed in 1713. There was a Christmas Market going full-tilt in the courtyard inside the main gate.
Maria Theresa had her court architect decorate the palace from 1744-1749. Maria Theresa was the mother of Marie Antoinette, a famous future resident of Versailles. Here’s a photo of the Great Gallery with ceiling paintings by Gregorio Guglielmi. Photos are not permitted inside the palace, but our tour guide – who was great – allowed us to take photos in most of the rooms if we weren’t too obvious about it.
Here is a photo of us in the gardens of the Schonbrunn Palace. I have a feeling in the summer there are beautiful flowers blooming and the fountains flow freely.
This is the Neptune Fountain in the Schonbrunn Palace Gardens, that’s ice covering the water:
Schonbrunn Palace and the palace gardens from the Gloriette with Vienna in the background. St. Stephen’s Cathedral can be seen on the horizon on the right.
The Gloriette at sunset on top of the hill in the Schonbrunn Palace Park:
Christmas Market in front of Schonbrunn Palace:
Back in Downtown Vienna.
After visiting Schonbrunn, (which by the way is a piece of cake to get to on Vienna’s subway), we went back downtown for dinner and I took these photos of Christmas decorations that I rather liked:
More Christmas decorations:
We only scratched the surface of Vienna in a little over two days. I definitely would like to return to see more.
For now, I’ll leave you with this photo of a Viennese streetcar:
Next up: Prague, Czech Republic. Stay tuned.