Europe Travel Log – Vienna


Friday 26 August

First stop is Stephanplatz and Stephansdom. It’s a few minutes from our hotel, we’re in old Vienna. On the way we are excited to pass the shop where Michael bought us Mozart Kruger balls. This is a family landmark, and yes, we too took a photo of the shop sign. The cathedral is gothic, unsurprising given that the first part of it was built in the twelfth century. (the oldest church in Vienna is not far away. It was built in the eleventh century).

Outside are elaborate statues, some depicting the stations of the cross, all are carvings within carvings. Inside is even more ornate. It’s hard to know where to start looking, each alter, each point of worship has to be unravelled and examined in detail. There’s no way to appreciate the carvings collectively.

I’m the luckiest person alive! I understood from guide books that because there is a lift up the north tower it’s wheelchair accessible. But no. So, beaming, I leave the wheelchair behind, walk into the lift, then climb two flights of stairs to see a view, not only of Vienna, but also a close up of the roof. It’s painted shingles forming mostly zig zag patterns, but also pictures of eagles. There’s a sculpture of a rooster on the point of one spire.

Peter climbs the south tower. The public can climb 343 (7x7x7) steps that take you up 67 metres, not even a third of the way up!

We walk/wheel down to the Danube canal. We are suddenly incredibly weary, not sure what do next. Peter’s travel mantra is get your bearings, so we ride the tourist ring train and second time round get off at the museum quarter.

Passing two massive (and ornamental, of course) buildings that mirror each other across the square, we find the Leopold museum. Mumok, disappointingly, is closed. But the Leopold more than makes up for it. There’s a Klimt and Schiele special exhibition on. They led the self-expressionist movement, and were soundly condemned for their immorality, especially Schiele. But it was around 1910, and it’s not surprising that neighbors were horrified when Schiele painted nude women in provocative poses out in his open garden! Schiele’s work is amazing, especially his self portrait.

We spent ages looking at the special exhibition, and even longer at Leopold’s own collection, dating to the 1940’s. I kept going back to look at “Macabre Death” painted in 1915. I kept thinking of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry.

All day we’d been looking forward to a concert in Stephandom, Gregorian chanting and organ music. The two just seemed to fit in this darkly gothic church, and we anticipated fantastic acoustics under the high, high spires. We’re not disappointed. The concert is in front of the high altar, normally closed off. The organist is a young man, beautifully groomed with a long fringe that sweeps over his face as he throws himself around, fingers racing over the keys. The madness suits the church. The music is kind of funky though, in juxtaposition with the ancient gothic mood of the church.

The Gregorian chanting is in it’s natural home. The high ceilings seem to amplify the sound and give it superb depth and quality.

We’ll never see or hear anything like this in these surroundings ever again. We soak it up.

Saturday 27 August

Schonbrunn summer palace. It’s so symmetrical! Everything has its equal and opposite mirror image, from the size, shape and design of the wings of the main palace, to the garden layout – every begonia has it’s colour match on the opposite side. Identical mirror twins … Two long gardens stretching into the distance, with an identical forest rising on an identical slope on either side. Was Franz Josef obsessive compulsive?

At the top of the hill is the Gloriette. And I walk up the hill to it! Fifty minutes up, twenty five minutes down! Not counting photo ops.

The fountain at the base of the hill is absolutely amazing. Only a picture can do it justice.

The gardens beside the palace are superb, with wisteria tunnels providing shade for the royal ladies, and hollow hedges with niches for garden statues to keep them amused. I remember that this is the summer palace and would have been closed for winter when everything is leafless and covered in snow.

Everything is beautifully manicured and maintained. I wonder what it costs to keep the palace grounds so perfectly groomed now.

This evening we are at a Mozart concert in the State Opera House. The members of the orchestra are in period costume, and the programme is supposedly similar to that which would have been played in Mozart’s time … Favourite segments of popular opera, bits and pieces to amuse and entertain. It’s the top of the pops from the late eighteenth century. The conductor interacts with the audience. It’s great fun joining in.

Afterwards we admire the lobby – more statues, arches and beautifully painted ceilings. This is the Vienna I always imagined, frivolous, pretty, ornate and fun … Just like the music of Johan Strauss and Amadeus Mozart.

Sunday 28 August

The town hall (Rathaus – I love the name) and parliament are virtually side by side. Both are ornate monuments to wealth and power, but one in each of what seem to be the prevailing architectural styles of Vienna, gothic, and Greco-roman. The town hall is dark intricately carved stone, and parliament is shining white marble with Greek and roman statues everywhere. And lots of shiny gold.

However, the Hofburg Imperial Palace and the kaiser’s apartments dwarf everything we’ve seen. On the way to our hotel the taxi driver had driven under the arches and through the palace. It must be the only road that at one point has a dome the underside of which is ornately and lavishly decorated. I’m glad we drove through it at 7.30am when no-one was around. It had looked magnificent, and seemed surreal. Returning today, the place is swarming with tourists and has lost its allure. (ironic!)

Continuing on, we see the Pastaule statue which seems a bit gross to me. It looks like lots of statues sliding and poking out of pus – but then it is a monument built after the kaiser promised he would if the plague epidemic would end. It must have.

We keep wandering deeper and deeper into the old city. It’s a maze of alleys and churches and old apartments and shops. We find a space that was excavated about twenty years ago and shows levels of construction going back to the Romans of the first century.

Being lost loses its appeal. I need to use the toilet, jiggling on cobblestones is not fun. Peter wants a coffee. I’ve been sitting in the wheelchair for nearly four hours with no chance to walk. I need to stand and walk to stretch everything thats been flexed. I get grumpy. We ask for directions out – most of this time we’ve been only a few hundred metres from our hotel! The old city is very different from the rest of Vienna. It’s all narrow cobbled streets, with occasional openings to small spaces, through which you catch a glimpse of another spire, another dome. It must have been hot and smelly in a nineteenth century summer, and cold and damp in the winter. It’s full of surprises. The museum quarter and nearby, however, is open and the buildings lavish, with parks and trees.

I just want to lie in a park somewhere quiet. There has been too much noise and too many tourists in too little space. We lie in Stadtpark and enjoy the rest of the afternoon doing nothing.

Monday 29 August

We’ve passed a Greek orthodox church near our hotel many times, always admiring its facade, which is different from any other type of architecture we’ve seen here. It’s made of regularly formed red bricks with arches beautifully edged in gold. Today, before we check out of our hotel, we go inside. It is beautiful. In the large foyer vaulted ceilings are painted with golden friezes against a background of dark wood. There is a service in progress (which is the only time the church is open) with strong men’s voices singing and chanting the service. The area for the congregation is more elaborate with dark wooden carvings and an arch through which the priest can be seen, first with his back to us, then he turns and chants with the male choir. It’s a very spiritual place, a place primarily for prayer. We’re reluctant to take a photo and show disrespect to those worshipping, yet we are also acknowledging the beauty of their place of worship. We take a photo.

On returning to our hotel, we cannot find our credit card … We have plenty of time, so we don’t panic. Peter does what needs to be done. **** happens! In the process of canceling the card he finds it. Too late, he has to proceed with canceling the card. **** happens! No problem.

I love the bread here. And the muesli. It’s mostly made of oats, but Austrian oats are obviously better than New Zealand oats. Boiled eggs seem to be served as a side dish to every meal. In Cafe Sperle I ask if I can have a plain salad. The waitress looks at me in astonishment – with what? Tuna? Or egg? The salad is a combination of three halves of soft boiled eggs lavishly covered with chopped chives, on top of boiled potato with a gravy/dressing on it, and surrounded by my salad of cucumber, mescaline and cherry tomatoes. It’s delicious. I’m a heretic. I don’t drink coffee, so in this revered coffee house I drink diet coke. Dad has a coffee, a double shot cappuccino, the best so far in Europe.

We wander through the main shopping area of Vienna and finally we’re amongst locals. We find the Naschmarkt where we buy fresh fruit and nuts, but we could have bought types of cheeses unknown to us, spices, seasonings and all sorts of exotic foods, fresh or dried. The market smells of spices. It’s nice to be away from the coach tour circuit.

Bus loads of tourists, walking tours and bike tours churn through all the tourist spots. In schonbrunn we had arrived to see more than a dozen coaches lining the street outside, and as soon as some left they were replaced. The grounds are large enough to swallow all, so that says something about its size!

Thousands of tourists walk shoulder to shoulder around the old city centre. I hear so many languages! The receptionists at our hotel are multilingual, Spanish, Italian, English, Russian. We’ve seen few Japanese or Chinese and those we have seen have struggled to be understood. What will happen when middle class China discovers Europe?

It occurs to me that the millions of tourists who pour into Vienna, a city only a little more populated than Auckland, bring huge amounts of money that some people in New Zealand would crave. But whereas tourists here contribute to maintaining and building a great infrastructure, and perhaps leave culturally richer, tourists visit New Zealand for a “green” experience. The more tourists there are, the less green NZ becomes, the less attractive it becomes as a tourist attraction, and, worse, New Zealand will have been pillaged, perhaps never to recover our true wealth.

Fewer people here speak good English than in Berlin, but many speak enough to get directions from. Everyone is willing to help. I want to find out what time a street vendor closes, and although she looks at me as if I am from another planet when I ask if she speaks English, she is happy to try and understood my miming. Success! People are kind and always willing to help. I suppose people here, as elsewhere in Europe, are accustomed to ignorant tourists who only speak English. They’re friendly and forgiving of our lack of language skills.

The tram and train system is extremely well integrated and easy to use. We use it without difficulty to get to the main train station, Westbanhoff, despite it being crowded. We’re sitting in the first class lounge waiting for our overnight train to Venice!

Notes on Accessibility

Most trams and trains can be accessed by wheelchairs, although the tourist ring road tram cannot. There are high steps up and I needed someone to push me up from below! Worth the effort though! Some of the older trains leave a gap between train and platform that can’t be crossed by a wheelchair. It doesn’t matter, just wait for another train, they come every two, four or six minutes depending on the time of day.

There are lifts down to all the ubahn stations, although they can be difficult to locate.

There aren’t many public toilets, and the disabled toilets were always locked! Some ubahns have toilets that are free to everyone, some have disabled toilets that are free, some have disabled toilets that require a euro-key. This is a problem for anyone outside the EU. I read a sign saying that the euro-key system is Europe wide, which is worrying as it seems this will be the way of the future. Not all disabled toilets are suitable for all wheelchair users. Some have no running water so could be difficult to use for self-catheterising. Fortunately, because I can walk, I can access other toilets but I need someone to watch my wheelchair.

Luckily, all the museums, and the area around the Hofburg palace, have great toilets for the disabled and, as in Berlin are free. (Perhaps that’s why public toilets for the disabled are locked – they’d be used by everyone who doesn’t want to pay 50p.) I wasn’t good at planning toilet stops, but it would pay to keep this in mind in Vienna.

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