Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wiener Wandering

(The Vienna photos. It's hard to take a bad shot in this town.)

You may recall I already visited Vienna once before with the Borths family and Carolyn. So, when I have an entire continent of exploring, why retrace my steps? Reason 1: Marty needed to see the city and we were pretty damn close in Prague. Reason 2: I wanted to visit Nick, a fellow graduate of St. X and Ohio State who’s doing a teaching Fulbright in Vienna. Reason 3 (and most important): Vienna demands a second go-round. It’s just that glorious a city.

The plan was to meet Nick at the Vienna train station or at his house. This would be awkward to time because his parents were also visiting for two weeks and we wanted to give them plenty of time to spend with their son. Nick wasn’t in the station. I couldn’t raise him on the cell phone or by text message. We were on the industrial outskirts of the city, and that just wouldn’t do. If you’re in Vienna, go to the pretty parts, so we did.

We buried ourselves in the pedestrian heart of the Old Town, eating Wiener Schnitzel (Wien is the German name for Vienna) and drinking excellent cocktails at American Bar, a place recommended by Miya back in Hamburg. The bar was designed in 1908 by one of the fathers of modern architecture, Adolf Loos, who believed ornate decoration was a sinful waste of worker’s sweat. The bar specializes in American-style cocktails, so I sipped an Old Fashioned, and Marty enjoyed a Smoky Martini while we tried to figure out how to track down Nick and discussed if our action-hero of a waiter would be able to save us from nuclear apocalypse.

St. Stephan's Cathedral at the center of the old town's pedestrian district.

We poked our heads into St. Stephan’s Cathedral in the center of the old town and discovered the shadowy interior was obstructed by a locked iron gate. Well, the only thing to do when you can’t visit the cathedral is grab some ice cream. With cones in hand we continued down the street and I literally ran into Nick. He, his family, and his girlfriend were just leaving dinner and were discussing how to contact me (apparently none of my text messages and only one voicemail message actually made it to his end of the line). If we had all just trusted to serendipity, much stress could have been avoided.

We walked Nick’s parents home then went to visit a few of Nick’s favorite Viennese bars. The first was a dive that usually features live music. They did this night, but the act was, to put it gently, awful. Two inebriated guitarists, one with a six string and the other with a twelve with only half the strings in tune, sang in unison, belting Dylan, Clapton, and Cash at the tops of their lungs. I’ve come to the conclusion that Rock and Roll is one of America’s great contributions to world culture. But, listening to these two, I wished the Austrians had never abandoned their accordions and Alphorns for the Blues. If they hadn't, my ears might still be functional. We moved on.

Next, discussion around a comfy table in squashy chairs at an English Bar. I wasn’t sure what “English Bar” entailed until I saw the walls were encrusted with dozens of book cases with hundreds of English language paperbacks and classics. In other words, my kind of bar. When we left, a two hour odyssey ensued as we waited for buses that didn’t arrive on time (have I mentioned I don’t like buses?), talked to lonely Indian men who wanted to know about plate tectonics, and ate Viennese sausage (or “Wieners” as we might say. Note on the Wiener: In this town they believe in the bun. Germans tend to just use a hand-sized roll to hold a much larger sausage. Here you are given a kind of baguette. The top is sliced off and a tunnel bored into the bread. The mustard and cheese go in along with the sausage, creating a self-contained, walkable, street food. Brilliance on – or in – a bun.). We finally got home in the wee hours of the morning, and didn’t earn ourselves very much sleep because we wanted to get to the Vienna Ring.

The epic and Neo-Classical Austrian Parliament building. That's Athena towering over Vienna.

For breakfast we ate massive, chocolate covered cream horns then explored the parliament building and the Natural History Museum. The Vienna NHM is famous as the home of Venus von Willendorf, a somewhat abstract and slightly pudgy limestone carving of a woman roughly 26,000 year old. She’s one of the oldest human forms ever discovered and was one of the first examples of Paleolithic art to be hauled out of the ground. In 1908 she created a sensation despite being faceless and footless.

In December I visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the architectural twin of the Naturhistorisches Museum. They sit facing each other across a manicured park, just off the main drag of Vienna. I knew the Kusthistorisches Museum (Historical Art Museum) was a piece of art in itself, a palace built in 1889 for the sole purpose of exalting art. I didn’t know the Natural History Museum had been designed with the same aesthetic. Canvas painting of exotic animals, people, and localities rimmed each artfully plastered gallery. My favorite touch came in the bone hall where casts and actual mounted fossils were surrounded by a chorus of Classical figures (nyads, dryads, and satyrs perhaps?) each bearing an extinct animals. One wrestled with an ancient sea-monster, the next with a pterodactyl, the next with a massive crustacean…I love the American Museum of Natural History, but they don’t have that kind of class.

On the left a figure tries to keep a grip on a Rhamphorhynchus. His buddy has his own prblems holding on to a Ichthyosaurus.
I love the kangaroo-posed Iguanodon, one of the oldest dinosaur names around.

Hopping into the Metro, we traveled out into the Viennese suburbs to explore Schönbrunn Palace with Nick and his family. The plot of land the palace commands was purchased in 1569 but the current royal residence wasn’t set up until 1696. Originally the designer wanted to make it bigger than its model, Versailles, but he had to deal with the budget and dialed things back. Rick Steves claims it’s the second-best palace in Europe behind Versailles, so that designer wasn’t far off his mark. We explored the palace’s parks, climbing behind a massive fountain and up to the Gloriette for a view of the palace and Vienna rolling away to the horizon. We discovered we really didn’t have time to do a full palace tour, or hit the zoo. The zoo is the oldest in existence. This fact was only revealed to me late in our exploration and there just wasn’t time to visit the pandas. That’s what next time is for.

After sitting on the lawn, sipping Easter-market punch, Marty and I waved good-bye to Nick and headed for the Vienna Opera house where we cued up for the best deal in Europe: three Euro tickets to the opera. Our legs were sore from three consecutive days on our feet, but we took standing-room seats at the center of the house for “Die tote Stadt” a 1920 opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that revolved around a husband who wouldn't’t allow his dead wife’s memory rest in peace. Heavy, operatic stuff. Note that this was our second opera in three days.

After the performance we met Nick at a Jazzland, a cellar-turned club that’s been around since 1972. The original plan was to meet Nick and his parents, but only Nick felt energetic enough to join us. After jockeying with other patrons to secure a spot with a decent view of the band, we settled in to groove to a great set that featured scat solos and all the trumpet I’ve been missing. Second Jazz club in four nights. Marty and I really are too cool to hang out with ourselves.

When the band wrapped up, so did the bar, so we rolled on to a place on the canal that Nick claimed, “you have to see.” The other patrons ranged from high schoolers trying to have a night on the town, to forty-year-old transvestites. There wasn’t a demographic missing or a character that wouldn’t find a home in a quirky sitcom, including a construction worker who just wanted to dance to the monotonous techno beats. Getting home went smoothly, but again we stayed out late and woke up early.

Our first stop was to the Votivkirche, a neo-Gothic structure built by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1879 in thanks to God for deflecting an assassins knife on the spot the church was erected. It’s huge, neo-Gothic, and once featured a massive stained-glass window that depicted the Emperor’s deliverance. The windows were bombed out during WWII and in ’64 the windows were replaced with less of a divine-right-of-kings kind of theme. There was also a devotional chapel featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe. The sign made it seem like this was the image that was discovered by Juan Diego in 1531. We were in awe, but our awe was misspent on a copy sent by the Mexican government in 1954 (the Empire of Mexico was ruled by an enlightened, but unlucky Hapsburg prince, Maximilian I for three years before he was killed by firing squad in 1867). Oh well.

After a brief detour to recover Marty’s passport from Nick’s apartment (it was so well hidden he had forgotten about it) we were on our way to the Belvedere Palace. The place was set up in 1716 as the residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a brilliant general who beat the Ottomans, French, and Italians over the course of a fifty year career. Originally French, Louis XIV ditched Eugene because he wasn’t particularly attractive. Taking his brilliant mind east, he found the Austrians would give him a chance and they reaped the rewards. So did he and thence the palace.

Now the building houses an art collection that ranges from Medieval to 21st century stuff, but focuses on the work of the Vienna Secession, an association of artists who wanted to promote Austrian art at the turn of the 20th century. The first president was Gustav Klimt and the Belvedere has a bunch of his work, including the iconic “Kiss” and “Judith.” Personally, I thought the haunting, expressionist work of Egon Schiele was even more engrossing than Klimt. Marty left to catch his train and I continued to explore the Romantics and Impressionists until the lure of the gardens became too strong.

The flowers all seemed on the verge of leaping to colorful life. The daffodils and tulips were doing their best, but I knew if I walked through in one week, the place would be a gravel-lined riot of color. Again, next time.

Weaving through memorials and churches I said goodbye to one of the most beautiful cities I have ever explored, then set my feet in the direction of the Vienna airport. I had my last cup of Viennese coffee, eavesdropped on a Canadian businessman who was also in awe of the beauty of the city and flew to the Cologne/Bonn airport where Rheinisch rain greeted by arrival.
A church I discovered at the last minute called Karlskirche. Next time I'll go inside. Never act like you won't return to a spot. It stresses you out and might not be true. Witness this trip.

I huddled in the bus stop with my fellow Bonners and mentally listed what I needed to pack up because the next morning I would be catching the train to Paris!

Pretty photos of a pretty city.

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