That pretty much sums up my time in Vienna. As this is likely my last post for this trip, I’m going to break it down into three sub-sections: Vienna, Birthday in Berlin, and Post-Trip Reflections. Though I doubt anyone is still reading this, thank you to those who did.
Known as Wien (where wienerschnitzel comes from)
Vienna was another place I had been to before and was very much looking forward to returning because, much like Salzburg, I had fond memories of this place. While last time I visited I stayed with a friend in a shabby hostel way outside the inner ring of the city, this time I booked us a room in the Pension Neuar Markt, just steps away from Stephansplatz; the main square of the old city. Not too much better than a hostel, this budget hotel did have an excellent location and was clean and quiet, so we were happy. Arriving early Tuesday afternoon, we discarded our bags at the hotel and headed out to explore the city.
Though the city was much as I remembered, it felt a bit overrun with tourists. I don’t know if this was just a result of my deteriorating patience of being surrounded by loud, fanny-pack touting tourists with name-tags and headphones who were just dropped off by their giant white bus, or if the city was genuinely more crowded than the last time I visited. Either way, it just felt different.
Home of the Hapsburgs, Vienna was considered the cultural center of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. With its gothic and barroque St. Stephan’s Cathedral as its centerpiece, surrounded by churches and buildings such as the Opera house, Viennas is one of the most ascethically appealing places I have yet to visit.
We stopped by the Naschmarkt, a small food market just outside the Ringstrasse that has existed since the 16th century. Though the market has transformed over the years, the function of it has virtually stayed the same and while one side of the market has sprouted up with restaurants specializing in seafood, Asian cuisine, and traditional Viennese specialties, the other side has remained a simple market colored by stalls selling olives, turkish desserts, a variety of cheeses, wine, and meats. We decided to grab a quick lunch at one of the establishments on the restaurant side. While we were eating, we were approached by one beggar asking for money, along with some musicians walking around with a cup When we had finished our meal, one of these men returned and had his son sit down to eat what was left on our plate. This surprised me a bit. Though we had experienced this sort of thing in India, I did not expect to come across it in Vienna. There is something very tragic about a father struggling to feed his son only a few feet away from such posh as Gucci and Armani.
That evening we decided to walk a little to the city hall where the annual Vienna Film Festival was being held. The park that surrounds the hall was overflowing with make-shift restaurants, food stalls, and beer and wine stands. There were virtually thousands of people eating and drinking, and no one looked much like they were there for the films that were playing inside. We decided it was too hectic of a scene to try to grab food and find a place to eat it, so we opted instead to have a few beers and people watch before we would head back towards our hotel and grab something to eat there. The problem was when we made our way back inside the ringstrasse; the main road that encircles the old part of the city, there were very few places still open and those that were only appeared to be serving drinks, not food. In our desperation for food, we managed to find a Burger King which, being the only late night place still serving food, was filled with a bunch of drunks. Eating a chicken sandwich and fries washed down with beers, we sat contentedly listening to Lady Gaga enjoying our fast food feast in the middle of one of the great cultural capitals of the world, and I thought that this too was tragic.
The next day turned out to be better. We started the morning off briefly touring St. Stephan’s Cathedral. With the original church built in 1147, the current Cathedral is a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque facade which continues to impress upon visitors of all faiths. Serving as the sight of Mozart’s wedding and the baptism of two of his children, the church has much historical significance and remains a cultural symbol for the city of Vienna. During World War II, the church caught fire after the allied bombing of Vienna as punishment for Austrians’ alleged enthusiasm towards the Nazis after annexation. After the war, the roof was rebuilt and the church continues to undergo renovation to this day.
After the Cathedral, we made our way over to the Hofburg palace; home of the Hapsburgs during the Winter and the current residence of the Austrian President. Thoroughly sick of looking at rich people’s belongings through glass windows, we chose not to go into any of the many museums housed in this enormous complex. Instead, we enjoyed the free and lavish art exemplified in the outside statuary then headed back to the Nasch market for an amazing lunch at a little shop called Urbanek’s that specialized in meats and cheeses. Featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, the shop is about 100 square feet (that’s being generous) and was jam-packed with middle-aged Austrian men at the counter. When we walked in there was a pause in their jovial banter and as the only women and only tourists, all eyes were on us. We all laughed, neither us or them knowing what each was thinking, when finally Gerard Urbanek welcomed us, pulled out a newspaper clipping of Anthony Bourdain from behind the counter and asked “You know this man?”…We acknowleged we had seen him on the show and that is why we were there. With so many meats and cheeses from which to choose, we were a bit overwhelmed, so he simply made us what he calls “The Anthony Bourdain Special”- ham and Alp cheese seasoned with parmesan and horseradish. We each had a glass of local wine and enjoyed this most delicious lunch so much we came back the following day.
After lunch we took the subway out to the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Hapsburgs. After Versailles, Schonbrunn is the most lavish and beautiful of European palaces. Again, we chose not to go into the imperial apartments and just walk around the expansive gardens that lie behind the palace. We walked up to Gloriette, a structure that sits 60 meters above the gardens on a hill opposite the palace. From here you get a panoramic view of Vienna, as well as the palace and its gardens.
After visiting the palace, we rested up so we could head out to a Heurigen in the suburbs of Grinzing. Heurigens are wine gardens that serve traditional food and locally grown wine. I had done this on my last trip to Vienna and was very much looking forward to it. We took the bus to Grinzing and found a place called Weinschlossl that was filled with a large group of elderly Austrians celebrating a birthday with music and singing. Perfect. We ate there. After we ate we headed around the corner to another Heirugen, again with mostly older folks singing and dancing to live music while chugging down enormous amounts of wine. I have never in my life seen such a large group of people over the age of, let’s say 55, having so much fun. It was great.
The next day was my birthday and I was happy to be spending it in Vienna, but even more happy to be heading to Berlin that night. I was getting a wee bit sick of the quaint and clean cities of Switzerland and Austria and was craving some liveliness that you can only experience in places like Italy or cities like Berlin.
We skipped out of the hotel breakfast (which wasn’t very good anyways) to have coffee, hot chocolate, and pastries at Demel, one of Vienna’s most well-known and oldest cafes. Unlike the Sacer Tort we had tried the day before, everything in this place lived up to its reputation. We didn’t have much on the agenda other than going back to the Naschmarkt so I suggested seeing the Jewish museum as it was close by and I was interested to see how history would be represented there being we had just recently read about Austrians being notoriously anti-semitic. While parts of the museum were interesting enough, (the collections on the 3rd floor), the rest of it was just bizarre. For example, on the second floor there were hanging beads separating a “private” exhibit that showcased pornographic pictures of people playing with themselves. What?!?! This was not what I had come here to see. The museum was not a complete waste however. We learned that the Jewish population in Vienna was the third largest in Europe prior to the pogrom in 1938 with 155,000 Jews. Today there are only 8,000 Jews living in Vienna. Most of the personal items on the third floor had been taken forcefully or saved from synagogues during the war. It is hard to escape the horrifying events and tragic history of the twentieth century when visiting Europe. Particularly in Germany and Austria there are reminders everywhere, which may be why my first impression of Berlin five years ago was one of a rather dark city, one that I would not want to spend too much time in. But being we were going to be spending our last night in Berlin, and Michelle spoke of it so enthusiastically throughout the trip, I was willing to give it another try.
Birthday in Berlin
By the time our plane arrived from Vienna and the bus dropped us off at our hotel it was already 10pm. Nevertheless, excited to be in a new and arguably more lively place, we set out to find the Hofbrauhaus that was recommended to us by a friend. The original Hofbrauhaus sits in Munich, but another version of it opened in Berlin last November. Located just a short walk from our hotel in Alexanderplatz, this famous beer garden was still filled with loud and enthusiastic drinkers at 11pm! We grabbed a table and ordered two beers and some food. I finally tried Schweinshaxe; a traditional Bavarian dish of pork knuckle. I know, I know, it sounds gross, and to be honest, this would not be my choice of a birthday meal, but being this was our only night in Berlin and I really wanted to try it, I forego the bratwurst and wienershnitzel and braved this gigantic dish that came out with a knife sticking straight up out of it! Served with a gigantic potato dumpling, it was very tasty and very filling. We drank some more, singing along with the live accordion band on stage belting out such traditional german songs as “West Virginia” and “Achy Breaky Heart,” then finally left when the place closed down. It was a good birthday.
I love Italy. That is all.
While I was impressed with the cleanliness, punctuality, and efficiency of Swiss and Austrian cities, to-the-minute buses and trains, and $10 cups of coffee gets boring and expensive. On the contrary, known for their liveliness and spontaneity, Italians truly know how to live the Dolce Vita for which I envy them. I envy their food, their architecture, their crazy way of driving, their crowded and tardy buses, their wine, their festivals, their ardent Catholicism, their gelato, their art, and most of all I envy their passion for life.