Tuesday, July 20, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 4: From Budapest to Vienna (July 11)

It's time to leave Budapest, and, in truth, we've already "hit" most of the things we really wanted to see in the Hungarian capital. We did miss out on a visit to one of Budapest's famous thermal baths, but the peculiar hotel pool that Nicky and I used yesterday made up for that, in a way. By 8 a.m., following one final circuit 'round the groaning breakfast buffet table, we're on our way to Budapest's Keleti (East) railroad station. There, we take our first-class seats aboard Austrian Railways' "Railjet" and are soon heading for Wien (Vienna) Westbanhof station.

First-class isn't the highest class of train travel available on the "Railjet," but you could have fooled us: we get seat-side snack service (trying some wurst on for size) and have plenty of leg room. It is definitely a strange feeling traveling in such comfort over approximately the same route that my Dad took when he escaped the country in 1949. We don't have to show our passports at the final Hungarian station; indeed, were it not for the electronic map in the train car, we wouldn't have known when we crossed the border. We travel through farmland that becomes noticeably tidier and more organized once we're in Austria. Austria's commitment to alternative sources of energy is also very evident as we zoom by several sizable wind farms, all with turbines pin-wheeling away.

We arrive at our hotel -- the Hilton Vienna Plaza -- just in time to witness the concluding stages of a bike race on the famed Ringstrasse. Granted, these fellows can't be among the best bikers in Europe, since the latter are presently struggling up hill and coasting down dale in the Tour de France. But our bus driver tells us that the competitors have pretty much crossed Austria, and the temperature remains in the 90s, so who are we to flyspeck their game efforts?




(Sorry, but we snapped only the peloton, not the lead group, which I believe consisted of only three or four racers.)

The Plaza tries hard not to seem like a chain hotel -- adding such little touches as a child-sized set of stairs at the front desk to allow its "little guests" to sign in alongside the big'uns -- but Nicky's and my room definitely looks more like what we're used to in America. The water from the tap is clear and ice-cold, no surprise given that Vienna gets its water directly from the Alps. The air conditioning, however, is certainly not up to U.S. standards. (I just saw on the news where over 500 Belgians have died during the recent heat wave; maybe we should have made a health-based argument to the hotel staff to turn up the A/C.)

After a brief rest, we strike out for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna's (somewhat louder) answer to Budapest's Fine Arts Museum. The KHM is closed on Mondays and we won't be in town on Tuesday due to our planned trip to Salzburg, so this is our one chance to sample one of the world's better museums (though it will only be open for another hour or two). It's boiling hot, so we make use of Vienna's extensive Unterbahn system to get to Museumsquartier -- learning along the way that one must always push the button to open the car doors. (Don't worry, we only went one stop too far and were quickly able to double back.) Unfortunately, we find the KHM to be only slightly less warm than the outside. At least the lighting is more appropriate than it was in the Budapest museum.

Mom and I eyeball Rembrandt's self-portraits

Fortified by a brief drink-and-snack break at the KHM's ornate public dining area, we manage to make it through the museum's immense and world-famous collection of "Dutch Masters" before the heat and the close atmosphere take most of the "virtue" out of us and compel a retreat. Most of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's most famous canvases are here, including three of his "Seasons" cycle. Paul Johnson's fine art history text had given me a heads-up that Bruegel was well represented here, and I am glad to see the artist's remarkably detailed and intricate originals. Think Where's Waldo?, only quainter and with greater cultural import. Also on hand are some of Rembrandt's best-known self-portraits, several massive religious works by Rubens (which are so huge that I defy The Beagle Boys, nay, even Negaduck, to steal them!), and various portraits by Van Dyck. No sooner have we started on the Spanish, Italian, and French section, however, when the three of us run out of steam all at once. Before leaving, I buy a couple of Bruegel prints at the gift shop, including the celebrated Hunters in the Snow.


Curling, 16th-century style! (Detail from "Hunters in the Snow")

We have Frommer's guide to thank for our choice of dinner destination -- but the trick is to get there before we wilt completely. On the map, "Alt-Wiener Beisl zu den 2 Lieserln" is only a short walk away from Museumsquartier, but we encounter a few anxious moments before finally tracking it down. The place is described by Frommer's as a "well-kept secret" that serves some of the biggest and best Schnitzel in town. They aren't kidding about that "biggest" part. We all order the "small" Schnitzel-and-potato-salad plate, and the slabs of breaded pork with which we are gifted are roughly the size of Frisbees. When I ask how big the "large" portion is, the friendly manager (who also seems to be the only waiter on duty) points to his belly and makes a large circle. We also get an excellent bread basket that includes a soft pretzel. To wash all this down, some potent potables are needed. Mom and I each sink a half-liter of Ottakringer beer, and I must admit that beer has rarely tasted so good to me in my life. We decide to "cab it" back to the hotel, and the manager caps off a near-perfect gastronomic experience by calling the cab for us.

If the streets of normally night-life-oriented Vienna seem a bit quiet, there's a good reason -- the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands is tonight. The rest of our evening is spent switching between Austrian and German TV and wincing at Holland's manifestly crude attempts to keep the technically superior Spaniards from playing their game. The result is a steady stream of yellow cards and very few chances (though Spain clearly takes the initiative in the second half). After a Dutch player is sent off in extra time, the question becomes, Can Holland somehow get the thing to penalty kicks? They fall four minutes shy as Spain finally scores the decisive goal. The better team clearly won, though I feel badly for the Dutch fans watching their team lose in the final for the third time in three tries. Winning the Cup has got to mean more to a small country like that than to a large one.

Up next: We finally join Monogram in motion; the crib of the Hapsburgs; entirely too much kitchenware; in search of the Sachertorte; plus, a major-league Duck-comics sighting!

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