Wednesday, July 21, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 5: A Day in Vienna (July 12)

Since tomorrow will be taken up by our excursion to Salzburg, it's time to switch to "A Duck's Eye View of Europe" mode and try to pick off as many Viennese landmarks as we can before the heat gets to us. We decide to make our lives a little easier by joining one of the voluntary "introductory excursions" that Monogram Travel, the sponsor of our trip, offers for its customers. A chartered bus takes us around the Ringstrasse, the fabled chain of streets that encircle the heart of the city, and then across the Danube to what might be considered the "international" portion of town, with its numerous U.N. installations. It's easy to see that Vienna never has incorporated the river into its cityscape as successfully as has Budapest, though the city fathers have tried, even spreading sand at various locations along the bank to create pseudo-beaches. Then we enter the "old city," centered on massive St. Stephen's Cathedral. Extensive renovation and cleaning work is being done on the exterior of the structure -- with whole sections being covered over by canvas with replicas of the "true" exterior superimposed on them -- while the interior puts me in mind of the constantly chaotic interior of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, with even more secular activity, if that's possible. "Stephansdom" is still a fully functioning church, for all of that.

The spire of St. Stephen's, mid-morning

Stretching in all directions away from "Stephansdom" are cobblestoned shopping streets lined by the types of stores one patronizes if one doesn't have to worry about money. One such street leads us to Michaelsplatz and the entrance to the Hofburg Palace, the nerve-center of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. One small portion of the Hofburg is still used by the Federal President of Austria (you can gauge how important this position is by the fact that the office is watched over by a single guard!), other portions by the Vienna Boys' Choir and the Spanish Riding School, while the rest has been given over to hoi-polloi prying. Splitting off from the Monogram group at Josefsplatz, we prepare to join the pryers. But first, a drink -- several, in fact! -- at a nearby cafe.  The sky remains stubbornly cloudless, the sun merciless.

Nicky and I in front of a fountain at Michaelsplatz

The wing of the Hofburg facing Michaelsplatz is partially disfigured by a huge advertising banner featuring the smug mug of George Clooney. The real aristocrats -- or their leavings, anyway -- lurk inside in a series of museums and displays. Most heavily represented, not surprisingly, are artifacts from the era of Emperor Franz Josef I (reigned 1848-1916) and his ill-fated wife Elisabeth or "Sisi." "Sisi" was sort of the Princess Diana of her day, and, if a full-scale, all-stops-out "Diana Museum" ever gets built, it will probably bear a heavy resemblance to the interesting, but rather over-the-top, "Sisi" Museum. Dramatic lighting highlights "Sisi"'s personal artifacts, both significant and trivial, while snatches of the Empress' bad introspective poetry appear on just about every wall. When I see a case holding the VERY SAME sharpened nail file that was used to assassinate "Sisi" in 1898, I can't help but think of "The Bullet!" in that old "Got Milk?" commercial. A little more to my liking are the Imperial Apartments, where Franz Josef and "Sisi" worked and lived. Recent reading gave me a new-found respect for the old Emperor, who worked 15- to 18-hour days until the end of his life but endured more than his share of unhappiness, culminating with the disaster of World War I. He wasn't a particularly likable person, but one must admire the dogged dedication with which he approached the thankless task of holding together that messy, multi-lingual melange of an Empire. The Imperial Silver Collection -- room after room after room of knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, table decorations, candelabras, egg scrapers, asparagus bleeders, artichoke raspers, and all and sundry "sillyware" -- leaves me wondering: (1) How did all of these valuables survive the fall of the Hapsburgs in such good condition? (2) If you've seen one pickle fork, have you really seen them all? (3) I wonder what sort of a life "The Master of the Bread" (yes, there really was such a person in the Hapsburgs' household) had?

All three Hofburg exhibits have one unpleasant thing in common -- no air conditioning or ventilation! A crowd of hygienically questionable tourists who funk up part of our route at the "Sisi" Museum make matters even worse. We emerge in serious need of refreshment of various kinds. We find them at Augustinerkeller, a basement snuggery (it was formerly a monastery cellar) attached to the nearby Augustinian church where Franz Josef and "Sisi" were married. A hearty meal and a draught of Franziskaner wheat beer later, we're back in fine fettle.

Following a 1 1/2-hour rest back at the Hilton, we venture forth at around 5 pm in search of the Sachertorte. This most famous of all Viennese desserts -- no small feat, given Vienna's world-wide reputation for gooey goodies -- is available in only three cities in the world; two of them are Vienna and Salzburg. We hone in on the Ur-source: the cafe at the original Hotel Sacher itself, across the street from the Vienna Opera House. Three pieces of Torte, drinks, and iced chocolate total a whopping $40 -- and, to be perfectly honest, I've had better chocolate cake in my life (though, to be fair, the method of preparation of the Sachertorte is a bit different than what most Americans are used to).

The "Look what I found!" moments of the day come when we go into the Unterbahn's subterranean Opernring station for the journey back to our hotel. Granted, the environs of the Opera House are a classy part of town, but the public pay toilet in the station goes above and beyond "nature's call" of duty:

They're not kidding about the "mit Musik" part, either: all guests are greeted with The Blue Danube when they "drop" that fateful 0.60-euro piece. A more anticipated, but nonetheless welcome, "culture shock" comes when I spot this rack in the window of a newspaper, magazine, and tobacco shop:

Right up there where all the commuters, young and old, can see it. Now there's a store with "all its Ducks in a row."

Up next: Sights of Salzburg and the Lakes Region; tacky magnets taken to a new level/depth; and rest stops that an American motorist would kill for!


Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Good lord. I am half-dead from Austrian jealousy after seeing that magazine rack.

Chris Barat said...


You and me both! I didn't even mention the issues of MICKY MAUS on the wall rack...