My Weekend in Vienna

21 May

In the famous Vienna Opera House:

When I last left you, our class was finishing up our last meal in Sarajevo. That Friday afternoon, we departed Sarajevo on a flight to Vienna where we would switch planes to fly the rest of the way back to Copenhagen. However, being the daring adventurer that I am, I had no intention of catching that second flight. Instead, I had it in me to spend the weekend in magnificent, neo-neo-classical Vienna, former seat of power for the Habsburg Empire. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the gracious hospitality of fellow Villanovan Victoria Estrada, who, along with her roommate Katie, agreed to host me for the weekend and show me around the city they were studying in for the semester. A free place to stay and two tour guides to show me around? Sold. I found a cheap flight back to Copenhagen early Monday morning, which would get me to my first class only 20 minutes late, so it was a done deal.

Victoria and Katie were nice enough to meet me at the airport, and since it was getting late by the time we got back, we decided to just do dinner and save the sight-seeing for Saturday and Sunday. For dinner, they took me to a classic Viennese-style restaurant – the waiters and waitresses even dressed in some sort of lederhosen costumes. At the entrance above the bar was a statue of Mary holding Baby Jesus – but the really funny part was that the statue was sitting on a glass shelve with a disco-ball underneath, which led Victoria and Katie to deem him “Disco-Jesus.” Our meals were excellent – I got a classic Viennese ham and pasta dish along with two excellent Bavarian-style beers. The big joke was that by the time I finished my second beer, Victoria had still not finished her first, and our blond-haired, blue-eyed waitress reminded her of this each time she stopped at our table.

On our way back from dinner, I spotted a Pittsburgh Steelers bumper-sticker on a car. This find of course indicated that our evening could not possibly get any better, so we called it a night in order to start our sightseeing early the next morning.

We began our Saturday morning at the Ringstrasse, a wide street that encircles the old part of the city. It was formerly occupied by the city’s old bastioned fortification system. We walked to the magnificent Hofburg palace, the central residence for the Habsburg Dynasty built by Maria-Therese. Nearby was this neat café situated in a sort of greenhouse/garden kind of deal. We arrived around 10:30 and asked for a table for 3, and they said they had one but cautioned us that it was reserved for guests at 1:30 (the café culture in Vienna is such that when you sit down to enjoy some coffee or food, it’s expected that you will be there for several hours, so warning us that we would have to leave in 3 hours is not unusual at all, whereas in the U.S. we’d have been rushed out after about 30 minutes). After our brunch, we toured around the Hofburg palace grounds, walked past the impressive Radhaus (City Hall and Victoria’s favorite building) and the outdoor skating complex outside of it, toured the inside of a magnificent church while the organ was playing, and walked by the neat-looking Parliament building.

One really neat thing I saw during our walk about the city was the streetcars. They had some very new, sleek ones, but also some older ones. I immediately recognized some of these older street cars as the 1964 version which we had seen only a few days earlier in Sarajevo. After the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, since all the streetcars in Sarajevo were destroyed during the siege, cities from around the world donated old streetcars for the Sarajevo to use. It’s like a mini-time warp because just by standing on a main street in Sarajevo, in a 5 minute span you can see streetcars from the past 5 decades and all around the world pass by, and the oldest of these are the red 1964 Vienna streetcars. It was surreal to see the exact same streetcar in two very different and far apart cities in a matter of days – and to know the story behind them both was a really neat thing.

Next we passed the famous opera house and headed down the main walking/shopping street where we stopped to see numerous street performers, including two levitating men, one dancing guy with a Burger King crown, a guy pretending to be a statue and a break-dancing crew. This was by the far the largest and widest assortment of street performers I have seen throughout my travels. I’m convinced the levitating guys use a magnet system – one around their waists and the other hidden beneath them under their carpet or in a basket or something, and then they use their canes to balance, but just a guess. We also stopped to grab a traditional Viennese brat loaded with ketchup and mustard at a street stand – as you can see the food and drinks were definitely some of the highlights from Vienna!

Next was the Stephansdom, the massive cathedral in the center of the old city. We did the tour of the crypts beneath the Cathedral and the central square that surrounds it and learned that when Vienna started as a small Roman settlement under a different name they would bury people en masse underneath the square and later the church. They had to stop this after so many people were buried that the church and square began to smell like there were 1000s of people buried beneath it (which there were). It was like Indiana Jones with all the piles of bones, but there were also some well preserved tombs for cardinals and other church dignitaries. I thought it was all really neat and interesting while the girls were pretty freaked out the whole time. Luckily I was able to violate the “no pictures” policy enough times that you can get a decent idea of what it was like.

Next we went in the exact opposite direction, to the top of one of the tall spires on the church to see a stunning view of Vienna. While taking it all in, we spotted a church we wanted to go see next which we promptly went to after taking the elevator back down. It was an awe-inspiring Jesuit church (Jesuitkirke) built in the midst of the counter-reformation, so the Jesuits were really trying to make a statement and solidify Catholicism. Gold everywhere, incredible ceiling paintings and green and pink spiraled columns like I’d never seen before – it was all so grandiose. By this point in the day, I had already taken so many pictures that my camera battery died – but no worries at all because Victoria let me borrow her camera and take all the pictures I wanted to – once again, great hostess. Next we walked along the Danube canal and popped in the oldest church in Vienna right as the congregation was receiving communion. It was so small that everyone actually crowded around the priest at the alter to receive the holy sacrament. It was by far the most humble and simple church we’d been in, but as Victoria pointed out, it had a great feel of community and warmth to it that the other massive and grandiose cathedrals lacked. Next we continued our church-tour-of-Vienna with a stop at Peterskirke, which was smaller and not quite as grandiose but still marvelous. There was this large wood carving of the martyrdom of Saint John of Nepomuk that really stood out. He was the patron saint of the Czech Republic who refused to divulge the Queen’s confession to the King and was hence thrown off the Charles Bridge (more on this when I recount my weekend trip to Prague). We found out that there was an organ concert there later in the evening, so we ran out for some food and a beer at a nearby American-style microbrewery and then returned for an amazing organ concert, not unlike one I had attended a few weeks before in a church in Copenhagen. It takes a little getting used to, but an organ concert can be a really neat thing, especially if you’re listening to it in an incredible church, which we were. After that, we were pretty wiped from our long day of touring that we called it a day – and Victoria and I especially needed to get some sleep, since we needed to be up bright and early to stand in line for tickets to see the Vienna Boys Choir.

We arrived early Sunday morning back at the Hofburg Palace, and after some searching we found the line to the small chapel where the Vienna Boys Choir usually have their performances. This mass and performance was on March 11, so it was marking the one year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake, so take the expected amount of Japanese tourists and multiply that number by 20 and that’s how many were standing in line with us. All tourist jokes aside though, it was neat to sort of pay our respects to those who lost their lives in the tragedy by attending the mass and performance. We stood in line for free standing room only tickets for about an hour, but it was totally worth it. The mass was really beautiful with the singing – I’d never heard a boys choir perform before. They were positioned a level above us and a bit behind where we were standing in the surprisingly small chapel so we couldn’t see them until the end of the mass when they came downstairs and sang for us – and I was shocked by how young they were! For some reason I just didn’t realize that to have a boys choir you need a bunch of what looked like 7 and 8 year olds. Afterwards, it was really funny to watch a lot of the Japanese tourists take pictures with the boys – you’d have these 6 Japanese ladies cramming into a picture with a tiny 8-year old blond-haired, blue-eyed Viennese boy – talk about mini-celebrities. When these kids hit puberty and their voices drop, it’s gonna be like a mid-life crisis or something.

Next stop was one of Victoria’s favorite cafes in the entire city, but on the way we encountered what can only be described as an inordinate amount of PDA (public displays of affection). But seriously – I haven’t visited another European city where people are making out as often or in as many different places as we saw in Vienna (not even in Rome!!). Victoria confirmed that it is very common to see couples slobbering over each other while waiting for the metro, on park benches, sidewalk corners, etc. It took a little getting used to, especially during our visit to the Kunst Histories Museum which I will revisit in a bit.

So the café we went to was probably the coolest I’ve been to in Europe – two wings with plenty of comfortable seating, and in the one wing is a few pool tables, one of which has a spread of about 20 newspapers and publications from all over the world, including international ones. The food and coffee we got was outstanding, and I had a really enjoyable time talking with Victoria about her travels to central America and how she hopes to work to improve the lives of the people in the region in the future.

We continued with a museum tour, which was without expense to me, since Victoria rounded up free student passes from her friends for me to use (what a great hostess!) We started at the Albertina to see a special display of impressionist works (pretty underwhelming – the Impressionists miss all the details!) and then headed over to the enormous neo-neo classical structure called the Kunst Histories Museum. I was really impressed by the ancient Egypt collections, but not so impressed by the couple making out in a room of 4000 year old pottery and sarcophagi. Not sure what ancient mummies do to turn some people on, but they certainly don’t prohibit the Viennese PDAs at all. Some of the artwork was also really impressive, including some sassy-looking women painted by this guy named Klimt. He was supposed to be capturing the different styles of art and architecture over the centuries by cleverly painting figures that personified the styles, but I really think he just had a thing for sassy-women (you should be able to tell which are his from the pictures).

To wrap up our fast-paced weekend, Victoria and I visited a handful more churches (bringing our church-tour total to 8 for the weekend) and headed to her favorite wine cellar place to meet her friends for dinner. These types of wine cellars and restaurants which make their own wine are a Viennese specialty, and Victoria was very happy to have us try her favorite house Strawberry wine. I had another excellent Viennese meal, thanked my wonderful hostesses for an incredible stay in imperial and neo-neo classical Vienna, and headed for the airport where I’d catch my early morning flight back to Copenhagen. But seriously, I can’t thank my wonderful hostesses enough for your generosity and hospitality – Vienna simply would not have been the same without them – so thanks so much Vitoria and Katie, I really appreciate it!

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