Oh, sweet Vienna!
There is something almost physical about the act of remembering Vienna. One that is redolent of the crumbly after-sugar that crusts your lips as you wolf down a delicious doughy pastry. The warm glow of schnapps going down your throat, quite like the sun running a caress up your arm. Vienna is delicious.
As we lugged up the old stairs to our Airbnb, we met the defunct, cage-like lift from an unfamiliar part of the last century. It’s days of creaking up and down the elevator shaft were resolutely over and we had no choice but to wheeze up those stairs with our enormous luggage. But our Airbnb had all the twang and glamour the word Viennese entails. Massive rooms where one could still hear the rustle of satin gloves snuggling up shapely elbows and the whisper of tulle petticoats, soft genteel voices going over genteel things like societal goings-on and instructions for the nanny, gold lines marking the lines of the room in gild, windows looking over to pastel and buttercream buildings - it was gorgeous. And it was right in the middle of Vienna’s third district.
Even as we arrived, we noticed a crowd of tourist buses around the corner from our Airbnb. We’d unwittingly chosen a place right next to some tourist attraction. That was a good sign, for we are notoriously terrible at planning. Our last Airbnb was only a measly 100 km off from the place we’d intended to be. We’d used up most of our 2500-km cap on the rental just by getting breakfast.
Our time in Vienna was meant to be a two-day pause before we boarded our flight at the end of our 21 day holiday. We were at the fag end of our financial resources and Vienna was supposed to be an expensive city. Sure all we did was walk and maybe threw in a couple of experiences or two into the mix, but we still found the city so charming. I can only guess at how wonderful it might have been if we actually dedicated time and money into experiencing this city.
We reached Vienna sometime in the evening and after we’d freshened up from the journey, we found that we had some energy to spare. We decided to walk to the Wiener Riesenrad or the Vienna Giant Wheel. This rather short-for-a-ferris-wheel that used to be the tallest ferris wheel between the years 1920 to 1985. This antique ferris wheel was supposed to be demolished in the year 1916, but it lived to see the day where it became a symbol of Vienna thanks to a paucity of funds to carry through its demolishment permit. Vienna by night is rather quiet and the purple outline of the giant wheel peeked through the shadowy thicket of the trees that surround the Prater Amusement park. The entry to the Ferris wheel is through a souvenir shop, and then through a small museum that has its own photo booth where you get to take ferris carriage-type photos.
Each carriage accommodates around ten to twelve people. So a couple of unfortunate people got to be in the carriage with chattery, hyper-excited us. Sure, day time would have been better to catch a true birds eye of this imperial city but Vienna by night has it own charms. We were scampering around the carriage catching the view from every window and that’s when we noticed that the carriage next to ours was a “special carriage”. A couple was seated at a candle-lit table while a waiter poured them wine and served them wine. Would have been on hell of a romantic experience except for all the noses pressed against the window of the neighbouring carriages - all trying to figure what’s for dinner.
What’s for dinner? Now that’s a question you need to think of in advance if you’re trying to eat cheap or local in Vienna. We reached our neighbourhood a bit before eight and headed to a local favourite only to be told that why had closed for the night. We were inclined to be miffed that they had said so because we were a bunch of brown ones. But turned out they were really closed, for that turned out to be the case just about everywhere. Local favourite restaurants close at 8 pm and most of time don’t function during the weekend. We were dismayed when the quite-polite guy informed us of the same - looked like this highly recommended restaurant with its delectable menu would be a miss, this was Friday night and we flew out Monday Morning. But now we were really hungry. And then we saw a beacon of hope in the form of a Japanese food stall. Not quite the schnitzel and strudel dream I had, but sticky rice filled our stomachs just fine.
So we had one day to take in as much Vienna as possible. First things first, we had to find out what the big tourist draw was around the corner of our Airbnb. Turned out it was the Hundertwasser House, a purple higgledy-piggledy smurfy blue building with elf-home windows and trees growing out of its ears. The house was conceptualised by Friedensreich Hundertwasser - a painter who later became interested in architecture. This rather befuddling building that goes in the exact opposite direction of conventional architecture is quite a popular stop for tourists. Right opposite is the Museum of Art Fakes, which houses faked and forged works of art. We were quite pressed for time, so we didn’t do much other than giggle over the title. But I really wish I hadn’t given the Palais des Beaux Arts, which also happens to be across the street, a miss. This Art Nouveau treasure trove is steeped in World War history. Formerly the bastion of a Jewish publishing house, the atrocities of the Third Reich and the Nuremberg Race laws, the building was taken over by the Nazis.
Inside the Hunderwasser village are a lot of souvenir shops and omnipresent is His Supreme Presence Mozart himself. I’m not sure how okay he’d have been about this making him Vienna’s most favourite marketing symbol. But that’s greatness for you! Everywhere you go, you’ll see his bread roll-haired effigy looking right back at you - on chocolate, on bottles of flavoured liqueur. Either Mozart or Klimt’s The Kiss - the latter is plastered on tee-shirts, bags, chocolate foil, fridge magnets, posters, umbrellas, etcetera etcetera.
We picked up breakfast at a Sprock with its long lines and rather brusque service. It felt a bit like having cold water poured over us - we’d gotten used to small boulangeries with the nicest people behind the counter, who’d patiently explain what we were pointing at in broken English and indulge us with some free goodies, during the course of our trip. Vienna was not treating us well food-wise so far. But my goodness, what it denied our stomachs, it made for in sights, sounds and romance.
The buildings in the neighbourhood seemed to be designed as though the architects were confectioners at heart. Strawberry and vanilla swirling into a happy embrace on the building to my left, Estherházy Torte building to my right, custard building across the road, strain my neck and I’ll see the buttercream frosting on the building I was right in front of. Every facade looked like they were freshly dusted in sugar, straight out of a master baker’s oven and would taste like fondant or praline or nougat or marzipan. Yum.
Vienna’s roads are quiet and echo with the tlot-trot of horse carriages. I could never get over the sight of these beautiful animals with their muscular rumps trotting proudly, taking their business of being amusement to tourists rather seriously. We were walking in the direction of St. Stephen’s Cathedral - the mother church of Vienna’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. To call the streets that lead to the church post-card, film-frame perfect would be to speak in understatements. Cafes with their coffee-and-cream swirl fonts and pastel exteriors invited us in with the promise of good coffee and delectable sugary treats. But obviously, we were broke so we had to be okay with just sighing at it out from outside. The pink facade of Aida was just too much for me to bear. I loitered around Cafe Diglas, which looked like it was made of macaron meringue, snapping pictures, trying hard to get the delicious tulle lampshades inside. Though a bit mainstream in the Café-Konditorei segment, it had such strong retro vibes that I really wished i could have been sitting at that window.
Vienna is really crowded in early October and nearly every cafe seat was taken. St. Stephen’s was no different. The church was filled with tourists. We’d walked in at the end of a mass service and the choir gave us a free concert that made skim milk out of my heart. It was beyond beautiful. This ancient 12th century cathedral that reflected Vienna’s ambitions through the ages was made for powerful sound. Everything you associate with the word gothic you find in the interiors - beautiful and quite intimidating. But words can’t begin to describe the feeling of taking in the intricate carving, the baroque altars, the suffering saints and the ecstatic angels while the chords of the pipe organ reverberates in every filament in you. Making you tremble and weak-kneed, triggering tears bringing you so close to what salvation must feel like.
The outsides stand tall in defiance of the many fires it has faced in the past. The limestone facade is stained black and I thought it might have been part of the original daunting design but turns out that it was the effect of years and years of pollution - but just goes on to show that even in decay, we can be beautiful. The Cathedral had sustained severe damages during the many wars it has been witness to only to stand tall yet, lording over the Viennese skyline, and thus live up to its namesake who was the first martyr. It’s so hardcore that the original Pummerin bell was cast in 1711 in the metal of captured Turkish cannons. That Vienna is indeed classical music heaven is easy to believe right here. The church courtyard is filled with people marketing various concerts in enviable venues - right from the church itself to courtrooms with the many *schlosses* around. Some of them are quite affordable - but we were pressed for time and yes, dead broke so we had to pass. But a friend who did make it to one of these things described the experience as “life changing” - so I’m certainly going back to Vienna for this.
We wandered around Kärtnerstrasse which is right next to Stephansplatz for a bit, checking out all the store fronts. This pedestrian street gets especially pretty during christmas with some particularly pretty christmas Markets. I was quite taken by the beautiful art nouveau exteriors of the H&M store. The crowd was intense and we got a bit hungry. I was dying to try out the Esterhazy torte which has tantalised me with its descriptions of cognac buttercream
We found a rather pleasant hostess outside L. Heiner K.u.K. Hofzuckerbacker - which was a first in Vienna. Vienna seems to have a problem with rudeness - everybody is quite short and come off as rude. But I guess the desserts make up in sweetness. I would recommend oodles of Esterhazy Torte.
Further down the road was the stampede that is the Sacher Cafe - its rich red velvety cakebox rooms were squashed tight with people. Absolutely no chance of sitting down at all or even get some decent pictures. So we satisfied ourselves with some pictures of the birthplace of the Sachertorte. Right around the corner from Sacher Cafe is the magnificent Vienna Opera House. How I wish I could have caught a performance - sure the good seats are pricey. But if you’re not too particular, you can catch a performance for as little as 15 Euros. A guided tour will cost you around 9 Euros.
More meandering streets filled with the trot-trot of beautiful horse carriages took us right outside the Hofburg Palace. It awned out, promising in all its awesome Baroque grandeur that our Euros would be wasted if we didn’t have the time to stay and pay the homage to royalty as etiquette would prescribe. What looks on paper as three tour options is in truth a sprawling complex spread over 240,000 square meters - all of 18 wings, 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms in which nearly 5,000 people still work and live today. Choosing aimless wandering was definitely the more viable option.
Even if you are doing aimless wandering, Austria really shows off her regal side. The Belvedere Palace has held me in its way ever since I saw the opening sequence of the movie Marie Antoinette. Historically speaking, this wasn’t quite accurate - Marie Antoinette grew up in the Hofburg and Schönbrunn palaces. But the Belvedere made for a better for a better location, I suppose and I am quite the fan of the Sofia Coppola school of aesthetics. The butter-cream flourish of the baroque style of architecture waxes voluptuous and magnificent and it feels just about right that this houses the most illustrious of Austria’s art, including Gustave Klimt’s iconic The Kiss. You can wander the gardens for free But obviously I did not have the time to make this Sofia Coppola-influenced pilgrimage. It will have to wait for another time.
Schönbrunn Palace which translates into beautiful fountain was where Marie Antoinette grew up. The rococo summer palace is quite the ostentatious family home an empress with 16 children would imagine and execute. A woman who was ambitious as she was shrewd, Maria Therese brought the palace to its present glory from the hunting lodge it used to be. Again, this will have to wait for next time. Schönbrunn Palace hosts concerts and a friend who did attend one of them described it as “life changing” and it might as, considering Mozart himself performed here. For a hundred euros you get a dinner, performance and guided tour. It also is the venue for Christmas markets.
Aimless wandering brought us to many amazing things - like peeking into a random window and gaping with wonder at the Winterreitschule (Winter Riding School) stables where horses so magnificent they were almost unicorns, sashayed with a sense of superiority. Lipizzaner horses are so white and so mythical that I wondered if I was seeing things. Or stumbling into cute shops with interesting souvenirs. One souvenir shop owner looked an older Ryan Gosling. I told him as much and he gave me a discount. A wide passageway later and we were in a massive courtyard surrounded by imperial looking buildings - which brought into perspective the entire size of the palace. It was township in its own right.
For just a day, we’d seen a fair lot of Vienna - stopping at random places to randomly down schnapps, drinking almdudler the official soft drink, eating copious amounts of Mozart balls, considerably improving already outstanding cups of coffee with the Mozart Ball liqueur.
As a parting gift, Vienna took me down a different path to try a new breakfast place on the morning we were to leave. I’d been in Austria for more than a week and I’d not seen the Edelweiss yet. I’d been intending to get an Edelweiss music box from Austria - I’d seen a really sweet one in Munich but I really wanted it to be from the land of the Von Bergs. My dad used to sing Edelweiss to me as. baby and I wanted a music box in his memory. Well, Vienna didn’t deliver on the music box, but I did stumble upon a box of blooming edelweiss in. flowershop. Vienna telling me that I should return - and then we can get that musicbox. I really want to return and let this city charm me with its music and pastry smells, and coffee and chocolate and pretty, buttered yellow light, and soft melancholia like it occasionally remembers what it has done to its people - people who loved this city and enriched its culture, the resounding, muscular echo of approaching horseshoes, pounding on the road and the catch of my breath that never quite learnt the art of getting used to this sight.