I’m two days back from a wonderful time away with Amy. For those of you interested, here is what we got up to…
DAY 1 – St Stephen’s Cathedral
We arrived in Vienna in the rain. We got the bus to Westbahnhof, where we met Naomi, who has just started a year of living in Austria (underwhosewings), and promptly took her to help us check in to our hostel around the corner. We stayed at ‘Happy Hostel’ which compensated for its ‘rough and ready’ nature by being really conveniently located, spacious, quiet, and, best of all, cheap!
The centre of the city is marked by St Stephen’s Cathedral (or Steffl, as locals call it), which was where we headed next. It’s a gothic cathedral, completed in 1381, with a very distinctive zig-zag roof. It is also the symbol of Vienna – the only building shown on the U-bahn map, right at the centre.
This cathedral contains a whole lot of history. Haydn sung here as a choir boy, Mozart got married here, and there are over 60 sets of royal intestines sat in the ducal crypt. These intestines are part of a historic burial tradition. The members of the ruling Habsburg family – rulers of Austria for over six centuries, and of the Holy Roman Empire for over three – get buried across 3 different churches in Vienna. Intestines in Stephansdom, hearts in the Augustinian church, and bodies in the Imperial Crypt on Neuer Markt square.
The best part of the visit, aside from the music, was the view up the top (€5,50). Panoramic views of the city right from the centre, and beautiful even when the weather was not! Note our happy windswept looks!
By this time, hunger had set in. Amy had done her research ahead of this trip, so we went to Café Diglas, a short walk away. We enjoyed the beautiful piano music being played (haha once I had realised it was live!), warming (very Austrian) food, and chandeliers with fun items attached (can you see the kitchen utensils?). Dream.
The weather had cleared up by this point, so we took a wander round the centre. Cue excitement upon discovering that Vienna has free water fountains dotted around, and wonder at the picturesque buildings and evening lights.
Then followed a bit of sadness. It was time for Naomi to get a train back to Linz, which meant time to say a goodbye that would last for quite-a-while-longer-than-is-wanted. Naomi, you’re perfection, thanks for coming over to a rainy Vienna ❤
DAY 2 – Schönbrunn Palace
The next day was sunny! Hooray! My delusions that it was summer could exist happily in the form of suncream and sunglasses for all of 6 hours.
Schönbrunn palace was the summer residence of the Habsburgs, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it is beautiful! The slightly steep ticket price (€24, presumably necessary for the upkeep of the buildings and grounds) gets you full access to the Imperial apartments with a really good audio guide, and all of the gardens. In the end we spent close to four hours here, and we were very glad to have made the visit.
Not kidding when I said it was beautiful…
After exploring the different gardens, we climbed the zig-zag hill path up to the Gloriette. We ate our lunch on the roof, with the following view. Can you believe this?
Now well-fed, Amy and I found the mazes, which we raced round. Amy got a teeny bit lost…
After having a ten-minute rest in the gardens, cooling off, we decided to call time on Schönbrunn at this point, and headed into the centre towards the Stadtpark (city park).
One of the things I noticed about Vienna was the ‘high-end’ nature of busking. When we were exiting the U-bahn in the morning there was a flute player playing ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’, and the following photo of Stadtpark’s gold statue of Johann Strauss is linked in my mind to being sat on one of the benches nearby listening to a saxophonist playing a jazzy version of ‘Amazing Graze’ from over by the bridge.
We then went on a little walking expedition around the MuseumsQuartier of Vienna, the south-westerly part of the city, which is home to a lot of beautiful, historic buildings.
After our feet decided to give way, we headed home.
This day had a closing fun memory. For dinner we bought some €0,59 Lidl oven pizza, which we ended up microwaving, after finding a post-it on the oven which read ‘Defekt, no!’ I did say our hostel was a little ‘rough and ready’…
DAY 3 – Walking tour, Albertina, Library
The weather forecast for Tuesday read ‘100% chance of rain’. And rain it did!
Nevertheless, we proceeded to go on a 2.5 hr walking tour by ‘Good Tours Vienna’, guided by a wonderful guide named Iva. We were taken around the city, given lots of context to different monuments and statues, told about the burial tradition I wrote about under day 1, and I became ‘umbrella monitor’ for when Iva was showing us pictures and videos on her iPad.
There are a bewildering array of museums and art galleries in Vienna. On Iva’s recommendation, we started with the Albertina in the centre (€13).
This is the best art gallery I have ever been to, better than any I have been to London.
As such, we went bottom-to-top of all four floors, from the new acquisitions (favourite: Franz Gertsch ‘Wide Forest Path)…
…to Austrian photography 1970-2000 (favourite: Heinz Cibulka ‘From the cycle ‘Fühlt-Most”, tableaus comprised of four photos each, described as ‘picture poems’)…
…to the Batliner collection, a beautiful compilation of modernist art that takes you from Monet to Picasso, with everything else inbetween. Every single painting has a paragraph of information in German and English, with additional information given for each artist, and each art movement.
Amy and I spent a good 3 hours here. If you do one thing in Vienna, this museum is the one to pick!
After this we went to the National library, which has 7.4 items, in the most ‘Disney Princess’-esque setting! It was beautiful, and there was a very interesting exhibition about the Freemasons on, which deals with the connections of Austrian composers Mozart and Strauss to the masonry movement. It could have delved a bit deeper into the inherent contradictions and complexities of the Freemasons, and it felt a bit simplistic. But then the €7 ticket was always going to have a hard time matching up to the Albertina. You guys don’t need telling which one I’d go to again.
After a long day of walking, we headed back to the hostel for some baked sweet potato and beans, before I enthusiastically dragged Amy back out into the rain to go to Prater – the theme part to the North East of the city.
Apparently a wet Tuesday evening in September isn’t a peak time at Prater…..?
What you can’t see from these photos, is just how heavy the rain was at this point. I loved my solo ride on the swing carousel – I was beaming all the way around – but I was also absolutely soaking from being swung high-speed in the open air of a downpour. Amy was amused.
Prater is great because it has no entry fee, you just pay for rides as you go – it is perhaps a little eerie at night, in the pouring rain when there is no one around though!
DAY 4 – Bratislava, Slovakia
Not content with only visiting one capital city, we decided to visit another!
We were a little confused by some conflicting information about train times and cost, so we took a bus instead at a cost of €5 each way. We left on a ‘Flixbus’ from U3 stop Erdberg, and came back on a ‘Regiojet’ bus which arrived into U2 stop Stadion. Remember to take your passport (although Regiojet didn’t check) – and if you want to watch ‘Mamma Mia!’ dubbed in Czech, pick Regiojet.
Bratislava, Slovakia is a new capital city, aged just 24 years old. It dates from Czechoslovakia’s 1993 dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
However, although it be young, Bratislava is also very historic. Danish Hans Christian Andersen said upon his 1841 visit, ‘if you want a fairytale, look at your city’. (Despite spending not more than 24hrs in Bratislava, this comment won him a statue in the Square of Pavol Ország Hviezdoslav.)
*We take a break from reports of sight-seeing to mark the consumption of the best ice cream I have ever had in my life, in the form of some €2 vegan chocolate ice cream purchased from Luculus in the main square* Go there.
Post ice-cream bliss, we went on another walking tour, this time around Bratislava. It was a little grey, but the old town is still very lovely.
We were told about some dubious Easter Monday Slovakian traditions, the carp in the bathtub at Christmas, and the Names Day tradition whereby each day in the calendar has an associated name, and people congratulate you when it is the day of your name. Our tour guide’s name was Simona, and her names day is October 30 (you can see the names day calendar here). Apparently, on the names days for the most popular names, music clubs will run events, a ‘Michal’s night’ event for all the people out to celebrate the many ‘Michals’ they know, for example.
We also learned of the history behind the 1968 Prague Spring – when the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia to forestall the spread of reforms being introduced by Alexander Dubcek, the new leader of Czechoslovakia, who was operating to try to create ‘‘Communism with a human face.’’ The freedom of speech and press, freedom to travel abroad, and relaxation of secret police activities had led to a period of euphoria known as the Prague Spring – where, encouraged by Dubcek’s actions, many Czechs called for far-reaching reforms including neutrality and withdrawal from the Soviet bloc.
You may recognise the famous photo on the left, with the Comenius University building in the background, and today, on the right.
After our tour, we made the walk up the hill to Bratislava’s castle. Not the prettiest of all the castles ever, having been built as more of a military compound and ‘not built for love’ as Simona had put it.
However, it does offer views over the old and new parts of the city, and also views across the river, with its Soviet-built SNP bridge (nicknamed the UFO bridge for obvious reasons), to the many communist-era apartment buildings seen behind it in Petržalka. You can also see across to Hungary on one side of you (behind smoky chimneys), and Austria on another (marked by the wind farms).
By far my favourite building in Slovakia was St Martin’s church. This was the place of coronation for 19 Hungarian monarchs, the 8kg gold crown a-top its spire a small clue to this. Inside this church at the back is a small chapel with the most beautiful pale-blue starry ceiling. A photo could never do it justice.
It was no longer raining at this point in the day… but it was windy!
After the trek back down to the city, we got the hour-long bus back to Vienna, had some food, and called it a day (not before Amy taught me the card game 66!)
DAY 5 – Sachertorte, Belevedere
We woke up to a glorious morning of autumnal sunshine, all the better for having expected rain. We headed out to make the most of our last morning – first stop, Demel’s.
Demel’s is a famous Vienna pastry shop and chocolaterie, established in 1786, and located right in the centre of the city next to the Hofburg palace.
We came here after Iva told us a story on our free tour about Vienna’s famous Sachertorte, a chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam and dark chocolate icing. The story goes that a young Franz Sacher was working at the court of Prince Metternich, the State Chancellor when the chef was off sick and Sacher was given the task of creating a dessert for guests of the court – the Sachertorte was born.
Sacher got such wealth from selling the cake that he set up ‘Hotel Sacher’ which, along with Demel’s, are the only two places in the world with the original Sachertorte recipe.
Demel’s is picturesque, and you can see all of the chefs at work whilst you eat (we went for the opening time of 9am so that we could get good seats)! It wasn’t exactly the cheapest (see the receipt…), so go for the experience as a whole rather than with high culinary expectations!
Our very last sight-seeing stop was the Belevedere, another art museum, which had drawn us in with the promise of seeing Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’.
Our experience of Belevedere’s Upper Gallery (€15) did not quite match up to that of the Albertina. Audio guides were an extra €4, which we declined, but we then found that there was a distinct lack of information or explanation about the works on show.
Nevertheless, we saw the very beautiful works of art by Klimt (the gleam of the gold leaf does not disappoint), and got by using Amy’s mobile data to find out more about what we were seeing.
Sadly, it was at this point, with all our sight-seeing missions complete, our bags packed, and just enough euros left for the bus back to the airport, that our time away came to the end. What a great end to the summer.
(with special thanks to Amy for being the best travelling companion that there is)