Randi and I spent the week before Christmas in Vienna, which neither of us had been to before and seemed like a suitably Christmassy place. Since there is an awful lot to do in the city we decided to buy a 6-day Vienna Pass at the outset, which lets you into almost anything and makes it feel acceptable to swan into the Belvedere or Schönbrunn Zoo for half an hour. And with that, we were away!
On our first night we headed straight for the biggest Christmas market where Randi discovered the goodness of lángos (deep fried dough with garlic butter) and I was delighted to find a stall where I could load up a kartoffel with mais and schinken. (Why has America never embraced the jacket potato as a fast food option? It’s inexplicable.) And on the topic of food innovation, it is worth highlighting how Austrians make hot dogs. Rather than sliding it into the side of a bun, they take a baguette and impale it on a heafty spike before entombing the sausage neatly within and adding sauces. It is such a superior hot dogging system that I have opened my eyes to the inferiority of the English-speaking world on this point.
Vienna has museums for everything. We visited Mozart’s house – with a strikingly sad reminder that even a rich and successful man could lose four of his six children in infancy – and Freud’s home and office before he was forced to emigrate to London by the Nazis. (This is a much more sympathetic angle to view Freud from rather than as the father of psychoanalysis.)
We also saw one of the two Jewish museums, toured the famous Royal Opera House and watched the white Lipizzan horses of the Spanish Riding School do their morning exercises. To be honest, their morning exercises are not especially athletic, although they do seem to involve some diagonal trotting. The Schönbrunn Palace is amazing and well worth a visit, although by that point we were tired of audio guides and just wandered through the rooms making up their likely purposes.
Everyone we met was very friendly and (of course) could switch seamlessly into English mid-sentence after seeing our gormless faces. And I don’t just mean waiters in restaurants, I mean ‘the woman in the lift at our AirBnB apartment block’ or ‘random teenagers on the train’. However, I do also want to salute a few amusing moments of customer service, which is what you expect from a German-speaking country which doesn’t withhold people’s income in expectation of tips. For example, the guy at tourist information at the airport was full of disdain when I asked for a 6-day Vienna card rather than a 6-day Vienna pass. “There is no 6-day Vienna card!” he said, as if I had failed a test.
Props also to the guy who suddenly stepped out and took my photo on the way up to the Donauturm without thinking to let me know what was about to happen. I didn’t buy it, so unfortunately you will have to imagine my surprised expression.
One highlight of the trip was seeing a concert at the Musikverein. We saw the Artis-Quartet perform pieces by Mozart, Einem and Bruckner, during which everyone in the audience mysteriously knew when each piece was actually over (and it was OK to clap) and when they were just taking a little break (when it was clearly not OK to clap). The venue also nearly defeated us with its seating plan before the concert had even started, as they divide each row into ‘left’ and ‘right’ sections, meaning that two ‘number 11’ chairs sit side-by-side in the middle of every aisle. If you don’t know this in advance, it can lead to some awkward interactions when you find people in ‘your’ seats. (Turns out we were in the wrong hall anyway. You can tell we were tourists.)
Roll your eyes all you want, however, because one of my favourite outings was our tour of the Austrian parliament. Parliament Building is a grand and impressive place, though we discovered it’s also a place which is closed for three years for refurbishment and fire safety upgrades. But never mind about the building, because Austrian politics itself is at a moment of tension right now. Our walking tour on Monday was re-routed to avoid the protests against the swearing-in of their unpleasant new government: a coalition of the right and far-right which does not bode well for the general European trend. (We actually only saw a dozen people ‘protesting’ by riding their bikes slowly through the city centre and playing some music, but were assured that others were around.) With all of this in mind, it was cool not just to be able to see the temporary parliament but even sit in the chairs in the National Assembly. They never let you do this at Westminster.
Thanks to Amanda for her suggestions for things to do in the city, including eating Sachertorte in Café Sperl, which we did after working up an appetite by wandering through Stadtpark and Naschmarkt. I was also planning to include our side-quest to Bratislava in this post, but seeing at the length already I will save that for another post. To be continued…