Days 6-7: Exploring Vienna

Posted: July 25, 2014 in Vienna
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We’ve been busy exploring this interesting city (and the internet has been spotty) hence the lag in putting up new posts.

We got up bright and early (at least some of us did) and started the day with a yogurt and some water from the grocery store across the street from our hotel. We will be eating a lot of yogurt from the grocery store as food (along with everything else) in Vienna is quite expensive. Temporarily fortified and ready to get out and explore, we started walking from our hotel to the main city square (a couple of kilometres away). Along the way we checked out the variety of interesting buildings and did the usual gawky tourist thing.

Eventually, we found our way into the central square and found ourselves at the stop for one of those “hop on – hop off” bus tours we’ve done in a few other cities. Knowing we had limited time and that Vienna is a big city we decided to splurge and take the tour… Rounding Caitlin’s age down a couple of years we were able to get the family pass so it only cost an arm and part of a leg (I think the cost was about $100 cdn for a 24 hr pass). We piled on the bus and headed out for a 90 minute tour of the city – along the way we saw the parliament, the museum quarter (we’ll be heading back there), a bunch of cathedrals, an amusement park (more on that later) an international city within a city, a shopping mall, “beaches”, and a bunch of really old, really cool looking buildings. The tour lagged a bit at times (it was sunny and warm and I may have nodded off at a point or two along the way) but was a great way to get our bearings and orient ourselves to a really large city. We like these tours for that reason – it can be overwhelming arriving in a foreign city and trying to get “the lay of the land” so to speak. We find that without some way of getting a big picture “overview” of the place, we end up not seeing the forest for the trees as we stay in the areas we’re familiar with… These hop-on hop-off tours provide a decent overview of the city, allow for transportation to and from the most popular destinations (albeit at an intermittent schedule so patience is an asset) and provide a nice grounding in the history of the locale. The incessant waltz music on the audio guide was something I could have lived without though…

After our tour, we returned to the Stephanplatz (Stephan’s plaza) and wandered around a bit simultaneously looking for something to eat and gawking at the old buildings. Marie wanted something Viennese for lunch so we wandered past some pretty decent looking restaurants before settling on standard “tourist restaurant in the main square” sort of place… where Marie ordered that most traditional of Viennese cuisine… a clubhouse sandwich. I had the Sachersausage (basically the same meal I’d had in Prague earlier – a couple of “sausages” – more like big cocktail wienies, some mustard, some horseradish and a couple of pieces of bread). Caitlin had the “Viennese Breakfast” – a cup of tea, a soft-boiled egg, a roll and a small (read tiny) glass of orange juice. The bill set us back half a day’s pay and Caitlin’s first born… But it was tasty enough and the people watching was excellent.

After lunch we tackled St. Stephan’s cathedral – a typical Gothic cathedral right in the heart of the old town (mainly because they built the old town around it). This one was a little more along the lines of Notre Dame in that it was a little darker and spookier but didn’t have the feeling of age that Notre Dame has – and it didn’t have all the side chapels and historical bric-a-brac that Westminster has… It’s also the first cathedral we’ve been in where if you want to see the whole cathedral you have to take (and pay for) a tour. Having seen a bunch of cathedrals (and with more to come on this trip) we decided to pass on the tour and just take in the free parts. We did, however, take the catacombs tour (€5 per person). Photos were not allowed so you’ll have to take our word that it was pretty interesting. You start out one level below the church and it’s pretty clean and tidy (there’s an underground chapel – no explanation what it was for unfortunately) and some well-manicured crypts (the hole in the wall with a marker across the opening kind) but then you descend a level and you’re in the older part of the catacombs where the Hapsburgs (the ruling dynasty of Austria for 600+ years) are interred… But only a couple of them… The rest of them are buried at the Capuchin cathedral somewhere else in the city. Here, you get the “canonic jars” – the big copper urns containing their internal organs preserved in alcohol… Apparently it was some Hapsburg thing started by Maria Theresa that saw the body interred at one church, the heart interred at another and the internal organs interred at St. Stephan’s… I’m sure it all made sense in her head… After that you descend another level and you’re at the city burying ground – where so many people were “buried” in wooden coffins (they weren’t buried at all – just put in coffins and interred in a chamber… along with a couple thousand of their fellow city dwellers… Apparently the stench got so bad that people stopped coming to St. Stephan’s to worship. There was no stench for us but piles and piles of bones… One hole in the ground showed another level (not accessible to the tour) that was filled (rumour has it) with the bones of victims of the last bubonic plague outbreak in Vienna where there were so many bodies they just threw them in mass graves and had done with it. In all it was a decent tour and worth the price.

After the catacombs, we wandered the main square for a bit looking at some of the wares (way, way out of our price range) and trying to find a public washroom (other than Starbucks where you had to make a purchase to get a code). We eventually found one thanks to the helpful tourist information star and – best part of all – it was free! Marie has an issue with paying to pee so she’s spent a fair bit of this trip cross legged and holding it… After that we decided to board the hop-on hop-off bus again and use it to get us to the Schonbrunn Palace (Empress Maria Therese’s answer to Versailles). It’s nice. Not as luxurious as Versailles (apparently they realized part way through construction that actually recreating Versailles would be way too costly so they scaled it back a bunch) but still pretty swanky… 20′ high ceilings, elaborate wall panelings, fancy furniture, crystal chandeliers, the whole nine yards. And you’re only seeing 40 some odd rooms out of the thousand or so in the palace… At this point, I would like to offer up my usual observations about tour groups… They suck. It’s not so much the tour group that’s the issue, it’s that the people who run the palace allow groups that are too large for the space so you end up with these massive bottlenecks… especially when they meet up… then you end up with some Chinese dude yelling at his tour group in Cantonese or Mandarin, a couple of Viennese tour guide doing their thing in Deutsch or broken English and there’s us trying to navigate our way through what would normally be a pretty sumptuous room but now feels like you’re stuck in someone’s small intestine after a buffet dinner… First you wedge yourself past the Texans, dodge around the wheelchair, do a spin-a-rama around the lady with the two canes and then try to sneak past the remaining three groups… You’re spending more time ducking around people than you are looking at the rooms… And when you do manage to get past them all and have a room to yourself, you realize you’ve abandoned your family and have to let everyone you just passed go by you as you wait for your wife and kid to catch up…

After touring the inside of the palace we wandered around the gardens, took in the Gloriette (way at the back of the property at the top of a hill… in a lightning storm… I wasn’t at all concerned about the lightning rods on everyone statue as we stood at the top making ourselves by far the highest point around… fortunately we caught a break in the weather and weren’t crispy fried while enjoying the fantastic views of the city. Then it was time to explore the mazes (mostly kid oriented although Marie did manage to get well and truly lost in one of them… she should have been packing the You Can’t Lose Me Wiener I invented for just such an occurrence… Then it was back to the hotel room for a change of clothes and out again for some dinner (I picked a Greek restaurant just up from the previous night’s Italian place – good food, high prices, lousy service) then we grabbed a beer in a dark and dingy looking Irish pub we’d passed earlier in the day and called it a night.

The next day Marie and Caitlin slept in a little while I went foraging for food (yogurt, chocolate croissants – which were actually “invented” in Vienna apparently as a celebratory pastry to commemorate the Viennese victory over the invading Ottoman forces – the shape is meant to represent the crescent in the Ottoman flag… who knew). Then it was off to the Natural History Museum to see the Venus of Willendorf (a tiny little (as in 11cm) fertility figure that is one of the oldest representations of the human form and something I talk about all the time at the start of Comp Civ 12)… She was there but unfortunately the rest of the pre-history exhibits (one of the best in the world) were closed for updating… But the rest of the museum is excellent and the building itself is magnificent… We spent a couple of hours there then made our way to the Naschmarkt – an open air food market not far from our hotel. We had an excellent lunch (decent prices, excellent service, very good food) at one of the restaurants there then spent some time wandering around drooling over the fresh produce, spices, meats and desserts available. Victoria needs one of these places…

After the Naschmarkt we were kind of at a loss as to where to go next so we headed back to the hotel to regroup (and power nap for some of us). Eventually we settled on going to the Prater – a really old amusement park area with an iconic giant ferris wheel (sort of Vienna’s version of the London Eye but a hundred years older). Best decision of the trip thus far. The ferris wheel (€10.70 including the Lillipubahn – little train) is amazing. It takes about 15-20 minutes to make a circuit and treats you to an amazing view of the city. They also do a thing where you can rent your own car and have a candlelight dinner all to yourself… Marie declared it one of the coolest things you could ever do… until she found out that it cost €330 for two people! After the ferris wheel we took the miniature train ride (awesome) and enjoyed some of the other (modern) rides at the park. Getting in is free and you can either buy a pass or pay as you go (we paid as we went) and while there were lots of people around, we just walked on all the rides… The absolute highlight was this trippy interactive arctic thing where you shoot your camera at lighted receivers throughout the ride and various animatronic animals talk (in Deutsch), sing and perform for you… The graphic animatronic humping foxes really has to be seen to be believed.

In all we spent 4 hours at the park, had a blast on the various rides and judged it the most fun we’ve had at a fair ever. Definitely a must do if you’re in Vienna and want a break from all the history and culture! We made our way back to Stephansplatz, bought some souvenirs (outrageously expensive but so is everything in Vienna), ate dinner at Wienerwald (Vienna’ answer to Denny’s I think) and then headed for the hotel and called it a night.

Tomorrow we’re on a noon train to Budapest!

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