En route to Serbia I stopped off in Austria to visit with some family friends and acquaintances in Vienna and Stockerau. Here is a brief version of my itinerary:
Almost directly from the airport we went to Stephansdom, or St. Stephan’s Church, which sits at the exact center of Vienna’s Innere Stadt (“city centre”). Walking on past the Church are several streets of upscale shopping that led us to the Hofburg, the Hapsburg winter palace. This palace offers tours and a museum of the family’s grand collection of crown jewels as well as a glimpse of the famous Lipizzaner stables, but walking on through brought us into the courtyard bordering Ringstrasse (“Ring Street”). The Ringstrasse was originally the medieval city’s protective wall—funded by Richard the Lionheart’s ransom (see “Medieval Castles” below)— but was demolished in 1857 by Franz Joseph I. The street replaced the wall, around which was built the majestic National Library, the Rathaus (town hall—every city in Austria has one), and other important buildings touting imperial social progress.
I felt rather proud of myself the next day when I took the U-bahn (public train) by myself to tour the Vienna International Center, which is one of the four world headquarters of the United Nations. This particular HQ is home to several well-known UN organizations including the International Atomic Energy Agency which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Vienna boasts hundreds upon hundreds of things to do, among them a large variety of museums. I visited two:
The Belvedere, like many art museums in Vienna, was originally a palace. This one in particular was built in the early 1700s for general Prince Eugene of Savoy, known for successfully battling the Turks in the Battle of Belgrade that led to termination of the Austro-Ottoman War.
Not a penny was spared in the construction of the grand manor, apparent from the inner frescoes, room after room of gold molding, and in the outer gardens and other elegant grounds buildings. Of course, the Belvedere holds a great many famous works of art, particularly those created by Viennese artists like Gustav Klimt. A whole gallery is devoted to his work, and the painting known as Vienna’s own, “The Kiss”, is a main attraction.
I also visited the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Army History Museum) whose new WWI exhibit was excellent. And while I didn’t see the artwork housed by the Hapsburg summer palace Schloss Schönbrunn, the grounds were enough feast for the eyes even in a frozen state. Hiking up to the Glorietta (“beautiful view) is a must.
AUSTRIAN PUBLIC ETIQUETTE
For the Austrians, and indeed most Europeans, certain types of behavior are expected. I was told and observed firsthand that the Austrian is not necessarily rude, they have just been raised on a more stringent and conservative set of standards regarding public conduct than, say, an average American. For example, on my first public transport ride, I ever so slightly set the sole of my shoe on the opposite empty seat only to be met with very obvious disapproving stares from workers sitting across the aisle. My friend quickly pointed out the infraction, as well as several other “rules” to keep in mind, and the workers went back about their business:
1. Don’t talk to loudly; keep your conversations (including those on the phone) quiet.
2. Probably do not eat; My friend made this as a recommendation, but I never saw anyone eating while on the train or bus anyway.
3. Stay to the right on escalators so that those in a hurry can pass you on the left.
COFFEE CULTURE & AUSTRIAN FOOD
Vienna is also known worldwide for its coffee culture. The marks of a true Viennese coffee house are:
- A wide selection of newspapers at the counter
- Marble tabletops
- A waitor or waitress wearing a tuxedo or otherwise dressed formally
- Coffee is served with a glass of water on a silver tray
- A “take all the time you want” service mentality—you often have to ask for the check
And of course, no coffee house experience is complete without Wiener Melange (specialty viennese coffee drink similar to a cappuccino) and Sacher Torte, a rich chocolate cake with apricot filling that is absolutely the best chocolate-type cake I have ever had. You can get Sacher Torte all across Vienna and Austria, but Hotel Sacher—where I tasted my first—lays claim to the original recipe.
You can also find the traditional hot chocolate drink Alt Wiener Heisse Schokolade (“Old Viennese Hot Chocolate”) at any Viennese coffee house. I had mine homemade at a friend’s, but the drink is special to Austria by the addition of cinnamon and vanilla sugar to whipped topping.
Krapfen, a powdered sugar-topped donut with jam filling (usually apricot flavored) is especially popular at this time of year when everyone celebrates in excess before Lent (Austria is very Catholic). Also, Wiener Schnitzel and Apfel Strudel (apple strudel) are must-tries, and they drink a lot of Apfelsaft Gespritzt (apple juice and mineral water) with meals.
The immigrant influence on food is also of note in Vienna. Friends took me to an apparently world-renowned Turkish restaurant, Kent Restaurant, that was really amazing. I had Adana Özel, a spiced lamb, rice and salad dish with yogurt and tomato sauces, and finished the meal with traditional Turkish tea. It was an excellent introduction to types of food that heavily influenced the Balkans where I will be for the remainder of the semester.
For what Vienna boasts of Hapsburg grandeur, cities and villages all over Austria also hold their own treasure troves of historical architecture. After my stay in Vienna I spent a week in Stockerau, a small city on the capitol’s outskirts.
My host and I also spent one afternoon in Dürnstein, a quaint wine-producing village in the Wachau region on the Danube whose castle ruins overlooking the small town are famed for once imprisoning Richard the Lionheart. The tale is rather interesting, and Dürnstein benefits in the summer from an ever increasing flock of tourists. In the winter season, however, the many shops and coffeehouses remain closed and one can wander about the cobble stone streets and vineyards without so much as a glimpse of another human being for hours.
If you’re up for a workout, you can climb to the Burgruine Dürnstein castle ruins like I did. The terrain is a bit rough, but the view is well worth the hike. Not to mention, you can galavant about the ruins unhindered; the infamous dungeon is also open for exploration.
Numerous other castles and monasteries loom about the landscape in all their medieval glory, including Burg Kreuzenstein and Gottweig monastery (at both, a restaurant is open to visitors during the summer with beautiful patio views of the Danube river valley, I’m told).
The great thing about this trip is that it could be condensed into a few less days or even a weekend tour, so I’ll hope to visit many of these sights again. But still, you can’t do everything in one visit. My next time through Vienna I’m hoping to also see:
- The Jewish Square in Innere Stadt is reportedly interesting, albeit not so Jewish as it once was due to Nazi occupation and extermination in WWII
- The National Opera allows standing viewers a discount (and I hear the view is still incredible, if you don’t mind tired feet)
- In the basement of Stefansdom are some very interesting catacombs (tours available)
- Also in Innere Stadt – just down the street from Hoffburg – is Demel’s, a beautiful bakery and pastry shop that boasts k.u.k. on the sign, meaning “kaiserlich und koniglich” or good enough for the emperor and king, in other words. Here I’d like to have afternoon tea—or coffee.
- Vienna—as both neighbor and Hapsburg half—has a long history with Hungary. Before and during the Hungarian revolution, for example, thousands of Hungarians escaped the oppressive Communist regime in their home country over the Bridge at Andau into Austria (and usually on to Vienna). I read James Michener’s book “The Bridge at Andau” this summer and I’d like to visit the actual spot when I return to Austria.
Images by the author unless otherwise noted.