Heaven is a European Christmas Market
17.11.2015 - 20.11.2015
I love Vienna. My friend Calin and I were here in 2013 in the springtime, so it was lovely to see it now gearing up for Christmas. Nobody does Christmas like Europe! Christmas lights are draped over all of the streets in the old city, and little Christmas market huts set up shop all over town. Gina and I were all over this like white on rice. We love Christmas. Yes, it was a shock going from tropical Cambodia to December in Central Europe. No, we didn't let it slow us down.
What was unfortunate though, was that we are back to Western prices. Which meant that the hostel I booked was not...the best Vienna has to offer. It was an ex-night club with pieces of the bar now serving as the "kitchen" (microwave and electric kettle). There were about 12-15 bunk beds in the dark, narrow space, and your bags just got piled in the middle of the floor where you hoped people didn't walk on them. There were weak little lockers where you hoped people didn't pop off your little lock and make off with your shit. Sigh. So we spent as little time in the "room" as possible.
Nice, right? Gina got embarrassed whenever people saw us going in.
Since our plane from Dubai landed around noon, we made it to the hostel around 2pm, dropped our stuff, and hit the town. No rest for the weary.
Vienna is breathtaking. As the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it has enjoyed a lot of wealth over the centuries, and it shows. The buildings are regal and imposing, and there are wide avenues of cobblestones with fountains or monuments on every corner.
The sun started setting around 4pm (!!!) and we were rather low on energy, we decided to save the big stuff for later and start with the State Hall of the Austrian National Library. This was something that Calin and I had not managed to visit last time, which is really a shame because it is amazing.
Gina was so funny. As soon as we walked into the hall, her mouth hung open and she staggered around like she had received a strong blow to the head. "I'm in Beauty and the Beast," she whispered, craning her head up at the frescoes.
This is one of those situations where cameras utterly fail. I wish I could communicate better to you how breathtaking this place is. The ceilings are soaring and covered in frescoes of clouds, angels and the inevitable divine Hapsburgs. The walls are lined with bookcases, maybe twenty feet tall, and weighed down with delicate books, hundreds of years old. And then there's another floor of them above that! There's a huge statue of Emperor Charles VI in the center, flanked by many others of other of men of varying degrees of importance. My favorite though were the four huge globes in the corners of the central dome.
The sun had fully set but the time we forced ourselves to leave the library and head towards the Stephansdom, the central church downtown, which was lit with the colors of the French flag in support of the Paris bombings that occurred a few days before.
It's a bit of a shame Gina didn't see the inside of the church during the daytime. It is a massive gothic cathedral, very poorly lit inside, which does wonders for ambiance but not much for first-time viewers. The Stephansdom Christmas market was already up and running in the square outside (YAY), so we browsed the little huts selling gingerbread, fresh honey, sausages and Christmas ornaments, and we drank hot toddies out of little boots. Then we wandered off to eat sausages and sauerkraut and were supremely happy.
The next day we spent at the Hofberg, which is the imperial complex. It doesn't really have a single front view, like Buckingham Palace or the White House, but is a maze of different imperial buildings added over the centuries. Perhaps the best front view is of what is now the National Library.
The Hofberg tour takes several hours, because there is the imperial silver collection (more interesting than it sounds) the imperial apartments (the winter residence of the emperor and his family) and the Sisi Museum. Sisi is the nickname of Empress Elizabeth, who was really not a very good empress--she resented her official role and even her place in her own family, and spent most of her time abroad, writing poetry and going on extreme diets and generally being angsty--but she was assassinated in 1898 and had since plummeted into a romanticized (if false) memoriam. This museum is very good because it not only covers her personal and public life but also examines what exactly caused this veneration to occur. She is idealized almost like Princess Diana, except without any of Diana's good works.
She was very beautiful, but she knew it, and was rather obsessive about it. Her story is quite sad, since she was very unhappy for most of her life. Gina and I wound up touring the museum with a Romanian guy named Claudiu, whom we befriended early in the day at the silver collection. The Hofburg ticket includes all three museums, so we wound up spending most of the day together. He is in Vienna on a month-long grant for his phd, and in his spare time he is trying to see all Vienna has to offer (which is a lot).
Next I dragged Gina to the imperial crypt, which is not a very crowded spot because it is dark and creepy. But I find it very interesting.
Many generations of the imperial family are buried here, from 1633 all the way up to 2011. I think it's interesting, when you spend all day learning about the Habsburgs and their empire, to also see what they chose for their final resting place.
Thursday we took the metro out to Schönbrunn Palace, another Habsburg gem. Like the Hofburg, you are not allowed to take pictures inside (the humanity), so you will just have to imagine ornate, Rococo style palace rooms filled with furniture that looks like it's made out of buttercream and silk damask coating every surface. It has 1441 rooms, only a fraction of which are on display. The ballroom is my favorite, all in gold with angelic ceiling frescoes and tall windows looking out over the grounds. The grounds are massive, full of labyrinthine hedges and little pleasure gardens. Most of it is pretty blah right now with the onset of winter, but you can still see the layout and statuary.
And there is always the Gloriette, which is a folly/monument built by Empress Maria Theresa in the late 1700s. It's way up the hill behind the palace, an excellent spot to be viewed and view from. Gina and I had coffee and cake there to sit and enjoy generally being fancy.
We tried to selfie with the palace in the background but the wind was a bit strong...
Weird moment after that though. We were walking down the winding garden path from the Gloriette to the main gardens and suddenly Gina heard her name. Turning, she saw Abby, her friend from MSU. We knew Abby would be in Europe because Gina and I wrote her an email with travel suggestions for Hungary, Croatia, Australia and New Zealand, but we had no idea she and her cousin would be in Austria. And when we wrote her the emails, we didn't even know we would be in Austria (because I hadn't yet battled the Internet in an attempt to find a cheap way from Siem Reap to Zagreb). But there they were, strolling up the path. If we hadn't taken our time with our coffee we would have missed them. What're the chances? The world is so small sometimes.
That evening we spent at the main Christmas market by City Hall (Rathausplatz). It inspires holiday joy that's like being a kid again. There are grand light displays everywhere, and whole avenues of the little house selling gingerbread, mulled wine, etc., and carts of roast chestnuts and popcorn. Instead of Santa Claus, Austrian children can get their picture taken with Christkind, whom I will water down here and say is basically an angel/spirit of baby Jesus who brings presents. It's portrayed though by a beautiful young woman In a blonde wig with a halo. There's also little huts where kids can make cookies or Christmas crafts, as well as a carousel and other tiny rides. The huge trees of the Rathauspark are hung with light-up violins, red hearts, acorns, and cupcakes. The huge tree in front of City Hall was also lit in red, white and blue in Support of France.
It rained on our last day in Vienna. We really cannot complain as it has rained so little on this trip in total. But as the weather report predicted heavier rain in the afternoon, we switched our plans for the day and started at the Zentralfriedhof--ones of the largest cemeteries in Europe and in the world (yes, I'm aware I spend a considerable of my travel life in cemeteries). It was just a quick stop, to check out the Musicians' Corner, which inters the likes of Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and more, and also to stroll through the derelict and picturesque old Jewish section. I find this cemetery fascinating because (despite a lot of initial opposition in the 1800s) it is colorfully interdenominational, covering many Christian denominations (including lots of Orthodox), Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and other faiths.
Next we took the tram up to St. Marx friedhof nearby. While Mozart (Vienna's most famous citizen) has a lovely monument in the Musicians' Corner, he is actually buried in a very modest grave near a small neighborhood church. When Calin and I visited this cemetery in 2013, it was undergoing extensive renovation, as overall, the graves and stones had suffered many ravages of time (except the beloved and well-cared for Mozart). Now, the whole cemetery is in quite good repair, which is pretty fast work for less than three years.
It was raining quite steadily by the time we made it to the Upper Belvedere, which was originally a Baroque palace built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy and has served as a small but formidable art museum since 1781, when Empress Maria Theresa installed part the imperial art collection there for public viewing. It is the first and only home of Gustav Klimt's "The Lovers" (commonly known as "The Kiss"), which the museum purchased directly from the artist before it was even finished. Even though he was a bit on the outs with the art world at the time, and reception was chilly during his Gold Period, the Belvedere knew genius when they saw it and snatched up "The Lovers" for a whopping 25,000 crowns (currently $240,000). I will take a moment for some perspective here. Prior to this sale in 1908, the most money that had ever been paid for a painting in Austria was 500 crowns. Think about it! Naturally, the Belvedere refuses to part with the painting, which has been a national treasure and a symbol of Vienna. It's value cannot be named, but for comparison, Klimt's lesser-known painting "Adele Bloch-Bauer" sold in 2006 for $135 MILLION (the most ever paid for a painting at that time, according the NYT). You might be rolling your eyes at me and my facts by now, and thinking that it is not even a pretty painting. What is all the fuss?
But that is why I dragged Gina to this small art museum in the rain. You have to see The Kiss to be completely mesmerized. Once she saw it she completely agreed with me that photography does it absolutely no justice and the six foot square canvas is hypnotizing, much in the way Mona Lisa is supposed to be. The golds are gold leaf (remember, Gold Period), and the faces are ethereal and out of focus. It is stark, romantic, melancholy, sexy, masculine and feminine all at the same time. I used to not care for Klimt's work at all, but after seeing this (and many of his other works, from many of his phases) in person, he is now one of my favorite artists of any medium. If you ever go to Vienna, absolutely do not leave Vienna without making a stop. Clearly I feel very strongly about this.
We warmed up with some goulash and dumplings (Heaven. The American idea of goulash is swill compared to that of Eastern Europe. Not even comparable.) before Gina went and grabbed a drink with Abby and her cousin. I had not felt completely well since our last day in Cambodia, so I went back to the hostel/night club to empty out our pathetic locker and pack (which I could now do blindfolded, asleep, drunk, or all three simultaneously). Four days is enough time to see only the choicest bits of Vienna but unfortunately that's all the time we have. It's more important to both of us to get to Croatia and spend time with our lovely family, and anyways for a last minute side trip, Vienna is an excellent one.