Brenda and Brent - Austria

Wednesday/Thursday September 14/15, 2005
Victoria => Vienna, Austria

We're in Vienna -- having talked about it for 29 years! 13 hours flying time, 10,000 kilometres, uncounted elapsed hours -- and at 9:15 a.m. we are in the cultural capital of Europe! It is drizzling and we are a bit swacked, but we quickly figure out money (Euros - about 1.5 to 1), the metro (clean, efficient, regular, right to the airport) and within a couple of hours we are at the Mercure Secession.

This hotel is only a couple of blocks from the State Opera House and caters to artists. A glory wall is plastered with autographed photos of famous and perhaps not-so-famous opera stars. Our friend Carmen Reppel, herself until recently a famous opera singer on the stages of Europe, has booked the hotel for us. She has convinced the hotel management that we are persons of note, so we try not to look like we haven't slept in 2 days and hope they don't ask us to sing for our rooms.

Vienna is an expensive city. But thanks to Carmen, we are in a fabulous central location in a nice hotel with a spacious room. Happy. We are quickly settled, showered, and out the door to explore.

The city is of course beautiful. All the buildings in the inner core are 4 - 5 storeys, centuries old, ornate; each individual facade is worth examining; as a collection it is awesome. Many are in a state of rebuilding/restoration/rehabilitation/redecoration and we wonder how such a relatively small population (8 million) can support this incredible infrastructure. No wonder the whole area is a World Heritage site.

Despite the fact that we have planned this visit to be in the shoulder season, there are tourists everywhere. Most are German or other European, but there is also the usual mix of Japanese, etc. And it would appear that Americans are beginning to travel again, too! Hence, we are joined by thousands of our closest friends as we visit: - the Augustinian Church (drawn in by the haunting organ chords; captivated by a heart-wrenching 1805 memorial in white marble of a funeral procession for Empress Maria Theresa's favourite daughter, Maria Christina) - St. Peter's Church, small but with beautiful frescoed ceilings - Monument Against War and Fascism, especially remembering the 1938-45 Nazi rule of Austria (situated on a spot where several hundred people were buried alive in a bomb shelter during a raid) - St. Stephan's Cathedral, a Gothic structure whose spires can be seen from anywhere in the city. The church's origins are 11th century, but like many buildings in Vienna, it has been damaged and repaired/rebuilt as a result of a variety of wars. It is huge with a giant nave, may chapel, lots of gilt and stained glass. I hope yet to get back to the catacombs -- where does this ghoulish streak come from?

We had to stroll the Kartner Strasse, the most famous of the several pedestrian malls, mixing with Austria's showy and the world's onlookers. The high-end shops are intermingled with the expensive name brands found everywhere else in the world. But the wide boulevards and stately facades make this distinctly European.

Coffee and pastries at Demel's, Vienna's most famous cafe, with its maze of rooms, tall ceilings and choice of incredibly decadent torts, cakes and gooey things, is a fitting close to the day.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Exploration continues with the Hofburg Palace, built over a period of 640 years so that it is now monumental - 2000 or so rooms, I'd guess? The Hapsburg Empire lasted 700 years, concluding with the now most well-known Empress Maria Theresa (1717- 80) and her son Josef II (1741-90) who ruled for a decade. Both were social reformers, introducing universal education and health care, freeing serfs, avoiding war (by clever marriages) and reducing ties between state and religion. Both seem therefore well-loved by Austrians, although Josef seems to be as well-known for his marriage to Sisi as for his accomplishments! We spent more hours examining all the cutlery, porcelain, pots and pans, centrepieces, etc. than I care to admit. While there are actually an interesting way to absorb much of the history with the evolution of materials, designs, etc., the ARE mostly eating ware, Brent!

But Brent redeemed himself by joining me for a tour of the Opera House, reputed to be one of the grandest in Europe. It is truly something with its domed ceiling, 4 tiers of loges, gilt, marble. The stage was being set for the evening performance, so we had glimpses of the lavish production to come.

Alas, how could we have known? We had wondered why these particular seats to "Der Rosencavalier" were only 9 Euros ($15) each. It turns out you have to pay more if you actually want to see! The good thing about the back seats (row 3) in the loge is that if you stand up and lean over you can see. So while I was a little fatigued at the end of a four-hour opera and had leaned into the poor kid next to me more than he had likely bargained for, I didn't miss much of the lavish sets and costumes and staging. The acoustics in that location are apparently not great, but since I don't know the German language and have an untrained ear, it all seemed mighty fine to me. More tomorrow!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The hotel has a sumptuous breakfast (there is continental-style in a little pension with a piece of toast and cheese -- and then there is this grand buffet), so we have settled into a routine. I set my alarm for 6:30, Brent sets his for 7:00. We turn them off and sleep until 9:00, then linger over a massive brunch to tide us over until tea time. Ah, the rigours of holidays.

We make a return trip to the Hofburg Palace (day 3 and we're already in a rut!), this time to see the Imperial Rooms, where the Emperor and Empress (when she was around) hung out. Much of the display is about Empress Sisi, her wish for freedom and to avoid royal duties, her love of nature, her poetry anguishing about lost freedom, her travels abroad, her beauty (and vanity) and ultimately her assassination (by an assassin targeting another victim who suddenly changed travel plans so the assassin needed a new target. Bad case of wrong place, wrong time.) OK, we've done the Hapsburgs!

In the afternoon, we hook up with Isobella Priewalder, a friend of Autumn Cousins, who is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable source of information about Vienna's history, current events and local highlights. She is also a lot of fun and laughs all the time -- with us, with shopkeepers, with everyone. She brightens the day!

We stroll the national market which is full of produce - recognizable and not; sauerkraut, cheeses, nuts, legumes - mostly local stuff. We sample goulash in a small Austrian-style eatery and Isobella chats with all the stall-minders who offer us samples of cheese, honey wine (who ever heard of such a thing?) and anything else that we linger over for more than half a beat!

On a trolley ride around the ring road, she points out the many, many museums, monuments and parks. The from the 5th floor vantage point of the theatre she works in as a prompter, we survey the surrounds. It is so green and the architecture displayed from this spot pretty awesome. A lovely city and a great guide!

Tonight at the opera we see what 116 Euro tickets offer. We are in the first row of the first loge. There is nothing between us and the stage and the singers and the orchestra. I can hear every word. I see see the conductor singing along. I can see the makeup. I can almost touch the props. ( I can even see the pianist has a video of Seinfeld for later viewing!) The Barber of Seville, a rather silly story as is rather typical, I will now remember forever. We celebrate with a glass of champagne at intermission. This is heaven. I am transported back to the hotel.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Olga and Gerhard are friends of Carmen's. Olga is a former lyric opera singer and Gerhard a former GP who after a few years gave up practising medicine and turned to his true love -- music. He is now one three voice trainers for the renowned Vienna Boys Choir and, with Olga, together they teach voice in Vienna and abroad (last week in Tokyo). So our day with them was interspersed with snippets of song -- how appropriate for this part of the world! They are interesting and friendly and charming and, as Carmen puts it, they have "very big souls". She is so right.

We went first to H........., Gerhard's home town and visited an 800-year old monastery. As luck would have it, we arrived at noon and it is a Sunday, so we heard the monks doing their Gregorian chant -- a first for Olga, too! The sound echoes off the vaulted ceiling -- it just would not be the same anywhere else. What a treat!

Next a stop at Mayerling, the site where the Crown Prince and his inamorata committed suicide - although despite a suicide note, theories abound that he may have been assassinated by his own because of his liberal views and his path to the Throne.

And next a drive through the exclusive town of Baden, home of the thermal baths and grand manors. Outdoor concerts are common in the summer and that park is filled with hundreds of benches where people could simultaneously enjoy the music, the nature and the people-watching. Today is is gloomy so the benches are empty, but it doesn't take much imagination to see the people and hear the music.

The restaurant we lunch in looks like a giant gazebo -- all white, windows and bright. A four-piece string quartet plays classical music as we eat local food, sip local wine and sample the dessert buffet. Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations comes in and seats himself at the next table, just to make the Austrian experience complete.

We have driven through the Vienna Woods where many great composers (Liszt, Beethoven, Schubert) have come for inspiration. We have heard Gregorian Chant. We have been treated to live string quartet. All in the company of opera singers. I'd say this was the quintessential Vienna experience. Thank you Olga and Gerhard, Carmen and Philip!

The ballet to close the day was an expensive disappointment. There as lots of talent (whoever says the Vienna ballet if mediocre is mistaken), but the modern choreographer seemed to be more interested in the choreographer than the dancers. Two of the four numbers seemed to be about conflict and war, reminding me that some of the material I have read says that Austrian artists are more thoroughly their own history of war. This is similar to books I have been reading by Sebald about the lack of literature by German authors that truly expose and explore and look straight at the horrors of their own wartime roles and experiences. But if that is what was happening here, it was at the expense of the dancers who had only rare opportunities to show their talent and otherwise rolled or flopped around. The theatre, normally sold out, was one-third empty and many people left at intermission. This performance will not have helped the ballet's reputation!

Monday, September 19, 2005
Vienna => Illmitz, Austria

Today we headed into the countryside. We picked up a little Ford diesel and with surprisingly little difficulty for such dense traffic ventured straight onto the motorway and headed southeast out of Vienna toward the Hungarian border. Cars travel at autobahn speed; that is 130 kph legally and generally about 140 kph. It is not particularly scenic although we did pass one wind farm of about 200 windmills. Although still a fan of this form of energy production, I must admit a full-scale wind farm is less picturesque than a line of windmills along a ridgeline -- which I think looks beautiful.

We headed to Neusiedler See which is a shallow lake normally attracting shore birds. So they say. Brent saw nothing of interest and only a handful of birds. If only this made him resigned instead of all the more determined....sigh.

But all is not lost. At this point we were on country roads and in wine country, so there were lots of cyclists -- clearly very recreational cyclists as they veered and wobbled around, but more power to them! Heurigen are local wine taverns typically serving wine of their growing and processing. At this time of year, the grape harvest is in full swing so the country roads are full of tractors and grape-picking apparatus and trucks and trailers filled to brimming with grapes.

People have been tricked into thinking the early wine is a treat and folks flock to the first pressings. A variant of this is sturm, pronounced as it appears but with a forcefulness that seems distinctly German. It is the partially fermented, so less alcoholic version, of the early wine. Isobella introduced it to us in Vienna and we found it quite rough - but tasty by the end of the glass -- perhaps because is is served in one-third pint-sized glasses for 2 Euros each! We tested it again at our small country inn/restaurant and became fans of sturm and rural Austria.

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