Longest Entry Ever

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Austria  , Vienna,
Friday, August 20, 2010

I woke up at 6am this morning. There wasn't a reason that I could tell--the curtains were doing a decent job of blocking the light and it wasn't noisy. I lay in bed for about half an hour, trying to go back to sleep, but mostly I couldn't stop my mind from planning what I was going to do today. I ended-up getting out of bed before 7am. After finishing breakfast, I found myself leaving the hotel around 7:30am.

Breakfast was a little odd because there were four or five people in the breakfast room, but we were all eating alone. This gave the restaurant the atmosphere of a library. There were scattered muted clinks and slurps, but basically the room was silent...

Since I was up so early, I decided to head over to Schönbrunn Palace, which started selling tickets at 8:15pm for an 8:30pm opening time, and try to a jump on the lines. All of the city bus tours advertised "skip the lines" at Schönbrunn Palace, so I figured they must be pretty bad. I envisioned waiting in a line for an hour and getting a ticket with an entry time four hours after that.

As it turned out, there was basically no line first thing in the morning. I saw how things could start to get backed-up, though. There were several ticketing options to chose from, depending on how much you wanted to see, and even the small line I was in of three families took 5-10 minutes to get through since most of them hadn't researched the options ahead of time. (Not that they should have, I'm just saying that's what caused it.) Even when I was leaving the palace around 10am, the only line I saw of significant size was for the woman's restroom. So I guess I'm saying if you want to visit in the summer, Friday morning was a good time for me.

Since I was there a few minutes before the palace opened, I wandered around the outside for a little, waiting for ticket sales to start. Early in the morning was also a good time to take pictures, before things got crowded. The individual ticket sales may not have been over-loaded, but as soon as the clock hit 8:15am, the courtyard instantly filled with tour groups.

Inside of the building, the group tours were a bit of a nuisance as well. Most of them seemed to skip the first half of the building and jump right to Maria Theresa's apartments (not included with the most basic Imperial ticket, but soooo much more worth a visit than the first group of rooms). While I was able to squeeze past an extremely bored looking group of teenagers (and it was only the second room of more than 40) on what must have been some sort of school trip, when I hit the Great Gallery, suddenly the largest room on the ticket was elbow-to-elbow with tour groups. The individual tickets included a free audio guide, and had limited times of admission in order to space people out, but the tour groups didn't seem to have the same restriction, or maybe there was a time restriction, but it didn't account for the size of each group.

After the Great Gallery, the tour groups started to spread out a little, I think a few of them may even have only seen the Gallery, and I could get back to enjoying the palace. Schönbrunn Palace was excellent and definitely worth seeing. Of course I had to compare it to Esterházy Palace. The whole reason I came to Vienna was to compare it to things in Hungary. Many of the rooms were equivalent. They had been made around the same time, so they were influenced by a lot of the same styles, such as Rococo and Orientalism.

A few rooms at Schönbrunn stood out (and above) Esterházy. Several of them used dark wood paneling as the base for the golden Rococo designs, which made for a more dramatic contrast than the usual gold-on-white rooms. It also made the rooms significantly darker, so aside from price, maybe lighting problems kept the gold-on-dark style from being more widespread. Less practical, but more beautiful. Isn't that always the way?

Another striking room was the Porcelain Room. The walls were white with blue trim, instead of  gold. They were also covered with small- to medium-sized framed drawings of mainly oriental subjects with blue ink on white paper. I was so busy admiring the room that I lost focus on what the audio guide was saying, but I think the drawings had been done by members of Maria Theresa's family. Whoever the artist or artists, they were excellent.

The final room that stood-out from the (admittedly tiny) parade of Baroque palaces I'd seen had Persian and Indian miniatures cut into unusual shapes and embedded in the rosewood walls. The miniatures were trimmed with more golden Rococo. This was called the Millions Room because of the expense of the wood used.

Of course, there were smaller touches that caught my attention as well. One clock had faces on both sides, which wasn't unusual by itself, but the back face was a mirror image of the front face. If you were to look at the back face directly, the clock would appear backwards. However, this clock was set on a table in front of a mirror, so the net result was you could read the back face in the mirror and it looked normal.

I purchased the "Classic Pass", so in addition to my tour of the main building, I also had admission to the Privy Garden and the Panorama Terrace on the Gloriette. The Privy Garden was nothing special, and not worth the two euros charged for an individual admission, although of course it was cheaper with the combo ticket. The garden itself was elaborate, if small, but you weren't allowed to actually walk through it. The ticket only gave you the ability to see it.

At that point, I was thinking the "Classic Pass" ticket was a waste of money. The Gloriette was just the big neo-classical structure perched on the hill overlooking the rest of the gardens. Having access to the "Panorama Terrace" just meant I'd be able to climb up onto it, and I don't usually consider paying extra to climb church towers or similar tall structures just to get a bird-eye view of the city to be worth it. Still, I climbed to use my ticket since I hadn't gotten my money's worth out of the Privy Garden portion.

In this case, it turned out, the view was worth the climb, although maybe not the extra money if I hadn't already had the combo ticket. From so high, the hedges and flowers of the garden seemed like two-dimensional lines painted on to the light-green back-drop of the grass. The day was clear and cool, and despite a light city-hazy, you could see to the hills outside of town and the Danube. I stayed up there for a while, then jumped on the subway (aka U-Bahn) and headed for the Opera House.

The Opera House was number one on my list of things to compare to Hungary. You may remember in Budapest I learned that Franz Joseph mandated the Budapest Opera House be smaller than the one in Vienna, but stomped out a few minutes into the inaugural performance of the new venue in part because, while smaller, the Budapest Opera House was more beautiful than Vienna's. I decided I should see for myself.

Today, I'd say the opera house in Budapest was definitely more beautiful than the one in Vienna, but that's not really fair. A full 70% of the Vienna opera house was destroyed by bombing near the end of WWII, including the auditorium. When they rebuilt in the 50's they went with a boring 50's style of relatively plain trimmings and lots of white. I asked if there were paintings or photos of the original, and was told to look in a book in the gift shop. That book had a single, small line drawing of the "before" auditorium, and I couldn't make out any details.

What did remain from before the war was about as elaborate as Budapest, but I would agree it was not quite as beautiful. The Budapest Opera House made better use of color, in my opinion. Still, it was difficult to know how much the current Vienna Opera House resembled the original as even the parts not destroyed by the bombing may have undergone some restoration.

The two buildings shared a standard set of rooms. There was a concession area and a salon adjacent to the former Royal Box. Unlike in Budapest, civilians could rent this room and even sit in what used to be the Royal Box, but was now called the Center Box. I don't know if it was like that before the reconstruction or if they decided there wasn't any reason to keep peons out of the rebuilt box since the Emperor had never been in the new version. At any rate, it was 192 euros for a seat.

Despite the disappointing reconstruction, the tour was still interesting. We actually got to see backstage, which was neat. It was very modern with lights and machines everywhere. Also, one thing I learned was, during his tenure as director of the Opera, Gustav Mahler declared that during performances there would be no food or drink in the auditorium, the doors to the auditorium would be closed, and the lights would be dimmed. I knew from Budapest that people used to go to the shows primarily as a social function to see and be seen. I guess Mahler decided he wanted people to see his operas, rather than just the people in the box across from them. When his rules caught on, it was the beginning of our modern theater going experience.

Since I'd woken up so early, it was still just 1pm. That meant I had plenty of time to visit, and judge, Vienna's Parliament Building. From the outside, it was a good building done in neo-Clasical style, but definitely not as attention-grabbing as the Parliament Building in Budapest. In fact, the spires of neo-Gothic Vienese Rathaus (Town Hall) in the background overshadowed the relatively plainer parliament.

The inside was also not as elaborate as Budapest for the most part. Like the Opera House, the parliament had also suffered damage at the end of WWII, but in the case of the latter building, it gave them an excuse to upgrade with modern (for the 50's) technology, and they attempted to rebuild in the original style.

It did have one amazing room, though. A mammoth hall connecting the lobby with the wing holding the former "House of Lords" and the equivalent of the House of Commons, which in modern Austria was actually two bodies of its own, one with members elected by region and the other with members elected by party. As in Hungary, the "House of Lords" no longer existed, and their old chamber was reserved for ceremonial functions and showing tour groups how things were back in the day.

But, my point was the hall was amazing. It had twenty-four giant, red pillars of solid marble brought from the Salzburg area back in the 1870s when they built the parliament. The architect originally envisioned the room being used by the Emperor for opening the legislative sessions, like the English monarch. However, the Emperor hated the idea of a Parliament so much that he refused to enter the building. The second thought was the room could be used for informal mixers involving both the "House of Lords" and the "House of Commons", but the two groups hated each other as well and refused to talk. So there was this giant room that no one ever used for anything apart from walking to and from the exit.

The English-language tour was only three people, myself and two Romanians who were fluent in English, so it had a personal feel, and we got to ask a lot of questions. At first, I was a little concerned about one of the Romanians because he seemed to think the tour was a history quiz and was constantly trying to guess (and blurt-out) the name of the person the guide was going to mention next, or the dates that she was going to say something happened. He was close, but wrong, a lot. Eventually we moved past the history portion of the tour, though, and he settled down.

With the group size, I got a chance to learn a little about Romania. I knew that Transylvania had been part of Hungary, but I didn't realize there was a bit of Austria itself (as opposed to the combined Austro-Hungary) that covered a small portion of Romania, adjacent to the Hungarian part. Our guide was showing us the stages of EU enlargement and when she came to 2007 with Romania and Bulgaria, the Romanians chuckled. I asked them why, and explained I was American so I didn't care about EU politics and wouldn't be offended regardless of their answer. They said it was because Romania wasn't really ready for the EU and had a lot of troubles trying to catch-up with the other member states, economically and otherwise, after joining it, a process that was still ongoing. Still, they said their country had tried Russia, and that was a disaster, so they expected the EU would be good in the long term.

I definitely enjoyed the tour. It was high-tech with flat-screen TV's playing slide-shows to augment what the guide was saying and the talk was very informative. We got to go into all three of the chambers, unlike in Hungary. And of course I learned some new fun facts. For example, politicians were limited to two hours of speaking about a particular bill or topic, after which the microphone was cut-off. In the old days of Austro-Hungary, the members were allowed to speak in their native language in Parliament, but there was no translator provided, so if for some reason they didn't speak German, they couldn't follow what was going on. I also picked-up the totally random fact that snakes in Austria represent wisdom. The architect had included a snake-motif in some of the detail work, which I told the guide would be ironic symbolism for a building full of politicians in the US.

At this point, I was still not done my day. It wasn't even 3pm yet. That meant I had plenty of time left to visit the Globe Museum. No, it was not related to either snow-globes or Shakespeare. It was a museum primarily of terrestrial globes, but a fair number of celestial globes and a handful of Moon, Mars, and one Venus globes. I had been doing a lot of walking and standing, so I sat down and went through all of the pages of globe history and facts at the computer info terminals before going through the collection.

Apparently, Earth, or terrestrial, globes didn't really catch-on until the end of the 1400's, when Europeans had finally begun to visit enough of the Earth to start to sketch-out the non-Europe parts. Greeks and Romans knew the Earth was round (Eratosthenes performed a fairly accurate calculation of the Earth's circumference around 240 BC), but didn't create terrestrial globes because they didn't know what to put on them apart from the Mediterranean, which that left a lot of empty space. One early attempt at terrestrial globe creation, possibly the earliest, had the Earth's surface divided into four quarters. One quarter had Greece and North Africa, the other quadrants had giant continents named things like "Continent Below Our Feet". It's interesting that the designer filled in the unknown parts with land, rather than water. Of course, Alexander the Great had gone all the way to India in 326 BC, so the Greeks were aware there was a lot more land out there.

The Greeks and Romans were more interested in celestial globes. Celestial globes show the positions of various constellations on a spherical surface. The creation of celestial globes presented an interesting problem. Constellations were viewed from a point that should be on the inside of the globe, but the globes were viewed from the outside. This meant that the constellations drawn on the globes had to appear as mirror-images of what they looked like when someone on the surface of the Earth was looking up at the night sky.

And now, you must be thinking, "Wow, that was a long day.". But wait, there's more! Leaving the Globe Museum a little before 5pm, I realized I had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to the Imperial Burial Vault. The crypt contained the remains of Hapsburgs from 1633 to the last Imperial Hapsburg, in 1989, plus her son who died in 2007. Of course, the two most elaborate tombs belonged to Maria Theresa and Franz Joseph.

I was the last person out of the crypt with only three minutes to spare until they locked the doors (presumably they would have let me out even after that time). At 6pm, just about all of the museums and historical buildings of Vienna were closed, so it seemed like a good time to grab dinner and return to my hotel. I'll try to go to bed early so I can squeeze in as much Vienna as possible tomorrow. Other than Schönbrunn, most attractions don't open until 10am, though, so I can't promise to have another epic day tomorrow.

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