A Wiener Wonderland

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

Flag of Austria  , Vienna,
Saturday, December 22, 2012

We had four days in a row off for Christmas (turned out to be five and change because of snow days at school), so we thought we should take advantage of the time and explore a bit of Europe. After checking out flight prices, we narrowed our choices down to two: Berlin and Vienna. A very effective Facebook poll and the knowledge that pals John and Petra from Hanoi would be there for the holiday persuaded us to choose the latter. 

Our flight left Istanbul Saturday morning nearly an hour late, getting us to Vienna around 11am. It was cold in Istanbul (cold enough for snow, which is a real rarity in December), but Vienna was even chillier, hovering around 32F/0C for most of the duration of the trip. Fortunately, we'd had test runs in both Copenhagen and Madison over the past few months, so we were a little better prepared for the cold this time around.

Using the extensive and ever useful Viennese public transport, we found our way to the splendid apartment we had rented, walking through the door a little after noon. The place had looked incredible online, but in person it was even more spectacular. We felt like we'd booked ourselves into a five-star flat for our four-day holiday: not only was it incredibly spacious, gorgeous, and well decorated, but it also had all the little touches that make a good place truly great (even down to the fluffy white robes hanging up for us!). It was so lovely that I felt content with the idea of just holing up there for the full four days -- but of course, that wasn't the reason we'd gone to Vienna, so it was time to get moving....

As per usual, I'd done my homework: I'd highlighted the sights I thought were the top things to see in the city, and I'd come up with a laundry list of vegetarian spots for us to dine at around the city. We'd been going for 8 hours without much sustenance, so our first stop was lunch at one of the veggie restaurants on the list. Whilst wandering there, we found ourselves in the midst of our first Christmas markets: one of the reasons for our visit to the city. All around us were market stalls covered in artisan crafts and Christmas decorations, folks making merry and buying up last-minute Christmas gifts, and stand upon stand peddling glühwein (mulled wine) and punsch (juice and different types of liquor). Despite the lack of snow, Vienna was feeling quite festive already -- just what we needed to put us in the holiday mood.

After a yummy lunch in a packed and completely vegetarian restaurant (veggie dining is très chic in Vienna, as is organic food), we wandered towards Belevedere Palace. The Belvedere is actually two Baroque palaces on the same grounds: the Upper and Lower, separated by expansive Baroque gardens. Both palaces were completed in the late 1710s at the direction of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Today, they both house wonderful museums, and the grounds in front of the Upper Belvedere are occupied by a Christmas market in November and December. 

During our time in Vienna, the Upper Belvedere was hosting a fantastic jubilee Klimt exhibition -- the main draw for us. The Belvedere holds the most Klimt paintings in the world (including one of today's most famous and recognizable paintings, The Kiss), and the show displayed all of them at once, in honor of "150 years of Gustav Klimt." Sprinkled in amongst the Klimt works were paintings by other notable Austrian artists from his time, which led us to discover our favorite new artist: Egon Schiele. We were pleased to find that in addition to the Klimt exhibition, the other floors and wings featured equally interesting bits and pieces, boasting works by some of the world's most famous painters like Monet and Van Gogh. Apart from the Schiele pieces, my favorites were the Messerschmidt heads

We had purchased a combined ticket granting us entrance to both the Upper and Lower Belvedere, so after perusing the Upper, we walked through the lovely (though completely dark by the early hour of 4:30pm) Baroque gardens to the Lower, where the exhibit was "Awakening the Night." Again we found ourselves gazing at works by major artists from throughout the past 300+ years, spanning the years and likes of Magritte and Ansel Adams. 

After spending over three hours in the galleries, we were both keen to breathe a bit of fresh (albeit) cold air, so decided to do a bit of stargazing while pounding the pavement. After a very short walk, we found ourselves (unexpectedly) at (Karlskirche) St. Charles's Church, where another of the wonderful Viennese Christmas markets was in full swing -- apparently night was the time to hit them! It was chock-a-block trying to get around the stalls, with wall-to-wall people all trying to peek at the wares on display or get their glass of glühwein (ourselves included).
After elbowing our way through the markets for over an hour, we decided it was time to head home and enjoy our glamorous new digs. Our plan was to grab some goodies from the grocery store and make dinner at home that evening... but we quickly discovered it wasn't meant to be. The first store we stopped at had closed at 6pm. So had the second. And the third. And the fourth. A trend was becoming obvious. As we made our way back, we realized that all the stores had closed at 6pm on Saturday and wouldn't open until Monday morning -- if that, since it would be Christmas Eve. Thinking back, we also realized we hadn't seen any small shops anywhere: nowhere to buy wine or even some snacks. Seriously disheartened, we walked in circles, trying to settle upon a restaurant. In the end, we returned to a Thai restaurant we'd seen earlier: the right decision, as it turned out: the food was authentic, the curries were spicy, and the beer wasn't Efes. That brought to a close our first day in Vienna; there'd been some ups and downs, but overall we were impressed with the city and what it had to offer -- and were looking forward to exploring it more the next day!
Unfortunately, the weather gods did not have the same thoughts in mind: it had snowed early in the morning, then turned to slush, and morphed into pouring rain and grey skies.  All of this was taking place while the temperature meandered just above and below freezing, which made for a lovely day perfect for sightseeing (she said sarcastically). 

We put up a valiant effort, first hitting up a phenomenal, very popular all-vegetarian Chinese buffet near our apartment, then once again utilizing the city's public transport to get to the second in our series of Viennese palaces. Sunday's monarchial retreat was reserved for Schönbrunn Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the mid 1600s. It was home to the Habsburgs, and is now Vienna's most popular tourist destination. They've kept the rooms in the palace as they were way back when, and people take audio tours throughout to see what life was like and glean a slice of European history. 

Luck was still not on our side: there were approximately ten million people there, so we had to wait in a long line to get tickets and then couldn't get into the actual palace for another hour and a half. To hold us over, we had our choice of either staying in the crowded cafeteria and keep dry, explore the gardens (outside), or check out the Christmas market on the palace grounds (also outside). Outside and glühwein won out: to the Christmas market we went. It was jolly, in spite of the rain, but our spirits were dampened and our shoes were soaked through, so we weren't quite as enthusiastic about the whole affair as we had been the day before. 

One glass of glühwein and a few market passes later, we wandered into the palace and got ready to start our tour. Perhaps it's because we've seen a few palaces during our travels, or maybe it was because of the insane number of people that were crammed into the joint -- either way, I have to admit that I wished we'd chosen to do something else with our time. That said, I'm not saying you shouldn't go and visit if you're in Vienna... but I am saying that I thought pretty much everything else we did in the city was more enjoyable.
Once we were finished with our tour, we took the train to a proper train station and found one of the four open grocery stores in the city. It was packed, as you might imagine, and the cleaning products and cat food were all locked up -- message clear: you can't feed your cats or clean the house on Sundays! (Incidentally, when we met up with our friend Petra the next day, who had grown up in Germany, she told us the closed at the weekends thing was the norm there as well -- and that when she was a kid, you had to actually show your train ticket when you tried to buy at the station on Sundays!)

By the time we arrived home, we were soaked and ready for a night in, so it was a good job I'd downloaded a bunch of Christmas movies to take along. We curled up on the couch (which was the same as our couch at home!) with some fabulous red wine, some oven-baked 'zas, and a few holiday films: the awesome apartment definitely was more than worth it that day!
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