Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Four Days in Vienna

Josh had a conference in Vienna (Austria!) on Oct 3 & 4, which happened to be a Monday and Tuesday.  Since I'd never been to Vienna before, Josh invited me to tag along, and we planned to fly out the Friday before so we could spend the weekend exploring the city together.  The only hitch was that Josh's parents were scheduled to fly back to the US that same day, but we assumed their flight would be earlier than ours.  As it turned out, their flight was 20 minutes AFTER ours, but that worked out perfectly, since we were able to share a taxi to Heathrow.  The flight to Vienna was only a little over 2 hours long.
Vienna Airport
We stayed at the hotel where the conference was taking place.  It was nice enough, but a little ways from the city center and the service was a bit spotty (we had to ask 3 times for extra clothes hangers).  We weren't planning to spend much time in the room, so we didn't mind much that it was right by the elevator and overlooked a parking lot, but we were a little taken aback by the bed:
Uh, this is NOT a king-size bed!
We asked the bellman if they had rooms with actual king beds, but he said all their rooms were like this (which other conference attendees later confirmed).  He assured us that we wouldn't notice the difference, but with separate twin duvets, we most certainly did!

We had dinner at a Viennese restaurant down the street that the concierge recommended.  It seemed a bit touristy -- they had menus in several different languages -- but we were tired and hungry and not inclined to be particular.
Salm Brau
They brought us heaping plates of food (mine was in a cast-iron skillet!), but what really caused us to raise an eyebrow was the guy at the next table.  While we ate our dinner, he consumed THREE LITERS of beer, but didn't order any food.  He may have kept going after we left...
That's A LOT of food!
We went for a short walk after dinner.  The architecture in Vienna is beautiful, and we came across a huge fountain at the end of the street that changed colors.
Belvedere Palace gate
blue fountain
yellow fountain
red fountain, with Red Army Memorial (a relic of Soviet occupation)
green fountain
Saturday morning we walked through the botanical garden that was adjacent to our hotel
Amerikan plants
Weird hosta garden
Our destination was the Belvedere Palace, which is now a museum complex.
Belvedere Palace
The Belvedere houses an impressive collection of paintings by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt, including his most famous work, The Kiss.  The interior looks more like a museum than a palace, but the formal gardens are still quite regal.
Belvedere gardens
After leaving the Belvedere, we walked towards the city center in search of lunch.  Purely by chance, we came across the Hotel Sacher, so instead of a proper lunch, we stopped at their cafe for a snack and a slice of their famous Sacher Torte.  YUMMY!
Sacher torte!
Once sated, we made our way to Stephansplatz, at the very center of Vienna, to see St. Stephen's Cathedral, which dates back to 1160.
St. Stephen's Cathedral
Cathedral interior
window detail

Dramatic lighting
We continued walking around the city center, enjoying the beautiful weather (75 degrees, not a cloud in the sky).
St. Michael's Church
Ancient Roman ruins
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg interior
 Burghof plaza at Hofburg
Palace detail
Art History museum
We paused for a rest in a plaza by the Hofburg palace and noticed a ticket booth that was attracting a small crowd.  Upon further investigation, we discovered that they were selling tickets for the "Long Night of Museums."  Over 100 different museums and other venues in Vienna would be open that night from 6 pm - 1 am, and one 13-Euro ticket would give you admission to all of them, along with free rides on public transit and special shuttle buses.  Despite having already had a pretty full day, we got in line and bought 2 tickets.
ticket booth
We took a tour of the city on one of the shuttle buses, went back to the hotel to change into warmer clothes for the evening, and had an alfresco dinner at an Italian restaurant before hitting the first museum: the MAK design museum.  Since we had squandered much of our time riding around on the shuttle bus and eating dinner, we went through quickly (and didn't take any photos), and then made our way back to the city center to visit the Demel bakery, which was giving free tours of their cake museum (yes!) and selling samples of their sacher torte.  There were long lines for both the tour and the torte, so we opted for the tour.
Sacher torte assembly line
Making marzipan Christmas trees
Bakery with sacher torte
Klimt cake
Wedding cake
Clinton cake
Lady cake and Humpty Dumpty cake eating cake
We still had some time left after the tour, so we did a quick tour of the Ethnology Museum.  They had some odd exhibits with interesting objects, but I was apparently too tired to take any photos besides this one:
How did those horses get up there?

Sunday was another gorgeous day, so we took the train out to Schonbrunn Palace, home of the Hapsburg dynasty. Many of the original paintings and furnishings are on display in the rooms we toured, some of which were in the process of being restored to the way they looked when the Habsburgs were still in power 100 years ago.  We weren't allowed to take photographs inside, but you can take a virtual tour of the palace here.
Schonbrunn Palace
After finishing the tour, we explored the surrounding park and formal gardens and enjoyed the glorious weather
palace from the garden
View from above
View from top of the Gloriette

This hedge maze was much harder than we expected!
In the evening, we had dinner with Josh's former boss and her husband, who had flown out from DC for the same conference.  It was nice to see some familiar faces and hear about the latest goings-on back in the States.

Monday, Josh was tied up with the conference, so I ventured out on my own.  I decided to visit the Art History Museum, and took the scenic route to get there.  (OK, I got a little turned around and went in the wrong direction when I got off the tram...)
St Charles' Church
Mozart statue
no idea... but it looked pretty
Natural History Museum
When I finally got to the Art History Museum, I discovered it was closed on Mondays.  Doh!
Art History Museum
So I continued on to the MuseumsQuartier complex across the street, which houses several museums, cafes, and performance venues.  I had read that the Leopold Museum there had a nice collection of Art Nouveau pieces.  The ticket office had a discounted combo ticket for the Leopold Museum and the mumok (modern art museum), which seemed like a good deal until the woman who sold it to me mentioned that the mumok didn't open until 2 pm (it was 11 am) and suggested I visit the Leopold first.  OK, thanks.
Museum Quarter complex
I had not intended to spend the entire day there, as I had a few other things on my agenda, but decided to just roll with it and headed for the Leopold Museum.
Leopold Museum
The Art Nouveau collection did not disappoint.  I especially liked this stained glass window:
Angel window
Concert posters from the Fillmore in San Francisco!
"Death & Life" by Gustav Klimt
An early Klimt (really!)
Furniture, glass, and ceramics
View of the MQ courtyard from the Leopold Museum
When I finished touring the Leopold, I still had over an hour to kill before the mumok opened, so I had a leisurely lunch at one of the outdoor cafes, and was one of the first people in the door at 2 pm.  I had the museum almost to myself, so I was able to make my way through relatively quickly.  I'm generally not a huge fan of modern art, but I actually enjoyed the visit and was glad I had sprung for the combo ticket.
mumok (modern art museum)
Mondrian and Calder
Robert Indiana
Andy Warhol
Of course, like every modern art museum, it had its fair share of the weird stuff as well...
giant furry blue spider
the light bulb makes all the difference
Afghan covering stuffed animals
(There was PLENTY more, but this blog post is getting way too long!)

I made it through the mumok in about an hour, and then walked to Karlsplatz to embark on an architectural Art Nouveau walking tour I had found online.  (Did I mention that I LOVE Art Nouveau?)

Karlsplatz station
Secession exhibit hall
Naschmarkt (food market)
Naschmarkt produce
Naschmarkt spices

I want to go to there
Kettenbruckengasse Station
I was hugely disappointed to find that the Art Nouveau chocolate shop (a dream come true?!) at the end of the tour was closed -- especially since the hours posted on the door indicated that it should have been open.  I had no choice but to find the nearest cafe and drown my sorrows in a slice of sacher torte.

Along the way, I passed this street musician playing the 1812 Overture on an array of bottles.  It sounded pretty good!
musical bottles
By this point, I was pretty tired, so I hopped on a tram back to the hotel.  As far as I can tell, public transit works on an honor system in Vienna.  You are expected to buy a ticket, but it is never collected or processed.  I had a 3-day pass, but no one ever asked to see it.
Vienna tram
Monday evening we went out to dinner with several people from the conference, including a couple of Josh's colleagues from BAE.  Someone had made a reservation for us at the Piaristenkeller, a 300-year-old restaurant, wine cellar, and (yes!) hat museum in the basement of a monastery.
Supping on Mozart's favorite soup
Since Josh and I were the only married couple there, our waiter made us pose for this cheesy hat photo during dinner.
"Look at each other like you're in love."
After dinner, we were lead into the back to see the "Hat Museum" which was a small collection of historical hats, some of which belonged to the former emperor.  They also had a large collection of fancy dress hats, and selected one for each of us to wear while we toured the rest of the premises.
that hat was quite heavy!
our fellow diners
The owner, who lead the tour in several different languages, seemed a bit puzzled by the diversity of our group (American, British, Canadian, French, Luxembourger).  Likewise, we were surprised to learn that he was the owner, since he seemed so young, until he mentioned that his father used to be the owner.  He took us down to the wine cellar, where we sampled peach-flavored champagne, which he told us was also served at the wedding of Emperor Franz Josef and his 16-year-old bride (and cousin), Elisabeth ("Sisi") in 1854. 
The owner pours peach champagne.
So, to recap, we ended the night in the basement of a centuries-old monastery wearing giant hats and sipping peach champagne.

Tuesday I woke up with a bad cold.  I slept in while Josh went to the conference, and spent most of the morning packing up our things.  I checked out of our room at noon, left our bags with the bellman, and headed out for one last Viennese adventure, determined not to let my cold hold me back.  This time I made it to the Art History Museum without getting turned around, or turned away.  The building itself was quite impressive, but first things first.  Since it was lunchtime, I went to the museum cafe first and ordered a bowl of soup and some apple strudel.
Museum cafe
The food and ambiance were good, although the service was a bit spotty.  My waiter picked up a basket with an uneaten bread roll from the next table and plopped it in front of me.  And by the time he got around to bringing me a spoon, my soup had nearly gone cold.  I was a bit dubious about the roll, but it seemed OK, so I had some of it with my soup, since I wasn't feeling well and needed some comfort food.  When I asked for the check, I was shocked when the waiter presented me with two separate bills -- one for the soup and strudel, and one for €1.20 (about $1.70) for the bread. 
When I asked him why he charged me for a bread roll that I did not order -- and that I had assumed came with the soup -- he tried to explain in broken English that this is the custom in Vienna, and that if I didn't want to pay for the bread, I should not have eaten it.  This seemed particularly shady considering that (1) I had not encountered this "custom" in any other restaurant in Vienna, and (2) even if it was a Viennese custom, this was a MUSEUM, where most of the customers were foreign tourists. Not to mention that's a pretty steep price for a plain bread roll.  I refused to pay for the roll, and after he finally stopped arguing with me and spoke with a manager, he reluctantly crumpled up the bill for the bread. 

So, while I enjoyed the food, my museum cafe experience left a bitter taste in my mouth.  I was even further disappointed to discover that about a third of the museum was closed while they were updating their exhibits, including some of the rooms I was most interested in seeing (decorative arts!).  I tried to make the best of it, and toured through the parts that were open.  The museum building itself was beautiful, and they did have quite an impressive art and coin collection...
Entrance to coin cabinet
"piggy banks"
a display of the variety of materials used in making coins (love the VISA card!)
Coin Cabinet
there were some pretty Art Nouveau-style coins and medals
Unusual 3-D coins
Interior of museum dome
Detail of dome interior
Van Dyk room
Museum ceiling
Detail of ceiling in Egyptian collections
Detail of ceiling in Egyptian collections
This room creeped me out!
Zeus Ammon
By the time I finished walking through all the open parts of the museum, I was ready to call it a day, since I was feeling so crummy.  I met Josh in the lobby of our hotel, and we took the train back to the airport.
Sunset over Flughafen Wien
Despite getting sick, I really enjoyed Vienna and hope I'll have another opportunity to visit, since there was plenty more to see that we didn't have time for.  But for now, Vienna will have to go to the bottom of the list -- we have many more European cities left to explore for the first time.

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