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Vienna

Our time in Europe is in its waning days. Holiday season was approaching and we wanted to go somewhere to which we hadnít been before. We put our heads together, looked at some maps, threw some darts at the wall and, voila, up popped Vienna. Vienna at Christmas turned out to be a very special time.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania calls itself the Christmas City, probably because of the name, but one could make an excellent case that the title belongs to Vienna. Lights are everywhere, all very tastefully done, and the whole atmosphere is quite festive. Vienna is filled with horses and buggies, called Fiakers, and because it was so cold, about 15įF, many of the horses had ear-warmers on. In many cases, the ear-warmers were Santa hats. A horse in a Santa hat is a sight to see. There are several very wide and very long pedestrian boulevards filled with people and musicians, many of whom were really good. Inasmuch as this is the city of Mozart, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss, and the Viennese Waltz, this was no surprise.

Vienna is in the most eastern part of Austria very close to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. It is called the easternmost western city in the world. Itís pretty big and spread out but the central area of the Old City is very compact and walkable, and thatís where most of what a tourist wants to see is located. The Ring Road marks the Old City. Along the ring are some significant buildings. The Rathaus, city hall, is an imposing structure. While we were there, a Christmas market was open in the area in front of the Rathaus. Vienna has several Christmas markets and this is the biggest. The market has hundreds of booths selling crafts, food, and this terrific concoction called GlŁhwein that can really warm your innards. A little way down the street is the Kunsthistorisches Museum (an art museum) and the Museum of Natural History. The Vienna Opera House is a few blocks farther on. Apparently when the building was new, it was roundly criticized and the architect took it so personally that he committed suicide. It was severely damaged in World War II and has since been rebuilt. While walking in this area, we discovered that Vienna may not be as far from home as we thought!

Inside the ring, are lots of other beautiful structures. Stephansdom, St. Stephens Cathedral, is on the main square near the center of the Old City. The cathedral made it through almost the whole war but right near the end, street fighting between Nazis and Russian troops created fires that reached the roof and the church bell crashed to the ground. Hereís a great picture of what the roof looks like today.

A short walk from Stephansplatz is the Hofburg Palace. This place is massive, so massive thatís hard to get a handle on where you are while inside. It was built over several centuries and meanders in many directions. Symmetry is not a concept here. The palace is the home of the Vienna Boysí Choir and the Office of the Austrian Federal President. The Hapsburgs were the ruling family of the Austrian Empire for 640 years until World War I and earlier were part of the Holy Roman Empire. The extended family, some cousins, and another emperorís kid brother, had kingdoms and dukedoms as far away as Mexico. The world was like a big board game. We walked though the Imperial Apartments and saw the residence quarters of Emperor Franz Josef, the last emperor, and his wife Elisabeth, known as Sisi. These are pretty grand rooms and it was kind of odd to hear how the emperor lived a Spartan life, relatively speaking. His bed was a plain metal frame thing pushed up against the wall. He was devoted to his duty and appeared not to care too much for ceremony. Although not interested in democracy (he never visited the parliament building), his subjects were able to have weekly audiences with him; once a week about a hundred people would tell him, in a minute or two, what was on their minds. Sisi was another story. She was a kid when they married and never really fit in. She would leave her empressly duties from time to time because she couldnít stand it any more and go off to remote places. Franz Josef loved her dearly and even though they became estranged, she continued to occupy the space next to his in the palace whenever she made it back to town. She was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898. Her story was eerily similar to Princess Dianaís.

Many countries have their own types of cuisines, but Vienna is supposed to be the only city that does. Except maybe for Philadelphia cheese steaks. On Christmas Eve, we went to a very small place that had room for about 35 people. It seemed that almost everyone in there was American and one of the women at the table next to us was from the Philadelphia Ďburbs. On Christmas night we had dinner in a larger place and had what we heard is a very unViennese experience. Although people around us usually speak some other language, we are aware that they almost always understand English so we never say anything catty like, "Jeez, can you believe how sloppily he eats?" We just have our ordinary conversation. We were almost finished with dinner when Lynn saw one of the desserts at the next table. Lynn is very soft-spoken. She said to me, "That looks really good. I wonder what itís called." One of the men at the next table, part of two couples who were all having a grand old time, continued his conversation with his party but picked up a clean dish, scooped some of the dessert onto the dish, and handed it to Lynn. "Here. Try!" It made our evening!

I donít ordinarily do commercials in these pieces but Iím going to make an exception here. We like to stay in relatively simple hotels or B&Bs. They are not five star places but all are very clean, comfortable, and well-located. The Hotel Schweizerhof was all this and more. We left the hotel on the morning of December 24 and returned at about 5 p.m. to get ready for dinner. As expected, the room had been cleaned. What was not expected were some small gifts on each pillow, a little bottle of champagne, a plate of cookies, and a two foot high Christmas tree on the table. Itís a family owned hotel and it showed. If you ever get yourself to Vienna, you could do a whole lot worse than staying here.

See all my pictures of Vienna.

See a video from Vienna.

 

© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008