Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Beer, bratwurst, and football - Sounds like Munich!

Here's what I knew about Munich before I came:

- it is the home of Oktoberfest, the world-renowned festival of all things beer, which actually takes place in September for reasons that I don't quite understand;
- Hitler made a bit of a name for himself rallying support to the National Socialist cause in the beer houses of Munich (thank you, history degree); and
- it is in Germany (thank you, grade 10 geography).

Here is what I know now that I have been to Munich:

Oktoberfest or no Oktoberfest, beer is king

Hubby may be a sommelier, but Munich is no place to get wine. Unless you want really shitty wine. In fact, if you ask someone where to get a good glass of wine, they will laugh at you and point you to the nearest beer house. Because bratwurst doesn't pair well with wine. It pairs well with beer. See:

Bratwurst in the Munich market - with beer

Now in an alcohol match-up, I prefer wine over beer. But I'm also a prairie girl, who went away to university and who hung out with engineers and football players. So I like beer. And it turns out that I don't really even miss wine, as long as there is good beer to be had. 

And there is good beer to be had in Munich. Lots of good beer. Beer by the litre, in fact. 

Good thing I work out those biceps!

Hubby showing off his 1-arm technique

These particular litres of beer were consumed at the oldest beer house in Munich, the Hofbräuhaus. So the story goes, the Bavarian king grew tired of drinking beer from Savoy, and ordered his subjects to find a way to brew beer in his backyard. And so they did. The beer itself was pretty good. But the place is really a must see. Historically speaking, it is not only the oldest watering hole in Munich but it is also the site of the first meeting on February 20, 1920 of the newly-formed National Socialist Party. But mostly, it is tourism kitsch at its best, interspersed with a few locals who simply enjoy connecting with their Bavarian roots. The place is decked out in Bavarian flags and colourful ceiling frescoes. There is a band playing polka music. The lady servers have their cleavage on display in their "beer wench" outfits. (Oddly enough, the boy servers aren't made to wear lederhosen, which I find a wee bit irritating and sexist, but I digress...) And of course, beer is served by the litre. (And in case you are counting, that is 3 bottles of beer). 

The oldest beer house in Munich - a tourist Mecca

The polka band

Some locals imbibing in their favourite brew

The best way to sell kitschy souvenirs to tourists... Get'em drunk... On a litre of beer

In this same watering hole, I discovered the most ingenious way to get tourists to buy kitschy souvenirs: place the souvenir stand right near the WC. 

Think about it. You walk into the oldest beer house in Munich. You have never been served a full litre of beer before because you are from North America and we are a puritanical society when it comes to alcohol. So of course, you order one. Within an hour, you are feeling a little tipsy - probably because you wouldn't normally drink 1 litre of beer in an hour. Also, you have to pee. Because beer is a diuretic. So you set off to find the WC, which is completely at the other end of the beer hall. On your way there, you see a souvenir stand. And fresh off of drinking a full litre of beer in an hour, you think to yourself, "Cool! Beer steins that hold a litre of beer! I need those!" 

That is exactly what happened to me. Except that, luckily, I really had to pee first. This gave me the opportunity to rethink my brilliant idea of buying a set of 8 litre-each beer steins. I mean really. When am I ever going to serve guests a litre of beer? (Well, unless certain members of my extended family come up to Ottawa to visit me, and that hasn't happened yet in the 19 years that I've been here). 

And so, I proudly walked past this carefully-laid tourist trap, and stumbled back to my table, smugly judging the suckers who fell for the ploy and who were dropping euros by the hundreds into the delighted hands of those rascally beer house owners. 

I still hate potato salad and cold cuts. And bratwurst. I still hate that too.

Now I enjoy a good steamed hot dog on occasion. Usually when I am taking in a sporting event. But I hate, and I mean hate, cold cuts. When I was a kid, if Mom would make me a salami sandwich, I would starve rather than eat it. As for bratwurst, well, lets just say that one too many family barbecues featured smokies. I just can't eat them anymore. Add to that potato salad laced with mayonnaise, something that I have always considered to be one of the most disgusting food substances ever produced. Well, let's just say that my trip to Munich has confirmed that I still hate all of the above. 

Which makes it pretty difficult to eat. I mean, about the only thing left is pork roast - which I love - and dumplings. And while the thought of dumplings originally had me thrilled to bits - because who doesn't love to overload on gooey carbs - I've reached my saturation point when it comes to the consumption of round balls of sticky gluten. And no matter how crispy they get that pig skin, I can't eat another bite of pork roast either. Which leaves me with some pretty slim pickings. On the plus side, though, this is probably one of the few vacations where I have lost weight! 

Too much of this is not a good thing
Canadian hockey fans have nothing on European football fans

(Soccer for the Canucks and Yankees reading this blog.)

We arrived in Munich by train on the same day as FC Bayern, Munich's beloved football club, was set to face off against another German team, Dortmund, in the Champion's League game. Now if you want to know about the Champion's League and what it takes to get there, you'll have to Google it. I know nothing about such things. But here is what I did manage to piece together:

- FC Bayern has made it to the Champion's League match 3 years in a row, yet they have not won; 
- it is a pretty special thing to have two German teams facing off against one another; and 
- the city of Munich was raking in major euros because of this event. 

On this latter point, people were coming in to Munich, not only from across Germany, but from across Europe. Seriously. We met a foursome who took a 14-hour bus ride from Paris, just so that they could be in Munich for this game. Beer houses were selling tickets to those who wanted to sit indoors to watch the game. Outdoor screens were being set up and tickets were being sold for viewing the game at the stadium where Bayern plays (capacity = 50,000) and on the Oktoberfest grounds (capacity = 30,000).

Oh, and did I mention that the game itself was played in London? That's right. At Wembley stadium. It wasn't even in Munich. Yet over a hundred thousand people flocked to Bavaria for the chance to watch their team in this all-important final. And the fact that it was cold and rainy did not dampen any of the enthusiasm. Of course, that was probably helped out by the copious amounts of beer that fans were consuming before kick-off. This is, after all, the beer capital of the world. 

FC Bayern fans pouring out of the trains on game day at the central train station
FC Bayern fans pouring out of the subway to get to the beer garden festival grounds for outdoor viewing

The crowds gathering on Marionplatz before kick-off, drinking beer and chanting in the streets

The police stand guard to make sure the crowds don't get too rowdy

Smashed beer bottles everywhere

To my Canuck friends who swear that there is no greater sports fan than a Canadian cheering on hockey... WRONG. Hockey may be a matter of national pride for Canada, but our love of the game does not come close to what Hubby and I witnessed on the streets of Munich. Seriously, if the Toronto Maple Leafs ever made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup fin...  Oh, wait a minute. Let's choose a more realistic scenario...  If the Vancouver Canucks ever made it back to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, 100,000 rabid hockey fans would not descend on the city, gathering in public squares, drinking beer, and singing team chants. No way. Best sports fans in the world have to be European football fans. Have to be.

Oh, and Munich won.  So yes, it was pretty special to be in Munich on this particular day. 

There is always a church that is at least 9 centuries old

In Munich's case, this is St. Peter's church. It's foundations date back to the 1100s, and it has been rebuilt numerous times and in numerous styles since. It also offers a pretty great view of the city to those tourists willing to climb somewhere between 270 and 300 stairs (I counted on the way up and on the way down but got two different numbers, even though I did this before I drank a litre of beer) to the top of the tower. Now if it hadn't been so damn rainy and misty, we might have actually seen the spectacular Alps. But we didn't. So we'll just have to have faith that those postcards we sent to our niece and nephew did not have mountains photoshopped into them to impress tourists like us. 

The view from atop St. Peter's church

The altar at St. Peter's

The ceiling at St. Peter's

Perhaps one of the funnier moments on the trip came when, on our way back down the tower stairs, we passed a middle-age couple walking up who, as they were huffing and puffing, asked us how much further. "You're halfway there!" I shouted enthusiastically, like a cheerleader. At which point he just looked at me as though he wanted to punch me, and said, "Fuck!" I laughed so hard that I almost rolled down the rest of the stairs.  

Gargoyles rock. Life size cuckoo clocks do not.

Another attractive downtown sight is Old Town Hall. 

Old Town Hall on Marionplatz

It is fashioned in the gothic style, reminding me quite a bit of our own Parliament buildings. And since I do love a mean-looking gargoyle (who doesn't), I did quite enjoy gazing upon this structure the numerous times that we walked by. 

Now according to Lonely Planet, the "highlight" of this building is the Glockenspiel, a giant cuckoo clock that chimes daily at certain times, including 5:00pm. Not really my thing, but cause everyone else was stopping in the public square to check it out, so did we. Let me just say, Lonely Planet, that there are about a million things more impressive about that building than the freaking Glockenspiel. If ever there were an anti-climactic, overly-hyped tourist attraction, this was it. Even the 8-year-old boy standing beside us looked up at his parents and said, "This is getting on my nerves." Truer words have never been spoken, kid. So following this young man's lead, we left before the display was over, and instead went for ice cream. Much more satisfying. 

Sometimes, there are just no words

On our last day in Munich, Hubby and I decided to visit the suburb of Dachau. That's right. The Dachau. As in the concentration camp. The first camp, in fact, and the one on which all others were modelled. Somewhat fittingly, it was rainy and cold. We spent three hours there. We probably could have spent three more. 

I am still struggling to articulate the feelings and the emotions that I have as a result of visiting this grim place.  Sometimes, even for someone like me who talks too much, there simply are no words. No words can ever explain the inhumanity. No words can ever ease the suffering of those affected by the camps. No words can ever bring back the dead. But hopefully, we have honoured their memory by recognizing the importance of this terrible moment in human history. 

A memorial statue, representing those in the camps who, out of desperation, threw themselves into the electrified barbed wire fence rather than face another day of starvation and torture

The barbed wire fence that kept the prisoners in

We are all connected, despite our differences

On our first day in Munich, the day that the streets were filled with screaming football fans, Hubby and I stuck out like sore thumbs. Not only because we are so obviously tourists, walking around in our sneakers and holding our maps. But also because we were among the very few not wearing FC Bayern clothing. In no place was this more evident than in the market, where we grabbed a bite to eat among the hordes of fans singing football chants and guzzling back beer after beer after beer. 

As is so often the case, we discovered, restaurants and places to eat are very crowded. And so you end up sitting at a table with complete strangers. On this particular night, as we were enjoying our first Munich beer, a gentleman about our age asked, in heavily accented English, if he could sit at our table. Of course, we said yes. 

For a few minutes, we struggled through the requisite pleasantries. Where are you from? Is this your first time in Munich? The weather sucks right now. That sort of thing. And then our new friend said, "I don't think you are here for the Bayern game." I smiled and said, "No. We're actually here for a concert."

Our new friend's face lit up. "You here to see Springsteen?" He asked. 


"Me too!" he exclaimed.

We were instantly friends. 

A few moments later, his wife joined us. By then, we had learned that he has seen Springsteen 30 times, and that he is going to 3 more shows after this one. When he introduced us to his wife, he told her that we were even crazier than him, because we came all the way from Canada for a show. Then we showed him pictures from the Ottawa concert, where a friend's boys were pulled up on stage to sing Waitin' on a Sunny Day with Springsteen. "You know those boys?!?" he screamed. "Oh my God! You guys are crazy!" he said. And then he bought us a beer. 

We talked a little while longer. About their trip to Vancouver a few years ago. About the time they ran the New York marathon. About our trip to Provence and Bordeaux last year. And then it was time to go and watch the game, so we went our separate ways. 

This moment has been the highlight of our 10 days in Europe. Even more of a highlight than the concert itself. Because it serves to remind us that oceans and language may separate us. But what we have in common unites us. And that feeling of connectedness simply can't be beat. 

Farewell, Munich! And congrats on winning that Champion's League thingy. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Living a dream - Springsteen in Europe

On December 1, 2012, I woke up at 3:00 am to buy tickets to see Bruce Springsteen in Munich, Germany. 

I have said it before on this blog. I love Bruce Springsteen. This comes from my father. When Springsteen released his Live: 1975-1985 album, Dad bought it on vinyl and recorded it onto tapes so that we could listen to it in the car. And we always listened to it in the car. My first vivid memory of hearing Thunder Road is during one of these car trips. I fell in love with the free spirit that Springsteen was urging Mary to be, so much so that on my own wedding day, I walked down the aisle to this very song. 

I told you. I love Bruce Springsteen. 

Now I am far from some of the über fans whom I have met who follow Springsteen from show to show to show to show, seeing him upwards of 20, 30, even 90 times. But I did decide that 2012 would be my year of Bruce. So when the Wrecking Ball tour was announced, I bought tickets to shows at Madison Square Gardens in New York, at Wrigley in Chicago, at MetLife Stadium in Jersey, and of course, back home in Ottawa.

I figured four concerts was it. I mean, I had effectively doubled the number of times that I have seen a Springsteen concert - a noble achievement in a few short months. Plus I got into the Pit in Chicago and touched the Boss. What else was there. It was time to get back to reality. Besides, the Wrecking Ball tour was wrapping up. The fun was over. 

But then I read a rumour on my favourite Springsteen blog that there would be new dates announced in Europe. And on this same blog, I have read about European fans. If the concert reviews can be believed, they are legendary in their enthusiasm for the Boss. Perhaps even slightly more crazed than Americans. So a little voice kept whispering over and over and over again in my ear, "You will never have this chance again, Jay. You'd better go see him, Jay."

For the next few days, I followed Springsteen news religiously, until the rumours were confirmed and his website - the mark of authenticity - announced a bunch of European dates. Unsure of how Hubby would react, and whether or not he would tolerate another trip, I worked up a soliloquy in my mind of how I would broach the topic. It went something like this:

"Honey, I know that you said the Ottawa show was it for you and that is fine, and I totally respect that but I will never forgive myself if I miss an opportunity to see Springsteen in Europe because this is probably his last tour there and he has just announced a whack of dates and you don't even have to come with me because I will totally go by myself and make a long weekend out of it, or if you do want to come, we can see him in London because I know that you love London, and it would be awesome if you could come with me but I totally understand if you won't, which is totally fine but then I will be somewhere in Europe by myself this spring cause I will just die if I miss this chance!"

There are purposely no periods in that paragraph. Because that is exactly how it came out of my mouth. In one great big run-on sentence so that Hubby wouldn't have a chance to interrupt. 

Although he looked completely perplexed by my diatribe, he surprised me with a modest, "Yeah, sure. I totally get it. Where else is he playing? We've already been to London. Let's go somewhere else."

I could have jumped him right there. But I didn't. Because I'm a lady. And because I was too busy pulling up the bookmarked page on my laptop to show him all of the possible shows we could go to. 

In the end, we narrowed it down to two shows: Werchter, Belgium (I have Flemish roots and figured I could make a vacation out of visiting the country of my grandfather's family) in July and Munich, Germany (the city of beer, and I kind of like beer) in May. We chose Munich. But not only because of the beer. Because of its proximity to Vienna, where I had never been and have always wanted to visit. Because Springsteen announced four dates in four different German cities, leading me to believe, rightly or wrongly, that Germans love the boss as much as I do. Because neither Hubby nor I had ever been to Germany. And because May - aka springtime - seemed like a more pleasant time to travel in Europe than the hot and sticky July high season. 

All good reasons. With one exception. The so-called springtime weather has not yet emerged. Since arriving in Munich, it has been unseasonably cold and rainy and cold and rainy and freaking cold. Now I know that I am a strong Canadian girl and that I should be the last person complaining about a little bit of wind. But here's the thing. Lonely Planet promised me high-teens to low-twenties. And sun. They also promised me sun. So I packed dresses and shorts and skirts and t-shirts. At least I had the sense to pack a rain jacket, one pair of pants, and a rain poncho. Which is good against the rain but does nothing against the cold. So for the concert, I had to improvise by layering up whatever I had. 

Layer 1 - yoga pants, white t-shirt, long sleeve t-shirt, and first pair of socks:

Layer 2 - no one would see it, but the requisite Springsteen t-shirt (from the Chicago show):

Layer 3 - a ridiculously thin cardigan (for overtop of my cute spring dresses) and a pair of Hubby's pants, cause he was smart enough to bring a few pairs:

Layer 4 - red bandana to channel Born in the USA and another ridiculously thin hoodie:

Layer 5 - a polar fleece, that I bought in Munich because of the inadequate clothing that I have with me for the weather:

Layer 6 - for good measure, I added my running wind-breaker:

Layer 7 - my goretex rain jacket, bought primarily for dog walking:

Layer 8 - a rain poncho and an extra pair of socks:

It took me 15 minutes to get dressed. (Of course, pausing to take pictures may have hindered my progress in this regard...) but at least I stood a chance against the expected 10mm of rain and the ever-plummeting-towards-6C-(43F) temperature. 

The ticket said that the show would start at 7:00. Now I have been to enough Springsteen concerts to know that he never starts at ticket time. And I had no interest in freezing my ass off any longer than I needed to. So I told Hubby that we could leave the hotel around 6, stop downtown for a slice of pizza, and then aim to be at Olympic Stadium for 7:30. Luckily for us, the trip took less time than we thought it would. We were in our seats at 7:10, just in time to see the Boss's motorcade drive into the stadium. By 7:15, the man himself came out on stage, and strummed through an acoustic version of "Who'll stop the rain?" Then the lights came on, the band came out, and the show began! A good number of fans had still not even arrived, but clearly, Springsteen wasn't going to make those who had spent all day long in the rain wait one minute longer. 

Rain-gear clad Springsteen fans getting off the train at Olympic Stadium:

Starting early with an acoustic version of "Who'll stop the rain?":

Now from this photo, you have probably guessed that I was not in the pit. Indeed, I was in the stands. I had the chance to purchase floor tickets, and at 3:00am on December 1, I had quite the philosophical debate with myself about whether or not I should. But in the end, and I don't remember why, I opted for seats. From a weather perspective, this turned out to be a good choice. The stands were under cover, and so unlike the hordes on the floor, we did not get rained on. In fact, with all of my layers, I was actually quite warm throughout the night. Score one for me, right?

Well... Not so fast... 

Remember those legendary European crowds I mentioned a few paragraphs back? I just assumed that you could not be considered "legendary" if you stayed sitting down all night. I was sure that everyone would be out of their seats, rockin' it out, the minute the band hit the stage. 

Not quite...

There was only a handful of people standing up. Seriously. Only a handful. It was like watching a concert back home in Ottawa. Luckily for me, the woman in front of me was one of the handful standing. Unluckily, the woman behind me was not. And so, throughout the second song, she kept tapping me and asking me to sit down, and ordering me to tell the woman in front of me to sit down too. At one point, she pulled out the "I paid to see this concert, not your back" line, and I kind of wanted to punch her. Instead, I just told her that I also paid to be here (inside voice: and if you wanna play that game, lady, I win because I had to buy a $1000 plane ticket to get here) and that I would not sit down because the people in front of me were standing. She tapped me a few more times, but I steadied my resolve and ignored her. By the end of the second song, she gave up and left me alone. 

I, however, had a lump in my chest. I am, after all, Canadian. Which means that I am bred to be polite. And although I was very annoyed by the constant tapping and nattering at me, it is not in my nature to be rude or uncompromising to others. And who wants to feel bad about themselves at a concert? Plus I worried that she might try to have me kicked out or something. But worst of all, I felt seriously let down by all of these reviews about the incredible European crowds. Incredible crowds don't sit down at a rock concert. They don't get upset at someone who is having fun. I spent the first 20 minutes of the concert on edge, wishing that I was out in the rain on the floor with the people who really understood what it meant to be at a concert. 

But then Springsteen took his first sign request - Seaside Bar Song. And his second - Rosalita. Holy. Shit. A never-released B-side (until he released 4 cd's worth of B-sides, of course), and my favourite song off of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle (not to mention the song after which I named my car). Only a handful more people rose from their seats, but there was a shift, a feeling that something magical was about to happen. 

And then, a few songs later, it did. The Boss announced that he would play the entire Born in the USA album. The. Entire. Album. 

Me and Hubby right after finding out he would sing the entire USA album. Must have something to do with my red bandana:

Now Thunder Road may very well be my favourite song, but I wasn't even born when it was released. My first Springsteen album, the one that I listened to non-stop, the one that I ordered from Columbia House, was Born in the USA. I was 8 years old, and I was in love with the man. I used to walk around the schoolyard and tell all the girls that I was going to marry Bruce Springsteen when I grew up. I listened to my tape every night before bed. I jammed a vacuum cleaner hose between the couch cushions like a microphone and strummed a badminton racket like a guitar, rocking out to Cover Me over and over and over again. And well into adulthood, I continued to dislike Courtney Cox, for the simple fact that she - and not me - got to dance in the dark with the Boss. 

So yeah. Being at a concert where the entire USA album was played - including I'm on Fire, the best 3-minute love song ever written - was a big 'effin deal. 

Clearly, the German fans thought so too. Because this got them all off of their asses and onto their feet. Pretty much for the rest of the show. 


And that is why I love Springsteen. Because he can transform a cold, wet, grouchy, austere crowd into a harmonious brotherhood. There, on that shitty, shitty night, tens of thousands of people came alive as they witnessed something truly special. Even the lady behind me was on her feet, dancing away and smiling at me whenever I glanced back to see the crowds behind me. 

The show lasted just under 3 hours. Twenty-nine songs. All in the rain and the wind. Sure, the band wasn't as sharp as they could be, and probably didn't really want to be out there. But they stayed. They delivered. 

They gave me another unforgettable Springsteen experience. 

Danke shön, Springsteen. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Day trip to Bratislava

Bratislava is but a short jaunt from Vienna, about an hour and fifteen minutes by train. Hubby has been. I have not. And so, on the advice of a friend who lived there for 2 years in the early 2000s, and to satisfy Hubby's urge to go back and see how the city may have changed since Slovakia joined the European Union, we embarked on a small day trip.

Before leaving, we checked the weather. It called for 19 degrees and a mix of sun and cloud. Perfect weather for wandering around, right? WRONG!! You see, we neglected to check out the wind speed. And it was 'effin windy. Meaning that I was grossly underdressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and the thinnest hoodie I've ever owned (you get what you deserve when you buy clothes at Costco...) So I admit it, I was a wee bit grouchy as we set out from the Bratislava train station to begin our exploration.   

We arrived at said train station just in time for lunch. Good thing - because Hubby did some research and discovered that the Slavic Food Festival was kicking off that very day. Double bonus - it was on the grounds of the Bratislava castle. Two birds, one stone, and all that jazz. So up and up and up and up and up we climbed to get to the castle. Jesus! No one told me I would get altitude sick by visiting Bratislava! That was one steep hill, which had the advantage, I guess, of lessening my feelings of guilt resulting from missing my morning run. 

It also earned me a beer and a slab of pork roast, followed by cake and chocolate covered fruit. Delicious! So delicious that we forgot to take a pre-eating pic with the hats. Oops:

Please don't judge me for the grease stains left on the plate...

After wolfing down our lunch and freezing our asses off drinking cold beer at high altitudes, we wandered over to the castle to take a look. After seeing the palaces of Vienna, I must admit that I was not blown away. But then I realized that this was built in the 1300s, serving primarily as a military fortress and not as a symbol of imperial dominance. Consider me now suitably impressed. 

Although there is a museum in the castle, we weren't really feeling all that museum-y, even though it would have given us an opportunity to warm up. Instead, we began the stroll down into old town, through windy cobble stone streets. Which would have probably been a lot more picturesque were it not for the graffiti littering the walls. Art or vandalism? You be the judge. 

Once we arrived back down to an altitude with oxygen, the sun came out and it got warmer. Still, we ventured inside to take a look at St. Martin's cathedral. Far less opulent than St. Stephan's, but featuring some of the most impressive stained glass that I have seen. We spent half an hour wandering around the cathedral (have I mentioned how much I love cathedrals). Here are some pics:

The pipe organ:

The pulpit:

I'm not sure what this statue commemorates, but I found it rather striking:

The altar:

Beautiful stained glass:

A sign telling women to cover up their cleavage. This is a church, after all:

With my soul thoroughly revitalized and my body suitably warmed up after the refuge from the wind, we explored Old Town. It is so charming and quaint. Hubby says that the last time he was here, it was the Christmas season, and so the markets were selling holiday wares. I imagine that would be lovely to see, even though I am not the biggest Christmas fan. During our stroll, we stumbled upon St. Michael's gate, the public square, and a lovely coffee shop. 

Wandering through the streets:

Of course there is a pair of legs hanging out of a building. Doesn't every old town have this?

St. Michael's gate:

No Ottawa, but Toronto is only this far away:

Me in the public square:

Enjoying a coffee in a café just off the square:

After refueling with coffee, it was time to make our way back to the train station, but not before taking a peek at the opera house:

Yes, there is ways an opera house. 

All in all, it was a lovely, albeit brisk, way to spend a day. Just like the pamphlet says, I am now a Bratislover. 

And I've added  another country-knotch on my belt. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The great Viennese contradiction - and other stories

For the past 5 days, we have been hanging out in Vienna.  

Before coming here, I'd built up this image of Vienna as one of the most spectacular cities in Europe - right up there with London and Paris in its cosmopolitan wonder. Yet I had also pictured something a little more, well, sophisticated.  I mean, this is the city of Mozart*, Strauss, the opera, the Viennese ball, and architectural delights of the baroque, rococo, and gothic styles. There was something just a touch more opulent about Vienna in my mind. 

And the city did not disappoint. From the stunning St. Stephan's cathedral - which has become by far my most favourite cathedral in Europe (disclaimer: I have only visited about ten or so and there are many more to go) - to the baroque gardens of Belvedere and Schonbrunn palaces, to the majesty of the Opera house. Vienna is not the glamour of Paris or the hip of London. It is the height of European grandeur. 

With one exception:

The food.  This is the land of the weiner schnitzel, a slab of meat pounded to paper thin, breaded, and fried. And this is the height of local cuisine. 

Now don't get me wrong - it is damn delicious. As were many of the other local fares that we tried, including beef goulash, pork roast and dumplings and the infamous apple streudel. But I just can't picture myself getting dressed up in a ball gown and pearls to spend a night at the opera, and stopping by the local beisl (pub) to have a quick bite to eat - in the form of a schnitzel the size of my face (if my face were flattened out a little). 

And herein lies what I believe to be the great Viennese contradiction. The food does not match the splendour of the city. 

Now I am rather blue-collar in my upbringing. Fried balogna was a treat in my house. So schnitzel suits me just fine. But if you are looking for a food experience, stick with the tapas bars of Basque Country in Spain, or the cafés of Provence in France. 

Some other random observations

 - The "ring road" in Vienna is spectacular - 5km around central Vienna. For at least 2 of those kms, you are treated to some of the most stunning displays of architecture, including the Opera house, Parliament, and the University of Vienna. I discovered most of these buildings when I set out for a run around the ring road on our second day in the city. Because the ring road is so bike and pedestrian friendly, I expected to encounter many a runner. But there were none. I was the sole jogger on the ring road. Are the Viennese lazy and out of shape? Not at all. They just prefer to run through their spectacular gardens, such as those found at the various palaces throughout the city. So if you want people to think you are a local, jog through the palace gardens at Belvedere or Schonbrunn, and leave the ring road to the tourists. 

Austrian Parliament, a photo snapped while running the ring road... like a tourist...

The gardens at Schloss Belvedere

Me after a run through the Belvedere Gardens

Catching up with Hercules after another run through the gardens

Local runners climbing the hill at Schloss Schonbrunn. I sat this one out...

- Hungry? Grab a sandwich and eat on the go. I can't tell you how many Viennese grab a sandwich (usually a schnitzel sandwich), and then take off on foot at top speed while devouring said sandwich. Which, when you think about it, takes a certain amount of dexterity. And I suppose this is not all that different from the North American infatuation with drive throughs so that we can eat while we are on the go in our cars. Ultimately, despite it being fried meat on white carbs, it is probably healthier to eat-on-the-go Vienna style. At least you are burning calories. 

- Too many people wear pleather. Which I was not expecting. It's like the Gatineau of Europe. (Sorry to any Gatinese readers that I may have offended, but you know I'm right.)

- The single most moving piece of art that I have ever seen was in St. Stephan's cathedral. A simple statue of the Virgin and an infant Jesus, which dates back to the 1300s. It is a sure sign that I am Catholic that such a simple statue of Mary moved me as much as it did. I don't expect Protestants to understand. My Presbyterian husband sure doesn't! 

- On the topic of St. Stephan's, this was the single hardest church to visit that I have ever been to. It took at least 4 tries before we got to finally tour the place. That I had the patience to try 4 times is a testament to my love of cathedrals. But oh my was it worth the visit. This cathedral is simply stunning. And it has been through so much, from the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks, to the Allied bombing of the church in 1945. What this cathedral has seen. And what it means to the life of a city that it remains standing while the rest of Vienna grows around it. Surely the most satisfying hour of my trip was that spent roaming through the cathedral. 

St. Stephan's during the day:

St. Stephan's at night:

The pulpit at St. Stephan's:

The crucifix in the nave:

The way the light dances through the cathedral:

- I have spent an entire day waiting in the rain to get into the pit at a Bruce Springsteen concert. In Vienna, people line up to get one of 400 standing-room-only seats at the Opera house, 200 of which don't even have a view. And the queue starts at noon, even though the opera starts at 6:30pm. The Viennese love their opera like I love my Boss. Admittedly, I don't love the opera. But I admire the dedication to the art that moves them. 

I have no picture of the queue, but here is the opera house, as well as the outdoor screen so that you can watch from outside:

- And it is not just the opera that the Viennese love. They love their classical music (again - how this marries up with a love of schnitzel, I just don't know...). Mozart is everywhere, there are always concerts to see, and we lucked out and got to take in a local festival featuring music in a number of churches. Incidentally, it is while watching a choir singing Haydn just last night that I remembered why I had to quit choir. Not because I can't sing. Au contraire, I am a solid alto, I used to front a blues band, and I have even been invited to sing the national anthem for a former prime minister. No, my problem is that I am a diva, and I always want to be the centre of attention. I try to drown out the people around me, and secretly despise the soprano, who always gets the solo parts. This is perhaps the reason that I am more suited for rock...

A lone cellist on Stephansplatz:

Taking in a local choir performance:

The one and only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:

- I have been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and was shaken to the very core of my being. I expect the same will happen when I visit Dacchau in a few days time. But I find that the most stunning memorials to the victims of the concentration camps are those that I have stumbled upon unknowingly while wandering the streets of European cities. A simple plaque in the Jewish quarter in Paris marking the story of the ghetto. And now the memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jews who lost their lives in 41 camps across Europe. We stumbled upon the memorial while wandering through central Vienna. Built upon the ruins of one of the older synagogues in Europe, this simple structure, meant to look like bookshelves and displaying the names of the camps around its base, took my breath away. 

A description of the memorial:

The memorial:

The main inscription:

The camps:

- I did not pack scarves with me for this trip, figuring that they would not be needed on a spring European trip. But Western Europe is experiencing a cold snap. And everyone here wears scarves. And now, so do I. I've bought three since leaving Canada. Do I look like a local? Probably not...

My favourite new scarf, and a statue of a horse:

- There are statues of horses everywhere in Vienna. I didn't take pictures of them all, but the one above of a horse being punched was a particular fave. 

- And finally, our hats are enjoying wine, beer, coffee and dessert across the city. Delicious!

A glass of grüner veltiner, an Austrian grape. Quite nice:

Kaiserschmarren, a local dessert which is essentially a pancake with raisins. Holy delicious:


An aperol spritzer, a refreshing local drink after a day of roaming the market:

The best damn apple streudel I have ever had (even though I have only had 2):

Saying goodbye to Vienna with one last coffee at the train station:

So farewell, Vienna!  My but we did enjoy you. 

*Yes, I know that Mozart was born in Salzburg. But Vienna was his home. He played for Maria Theresia at the tender age of 6 in her palace in Vienna, and he was married in St. Stephan's cathedral. So he is as good as Viennese as they come, in my books!