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!