Day 550 – 1 Sept, 2016
There are certain cities that have held a certain kind of unattainable magic in my imagination for some reason – Paris, Prague, Venice, Rome, Vienna…. Some of you may be surprised to learn that I had never really traveled to Europe before this round the world journey. I had been to Spain, London, Iceland, and Turkey kind of hitting the corners but staying away from the main continent. It seemed everyone I know goes to Europe and I always wanted to go somewhere different, choosing Nepal or Tanzania over Italy or France. Always the misfit. Now that I had begun traveling in Europe in earnest, I was excited to visit these places, but a little worried they wouldn’t hold up to my expectations after years of hopeless daydreams.
Walking tours are always the best introduction to a city so upon arrival in Vienna, I was on my way to the meeting point when it started to rain and not just a little bit. I have carried an umbrella with me nearly every moment of every day just in case (meaning that I forget to take it out of my bag). That day, however, I took it out. I would be walking alot and trying to cut down on weight in my bag. So, umbrellaless, I ran the last half mile or so in the rain, trying to protect my shoulder bag from getting wet, before I sat down at an indoor cafe across the street and watched through a frosted window, while the walking tour gathered and walked away with their umbrellas. Of course, it stopped about 15 minutes later.
So far I found Vienna very overwhelming. It was stunning. The palaces and theatres, the opera house and the cathedrals are all extravagantly magnificent. It’s difficult to take it all in. After missing the walking tour, I decided to walk myself around, taking in St. Stephen’s Cathedral and Stephansplatz, Burgtheater, Volksgarten, and several others. Certainly worn out after walking around the Ring Road, luckily there were loads of cafes to refuel with some caffeine. The coffee culture of Vienna has been recognized as a unique world heritage custom by UNESCO so its obviously my duty to drink as much coffee in as many cozy cafes as possible. For this first stop, they offered me a free apple strudel, which would be in strict conflict with my current vegan diet, but it would be rude to refuse, right? Some exceptions are worth making.
Rather optimistically, I felt renewed enough to join the afternoon walking tour long enough to hear Mozart and Habsburg repeated a hundred times, to find out the girl that was conducting our tour was not from Vienna or even Austria for that matter (she was from Prague), and to become amused with the loud American guy who kept correcting our poor guide when she gave us wrong information. I ditched out on the tour after about 20 minutes to discover Mozart and the Habsburgs independently. The tour was terrible.
The Habsburgs were one of the ruling dynasties in Europe from the 15th-20th century. Their story, and especially the beloved Empress Elizabeth, affectionately known as Sisi would come up often. Rather than fighting wars to gain power over almost all of Europe, the Habsburgs married into power. Starting in Germany, they married into Austrian, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish royalty. I didn’t have the attention span to visit both of their palaces in Vienna, but I chose to go to Schonbrunn Palace to see its famous gardens a short distance outside of the city center. The majority of the gardens are free and I saw many runners or people walking their dogs. In hindsight, just weaving in and out of the flower gardens would have been enough, but I was suckered in to buying the complete ticket to see the palace and all of the gardens, including the Gloriette and the labyrinth. It wasn’t entirely unlike a visit to Versailles in France, just a little smaller and the gardens aren’t near as grand. The Gloriette was probably the best part because it’s raised on a hill overlooking the palace complex and the entire city set off in the distance.
But above all else, my absolute favorite thing I did in Vienna was listen to a string quartet perform at St. Anna’s Cathedral. I had never gone to a concert performed by a string quartet or even intentionally listened to classical music, but I know that I always enjoy it when I hear it. The weekend I was in Vienna was opening weekend at the Opera House, which was sold out. They were offering a free viewing on a large screen outside the building but that wouldn’t be the same. I wanted to get dressed up and sit in a well-appointed room with acoustics so when it was suggested that I go to St. Anna’s, I thought it sounded perfect. A smallish church off a side street near the Mozart Museum, St. Anna’s was understated and intimate with gilded paintings and the original wooden pews. The musicians played using authentic 19th century instruments and they masterfully played selections from Mozart andSchubert. I loved it. Only about 50 guests were seated in that chapel, but the music carried you away as if you were the only one in the room. Sad, euphoric, tender, rebellious – the notes were intertwined so thickly with emotions. I walked home that evening full of musical bliss and confidence knowing that Vienna could still stand on that magical pedestal in my imagination.