Peter and Elizabeth - RTW 2009-11 travel blog

Lovely views in the garden at Schonbrunn

Lovely views in the garden at Schonbrunn

Lovely views in the garden at Schonbrunn

The Christmas market at Schonbrunn

At the Rapid Wien match

The flares were lit - see what a difference it makes to...

These guys led the singing

Thes guys led the dogs on and scared the thugs away. Good...

Ornate coffin

Strange coffin designs

Lots of skulls on the coffins

Views of the city

The Hofburg


Check out the cool roof tile designs on the cathedral!

Check out the cool roof tile designs on the cathedral!

Hundertwasser Haus

Hundertwasser Haus

The shopping village at the Hundertwasser Haus

The back of the Hofburg

The town hall and another Christmas market!

December 10, 2010

We set off for the station early this morning and got our seats on the train easily. It was a nice comfortable train, too, unlike the regional ones we’d encountered yesterday! The journey to Vienna took about an hour and a half before we switched to the underground to cross the city. We weren’t able to check straight into our hostel as we were early so we locked up our bags, ate the sandwiches we’d made at breakfast this morning and then headed out, determined to make the most of the afternoon.

We decided to go and visit the Sigmund Freud Museum. The museum was in the Freud family’s old house and it was where Sigmund had set up his first practice and where the family lived until 1938 when he was driven to exile in London to escape the Nazis. The first few rooms included a complete reproduction of his old waiting room, including the original furniture and many of his awards and qualifications – he obviously like to show his patients he was qualified for the task at hand! There was also his study and treatment room although the walls of these rooms are now lined with pictures of Freud’s friends, family, acquaintances, professors as well as stories from his life. There were autographs, letters, first editions of Freud’s books, books which Freud had translated into other languages for other authors (even those whose work he didn’t agree with!) and invitations to ceremonies amongst the general paraphernalia around the main three rooms. After the main rooms we watched a short video clip of the Freud family. It had been narrated by his daughter, Anna, who followed Sigmund’s footsteps into medical research and it showed the family like any other, although as Sigmund didn’t like being photographed Anna claimed that much of the camera work was a little covert to stop him avoiding being on film. This gave the clips an air of reality to them as he acted naturally without worrying about being on film. As a renowned psychologist he’d probably have found such actions interesting and quite telling! Some of his comments in his letters were quite funny, too, such as the lady who requested to join him to learn from him and his response which told her to basically right back and ask about the fees as this was something she’d not done in her original letter. I’d imagine most people would’ve just stated their fees in the response but I guess Freud thought that was too crude so waited to be “asked” first! The museum was really good and the video was certainly an excellent insight into some of their life, including clips from them moving to London.

It wasn’t too late by this point but we had found a restaurant nearby that we wanted to have dinner at. Rather than head all the way back to the hostel to come out again we decided to grab a hot drink at a nearby café and just hang out for a bit. Given Elizabeth had the biggest cup of tea I’ve ever seen it wasn’t much effort for us to waste half an hour! The place we were eating at for dinner was a Pakistani restaurant with the unique tag line of “eat as you like, pay as you wish”, indicating that after you had helped yourself to the buffet selection on offer you paid as much as you felt your meal was worth. The restaurant was called Der Wiener Deewan and the board outside indicated the items they had available today. Inside it felt weird just helping yourself having not paid and not really knowing what you were going to pay, either. The food though was really good and I had tried bits of a chicken curry, a potato one and a really good bean/veggie one. By the time I’d had two plate loads I was feeling quite stuffed although I will say I didn’t really pig out and overload my plates each time! I’m not going to say what we paid at the end but I did feel a bit guilty that we’d underpaid.

Back at the hostel we were in time for happy hour so we sat at the bar and drank and chatted to a few different people staying at the hostel. Before we knew it, it was nearly 2am so we headed to bed!

December 11, 2010

We weren’t too quick in getting up this morning but thankfully we didn’t have a whole lot planned for today. We have a lot of things we want to do today but we had split them a little by which area of the city they are in and today we were going to the castle which is close to the hostel. We had bought some stuff yesterday to have for breakfast and after that we headed out.

The weather wasn’t very nice at all – it was cold and wet although the coldness hadn’t yet turned the rain shower into a snow one. By the time we reached the Schönbrunn Schlöss we were both a little wet and we were amazed by how busy it was. There were tour groups everywhere and given the weather we were hoping for something a little more peaceful. I suppose that was wishful thinking for a Saturday afternoon just before Christmas, especially when we saw that there was a huge Christmas market in the front of the main castle entrance. We fought our way through the crowds and were disappointed to find out that tickets for today had sold out already. I’m sure that tour groups just buy up large amounts of tickets for sights like this and the individual visitor loses out. I understand the sight needs to make money to keep up renovations and such like but they need to be more reasonable with ticket sales policies. Quite honestly, we weren’t too bothered in the end that we couldn’t get in as all we could imagine was tour group after tour group barging their way through room after room and, frankly, annoying the shit out of us! At the bar last night, the barman had told us that the best bit of the castle was the gardens and as these were free we decided to spend some time walking around these. They were much quieter and looked lovely even with a layer of snow covering them. It seems most tour groups skipped this area and that was fine by us! The large fountains were really cool although they weren’t working and the pool of water at the bottom of each had frozen, much to the chagrin of the sliding ducks!

By this time the weather had at least improved in so much as the rain had stopped and we’d been able to walk around the gardens and dry off. It was still cold but the sun was peeking out just a little bit and we decided to fight the crowds to look around the Christmas market. We were amazed at the prices of things here especially compared to the markets we’d seen in Poland and the Czech Republic where you could buy a glass of mulled wine for about a dollar. Here the same thing was costing around €3 which is over $4 and some of the souvenir Christmas ornaments, which looked really well made and all that rubbish, were around €15 and up. Absolutely crazy. I realise these markets are a tourist trap but who really pays that much for a ball to hang from a tree?

We took a slow walk back to the hostel and decided to stop at the supermarket on the way back to get some stuff for lunch. We decided to go for a whole mix of stuff including a sausage/bean stew, a grilled cheese sandwich and some kettle chips! It wasn’t exactly healthy but it was warm and hearty and just what we needed.

In the evening we went out to watch one of the local football teams, Rapid Wien. The stadium was close to our hostel so we had no excuse not to go, other than the expensive tickets. This was a normal league match and the cheapest tickets were €21 which is probably equivalent to what I’d pay to watch a game at my own team so I guess it’s not so bad. Rapid’s opponents were Wacker Innsbruck and it seemed like the two teams don’t like each other very much! The match was really good and the action on the pitch was just enough to stop us freezing! The supporters at our end of the ground were being orchestrated by a guy at the front with a loudspeaker which was great for the atmosphere but almost missed the point of the match. I’m much more of a fan of spontaneous singing, chanting and cheering dependent upon what is happening in the game but this kind of support led by a conductor didn’t have that feeling. When Rapid had a chance the noise level didn’t rise like you would expect in most places as the guy at the front just kept on urging the crowd to sing regardless. It might’ve been a bit better if the loudspeakers hadn’t distorted his voice into a high-pitched, tinny squeal! That still wasn’t the funniest thing of the night though as the Wien fans showed themselves to be awfully polite. After each announcement over the tannoy the announcer said “Danke” (Thank you) and the crowd all shouted “Bitte” (You’re welcome) in response. It was very funny! Nevertheless, it seemed to keep the crowd going and after a scoreline of 1-1 at half time (thanks to an excellent worked goal for Rapid and a stupid goalkeeping error for an equalizer) the game burst into life after half time with Rapid taking a 2-1 lead before another poor piece of goalkeeping made it 2-2 and a stupid penalty gave Wacker a 3-2 lead. This didn’t last though as it was soon 3-3, with another Rapid cross being turned into the net. After that the game got quite niggly and the crowd became quite agitated. As the final whistle went a number of Rapid fans from the far end charged the pitch and made towards the away fans. The riot police were soon on the pitch, dogs and all, to try and calm the situation but it was quite funny to see, for me at least. I’ve seen this kind of posturing many times before and if anything I was only shocked by how slow the police reacted to the incident. The guys at the far end had time to saunter down the pitch with no haste whatsoever and the police were nowhere to be seen for a while. Of course, it all died down and nothing happened but there were plenty of people outside with their faces covered by their scarves and holding sticks and bits of metal. We just headed for the train!

Back near the hostel we stopped at a restaurant serving noodles for a cheap dinner. We’d not really had much Austrian food as yet but there is still time. Besides, we had plenty of Austrian beer last night and that makes up for it!

December 12, 2010

After another swift breakfast at the hostel we started our day in the old town and visited a few different sites. We got the underground to the central Alexanderplatz and right by the station was the impressive Hofburg building. Outside the Hofburg was a small excavated area showing the remains of Roman ruins just below the current street level. It was really cool to see although why so many people had seen fit to throw rubbish down into the ruins is beyond me.

The next stop was at the Royal Tombs. There we were greeted by a freaky old man who insisted on hugging and kissing Elizabeth like some long lost relative and shaking my hand and thanking me for coming to visit. It was very strange but he was doing it with everyone, not that it made any more comfortable! If anything, it seemed a little inappropriate and even more so when you were about to descend into the crypts of hundreds of Austrian monarchs. The tombs were really extravagant, as you’d expect, and there were a significant amount of emperors of the old Austrian empire entombed here starting from 1618 and including the last one who ruled until 1922 (Karl I). His tomb wasn’t the most recent one here as his wife, Empress Zita, died in 1989 and their son, Carl Ludwig, died as recently as 2007. Other notable tombs here included that of Karl Ludwig and his second wife, who were the parents of Franz Ferdinand, the archduke shot and killed in Sarajevo in 1914 that triggered the beginning of the First World War. Franz Ferdinand and his wife, shot at the same time, are not here but there is a plaque remembering him next to the tombs of his parents. The most impressive tombs belonged to Franz Stephan and his wife, Maria Theresia. Stephan was emperor until his death in 1765 and the large double tomb containing both their bodies was particularly ornate with intricately carved skulls and scenery adorning the exterior. The skulls were quite realistic and pretty gruesome and the contrast with carved mountain sceneries couldn’t have been greater! As we exited, the strange man rushed from his little ticket booth to give Elizabeth another hug and bless us both and wish us a merry Christmas. Elizabeth thought he meant well. I thought he was a weirdo. People just don’t do that kind of thing and for a reason…

The next stop was the Globenmuseum, an arm of the Austrian National Library which is home to one of the world’s largest and rarest collections of globes and maps. Given my fascination with maps we thought this was a good place to visit and it certainly turned out to be a worthwhile stop. The range of celestial and terrestrial globes was brilliant and with the museum focusing on globes pre-1850 it was very interesting to see how our ancestors thought the world looked. Although they obviously don’t have any copies (only three exist world-wide), globes were known to exist as far back as Greek and Roman times but it was much later that globes showed a truer representation of what we now know the world looks like thanks to satellites. The oldest exhibits dated from around 1540 and they were surprisingly accurate in many areas but it contains a lot of guesses, including a very large South America and an extended boundary of Asia, cutting down North America. Many globes were decorated with depictions of what the artist thought existed in some areas where he was not aware of boundaries and exact land mass. For example, many globes have pictures of tribal warriors and big game animals where Africa is to hide the fact that little was known about the continent. In fact, one globe made prior to the discovery of the Americas had a huge gap in between the edge of Europe all the way across to the Japanese Pacific islands! As man toured and discovered, the accuracy of globes increased but it was not until the 20th century that globes were mass produced. Examples from the 19th century included an inflatable globe and a folding “umbrella” globe which looked like it would come in handy for travelling and keeping dry! One of the best exhibits here though was a 21st century addition – using a globe by Gerard Mercator made in 1541 the museum had made a digital version and overlaid it onto a virtual globe of what we now know. The similarities were amazing and the detail, taking into account there were a few guesses and unknowns, was unbelievable. Mercator had not travelled and had created his globe based on maritime records and extracts from journals of other travellers yet was still able to accurately piece together a map of the world. It was far from perfect but given the tools he had that was to be expected.

After that we decided it was time for lunch so we had a stroll through the central area again, along the main pedestrian street of Graben, complete with Christmas decorations and trees for sale. We found a nice little falafel café advertising their lunches as the best falafel in Austria. I’m not sure that is a huge claim to fame but we tucked into a couple of hearty wraps complete with spicy sauces and we certainly weren’t disappointed!

Our next stop was the main church at St Stephen’s, back in Stephensplatz where we’d started the day. We wanted to visit the crypt at the church and having just missed one tour we had to hang around for 20 minutes or so for the next one. The church wasn’t overly welcoming (dark, dingy, church-like!) but at least it was warmer and less breezy than outside. It wasn’t much quieter though and I seemed to have become invisible since my stop for lunch as I lost count of the number of people who just walked straight into me. I might not be that tall but I’m sure as hell visible, especially with a bloody rucksack on my back. Anyway, we were pleased when the tour guide turned up and we headed down into the catacombs. The guide really enjoyed his job, probably too much for someone showing you around a load of dead people, but he made the short tour very interesting. The catacombs had areas set aside for bishops of the St Stephen’s parish and also for certain organs belonging to the people we’d seen earlier at the Royal Tombs. One person asked why some urns for organs were larger than others and the guide said that when one urn starts to leak they just put the whole thing into a bigger urn! He even showed us a new-ish urn and a trail of, er, stuff, that was visible on the shelf beneath it! The main areas though were the mass graves that made up the majority of these tombs and he showed us a couple of rooms that were just piled floor to ceiling with bones of all shapes and sizes. There was also the room where the bones had been arranged and stacked into order, giving the room a gruesome feeling to it. This wasn’t as extensive or impressive as the Paris catacombs but it was interesting although the guide we had made it more so than it probably was through his sheer enthusiasm for death and bones!

Back out on the square we weren’t too sure where to go next so while we decided we looked around one of the little tourist shops which was selling wafers, wafers and more wafers! Apparently the shop was well known for selling them so we decided to buy a couple of small samples to try!

Our next stop was quite a way across the city and wasn’t something we’d planned to do originally. We were chatting to a guy at the hostel yesterday and he’d told us about the Hundertwasser Haus. This building was designed by a chap called Hundertwasser and was really funky. There were plants growing out of the walls, the exterior was painted all different colours and the surrounding pavements were uneven, as were the floors inside, too. We decided to go and check this building out and although we couldn’t go inside we certainly got a good taster of the outside! It really was a strange looking building but looked so different to anything else we’d seen in the city. The little gift shop attached had some nice pictures of the building and at reasonable prices so I decided to buy a photo given that I didn’t have the advantage of a higher viewpoint that the photographer had! We went into a little area opposite known as the Hundertwasser Village, an area of mainly souvenir shops which had been designed by the same person. It was really interesting inside and we liked it so much we stopped for a beer at the small café. Back outside we were met by darkness and some rain but as we walked back towards the underground station we saw a little shop and we popped in to look at their souvenirs. They were actually showing a free video about the house and so we sat and watched that. It was interesting hearing the artist describe his reasons for designing the building how he did as well as getting to see video clips of the roof gardens and exteriors. They building also has a “window law” – this means that each person can paint what they want on the outside of their apartment within reach of their window. This explained all the window designs we saw as we looked around and I thought it was quite an amusing concept. I hate to think what some idiots might do armed with that “power” though!

Back on the underground and heading back to the hostel we were glad to have some respite from the cold and rain and we were glad we were having dinner near to the hostel tonight! The hostel advertises a cheap schnitzel restaurant on the corner of our street and we’d tried it last night but it was packed so we had the noodles instead. Tonight it was much quieter and so we grabbed a table, grabbed a beer and ordered our schnitzel. I’m not a big fan of anything much deep fried in batter so I had low expectations but when my food turned up I was soon feeling ill. I tried plugging away to at least eat enough to fill me up but with less than half of it eaten I had to give up. I couldn’t even eat any of the chips I had with it as just looking at the plate made me feel nauseous. I’m not sure what it is about things like that but I knew I wasn’t going to eat much of it so it wasn’t really a surprise! I think Elizabeth enjoyed hers a bit more than I did but not that much!

December 13, 2010

We had originally planned two museums for today but on reviewing the costs to get into them we decided to just do one and skip the other. The museum we were doing was the Albertina, one of the art museums in the city. We didn’t realise at the time but it appeared that the entirety of their permanent collection was travelling so they only had temporary exhibits there. The first of these was a series of sketches by Michelangelo. The pieces were of a whole variety of works, including some sketches he had done prior to painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It was interesting to see these but I imagine a perfectionist like Michelangelo would be turning in his grave at people paying to see his scribbles! The next exhibit was by a local artist called Herbert Brandl who had created a unique series of prints showing landscapes, particularly mountains. They weren’t overly complex to look at and many of them were indistinguishable but the series of mountain landscapes he had produced in differing colours had a very “Warhol” feel to them. These were certainly the kind of pieces I could imagine having one of at home but seen here in such numbers it really diluted their effectiveness.

The next exhibit was a number of Picasso’s and they dealt with his reactions on canvas to war and conflict, including WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Cuban missile crisis and others besides. I’m not a massive fan of Picasso and I often struggle to see the actual objects in his paintings, let alone the symbolism or impression he is trying to convey so many of these were a little above my level of understanding, even with the explanations, including words from the artist. He painted a number of pictures of owls which he used to represent death and many of these were done just after the liberation of Paris and how he saw the end of life even though the war had finished. At this time he also painted a large cockerel to celebrate the liberation. Has a nation (the French) ever had such a more fitting emblem (a cock)? The display here also showcased one of Picasso’s most famous paintings but one which many people would not know about. The globally used symbol for peace, the dove, was a result of a painting by Picasso and one of the examples we regularly see is his version. I recognised the symbol immediately but never knew it was Picasso who had used it first. In fact, his daughter’s name is the Spanish for “dove”.

Part of the Albertina building is the Habsburg Staterooms and these rooms were more impressive for their decoration rather than artwork which hung in them. There was a Rubens or two and a million and one boring landscapes as well as works by an Austrian artist called Schiele who seems to like depicting people with illnesses or afflictions and the paintings are almost a bit gruesome. The final floor was a multi-media display by William Kentridge. There were 5 different themes and each theme had a film clip or clips to accompany it. In the surrounding rooms, there were sketches and cartoons which Kentridge had drawn in the process of creating the films. Some of the films were really strange with silhouette puppets dancing around to classical music on one side and equally weird “moving” drawings on the opposite. All the films seemed similar to me and whilst I didn’t sit and watch them all (there must’ve been around 2 hours worth of film) I did notice recurrence in what little I did watch. Of course, being an artist, Kentridge had a description with a deep meaning and “hidden” message for each of them but I didn’t have the time nor the inclination to “get it”. In fact, I think art sometimes gets lost amongst pomposity and this might well have been one of those times!

For lunch we’d planned to have sandwiches at a place we’d seen earlier but as we were walking towards it we noticed the next door trattoria serving a decent priced pasta and salad lunch special. The food was pretty good and even with the hidden “cover charge” of €3 it was still a decent meal.

After our late lunch we had a walk around some of the more impressive buildings including the clock at Ankeru-Hoher Markt, the Hofburg, the Parliament building and the Rathaus (town hall) where the largest of the city’s Christmas markets is situated. We had a stroll around and were almost knocked off our feet by the prices. We thought the one outside Schönbrunn was bad but here you could get a donut for €3, a cup of mulled wine for almost €4 and many things we moved swiftly away from before we got charged just for looking!

Back at the hostel we did our laundry as we had some time to do it. The evening wasn’t a particularly pleasant one though as first I discovered I’d washed our travel pass (which thankfully only had 1 day of the 4 remaining on it, but still) and then at some point in between switching clothes from washer to dryer and dryer to our room and folding them away I managed to lose my wedding ring. It didn’t fit very well anyway and is much too big and I was very grateful that it wasn’t my “real” ring but rather a cheap copy we’d bought for travelling just in case it went missing. I was so annoyed at myself I almost struggled to eat my chilli and rice for dinner but having our bottle of Moravian wine certainly helped!

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