Home > Germany, Personal > Oh Vienna: A Head Without a Body, A Weekend Without Peer, Great Companions Without a Doubt

Oh Vienna: A Head Without a Body, A Weekend Without Peer, Great Companions Without a Doubt

“Vienna is a head without a body.” So begins the Vienna chapter of my Rick Steves guide. But exploring the city of Freud and Wagner this weekend was a treat from head to toe for Ally, Kerre, Roisin, and me. Our whirlwind trip somehow managed to be both full of activities and extremely relaxing. Even spending the night sitting in a train on the way back to Munich quickly becomes another fond memory from a weekend full of them.

I wanted to make sure that I got to the train on time, so I left work a little after one in the afternoon, going with Ross who was stopping in Garching to go to the post office. Arriving at Hauptbahnhof with plenty of time to kill, I looked at all the different train destinations and thought about other places I might like to visit. Around three, I met up with Kerre, quickly followed by Roisin, and with Ally arriving just a few minutes before the train was due to leave. Luckily, finding a place for all of us to sit wasn’t too difficult and we all got comfortable for the slightly over four-hour ride ahead. The girls had mostly only briefly met each other, Ally and Roisin hadn’t met at all before, but pretty soon, we were all chatting like long-time friends, telling funny (and occasionally embarrassing stories) and assigning specific dance moves that we might use in a club. The train made a couple of stops on the way to Vienna, after Salzburg, I broke out my surprise, beer for Kerre and I, min-bottles wine for Ally and Rosin (I had planned ahead, no sooner had Ally said she didn’t like beer than wine was sitting in front of her). It was something I had learned was totally normal on German trains during my first weekend here, when I visited Salzburg with Simon, and I think it was well-appreciated now. I showed the girls the Rick Steves chapter I had printed out for the weekend and we all spent a while absorbed with his brilliance and thinking aboutt what we might want to do in town. Among the discussion of life stories, experiences in Germany, and education and work (An M.S., an M. Eng., and two younglings still in university) we decided to liven things up with cards. At first we tried using Kerre’s cool pirate deck, but as it only had 49 cards in it for some reason, turned to my deck. Everyone was impressed with Kerre’s shuffling skills, so much so that it took us a minute to remember we had to pick a game. We played Hearts, which is perfect for four people and a lot of fun (especially when you’re winning of course). The luck of the Irish was not with Roisin alas, though she did nearly shoot the moon accidentally a few times. Before we could finish the game however, we had arrived at Westbahnhof, Vienna (or Wien, pronounced “veen” in German/Austrian).

I had done quite a bit of research on hostels a couple of weeks earlier and picked the Westend Hostel because it was close to the station, fairly cheap, came with free breakfast, and had lots of good recommendations from other 20-somethings. It only took a few minutes to walk there (stopping briefly along the way for Ally to get excited about Kentucky Fried Chicken) and we stepped into the large building, which gave off that real European hostel feel of modern convenience overlaying a very old-fashioned structure. After checking in, we walked up a flight of stairs to our room, which had four sets of bunk beds in it and bathroom inside. There wasn’t anyone else staying there that night, which seemed like a plus, especially with the one bathroom. That’s one of the perks of traveling during the off-season, along with a cheaper rate to stay. We made up our beds with the provided sheets (I finally learned how a duvet works) with me on one bottom bunk and Roisin above me, and Kerre taking the other top bunk above Ally.

Our meal on the train had consisted of chocolate eggs from Ally and gummy peaches from Roisin, along with the wine and beer, so we were feeling rather peckish. We didn’t want to go too far from the hostel that night, so we asked the desk clerk for a recommendation and he told us that the best pizzeria in town was just a ten-minute walk away, which sounded good to us as we could also see more by walking there.

We were outside the official old town, as marked by the ring of train tracks where the old city wall used to be, but there were still any number of beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings visible. Unlike Munich though, they were juxtaposed in a seemingly random pattern with ultra-modern steel and concrete behemoths, echoes of the necessary rebuilding in Vienna after World War II. Finding the restaurant wasn’t too difficult, and we soon sat down and ordered from strikingly pretty (we all agreed) waitress. The pizza and pasta were excellent, and Ally got her first of many, many chances to practice translating conversations for us. When we left we were all a little tired, but not willing to just go to sleep, so we compromised by stopping by a store where Ally and Kerre bought gin and tonic ingredients and Roisin got a bottle of Prosecco for us to split.

Back in the hostel, Kerre got us all glasses and we each had a drink, toasting Vienna and the weekend ahead. For me at least, it had been a long week, and travel added to my fatigue so that by midnight I was ready to go to bed. The others weren’t far behind in thinking the same thing, and soon we all lay in bed. The conversation got rather girly, but as Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret was the basis of my childhood understanding of girls, I don’t know if my contributions were making the others laugh because they were pithy, or just silly. Tired as we all were, we soon dropped off; Ally in particular eager to try out a real bed compared to her couch in Munich (which sounded similar to the couch bed in my first apartment here).

My alarm woke us up the next morning, where we could already see the sun shining. After a shower and our continental breakfast of cereals, bread, jam and the like (although no one touched the liver spread packets) we headed off to the U-Bahn, buying two-day passes for the train so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting tickets again later. Arriving in the old town, we decided to do the self-guided walking tour provided by Rick Steves (or as we generally called him: Rick, or good old Rick). We went from the opera house, crowded with ornate designs and statuary, past the powerful Monument Against War and Fascism, and along the famous shopping street Kartnerstrasse until we arrived at the absolutely enormous St. Stephen’s Cathedral, dominating the city around it and dwarfing the nearby buildings. We wandered about inside, following the crowds of tourists to look at the lavish, yet still tasteful artwork (as compared to some of the rococo messes I’ve seen). At the south tower, we climbed 343 steps to the highest observation point. Panting, we took pictures of the amazing skyline, lit up by the spring Sun. Back at street level, we continued walking around, me occasionally reading off something about a nearby sight, they listening intently. I particularly liked the shrine to the Trinity put up in honor of one Hapsburg’s survival of the plague, including a statue of him symbolically overcoming the disease, with his enormous underbite (the product of centuries of inbreeding) prominently thrust heavenward. There were many street performers, including some sort of mime robot (reminding me strongly of the movie Eurotrip) and a hip-hop dance troupe performing identically like one I had seen in the fall in Boston, except all white people and in German. It’s surreal to think that even street art is a franchise now. One of the funny sights was an elegant bathroom from a century ago, built by a chemist as a gimmick to prove his chemicals kept things clean. It was very fancy.

Soon after, we made our way to Hofburg, the elaborate palace home of the Hapsburgs for over six centuries. Gorgeous, full of art and history, and more expensive than I would have liked, Hofburg is an incredible place to see, almost overwhelming in scope. Outside, a deep hole showed where the Roman town had once been, and it was as always fascinating to see the vertical rise of cities over time as they are buildings are built on top of each other. The four of us, walked around for a while in the courtyards before buying tickets for the royal apartments, which included the porcelain and silverware museum and the “Sisi” (Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Josef from the 19th century) museum. The silverware and other kitchen utensils and supplies were ridiculous just because there was so much of it and so much of it involved precious metals. The girls enjoyed it more than I did I think. The Sisi museum was more interesting simply because the story of the girl who at 15 became empress was not one I knew well and had the tragic romantic flavor that must have driven the 19th century people wild, between the suicide of her son, her unhappy marriage, her obsession with beauty, her poetry writing, and her ultimate assassination (the file used to kill her was on display, which I found a touch morbid. I enjoyed the royal apartments more, partially because of the art and style and partially because I like learning what the best life had to offer was back then, it really wasn’t too luxurious.

After we finished with the museum, we were all hungry. Following Rick’s advice, we got small finger sandwiches at Buffet Trzesniewski, for just a Euro each. It was tasty, but not particularly filling. Luckily, Ally saw a nearby gelato shop, so we filled in the corners with a couple of scoops a piece. Rick had another self-guided tour on offer, this one on the tram around the city where the wall once stood, so we hopped on at the opera and watched the sights. Unfortunately we had gotten on the wrong train and were fairly far north of the Danube border of the center city before realizing it, getting off, riding the U-Bahn to where we’d gone wrong and trying again. We weren’t on again for very long before deciding that it was too nice a day to not walk instead of ride, despite our aching feet. Vienna really is beautiful though, with art both ancient and modern wherever I looked. After finishing the circuit, Kerre suggested we go to a flea market she had heard of, which turned out to be mainly foodstuffs with occasional racks of clothes. By the time we were done walking the market my feet were really tired and I was relieved that the others were happy to go back to the hostel and figure out dinner and rest (and in Kerre and Ally’s case, have a gin and tonic).

Rick recommended Beisl Zum Scherer, near Judensplatz, so we made a reservation for a couple of hours later there. Back in the room, I took a shower to get ready, and when I dressed and came out of the bathroom, saw we had a new roommate, a German girl whose name I never actually heard. We talked to her for a little bit about ways of traveling and finding cheap flights, and once we were ready, headed out the door. The restaurant was nice and had excellent food. It had the very Viennese international flavor as I had steak, Kerre had asparagus, Ally had schnitzel, and Roisin had goulash, yet it was all Viennese.

The desk clerk had told us that good bars could be found in the “Bermuda triangle” near “the place of the Swedes,” Schwedenplatz. Along the way, we decided to try something different and got ice cream. At the plaza, we couldn’t figure out where exactly the bars were at first, and my plan of following people dressed for parties (like the girl in stripper heels) didn’t really pan out. We found a nice restaurant/bar, Frank’s where we could sit down and have a drink. I went with a whiskey sour as something I don’t normally try that would be fun. Kerre had a rather strong Long Island Ice Tea, but as usual she was up to the challenge. When we were done, we went back out and despite confusion (and temptation from a place called Happy Noodle) did eventually find a long street of bars and clubs. Amusingly, it was all right across the street from a 150-year-old synagogue, which I imagine makes Shabbat services entertaining at least. We found a cool looking bar and had another drink but left fairly quickly due to the smoky haze permeating the bar. Back outside we saw a large group of guys and girls dressed all in pink, some sort of birthday party or something I assume, but it was funny to see the bouncer at one club not let them in because they weren’t conforming to the dress code. Farther up the street we found a bar named Swizzl, so of course had to go in. It was a bit of a dive, with a lot of England and English soccer team flags, and they were playing 1990’s pop hits, so it was neat in a cheesy kind of way. By the time we had finished a drink there, it was nearly one and we were all yawning after our long day, not to mention thinking about tomorrow’s plan. Rather than be absolutely exhausted the next day, we called it a night and took a cab back to the hostel. We had a few other roommates now, so we tried to be quiet as we changed and got ready for bed.

I fell asleep almost instantly, but had a restless night, and was woken up a lot in the early morning by the strangers getting up and leaving. By the time we were all up and getting ready only one was left and he was asleep. The others had made our bathroom floor incredibly dirty somehow, so I tried to get ready as quickly as possible, as did the others. We checked out officially, leaving our bags in the storage locker to pick up later, and after breakfast, went back out into town. It was raining, which was a bit of a downer, but not so hard as to prevent us from going back to Hofburg and seeing more of the grounds. We then tried to get into an art museum, but the line was discouragingly long, so instead we took the U-Bahn and walked through a park to a giant tower that Ally told us about. Like the Space Needle in Seattle, it has a rotating restaurant, but it was so full that we couldn’t get in, instead looking out at the mist-shrouded vistas of Vienna from the observation deck.

We went to a café for lunch, where I ordered a cucumber salad that turned out to be literally just a sliced cucumber. The others had soup and laughed at me. Our time in Vienna wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the nearby highly recommended (by Rick) bakery. When we sat down, we couldn’t decide what we each wanted, so as a compromise, we ordered three and shared: an apple strudel, a lemon pie, and a sachertorte, the famous chocolate cake. All of it was delicious, and the resulting sugar high propelled us to Hundertwasser, a crazy and bizarre housing complex that reminded me of the Gaudi influenced architecture I had seen in Tel Aviv. They even had a “Toilet of Modern Art,” the second time that weekend a bathroom was interesting enough to take pictures of. Near the end of the street was a plaque commemorating the burning of a hundred Jews on the spot, where there had once been a synagogue, in 1421. This reminder of the depth of Vienna’s history really struck me as incredible.

By then the weather had cleared up, leaving humidity in the air but the skies clear. We walked along the Danube in the late afternoon, enjoying the light on the water, then went and sat in the city park for a while, watching ducks harass each other and relaxing. Our train wasn’t until midnight and we didn’t want to rush to dinner, so we strolled over to near the cathedral again, and found an outdoor café to have a quiet (nonalcoholic) drink. Nearby, there was some sort of Turkish festival going on, with lots of music, and drumming and dancing, which gave an odd counterpoint to the regular bell tolling of the churches.

It was starting to get chilly, and I was more than a little hungry by the time we made our way to our last dinner in Vienna at the (of course) Rick recommended Gigerl Stadtheuriger, a sort of wine garden (of which Vienna has many) restaurant near the cathedral. The atmosphere was very Austrian, from the waitresses in straw hats, to the accordionist and violinist serenading the mainly older diners with classic waltzes, Frank Sinatra hits and once (I swear) If I Were a Rich Man, from Fiddler on the Roof. We each ordered a glass of (cheap but rather good) wine, and went up to do the traditional food gathering of a wine garden, the buffet, where you pay for food by weight. I had cheese stuffed peppers, extraordinarily delicious goat cheese balls, and a large chunk of spinach strudel, the others had similar dishes though with other varieties or choices sometimes (like the Rick recommended pork Ally enjoyed). We took it slow, hanging out at the restaurant for over two hours before leaving to go to the hostel, grab our stuff, brush our teeth and make one last bathroom trip, and go to the train station.

We’d timed it quite well, especially considering we were leaving from a different station. After a short wait, we got onto the train, which had compartments for six instead of the more open seating of the last train. I was nervous about finding where our reserved seats were since one ticket was separate from the others but we found our way to a compartment with four spots, and a man and woman traveling separately seated by the window. Our tickets were checked almost as soon as we left the station and pretty soon we all drifted off or at least dozed, not hard tired as we were, even considering how difficult it can be sometimes to sleep while sitting. We were all startled around five in the morning when a conductor slammed our door open to check our tickets again, and I found it much more difficult to fall back asleep after that, but it wasn’t too big a concern as, a little over an hour later, we were pulling in to Munich. I poked Kerre awake and Ally and Roisin opened their eyes as the train slowed. We were almost right in front of a “Munchen Hbf.” Sign when Ally turned to us and asked, “is this Munich?” We laughed a little at this, though of course it was just because she didn’t have her contacts in and couldn’t tell signs at all. We got off the train and went our respective ways, (Kerre and I helped Ally find the right train) saying goodbye, promising to meet up maybe Tuesday or Thursday, and I went home. Well, for an hour or so at least. I showered, changed and went off to work, well content with my weekend.

What made it such a great weekend wasn’t just the fact that I was in Vienna, but that I traveled with such a great group of people. From Kerre’s infectious good humor to Ally’s essential translations, to Rosin’s inspiring determination to keep going, there was just great group chemistry. It reminded me of the best trips from Semester at Sea, and just made me more excited than ever to travel and see new cities and have new experiences. Let me put it like this: normally I don’t enjoy getting lost, except sometimes in retrospect. With this group, getting lost was a fun adventure, as was the whole weekend. I can’t wait to try to top it. I asked the others how they would describe the weekend. Ally’s was perhaps the most memorable phrasing. “Eric took a lot of pictures. Vienna was beautiful. I had fun.” Well said.

Categories: Germany, Personal
  1. Kerre
    March 23, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Whoop, whoop! Vienna did rock as did all of you!!! Love it!

  1. July 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm

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