21 January 2009

La troisième ville : Vienne

I just watched The Third Man – an excellent film noir set in 1949 Vienna – this afternoon and was, thus, inspired to complete my travel triptych with my tales from Wien.

Of our three destinations, Vienna was the city that reminded me the most of Paris. Its late-19th-century buildings are of a similar architecture as those of Paris. Its Habsburg palaces blatantly recall the style and opulence of Versailles. And of the three cities, it was the place where I felt the guiltiest for not being able to speak the language. Although the Austrians didn’t seem as fervently zealous in their protection of German as the French are of their language, English was less common than in Amsterdam (where it was ubiquitous) and less appreciated than in Prague (where I detected mild amusement from those with which I spoke in English). I guess the city served as a good transition back to Paris.

We pulled into the bus station in Vienna around noon and proceed to the U-Bahn – Vienna’s equivalent of the Metro – where we successfully purchased our 72-hour passes and boarded the train in the direction of our accommodations. Thanks to a detailed map of the area that we had sketched out, using Google Maps, the night before, we avoided conflict and made it easily to the Elisabeth Guesthouse. When we arrived there was no on in sight and no response upon ringing the bell. We were searching for their phone number amongst my paperwork and standing confused in the hallway for a number of minutes when an endearing old Austrian man emerged from a nearby doorway. He eventually led us to our room which was more like a bitty apartment complete with kitchen and entryway.

We took the U-Bahn into town where we visited the impressive and very tall St. Stephen’s Cathedral. After that, we anticipated our standby tourism strategy of walking about the city looking at various pretty things. Unfortunately, the weather, which – coinciding with our departure from Prague – had recently turned frigid, foiled this tactic. We quickly grew very cold. We ducked into a nearby church to warm up, and Peterskirche [St. Peter’s Church] turned out to be a delightfully ornate Baroque art piece.

Fighting off the cold, we continued on to get a look at the Hofburg Palace, pride of the Habsburgs, and carried on to the MuseumsQuartier, an overly conceptual mall/museum complex where it seemed a number of things were closed. This was the moment when we began to realize that the Austrians must celebrate some sort of Boxing-Day-like holiday for which life shuts down on the day after Christmas. We began to fear the fermeture [closure] of all eating establishments, and dinner plans became a concern. Luckily, we had blown our remaining crowns on snacks at our nonstop convenience store in Prague so at least we wouldn’t go hungry. Nevertheless, we decided to walk the length of a major thoroughfare in search of something warm to eat. The only place open was MacDo [McDonald’s], and although we were reluctant – we passed one up before ultimately deciding to give in at the next – it turned out to be worth it, if only for the intriguing cross-cultural exchange that took place as I tried to order from the entertained (and entertaining) German-speaking cashier.

We called it a night and decide we would need to make more concrete plans for the next day in order to avoid growing bitter and cold on the streets of Vienna.

Saturday we hit up a grocery store, realizing the severity of our lack of food. We then hopped on the U-Bahn for the Belvedere. To get there we had to switch to the S-Bahn – Vienna’s equivalent of the RER – and thanks to some incompetency in reading signs we passed by the Prater theme park which allowed us to see the Ferris wheel featured in a dramatic scene between Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in The Third Man.

We eventually headed back in the right direction and arrived at the Belvedere. Originally the summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy, it now hosts an impressive art collection. It understandably had an impressive selection of Klimts; although I don’t think I had heard of him before this trip, I grew to love the work of Gustav Klimt, pride of the modern Vienna art scene. The grand staircase and impressive rooms of both the Upper and Lower Belvedere buildings were also a treat. Plus, the French garden connecting them made me feel at home.

We ended up passing our day amongst the art and stopped off to look at the beautifully lit Karlskirche [St. Charles’s Church] before heading home for the night.

On our last day in Vienna, we stopped by the Secessionist Building whose art nouveau exterior was eye-catching and the Opera which was a bit of a rip-off of Paris’s Opera Garnier.

We spent most of the day in the Albertina, yet another palace-cum-gallery, where a recently donated personal collection featured works by painters from Monet to Picasso and everyone in between (and even some after like Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko). A random smattering of contemporary Austrian art with poorly written – or poorly translated – accompanying text also held our attention. The Habsburg staterooms were equally thrilling, presenting the allure of a fully reconstructed timepiece with prints from Dürer and others decorating the walls. This mixture of luxury and art was particularly appealing to me. It’s like getting two attractions for the price of one!

After I bought some chocolates as a souvenir for my host mom, we began our search around the St. Stephen’s Cathedral for some “Viennese treats” to cap off our stay. Apparently I am spoiled from living in Paris where cafés line the streets and dot each corner, but it was harder than expected to find a suitable establishment. We did eventually locate this immense eatery where I had the milkshake I had been looking for all week and some tiramisu – don’t judge…it’s required to indulge while on vacation – and Ben got a classic apple strudel. Before saying goodbye to Vienna we took the U-Bahn out to Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburg’s summer retreat, to snap some photos and stare.
The next day, despite frustrations with the S-Bahn which decided to cancel a train making us wait on the cold quai [platform] for a good hour and ten minutes, we made it to the Vienna Airport and happily boarded our plane back to Paris.

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