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Travel and Tourism

Blown away in Vienna

- Manny Gonzalez / Plantation Bay Resort & Spa -

MANILA, Philippines - When I arrived in Vienna, the wind was gusting so strong that people were getting blown off their feet by the dozens and rolled around in the streets, bouncing against each other like billiard balls.

Well, not really, though the city is fairly flat, and it was pretty windy. But I quickly felt right at home. My taxi driver from Meidling train station was a Turk who has lived in Vienna for 30 years and spoke no English. A cheerful and resourceful fellow, he was nonetheless able to extract precise information about my family (not here), the purpose of my visit (not business), and how much German I spoke (not much). When we parted, I wished him and his three children good fortune, and he wished me and my — I think it was shoes — a pleasant stay.

The Spanish Riding School. One reason to visit Vienna is the Vienna Opera House. However, I did not go there, as my interests don’t lie in the direction of opera. Another reason to visit is the Vienna Boys’ Choir. However, I did not watch them, as my interests don’t lie in the direction of young boys.

Yet another draw is the Spanish Riding School. Now this one I went to. About 400 years old, the Riding School has been training its trademark white Lipizzaner stallions and relieving tourists of cold cash for some time, and it is a must-see. So you must go. The horses prance on tiptoe, canter on a diagonal, and other impressive tricks, though the riders did not stand up on a galloping horse and shoot the pip out of an Ace, as I once saw in a movie, or was it a comic book. Anyway, a formal show costs 80 euros for a goodish seat, but for a mere 20 euros, you can watch daily exercises and get a stable tour, which is practically as good. Finally, you could wait outside the stadium and watch them pooping on the street as they cross back to the stables, for free.

One thing that impressed me at the Riding School was that, when a fat Russian woman elbowed past me in the queue, the ticket agent stopped her cold and told her to get in line. Ordnung! and a sense of what is correct, not what is easier. If Filipinos had one-tenth of this, imagine where our country would be.

History lesson. Like much of Europe, Vienna has a complicated history, so let’s simplify. During Roman times it was a military camp, in the Middle Ages a prosperous trading center. Austria was originally part of Bavaria, but around 1150 AD was spun off as the “eastern realm,” öster-reich, which foreigners with lazy throats shortened to Austria. Austrian rulers kept marrying well, increasing their domains, until around 1450 a Duke of Austria was elected Holy Roman Emperor, which suddenly made Vienna the capital of a big chunk of Europe, while Austria’s status jumped from “Duchy” to “Empire.”

What with having to keep up appearances and all, after that the Viennese just kept building bigger and bigger buildings, palaces, and museums, most of which survive today.

There is, for example, the Belvedere palace. Sorry for bailing on the Vienna Boys’ Choir, I did go there. However, Schloss Schönbrunn, an Imperial summer palace, is the bigger attraction. Right next to a metro stop, it is surprisingly easy to get to, not like Berlin’s Sans Souci, which is really in Potsdam, or Washington DC’s Monticello, which is really nowhere. To get back to Schönbrunn, you should go. But when I went, in the dead of winter, there was a 30-minute long wait at the box office. So buy your ticket in advance over the Internet, unless you enjoy standing in line for character-building purposes.

Mind you, the truth is that if you’ve seen one European palace, you’ve more or less seen them all. They all have endless corridors and for the master’s quarters an early example of an indoor toilet. For example, if you’ve been to Versailles or Windsor Castle or even Knotts Berry Farm, you can consider Schönbrunn’s interior optional. (I hope no Austrian reads this.) The gardens, however, are extensive, and include possibly the only hill (really a gentle swell) in Vienna; moreover, they’re free; bring a ham-and cheese sandwich and a Coke, and you’re all set (clean up afterwards; don’t shame your countrymen).

The Sisi Museum. Speaking of “free,” there are a lot of museums in Vienna, and the one characteristic they have in common is that they are not free. But most are well worth the admission.

Except the State Library. Do not spend seven euros to enter the State Library. I cannot be held responsible for what happens to you if you do.

The Imperial Palace in Vienna is an exception to my “palace interiors are optional” advice. Fondly called the Sisi Museum, it is about Elisabeth of Wittelsbach (“Sisi”), who was 15 years old when she married the future Emperor Franz Joseph. From the start, the marriage was an unhappy one and all kinds of misfortunes ensued. Depending on whether you are a Franz Joseph supporter or a Sisi partisan, either he fooled around and drove her away, or she kept wandering around Europe trying to capture her lost youth and he finally got a mistress. Their son the Crown Prince committed suicide with his girlfriend (or both were murdered, take your pick). The Emperor’s brother got executed in Mexico by revolutionaries. And, finally, Sisi herself was assassinated, pretty much by accident, by an anarchist in Geneva who couldn’t locate his original target.

You can see how these melancholy events would make for a riveting soap opera. Or a crowd-pleasing museum. So, okay, I take it back. This is one European palace you should see. The photos of Sisi show her to be a truly very lovely woman, and there are lots of memorabilia of her life as a reluctant Empress.

Kunst und Natur. Also make time to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Kunst, by the way, means art; I once had to spend half an hour in Munich deducing this, having noted the word on map stores, book stores, a manicurist, and a café). The K-Museum answered a question that has puzzled me for some time: What did people do in the days before Internet porn? I mean, office hours must have been somewhat boring, don’t you think.

And the answer is — if you were Holy Roman Emperor, you commissioned works of art. And told the painters to be sure to include naked women.

Observe this painting (see photo). It’s by Titian, no less. According to the audio guide, it depicts the legend of Danae, whom Zeus impregnated surreptitiously through a “sprinkle of golden coins.” Well, I don’t know about you, but Danae looks suspiciously like she is engaged in — you know, autoerotic behavior.

It’s okay, you can look at it a little longer. It’s art. Enjoy. Observe the delicate rendering of the skin tones.

Across the concourse is the Naturhistorisches Museum, which is about Natur rather than Kunst. It has without any doubt the most beautiful museum restaurant in the entire world (see photo), replete with marble, frescoed dome ceilings, and big game trophies, and is worth visiting just to sit at the restaurant. The food, though, was nothing to write home about.

Twinkies - 1; Sacher Torte - 0. I sense that you have raised your eyebrows in disbelief. You have probably heard that Vienna is renowned for its food. Here I have to be honest with you. Vienna coffee is just coffee. (Unless you order Turkish coffee, which is just awful.) And between Vienna’s world-famous Sacher Torte (a cake invented by the Hotel Sacher that sells for five euros or more), and a 50-cent Twinkie, I would take the Twinkie in a heartbeat. But of course that’s just me.

You have undoubtedly heard of Vienna sausage. Now this they have. But it tastes nothing like genuine Vienna sausage made by Purefoods or Hormel. In fact, it tastes suspiciously like a hot dog. Did you know, by the way, that the term “weenie,” meaning a male organ of unimpressive dimensions, is derived from “Vienna sausage”? Just thought I’d ask.

Finally, there is Wiener Schnitzel. Okay, Wiener Schnitzel is not bad. Let’s move on. (I hope no Austrian is reading this. Aber wenn Sie sind, ich bin nur ein unwissender Asiatische. So be kind.)

Downtown Vienna is a well-defined area between St. Stephen’s Dom (cathedral) and the Opera. Even if wiener schnitzel doesn’t ring your bell, the Viennese are competent at everything they do, so just about any restaurant you choose in this area will be adequate or better. Judging by where I saw the most full-length mink coats, the best restaurants seem to be Italian.

However, the one I liked most was the Augustinerkeller, which is Bavarian, and serves schweinebraten (roast pork) for only 12 euros. This is a serious recommendation. Augustinerkeller is very conveniently located, so sooner or later you will walk right beside it, especially if you are staying at the 400-euro-a-night Hotel Sacher, or heading for the 80-euro-a-ticket Spanish Riding School Show.

Eight-euro breakfast! No, I did not stay at the Hotel Sacher. My hotel was on the other (wrong) side of Karntner Ring, but it was walking distance from the Sacher, had a knockout room, the smell of fried eggs in the ventilation system, and — best of all — a full breakfast for only eight euros! However, I decline to reveal its name, because some of the other guests looked suspiciously like underworld characters and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for anything that happened to you. I hope you understand.

Vienna, in case I forgot to mention it earlier, is regarded as one of the world’s most livable cities (along with Zurich and Vancouver, they seem to take turns being No. 1). It has an air of imperial grandeur unmatched by any other city in Europe, a pleasurable hint of decadence, and residents who are unfailingly well-mannered and professional at what they do. If you have any interest in art or history at all, or simply want to experience elegant living, European-style, then Vienna waits for you.

HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR

HOTEL SACHER

KUNST

ONE

RIDING SCHOOL

SACHER TORTE

VIENNA

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