Monday, August 18, 2008

Vienna blog (Maeve on the tram in Vienna)

We had 3 weeks of vacation this summer, as Maeve’s daycare had time off. We spent the first week (July 21-26) in Seattle. Mike had a conference, and I was looking at housing and daycares as we’re thinking of moving there. So that was work. But afterwards, we had 2 weeks of vacation and spent a week each in Vienna and Budapest.

From Seattle we flew to Frankfurt and then took a train to Vienna – a long travel day. Maeve did well on the flights, but it would be nice if she’d sleep more. The longer she’s up, the more she has to be walked around the plane and entertained, so Mike and I didn’t get much rest. She slept for about 3 hours on the floor of the train under our feet – it was great.

The Vienna weather was very nice – mid 80’s. We were often hot and tired from the heat, which just goes to show how quickly you can acclimate to cold and disacclimate to heat. We slathered on the sun-tan lotion and tried, somewhat successfully, not to get burnt.

One of the first days there, we did a walking tour of downtown offered through the tourist info center. It was great – took us by lots of historical plaques where Mozart or other luminaries used to live, and we went through several interior courtyards off the Blutgasse (blood alley). This is a medieval section of downtown near the cathedral with the complex for the Knights Templar’s (still in use with about a dozen monks living there) and other old buildings. We’d never have found that on our own. In the early 20th century, there was a debate about whether or not to tear all these old buildings down and build new ones with better sanitation (i.e. running water and toilets) or renovate. The city council ended up establishing a fund to help landlords renovate, which is still in operation to day, and the buildings were kept.

Another morning we decided to go to the Albertina, a museum that’s part of the Hofburg, the Hapsburg’s imperial palace that takes up a huge part of downtown and backs onto the Ring – a boulevard encircling downtown that was built in the 1800’s when they tore down the medieval walls and fortifications. The day before we’d seen the installation of an outdoor sculpture exhibit on the plaza fronting the Albertina. We were up and out a bit before the museum was going to open, so we decided to take a trolley tour around the ring. A couple of trams follow the ring all the way around, so we hopped one and took it around. We started at Schottentor, which is where the tram from our apartment (in the outer part of Vienna at Hernals, a 20 minute tram ride into town) dropped us off. The first part of the ring with the University, Rathaus, Volkstheater, Parliament, Opera, and tons of parks is very monumental. All this was built on a grand scale when they created the ring. Later on were more palaces and parks. Near the river and the ride back to Schottentor was less impressive.

The Albertina had 2 exhibits going, one on Impressionism and one on Paul Klee, plus their permanent exhibit which is in the royal apartments. They have a massive collection, but only a small part of it is on display. We thought we’d missed the main museum, but the royal apartments are it – they just have very selected works on display. By the time we got there, we were pretty much wiped out, and I actually didn’t pay much attention to the art on the walls. I was more interested in checking out the apartments and running after Maeve, who loved the long hallways as all the rooms opened in a straight line and she could run a long way.

The 2 temporary exhibits, which was saw first, were great. They mixed works from the Albertina’s collection and things they borrowed. Maeve is now old enough that you can talk with her about the art, what colors there are, if there are people or boats or chairs or water or trees etc. She’ll point out the paintings she wants to look at and then we talk about them. It’s slow going, but interactive. So you get to look at things while entertaining her, a major improvement over just having her run around and climb on benches and whoever’s with her sees nothing. We still switch off, one going faster and one with her, but it works well. I think the impressionist work was very good for this – it’s very approachable and relatively realistic. The Paul Klee didn’t work quite as well, and she was tireder by then. In the apartments, she just wanted to run. After the Albertina, we walked through some of Hofburg to find the cantina, which had a veggie option, and was cheap at about 7 Euros each. On the way there, we passed the Butterfly house. Maeve was very psyched about this, and like good parents, we took her there after lunch. It was extremely hot and humid, but butterflies were flying all around, there were several terrariums with butterflies in various stages of pupation, and there were Maeve-level fishtanks. All in all a winner for the 2 year old set.

I would recommend the Albertina. It was small enough to do without getting exhausted, even for us, and had excellent art. We were interested in going to Belvedere also, another place/art museum, which has all the art deco work, but didn’t make it there. We also didn’t make it to any of the museums in the new Museum Quarter, right outside the ring. We have to be selective with Maeve, and the Albertina was a good choice.

One day we took a whole-day trip to Melk. You can get a package from the Austrian train to take a train to Melk, do a 2 hour Danube cruise downriver to Krems, and take a train back to Vienna. This was my favorite day in Austria. We got up early, took packed lunch and plenty of food - sandwiches, yogurt, fruit, crackers, dried fruit etc and hopped the train in the Westbahnhof. Maeve likes looking for windmills, corn, sunflowers, trees, and hay. Also cows and other livestock when it’s around. She also likes walking up and down the train. The ride to Melk is about 90 minutes, and from Krems back a little over an hour – we tend to pick day trips with travel times significantly less than 2 hours. Melk is all about the Benedictine monastery. From the train station you walk 2 minutes into town and see this yellow enormous structure covering the top of the hill towering over the town. The town’s main street just caters to tourists – Melk is on a main long-distance Danube biking trail and there were tons of bike tours as well as cruise ships, bus tours etc. We also saw several people from our AM train on the boat and return train – so that package was also frequently used.

It’s a five minute walk uphill to the monastery which has huge gardens outside the gates which we didn’t really have time to see much of. We were there in time for the morning English tour. We walked through the first courtyard with a fountain and koi (Maeve likes fish and can say both pez and koi) and up into a museum. The museum was off the long corridor, the longest side of the monastery, and presented history of the Benedictines and the monastery. The monastery was founded by the ruling house of Austria before the Hapsburgs, over 900 years ago. The buildings were completely redone by an Abbot about 200 years ago – the original buildings were razed and this impressive fortress complex was built on the site. It really makes you realize that these were princes of the church with massive wealth and resources at hand. The view from the balcony over an arm of the Danube was magnificent. The library was also interesting – trompe d’oeil ceiling and books floor to ceiling with a number of concealed doors that lead to alcoves behind the shelves where there were windows and better light for reading.

There was a little walk down the Danube to the boat dock. The boat was a river cruiser, and we got a spot on the upper deck in the shade, with a great view of the refreshment stand. We were trying to stay out of the sun and out of the cigarette smoke. We ended up spending most of the trip in front of the covered section in the shade of the roof behind the pilot’s house. The Danube was just beautiful, sometimes steep hillsides with half ruined castles sitting in craggy outcroppings, other times gentler slopes covered with vineyards, other times valleys with villages nestled between fields. There was also plenty of business on the river to keep Maeve busy looking around: other boats, people swimming, buoys, ducks etc.

The train ride home from Krems was uneventful. Catching the train was a trick – we looked at our ticket, which said we went from Krems school, but didn’t understand where that was. We asked boat personnel, also clueless. So we set out to walk to Krems main train station. About half way there, we realized we had about 5 minutes or we’d miss our train. I had Maeve asleep in the sling on my back by this point, but we transferred her to Mike and woke her up and I got the backpack and we started running, maybe 6 blocks or more. We got there in plenty of time as the train was a few minutes late. It turns out that there was a local train from the Krems school, which is near the dock, that went to the main train station and there you switched for the train to Vienna. Oh well. We made the train and Maeve slept for maybe 5 minutes that day.

Food in Vienna was generally good. There were tons of vegetarian restaurants listed on, and when we bought a city guide, it had some more options. We went to one or two that weren’t good. These were the typical Viennese food, which was breaded, fried, oil-swamped and salty. But the cafes, Chinese, neuveau cuisine etc veg options were all good. Our favorite restaurant was Wrenkh, between Stephansplatz and the river. We ate there after we did the walking tour. The tour left us off at the old Jesuit University, and we walked past the Hoher Markt, where there were tons of people milling around. They’d stopped to look at the Ankeruhr, a clock that had a procession of people in very fancy clothes representing each hour every day at noon. So we got to watch that, and then headed to Wrenkh, which was not oil-drenched and very flavorful veggie food.

We spent one day at Schoenbrun castle. We paid to go in the maze, and got detoured on the way there by a really nice playground. Each section of the playground had a different focus, like musical instruments, mirrors, a maze, or water. The neatest equipment was a huge bird that you could climb up a rope net to, sit in, and push your legs off the netting to make the wings moved. Maeve enjoyed sitting up there with her Mike for a while. Later, we had some issues with the maze, but eventually found our way to the middle.

There was a huge fountain behind the castle, near the maze, that was off when we first got there. By 10 AM the Neptune fountain was going, spraying water high in the air, halfway between the castle and the Gloriette, which was set at the top of a hill. We walked up the hill to the Gloriette to get good views of the castle grounds and Vienna. The whole gardens were very impressive and we could have spent the whole day, not just the morning there. We didn’t bother to go in the castle to see the apartments, but they’re also supposed to be rather luxurious.

One morning we went to see the Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment block in the art deco style put up by Vienna’s answer to Gaudi, Hundertwasser. There’s the apartment block, a shopping center next door, and a few blocks down a museum. Maeve liked the fountain. The building was interesting, mostly because there were plants growing off lots of the balconies and looked very organic.

Most afternoons we just took long naps and then went out to dinner, getting over jetlag. I wanted to try some Vienese café food, but it was a bit tricky finding ones that served veggie options. We went to one, Café Florienhof, in Josefstadt, right outside the ring, and the food was yummy. The weather was also beautiful, and we were always looking to sit outside. But there are a lot of smokers in Vienna, and they often (but not always) can’t sit inside, so outside was an iffy choice if we wanted to stay away from the smoke. On the way back to our train, we passed the house where Kurt Goedel lived as a student. Mike took a picture.

Towards the end of the week we started planning afternoon excursions. One day we went to the Wienerwald to do a hike. I love saying Wienerwald – it’s the forest just outside of town that actually belongs to the city and is very heavily used for recreation. We took a bus from Ottakring S-Bahn station up to the forest. We actually took the wrong bus – we couldn’t find the bus we were supposed to take so took another one that went to the same stop a different way. We walked from the bus stop up to a forest tower. The views were amazing – it was mildly cloudy and we were still way over the trees, could see villages several ridges over and see the city. On a fair day, you’re supposed to be able to see into Slovakia. We then walked a bit more along forest paths, never deep in the woods but skirting through a part closer to civilization. We picknicked in a field with several tables – our usual fare of bread and cheese sandwiches, boiled eggs, yogurt, and fruit. Maeve now can peel and salt her own egg. On the way out, we walked up an endless stair and came out on the road our bus had taken. By that time, the sky was very very ominous. We debated walking back to the S-Bahn, or just taking the bus. It was late, we were lame, and we opted for the bus. Sure enough, on the way home, the bottom fell out and it poured. We were staying in the Dachgeschoss, which means attic, of our apartment house. This mean that our rooms didn’t have windows – just skylights, which actually let in plenty of air and light. But luckily, that one day, we’d shut the skylights before leaving. So we got home mildly damp from our 3-minute trot from the train station, but neither we nor the apartment got soaked.

Our last day in Vienna, Mike was starting to get a cold. That morning, he decided to stay home and go back to sleep, so Maeve and I went to check out the farmer’s market and find a book in English on Budapest. We went to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s biggest farmers market, and got all kinds of neat things like organic fruit, organic cookies, black olives stuffed with cream cheese (Maeve loves black olives), blueberries, and lunch, which was falafel sandwiches, which we took back to the apartment and ate with Mike. We also walked around a bit – through the Museums quarter on the way to an English bookstore, which was closed. Then from the Nashmarkt, we went to the British Bookshop, which had tons of good books, so I bought a novel to read. The book was the Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, by Louis de Berniers, a very funny magical realism story. So they had good books but no travel guide for Budapest. But they told me of a travel bookstore between das Graben, one of the main pedestrian streets, and Michaelerplatz. So Maeve and I walked there, stopping accidently first at a bookstore 2 doors down, and got a book on Budapest. Mission accomplished. We then headed home for lunch and an early nap, because we wanted to take a tour of the cathedral that afternoon.

The cathedral tour was definitely worth it. To go in the central apse, you have to pay (either tour or audioguide) and our guide was good. The pulpit was my favorite – it was carved with pictures of saints and going up the stairwell were little carvings of animals. Underneath there was a head sticking out a window – probably a portrait of the carver. The cathedral was bombed in WWII, Vienna lost about 30% of its downtown. Actually, Vienna seemed much older than many cities in Germany because it lost so few buildings – the cathedral and Opera had to be rebuilt, but most of the other monuments had minimal damage. Anyway, much of the cathedral decorations were stored in the basement – one huge crypt was too heavy to move, so they sandbagged it and it survived. So there was some rebuilding, and they have a new roof, but many of the statues, altars etc are actually originals.

We left Vienna on Sunday morning, with a one-night stopover in Gyor, Hungary in route to Budapest. More about that in the next installment.

No comments: