Vienna – Back to My Roots

Vienna was quite a change after the grittiness of Prague. Clean, nice, free from dodgy looking beggars (there are beggars almost everywhere we’ve been in Europe, most have been fine, but the Prague ones were particularly seedy).

Day one was once again, you guessed it, Rick Steves. After you get over the annoying American twang of this guy (and his terribly lame humour), he’s really quite informative. We actually did two of his tours. The first one was the Ringstrasse tour – this is a tram line that goes around the main part of the city (District 1). It used to be where the city walls were, before a clever Emperor Franz Joseph I  worked out that the threats to the city were coming from inside it, not outside. Knocking down the large city wall and turning it into a large street for transport had many advanatages – one of which was that it was too wide for people to erect revolutionary barricades.

After the Ringstrasse tour, we headed into District one for the city tour. We stopped at the famous Hotel Sacher for some Sachertorte (a special Viennese cake with marmalade in it) admired some of the beautiful architecture and were lucky to stumble across a choir performing a free concert in one of the beautiful churches. They were spectacular and the amazing acoustics provided by the stunning domed ceiling made for a very memorable moment.

Our night was topped off when we stumbled across a Food Circus. Yes you heard. Food Circus. This was a collection of probably about 40 different food and wine stalls – each selling a different world cuisine. It was on (as far as we could tell) to accompany the music film festival that was also on. Every night in on a large screen outside the Rathaus, some kind of music film was being shown free. We selected some asian food (which we’d been craving) and sat down to watch an Italian opera that was being screened. Luckily it was subtitled. Unluckily, the subtitles were only in German. I understood a bit, but Tim was pretty lost. So we watched the first two acts and headed home for some R&R.

Our Air BnB was another shared one. Our host Luca, an ice cream entrepreneur who had just recently opened a store in a kind of hipster area on the border of districts 7 & 8 (which we had the pleasure of sampling). The apartment was beautiful with high ceilings (a nice change for Tim who’s been bumping his head through the Czech Republic), parquetry floors and a beautiful big bed. The one thing it lacked was air con or a fan. And once again (after a brief respite in Prague) the temperatures were soaring. So we had some sticky nights.

The next day we took a rather unusual trip out to visit to Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof). I wanted to make the trip as it is where a number of my relatives are buried including my grandfather’s mother (Emma) and his sister, who died before he was born (Margit). I had managed to find the locations of their graves online and despite reading that most of the Jewish part of the cemetery where they were buried was in ruins after many of the graves were defaced around WWII – decided to make the trek out.

Upon arriving it was clear that they were going to be hard to find. The Jewish part of the cemetery was in ruins. Graves defaced or fallen over, no real paths and weeds and vines growing everywhere. After some searching we managed to somewhat work out how things were ordered.

We didn’t have any luck finding Emma, but Margit was a bit easier – being in the children’s section of the cemetery. We found her row and just as we we were getting to the spot I thought she should be, I look over and see a doe sitting by the graves. Right by her grave’s location. It was one of those times where even someone like Tim (who is less into what he likes to call ‘Ooga boogie’ stuff than I am), thought it was a bit spooky. While the doe led us to our location before bounding away, we unfortunatley didn’t find quite what we were looking for. Margot’s grave was completely covered in vines. So much so it was impossilbe to see underneath. All the same, it was a fun excursion and exploring the overgrown cemetery is something I’ll remember for a long time.

Our next big excursion of our Vienna leg was a bicycle winery tour of the Wachau region. This was such an amazing day. The tour took us, along with some Canadians, English, Americans and a fascinating New Zealander (an ex surgeon, turned inventor and vineyard owner) out of the city by train, where we picked up our bikes. We cycled through the stunning Austraian wine country, stopping off at Durnstein (famous for having held Richard the Lionhearted captive) and family run wineries. We sampled drunken apricots (apricots soaked in apricot schnapps), schnapps and a number of Austrian wines. The wines were ok, nothing to write home about, but the ride itself was a real highlight. At the end of the day we stopped off at a little spot and had a dip in the Danube too. Very refreshing after riding around in the heat.

Apart from the above, a large part of our Vienna stay was spent seeing art. We visited:

The Belvedere Palace & Museum: this place is huge, so much so that they separate the place into multiple exhibitions and entry fees. I suspect this is more of a cash grab than anything else. We got the Klimt ticket which gave us access to one of the parts of the main gallery containing most of the Klimt works (including the famous ‘Kiss’) and a special exhibition called Klimt and the Ringstrasse. The first part was quite good. Klimt’s work is quite breathtaking in real life. He really was so ahead of his time. His style is like no one else I’ve seen.

The second part was a bit of a let down, the extent of the Klimt in this Klimt titled exhibition was some sketches and a painting form his earlier years before he really developed his signature style.

Kunst Haus Wien and Hudertwasser Haus: Hundertwasser is one of my favourite artists. I saw both these places as part of a year 10 language trip when I was 16, but had to visit again. I was just as enthralled as the first time. Not only an amazing artist, Hundertwasser had his influence on architecture and was quite the environmentalist and activist – even redesigning the Australian and New Zealand flags to incorporate out indigenous history. Also at the Kunstauus was a temporary exhibition of Joel Meyerowitz’s photography which was also very good.

Leopold Museum: Another great modern gallery, I stomped this one alone (Tim visited the Museum of Art and History). It had another great display of Secession art including more works by Schiele (who is becoming another favourite) and some more Klimt. There was also a Schiele exhibition that explored his life and relationship with long term partner Valerie “Wally” Neuzil. Aside from the art, it also looked at the role of women during this time in history. Unfortunately I couldn’t give it the time it deserved, as I had arranged to head to a Vienna Service Design meet up.

I won’t bore you with the details, but it was great to meet more service designers from around the world. I really enjoy learning about what’s going on abroad in my field. Although so far it seems to me, rather surprisingly, Australia is pretty far ahead of places like Austria and Czech Republic.

Vienna is really a beautiful city and one, if Melbourne were not so awesome, I would be happy to live in. I’m happy to have it form part of my heritage (with my grandpa being born there) and will definitely be looking into the possibility of an Austrian passport. =)