Slick St. Stephens Cathedral

Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral

The Viennese are not the sort to sit back on their ancestors’ architectural laurels.

We visited the massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral that dates back to the first half of the 1100’s, first laying our  eyes on it in daytime. It’s an impressive sight with its cavernous Romanesque and Gothic design. That beauty was amplified when we happened across it at night and discovered virtual paint cans of colour splashed on the building, both inside and out, and by “virtual,” I mean not real paint cans, but a light show that casts the entire edifice in a rainbow. Adding to our amazement, the pipe organ blasted into this cornucopia of colour. Austria. You must love it. You have to. Awesome Austria.

Just to prove that Europeans don’t just build on North American aboriginal graves, they did the same here. The site was originally believed to be an open field, but in 2000, plumbing problems led to some excavations that yielded graves. Yes, you discover the most interesting things in the aftermath of plumbing foibles.

And for those interested in a little Bible history, St. Stephen was an early Christian evangelist preaching to the Jews, who was summarily martyred  by stoning. That was savage indeed, and the weirdest thing is that this ancient form of execution continues even to this day.

This is not to pick on the Jews who in St. Stephen’s case were the ones doing the stoning, because it has been practised nearly worldwide as a ‘legitimized’ death penalty. Today it is prescribed in Islam’s Sharia law and practised in Islamic states. A recent case came to global attention where a 13-year-old girl was sentenced to die in this manner for being raped by her brother. Yes, that’s how backward Islam is towards women. Her sentence was altered, but reportedly other stonings continue.

North America appears to be the only continent free of execution-by-stoning. I could be wrong about this so if any archeological/anthropological/historical experts care to correct me, I will add their comments in here.

Just because the practice is barbaric does not mean it doesn’t have rules. Everything has rules, and so it is with stoning that even the size of the stones must conform to standard, lest a single large stone kill the victim too quickly.

Surprisingly, some tried to introduced Sharia law in family courts in Canada. Read here to learn more about it. In the spirit of multiculturalism, some people tried to take a non-judgmental aloof attitude toward this campaign, but frankly, any culture that tries to import a system of law that in some places includes stoning rape victims is just stark-raving mad and I for one would be happy to deport anyone trying to import it to my homeland. I’m just saying.

But that is another thing. Here are some more photos of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, an ancient Christian monument that brings to mind a modern Islamic practice. Who would have guessed it?

 

What to Skip on Your Trip

 

I could have missed this, but I'm glad I didn't.

Every destination we eye brings forward the ultimate travel question: What sites can we skip?

It runs counter to the usual travel query – what are the must-sees.

That is the wrong question. It works backwards in that it assumes an infinite amount of time is available whereas even the most summary of polls will pile on a backlog of tourist-to-do’s that at the end of your journeys will evoke a haunting suspicion that you have left the “must-sees” unseen and for years to come as you ruminate on your travels, it will be in an air steeped in the stench of bygone opportunities.

And that is not what you paid for when you ponied up to the travel web-site and booked your holiday.

So edit your list.

The ultimate travel satisfaction is not in aiming high, nor low, but for somewhere between mediocre and medium. Forget those travel-writers who make it sound possible to see it all in 36 hours (a la New York Times travel section).

We have taken serious runs at seeing cities in 36 hours, but to keep up with the NY Times version would require copious consumption of Red Bull and absolutely no sleep (although this would save on hotel bills).

And so, I have been to Paris, but not the inside of the Louvre (long line-up).

I have lived in Spain and not gone near the lauded Camino del Santiago pilgrim walk (I read the Bible and learned that heaven does not require hiking, although if you like a good walk, go ahead).

I have been to Germany and not seen a holocaust museum (although I heartily believe that everyone who complains about Israel being knee-jerk over-defensive should visit at least five holocaust museums).

But I drift from my point, which is, what can you skip on your trip? Well? What can you skip?

More ramblings on this later.

A view of Vienna from the hill overlooking Schoenbrunn palace is beautiful, but could I have missed it? Yes. I could have.

I am always glad to see any statue that was not created between 1940 and 2010, so I am happy I did not miss this. On the other hand, Europe has about 893-gazillion horse and warrior sculptures, so if I did miss this, I would not mind terribly.

And now, something for the economists…

Dave emulates his economic-theorist hero Adam Smith.

Economic theorists, heads-up. My hubby Dave has walked by many works of fine art, concert halls and astonishing vistas with only the barest nod in the attraction’s direction, which is why I was stunned as we walked through the business section of Vienna to hear him say, “Oh, Adam Smith!” as he walked past this statue that, you will notice, only says A. Smith. How did he know the statue honoured Adam Smith? It turns out that Smith is the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It was a pioneering work of political economics. I did not know this, but it goes to show something. I’m not sure what, except that it underscores that Dave knows a lot more about monetary systems, economics and investments than do I.

Schoenbrunn Park

Solo statuary was sheathed against the weather, but the garden pavilion's scultpures were on display.

The great thing about Schoenbrunn is that while you must pay to get inside the palace, the grounds function as a city park. Joggers, strollers, sightseers, pondside ponderers all linger quite happily on the spacious grounds.

The park is almost square at 1 x 1.2 kilometres and has been on the Unesco World Heritage Sites since 1996. A brief word about Unesco: What the heck? We visited a Unesco site that called into question the merits of Unesco designation. This, however, was not that site. Schoenbrunn is definitely Unesco-worthy.

As we noted with other-things-Austrian, everything was tidy and well-kept. Litter was at a scant minimum and we did not spot a single drunk lounging on the park benches.

I know this sounds very snotty to look down my nose at public drunkenness, but nothing can upset the day’s happy balance quite the way that having a drunken wretch glare menacingly at you while muttering something in German. It is even less pleasant to have a drunk stagger behind you, casting his alcoholic breath over your airspace and waving his cigarette a little too close to your coat.

Am I saying this has happened to me? Of course it has, but not in Austria.

 

Schoenbrunn's garden rises upward, so it gives a beautiful view of Vienna below.

 

An unimaginative, but informative perspective on Schoenbrunn's garden pavilion, which houses a very nice and surprisingly affordable restaurant.

 

When the Austrians say they want high ceilings, they mean high ceilings, dangit.

Schoenbrunn Sights

Low sun in Schoenbrunn gardens, which are crisscrossed with pathways wide and narrow - lovely to spend a whole day in.

We saw Schoenbrunn and its gardens one on of those cold, bright winter days when most of the marble statues were wrapped in bisque-coloured tarps.

That is not always so bad – it gave us an appreciation of the precise geometry of the garden’s design. There is also something poetic in the bare brown tree branches against a blue sky. I’ll add more pictures as the week goes on.

Sun paints shadows across the gravelly grounds.

Schoenbrunn in autumn leaf, courtesy Rebolusyon blog.

Backtracking + Schonbrunn

Yup. It is a palace, alright. This is one of Schonbrunn Palace's large ballrooms, and the site of the Vienna summit between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev on June 4, 1961 in the aftermath of the Cuba Missile Crisis. Just as amazing, it is also the place where Dave developed an attachment to audio-guides. I still preferred to read the plaques. Anytime an audio guide starts out describing inane material, such as elaborating on the formation of the society that provides the audio guide, my brain goes into cold storage.

 

I’ve lost track of what I’ve posted and what I’ve not from our recent travels eastward, so I’ll start with the beginning: A visit to Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.

Our overnight train from Zürich arrived in Vienna at 7:30 a.m., and despite our hopeful queries to the porter, it was clear that we had to vacate our cozy little sleeping compartment within 5 minutes of arrival, 10 minutes at most. We staggered into the almost empty Vienna train station, which is possibly the most polished, clean and criminal-free train station we have happened upon thus far in Europe.

This is one of the palace's many wood stoves that is fed wood from the rear, so as not to mess with palace decor. These are huge - eight feet in height by my estimation.

One little shop was open, so we scurried in that direction, but it turned out to be a book shop, leading us to believe the Viennese fall into seizures if they are without reading material. Clean train station, devoted readers – we liked Austria already.  The book shop gal directed us to the tram stop just outside of the station where we caught a tram to Schonbrunn palace, arriving there before opening, so we wandered the grounds a little, then discovered the palace doors were open so we were able to wait in warmth.

The royal bed.

Schonbrunn is the childhood home of Marie Antoinette who along with her surviving siblings (16 children in total, not sure how many died at birth) was given fairly free rein in the palace and its 20-acre grounds of marble statues, troops of trees, trimmed gardens and ponds. They were also encouraged to play with non-royal children. Shocking.

Despite some historical writings saying that Marie Antoinette’s parents had married for love, the palace audio-guide said the opposite, that her  mother Maria Theresa reportedly did not like her father, so she was absent most of time. Only one of Marie Antoinette’s siblings was allowed to marry for love, the rest were all political liaisons. It explains so much about the dysfunction seen in royal families. It may also explain why so many were named Maria – Maria Theresa, Maria Josepha, Maria Carolina, Maria Amalia. The imagination must have been bred out of the family. On the other hand, when a woman has 13 to 16 children it might be economical to be able to just shout Maria when summoning one or more of the flock.

If this were your "comfy" summer home furniture, you might name 11 children Maria, too. The edifice in the corner is another wood stove.

The palace is worth the trip – it shows heavily ornamented Viennese design, and a few surprises in that most of the royal family’s private living rooms are surprisingly small, for a palace, that is. Schonbrunn is also the location of what the audio guide said is Mozart’s first concert at the age of six, but a quick run through the Internet suggests he had other notable concerts before that. I will rely on some music history buff to correct me.

Plan on taking at least 45 minutes for the short tour of about 20 rooms, another hour or more for the gardens. A lovely garden restaurant is behind the palace, but the hike up to it is a steep one. The truly curious could spend an entire day at Schonbrunn.

The palace was packed with stunning chandeliers.

Where Mozart performed before Austrian royalty.

Zip-trips

We have been on the road, or more properly, on the European railway tracks for the most part of the last eight days. Maybe seven days. I don’t know. The concept of time has lost all meaning. Travel does that to a person.

It is very tough work. Tourists are all about seeing things, photographing things, experiencing things, buying things, doing things. It is an artificial existence, and so it is really hard to keep up for a long time.

No need to shovel snow on these 'streets,' but wouldn't it be fun if they froze over? It would be the greatest ice-skating in the world.

We should all feel sorry for those tourists who blithely book a six-month excursion. They have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. I can tell them: It will be a lot of pain and suffering, all while trying to look like they’re having the time of their lives so as to justify their investment of money and time.

But I ramble. The point of this blog is to show a little of what it is like to move to a place, as opposed to just visiting there. But for the last little bit, we have just been visiting. It is tougher than we remember. We’re almost grateful to get back to work.

There are no motor vehicles on Venice or Murano avenues, so everything gets hauled by humans. This cart is designed to take stairs easily. It works beautifully.

10 things we have learned so far:

  1. The best hot chocolate in the world can be had in Bratislava, Slovakia. This is a true fact.
  2. Vienna is much more fabulous than anyone could guess.
  3. Sorry to say, but Italian food tastes better in Canadian ‘Italian’ restaurants.
  4. The landscape between Milan and Venice looks a lot like Saskatchewan.
  5. Venice has a regrettable spewage smell to it. I say spewage, because I doubt they would admit to it being sewage. We may have seen a spewage outfall directly into a canal in the heart of the city.
  6. It is worth the extra money to book a full sleeping compartment with private bathroom and shower on Eurail lines in Switzerland, Austria and France.
  7. It is questionable whether it is worth it to pay extra money for first-class on Trenitalia (Italian Rail). Their seats are a little like Mussolini – hard to put up with.
  8. Italy’s train service Trenitalia also recently laid off their senior staff to hire a bunch of cheaper new staff, putting people out of work who have been with the railway for 20-25 years. Boo Trenitalia. A handful of middle-age guys are protesting this in front of the Venice train station. They have been there for 25 days. Trenitalia is a real name. Check it out by clicking here.
  9. If you want something done, get a Swiss, German or Austrian national to do it.
  10. Venice hotels are ridiculously expensive, but everything else is reasonable from food to souvenirs to boat taxis

    This Slovakian hot chocolate can permanently alter a person's mood to "upbeat."

    .

Train versus Plane

Our first stop in Vienna: Schonbrunn Palace, where we arrived shortly after 8 a.m. due to our early morning train arrival. It turned out to be a good thing, because even in December, the place was filling up by the time we left a few hours later.

Only 25 Euros to fly to London? I’ll take it. 50 Euros to Rome? Okay. 47 Euros to Barcelona? Not bad.

Also, not really true. Yes, there are fabulous flight-deals to be had, but here’s the fact: Even a one-hour flight will take a 1.5-hour train ride to the Zürich airport, which itself takes 2-3 hours to navigate thanks to the presence of line-ups like we’ve never seen before. Also, for some reason the Swiss believe that taking a direct route to anything only allows too much lounging among its passengers, creating an air of sloth, and so the guided march through Zürich airport is something of a maze that loops passengers through much of the airport, only to end up back in the same zone from which they passed through 20 minutes earlier.

I wish this were not true, but it is. I like a stroll as much as the next person, but not so much when toting luggage, worrying about border officials, and getting the impression from the forced march that our gate is in the next Canton. If it’s rough on me, a daily walker, I can’t imagine what it is like for those whose fitness level lags. Possibly these marches are a survival test to weed out the weak.

Dave in our "grande" train compartment complete with overhead windows. Small, but very comfy.

But I drift. All of the above explains why we favour train travel, even though it appears to take longer than fly-time, which it usually doesn’t. For example, the total train, plane and automobile trip to Leipzig from our hotel is about eight hours – the same amount of time as it takes to take the train alone, with much less stress.

Our trip to Vienna and Bratislava was made on the overnight train that departs Zürich at 10:30 and arrives in Vienna at 7:30 a.m. The whole price for two adults to travel return was 700 Swiss Francs (CHF) to ride in the luxury compartment that has its own bathroom complete with shower, a double bunk, plus a small seating area with a cafe-sized table and two chairs in front of large picture windows to enjoy the views. To ride in the compartment without a private bathroom costs 24 CHF less. We only know this because Swiss Rail messed up our booking and we ended up in the second-rate compartment on the trip home. It was a sardine-can experience, but not too bad.

A note to the weighty and heighty: The bunks are very narrow.

700 CHF is a lot of moolah, but here’s a little market comparison on our upcoming trip to Venice (I am too lazy to figure out what it would have cost for a flight to Vienna). We are taking a day-time train leaving at around noon from Biel, switching trains in Bern with a short stop in Milan, then on to Venice for 630 CHF for two return tickets.

If we were to fly, the total cost would have been 500-580 CHF. We would have missed the chance to stroll through Milan, and the fun of a train ride through the Swiss Alps. The total travel time on the train will be seven hours (including the one-hour stop in Milan).

The travel time by air with the train to Basel (where we could catch a flight), plus the requisite two-hour airport-waiting/marching time and fly-time would be five-to-six hours, not including the time it would take to find our hotel on the other end, which would probably be an hour, bringing the grand travel time total to, you guessed it, seven hours.

Pack as lightly as possible for train travel. Even luxury compartments are small.

Part of which would include the indignity of passing muster at airport security.

This is nothing to say of the varying environmental costs. I admit, I don’t pay attention to the environmental impact when I’m travelling, but I’ve noticed rigid environmentalists travel as much and more than I do, so I don’t feel bad about that. But if an environmentalist is reading this, shame on you for travelling by air. It sucks up the fossil fuels to a Suzukiesque-screaming degree.

Note: If we lived in a big city with an airport, we might fly more often, but we’re 1.5 hours away from major airports by train.

Second note: Another intriguing aspect of train travel is the immersion into local culture. When riding in the regular cars, you are surrounded by the locals as they go about their regular lives and it is something of a sight to see. For some reason, air travel has a socially insular quality to it, perhaps because the seats all face forward. On trains, passengers face one another, allowing for easy observation and the opportunity for conversation.

Fuhrich on the Second Go

This is Fuhrich's upper dining room where we ate the first time we visited there. Grizelda would not allow us back upstairs on our second visit.

My former Times Colonist newspaper colleague, food-writer Pam Grant, gives restaurants a second chance when things go wrong on her first visit there. But, sometimes the ones who get it right on the first go need a second visit as well, just in case that first visit was a fluke. That’s what we learned the second time we stopped in at Vienna’s Fuhrich restaurant.

Two days after our first divine dinner there, we returned to find the restaurant jam-packed, as was expected. The food is exceedingly good, after all.

A waiter pointed us toward a table along the wall on the main floor. If I was having doubts that I could squeeze between the other patrons in that row, I wasn’t alone as I could see from the aghast expressions on the faces of those very patrons.  I said no thanks and pointed to another empty table by the front of the restaurant, overlooking the street.

And that is when I fell in the path of the maitre d’ pit-of-doom. As the waiter hesitated, a woman of about 45-55 swept in, her black pixie* all hard-edged with her dark eyes flashing angrily. She indicated another table in the centre of the room that looked to be sized to suit pre-schoolers.

So I said no again. I had this crazy notion that as a customer, I should enjoy a reasonable degree of comfort, and not be forced to relive the cramped wooden-desk epoch that was my Grade 4 school year.

Of course, this was a mistake. She put us at a third table that did not bank along with other tables, so we were away from the crowd, but it was straight in the line of wind gusts from the front door (which was kept open as they were dealing with a delivery).

At this point, I still assumed the professional decorum of wait staff was in effect, but seconds later, I realized my error. The woman, let’s call her Grizelda, came to our table and dropped two menus down before us.

It was the kiss of dining death.

Allow me to explain: The custom at this restaurant is for the waiter to open the menu and present it to the patrons. The closed menus on our table telegraphed that their good graces were closed to us as well.

Good food at Fuhrich - Weinerschnitzel.

In the meantime, later diners came in and took the coveted window table. They spoke German. Not that this had anything to do with it, but I have noticed that sometimes people take out their xenophobia on non-German-speaking foreigners, such as at a bakeshop two blocks from our Swiss hotel where the server grabbed a croissant with her bare muggy fist and dropped it down the bag as though it were dog excrement, instead of using tongs or wearing gloves.

Where was I?

Oh yes, Grizelda. Another waiter appeared to take our order.

That is the second sign of dining disaster – the relay. The relay is what happens when things have got off on such a bad foot, they transform your table into a baton that gets passed from one server to another. It is, pardon the pun, a recipe for disaster. In theory, however, it does present an opportunity for the incoming waiter to help the customers forget the ineptitude (or hostility) of the outgoing waiter. There’s no reason why this should not work, but Grizelda’s ugly mood cast a pall over the other waiters who all looked jittery and frightened.

When this server brought our bread, I asked where the spread was. Two days earlier, our bread came with a tasty spread of butter, creamed cheese, parsley, garlic and some un-named but heavenly spice (I am taking a guess at the ingredients). He said he would look for some.

Having worked in a restaurant, I know that spreads and such are prepared earlier in the day when the restaurant is quiet, and then usually sit in a fridge waiting to be dealt out to diners with as much speed as can be seen at a Las Vegas blackjack table. I’m not saying this is how this restaurant works, but fetching a condiment is not exactly a massive undertaking. If it were, how could they ever manage the volume of complexities in running the deep-fryer?

After a decent interval, I headed toward the kitchen, just outside of which I found our waiter standing next to Grizelda. When I asked about the spread, they flustered and then he said, ‘night time only.’ He gave a long convoluted explanation on why serving this condiment would be on par with demanding everyone eat from upside-down tables. I asked him to find some anyway.

I knew I would never see it. Grizelda’s mouth was pursed, her nose upturned, her lids lowered. She was furious.

I returned to our table. A third waiter brought us our food, signifying we were now in the third leg of the race and barreling quickly toward the finish line.

I am happy to report that the food was again absolutely fabulous. Obviously, no one had taken the time to inform the cook that we were miscreant patrons.

We finished our food and when the bill arrived, it had a 4-Euro charge for the absent spread. This is a neat trick. When we actually received the spread two days earlier, we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, but when the spread does not come, it costs more. Possibly because it was invisible spread.

Happily, we did not have to argue over this as Waiter #2 came over and explained the error, then produced a correct bill. Even though he was Waiter #2, this latest handover signalled that we had entered the fourth leg of the relay, and it was time to go, which we did.

Later, Dave and I mused over what we might have done to avoid such an uncomfortable situation, when we suddenly remembered we were the customers. It’s not our job to worry about Grizelda. It was her job to worry about us. In short, the only cure for such a train wreck of a meal would have been to leave as soon as Grizelda’s disapproval showed itself. But we couldn’t do that. Remember, the food is fantastic.

Rating (ranked twice, with the first number for the first visit, the second for the second, you get the drift.  1 is low, 10 is high)

Location: 8 and 8 – Just a hop off Vienna’s lovely pedestrian shopping thoroughfare.

Setting: 8 and 8 – The restaurant is clean, and decorated in rich woods, reminiscent of a well-to-do English pub.

Food: 10 and 10 – There is nothing disappointing in the food here. The portions are sizeable and everything is delicious.

Service: 10 and 0 – If you avoid Grizelda, you should have a fine time.

*It’s possible that she had her hair done in an updo, but I think it was a pixie cut. I cannot say with certainty because I had to keep my eyes averted most of the time to protect them from getting lasered out by Grizelda’s glare.