Summer 2017: Vienna

Day Zero

You’ve got to love a full flight – I’d booked the cheapest tickets because I pride myself I can pack smartly and fit everything in my cabin bag, but the airline insists I put my bag in the hold because the flight is so full. Grrr. I was miffed bacause the flight was scheduled to arrive at 10:30pm and there are only two airport train (CAT) departures per hour: at 9 and 39 minutes past the hour. With a 10:30 arrival time I was hopeful to make the 11:09. My last few flights had had queuing at passport control so I was expecting 20-30 minute waits at Passport Control and with the addition of time collecting my bag there it was a very good chance I would miss the 11:09 – maybe I should grab a cab?

Anyways, the planets aligned for me. First of all the pilot was able to get to Vienna 15 minutes early. I was in an aisle seat (I had tried to upgrade as soon as online booking was available but in the time it took to get my credit card from the other side of the room, all the seats ahead of my free seat were snapped up!) and there was a free passport booth available immediately.

The guy in the booth barely looked at my passport before sliding it back and my bag was number five off the conveyor belt at reclaim. So I grab a return CAT ticket from an automated kiosk beside the conveyor belt and then glance at the clock on the wall – 10.37pm. Can I make it to the platform and on the train in 2 minutes? The logical side of my brain says no, but the optimistic side says “try”!

One of the wheels on my suitcase has been partially worn away so it makes a kerthump kerthump sound as I wheel it and the rhythm gets faster as I fast-walk my way through the airport, keeping an eye out for the icon of the CAT on signage. The air feels cooler as I make it to the trains and I almost fly down the stairs onto the platform, willing the train to remain as I approach. I stab the button, expecting the train to pull away as my finger approaches and with unbelieving eyes the doors open, admitting me to a double decker train with luggage racks.

I stow my luggage and find a seat. There’s actually a two minute wait before the train pulls away and the onboard video screen shows the time at 10.41, so I’m pleasantly confused as to where the discrepancy is between the published departure time and the actual. Sixteen minutes later I’m in Wien Mitte.

Vienna has a very easily navigated public transport system with only one negative – for whatever reason Google Maps isn’t fed its data. This means that navigation relies on knowing the nearest metro or tram station and then referring to a metro/tram route map to figure out how to get there.

Fortunately the lines run frequently enough that I’m not spending a long time on the platforms, but it’s an interesting shortcoming of an otherwise modern city. We’d been given Visit Vienna cards which, like their Berlin counterpart, provided free transport in addition to a plethora of discounts, but we’d gotten them delivered to our hotel, necessitating a single ticket purchase for me to connect to the hotel from the CAT station. I forget to validate the ticket before riding so if I’m caught there’ll be a €50 fine – doh!

I arrive a lot earlier than I thought I would and head up to the rooftop bar at the 25Hour Hotel MuseumQuartier for a drink with Ange. We discuss what we want to see and do and make a list:

  • Schönbrunn Palace (UNESCO World Heritage site)
  • Mozart’s House (part of the Historic Centre of town, which is also an UNESCO World Heritage site)
  • Orchestra
  • Opera
  • Bratislava
  • Sausages
  • Cake – sachertorte

Day One

After breakfast the next day, we head off to the Hotel Fürstenhof. It’s right beside Westbahnhof, the Viennese train station servicing the west-bound traffic (mainly domestic locations) and also serves as a hub of metro, tram and bus lines – so we check out the train situation for our next stop which will be Budapest. Unfortunately the Budapest trains leave from Hauptbanhof in the centre of town, but because of the myriad of choices to get around it’s still a great location. We check into the hotel and then head straight out into the city.

We validate our VisitVienna cards, and head into the city proper. Getting off the metro, we’re amused to see a public pay-toilet with Mozart playing – the “Opera Toilet”.

We exit for the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) beside which is Bitzinger Würstelstand, a permanent stall selling what are supposed to be the best sausages in Vienna. It’s fascinating watching the guys behind the counter prepare the Käsekrainer, – and then we stand at the counter and enjoy the hearty goodness in the cold.

Then we head towards Stephensplatz and its church and stick our noses in. It’s an impressive old cathedral but seems piebald due to the renovations which have been going on for years. The cleaned exterior is a sandy khaki colour, but the rest is black except where the rain has managed to keep the soot and pollution from impregnating the stone.

We weigh up going up the tower of the spire but at 300+ steps we figure we’ll save our feet for possibly going to the opera in the evening (Ange found out that you can queue an hour and a half before the performance for tickets to the Opera in the standing section for €3).

Instead we head to Mozart’s House. For a museum all about Mozart there is very little of him in there – very few pics of him which is surprising as he was supposed to be the public figure of his time. Ange draws parallels with the paucity of detail about Schindler in the Museum bearing his name in Krakow.

After the visit to Mozart’s House we have a little time before the queuing will begin for the State Opera (Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), and the weather is starting to turn from fresh to bitter, so we keep our eyes out for a cake shop so that we can try the sachertorte. We find cake shops on the main route between Stephensplatz and Karlsplatz but they’re all very touristy, so we brave the cold for a little longer and head off the main drag to one of the streets parallel to the main commercial shopping street and find an unassuming cafe with sandwich boards out the front listing their cake offerings.

Lo and behold we pick out “sachertorte” amongst the hand written goodies and head inside. The place is close to empty – an American couple sit talking quietly and an elderly woman behind the counter bids us sit anywhere.

Ange gets the sachetorte and I get the apfelstrudel and we engage the proprietor in some light-hearted banter. The topic of conversation finds its way to the refugee situation, and looks likely to develop in an area we’re not altogether comfortable with, so I attempt to change the subject and mention that New Zealand has a lot of space and not much history, whereas Austria seems to have the opposite. This seems to derail the conversation and she heads over to talk to the American couple. A few minutes later we hear her use my line to them. I smirk to Ange and mutter under my breath “at least wait ’til we’ve left before reusing my line!”

Amused, we head out to brave the cold and queue for our tickets. There’s already a line down the length of the Opera house, and so I hold our place in the queue and Ange goes for a wander to check out the lay of the land. She comes back and mentions that there is a lady at the head of the queue checking people’s shoes. Ange is in walking shoes, so there’s a moment of panic that she’ll be turned away.

We look up and down the queue and every other person is sporting trainers of some description, so figure we’ll be alright. Ange had counted 150 people in front of us and we look online to see what the capacity of the standing section is. Comforted that there are supposed to be 600 standing room tickets available, we settle in to wait. Soon a suited rotund man comes down the queue offering single tickets for €35. As Ange wryly puts it, we’d have to wave to each other – not exactly a shared experience, and not really a bargain considering that was the face value of the tickets in the first place.

The line starts moving and we make the reasonable assumption that it won’t be too long before we’re through the door and into the queue in the warmth. Just as well really because I could feel myself starting to get snarky with Ange because of the cold.

We notice a group of young guys in front of us – from smatterings of their conversations I’m guessing Spanish speaking. Two of them are in Adidas track pants – the triple white stripe bright against the black of the fabric. The lady that Ange had seen looking at people’s shoes pulls one of them out of the queue and explains that he can’t wear trackpants to the performance.

He mentions that he has a spare pair of pants in his bag and hurries off to change before they reach the head of the queue. We frown slightly wondering why she doesn’t say anything to the other tracksuit wearer, and then notice that he has a shopping bag held to cover one leg while he carries his jacket in such a way as to cover the other. His mates move closer to make it harder for anyone to see his trousers and Ange and I silently nod to each other that the ruse seems to have worked.

Until they reach the head of the queue and a security guard stationed there notices and indicates that he won’t be able to get in. Grimacing at the fact that they have just waited for 90 minutes in the cold to be pipped at the post, we have a look at the options ticket-wise. There are three slots: Terrace, Gallery and Balcony. Terrace has “aus” beside it, others have €3. Figuring that aus means out, we can either stand at ground level or in the balcony. We choose Balcony, pay our money and then we’re in.

Life is all about making mistakes. We head up stairs and spend five minutes finding out how to get up to the balcony level, and then ten minutes taking a hundred photos of the gorgeous main stairwell. We then enter the Balcony level and see bars which you can lean on festooned with scarves, the helpful usher tells us that the scarves reserve the spots and that we can stand anywhere else.

It looks like we should have dashed up the stairs immediately upon arrival and grabbed a good place and then gone out to take photos. The bar has a subtitle LED display and we have a choice to make. Picture the layout of the building as the letter U. We can stand behind people in the centre of the U or stand at the front of one of the arms. I can pretty much see over anyone but Ange doesn’t want to have spent two hours in the cold only to see someone else’s back for the duration.

We decide to be at the front with a view of only half the stage by standing at the bar on the side. Ange suggests that if we don’t like it we can leave at one of the pauses in the performance that they use to allow people into their seats should they arrive after it starts. Three and half hours of standing doesn’t sound like a whole heap of fun, but I’m willing to give it a go.

There’s a row of empty seats in front of us that I am sorely tempted to invade but my legs aren’t sore yet, so I bide my time. After the first pause they are filled by a teacher and eight of her preteen female students. They immediately start waving at their friends on the other side of the room and generally behaving like preteen girls do. The opera itself is great but does drag in parts. There’s an interval where we stretch our legs (picture a much less flexible ballerina at the barre) and Ange gives me the option of leaving but I’m keen on seeing how the farce plays out and so we stay. By the end we are rather stiff and hobble back down the staircase and out into the freezing air.

We head back towards the hotel and arrive about 11pm. The Italian restaurant across the road from the hotel has just closed, but there is a place beside our hotel which is open ’til midnight. It has real old school charm, and the waiters are fully suited and booted. The menu is huge – like a phone book, and we feel a lot better with a light meal under our belts. We head next door to the hotel, happy that we ticked 4/7 things in the first day.

Day Two

I’d been to Vienna a few times before and Ange was keen on us visiting places that I hadn’t been before, but I had insisted we go to Schönbrunn Palace. It’s definitely worth the trip! We get the combo ticket which gets us into everything and we have to queue to get it.

The VisitVienna cards get us a nice discount and they have a timed access to the State Rooms to control the crowds. We have 90minutes before our allotted time, so head out to explore the grounds. They’re gorgeous and we explore the mazes before heading up to the top of the hill to the Galette and enjoy the magnificent views before we have to hustle to make it back in time for the entry.

There is a secret spot behind the fountain where you can get a great shot through the water looking back at the State Rooms, and we decide the shots from there are worth the slight delay in getting to the entrance. They don’t allow photography in the State Rooms so we concentrate on trying to figure out the family tree of the Hapsburgs and who was who’s mother. We don’t quite figure it out and have to ask my sister-in-law afterwards! Basically the two important characters are Marie-Theresa and Sisi, her daughter in law. Once you’ve got that sorted in your head everything else makes sense. The audio guide is a must, and the timed entrances make the bottle necks manageable.

After Schönbrunn we head across town on the Metro to Le Loft – the bar on the 18th floor of the Sofitel Hotel for a quick drink with my brother and his family. The views are quite stunning and the enormous windows really allow you to drink in the sights. They have ceiling art which at night gets reflected out onto the sky which is apparently quite the sight.

After that we head out for some ice cream at a Vegan ice cream place and then try to get served at some restaurants but they all seem to be booked up.

Eventually we say goodbye to the family and head back Westbahnhof and find a restaurant nearby. OMG, the wiener schnitzel is enormous! I make a good dent in mine but have to leave most of the dessert to Ange.

Day Three

We head out to change hotels again to the Boutique Stadthalle: this one is only a 5 minute walk up the road. The room isn’t ready because we’re quite early so we leave our luggage and head into town. We’re keen on getting tickets for an orchestra and in the cultural city that is Vienna we are spoiled for choice.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are being played in the Karlskirche which is the St Charles Church. We tried the previous night to buy tickets online but didn’t have any luck so we figured if we rocked up on a Sunday morning, someone would be there selling tickets.

Lo and behold there is, and we secure tickets in the third class section. the tickets aren’t numbered, so we enquire why and get told that it’s a free for all within the section, so we should get there early. We ask how early and are told that 45 minutes before the concert starts is a good time to come.

Orchestra arranged, we head off to Bratislava.

We get the train back with no problems and then head straight to the church where the concert will be held. We have 30 mins before we should queue and discover that the cafe beside the fountain in front of the church has put out bean bags beside the fountain to encourage their customers to relax. All their staff seem to be busy and nobody seems to be using the bean bags, so we plonk ourselves down and relax for a while. Nobody seems to mind so we use them until it’s time to head over to the queue. There are only one group in front of us so we are assured good seats.

It doesn’t feel too long before they let us in to the church and on the way in they give us a blanket each. The sun hasn’t gone down too long ago so it’s still not too cold, but I realise that churches aren’t known for their insulation and guess I will be grateful for it during the performance.

Inside we sit at the front of the third class section. High above the central bit of the church they are doing renovations and there is scaffolding holding up platforms high above the ground level. Apparently they allow tourists up the top to look at the panoramic view, and I misread the sign pointing to the lift as paranormal lift instead of the German panoramalifte. The music is great though the temperature does indeed plummet and I can’t see anyone not using their blanket!

Day Four

It’s our last day in Vienna and we check out the hotel in a bit more detail and then reluctantly have to get to the central rail station for Ange to head to Budapest and me to take a tram to the Mitte (kicking myself for missing the opportunity to go to a ticket booth and say ein ticket to Wien Mitte bitte. It’s the small things…)

We grab something to eat from the Subway in the station, and are inundated with people trying to sell a magazine, beg for a euro or even something to eat. One of the guys comes through twice – the second time he sees the couple beside us saving some food for later and leans across to ask for it. A young American guy coming from McDonalds kindly gives him a burger he just bought and then sits with friends in the Subway.

I bid Ange adieu and then head to the airport via CAT. There’s a guy at the station with a full wallet asking for  €5 to buy an airline ticket. I remember at Krakow train station there had been a comfortably dressed guy with a handful of coin asking for some more money. I guess they get more people giving if they already have money.

Would I Go Back?

Definitely – and I will again go to Schönbrunn when I do. I’ve been three or four times and am still discovering new things about it. Ange loved it too.