So for the first time since I took my niece to Italy in 2009, I have a travel companion: my sister Cheryl. Her life long dream has been to “twirl” on the mountain featured in opening scenes of the Sound of Music. So …. I offered to take her. Now Austria and quite frankly most of Europe is not high on my list of places to visit. For what ever reason, Europe just doesn’t reasonate with my wanderlust side. Nevertheless, at 6:30 p.m. on September 10, I found myself on a plane with my seester bound for Vienna.
We landed in rainy, “socked in” Vienna, met our driver who took us to Hotel am Stephanplatz directly on the traffic free square facing the beautiful St. Stephens Cathedral. We were given a room facing the cathedral (gorgeous) and once settled, did a little wandering around inside the “ring”. (Old town Vienna is found within the bounds of a circular roadway called the ring or “ringstrasse”.
We walked up and down the cobble stone streets and narrow alleys and after a getting really soaked, I finally convinced Cheryl to buy an umbrella (she refused since she doesn’t own one at home, but better sense (mine) finally prevailed). Anyway, our walk ended when we found a lovely little restaurant for dinner called Restaurant Beim Hofmeister. Apparently the restaurant and the building had been in the family since 1906 and the building dated to 1725. After a couple large glasses of fabulous beer, the best pumpkin soup ever (we’re going back against tonight), and some fried chicken (me) and weinerschnitzel (Cheryl) we called it a night.
It wasn’t the best night’s sleep. For some reason people felt the need to walk through the square yelling at the top of their lungs. Actually they weren’t even yelling words …. just some unintelligible ahhhhhhhh. There is a pretty big echo in the square so I figured it must be some kind of sport. I almost got up at one point and yelled as well (although it would have been very intelligible albeit not very polite). But I decided to stay put in my comfortable bed while my sister continued to snore….
Then at 7:00 a.m., church bells started ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing…. good God! It was lovely, but enough already. And just when you thought they were done, another set of bells would start ringing. (We later found out from our guide Brenda that the bells ring for different reasons and have different meanings … for example when the new pope was elected last year, a bell was rung that only rings on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day and when a pope is elected or dies.) No idea why the bells were ringing so much …. but given we were going to be at this hotel for four nights, I was hoping it wouldn’t be repeat tomorrow.
Anyway, the morning saw better weather. We grabbed some eats at the breakfast buffet and headed to the lobby to meet the wonderful Brenda who was to be our guide for a two hour walking tour of Old Vienna. As we walked downstairs to meet our guide, Cheryl and I looked like Inspector Clouseau twins. We each apparently decided to buy the identical rain coat at Costco in the identical tan colour. In addition we each had the same bag … We actually ooked lika a couple of idiots. Fortunately, our guide had a similar tan raincoat so she didn’t say a word about our attire.
Anyway, Brenda turned out to be wonderful. An Irish transplant with an art history eduction, Brenda was a wealth of knowledge and insider scoop about the old quarter. In the span of just under three hours we visited St. Stephens Cathedral, explored the little alleys, residences and cafes in the quarter, walked the parliament area and rose gardens in the Hofburg Palace and all around the Hofburg Palace grounds. Brenda was aweso.
After we said goodbye to Brenda, Cheryl and I headed towards the backside of the Hofburg Palace for lunch at a little cafe. We both ordered, sausage with mustard (Vienna and apparently all of Austria is a huge “meat eating region with sausage being the food of choice.) Anyway, when the food came out, we were each given a plate containing two long, skinny sausages linked together, with some mustard and horseradish… and that’s it. Apparently that is how it is served … no salad, no sides, just meat and condiments. Go figure. I will say, however, that the sausages were spectacular….
After lunch we spent the after noon exploring the Hofburg Palace and surrounds. We started with the Imperial Crypt of the Hapbsburgs. (The Hapsburgs were the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire that maintained its stronghold until the end of the empire in 1916 through interfamily marriages and marriages of convenience with the other royal familes of Europe.) Anyway, nothing says royal like a bunch of fancy tombs. However, I must say these tombs were rather odd. Most of them were made of black iron and had skulls and various depictions of the dead on them. Not attractive at all. You’d think if you had that much money and power you would go for something a little less depressing, but not those fun loving Hapsburgs.
After viewing the tombs, Cheryl and I headed to the actual Hofburg Palace, which was the winter residence of the Habsburgs. We visited thte palace apartments, the museum of “Sisi” (the beloved wife of Emperor Franz Josef, the last emperor of the Hapsburg dynasty, and the Imperial Treasury (a bit of a disappointment as there were only a few crowns and broaches, with some missing their gems, some guilded capes and scepters and a lot of religious icons).
The story of Sisi was a little weird. She apparently was selected to marry her cousin Franz Josef after he feel in love with her at first sight. Based on the story we heard, this woman was a narscassistic, anorexic who really didn’t return her husband’s love. In the end she was assassinated and some producers got hold of her story and turned her into the original Diana although with revisionist history about how important and loved she was by the Hapsburg subjects (she wasn’t). The interesting thing is that Sisi has become this huge commodity in Vienna, with products galore named after her. Just weird.
Anyway, we found the museum visit far more interesting. We first visited the armory museum (absolutely awesome display of knight’s armor and weaponry, the museum of musical instruments (room after room filled with instruments used during the Hapsburg era) and the Ephesus museum ( a couple small rooms filled with relics taken from Ephesus in Turkey – they need to send the relics back to Ephasus where they belong but the info on the display claims the Turks gave the relics to the Austrians as thanks for their participation in the Ephesus … uh I’ve been to Ephesus and the Turks have a bit of a different take on that story ….)
By the end of the museum tour we had walked almost 8 1/2 miles or about 17,000 steps (Cheryl was tracking our steps), we headed back to hotel, had a rest and then found a cabbie to take us to the Neustift am Walde area of Vienna to find a Heuriger (Hoy ri ger). A heuriger is a restaurant in the wine district run by a family that produces its own wines and dates to the Hapsburg era. Many of the heurigers are touristy now, but our hotel gave us the name of one that retains its authenticity: the Weingut Wolff heuriger, which dated to 1609. Turned out to be a pretty good choice. The food was good (we ended up with grilled chicken skewers and fried potatoes) and the wine matched the food goodness. Unfortunately, our waitress spoke no English and turned out to be a “space cadet”. Among other things, she brought us our bill and forgot to include the wine and some of the food on our bill. We pointed out the error and instead of writing a new bill she just told us what we owed. I ballparked it and the number sounded right, but as Cheryl pointed out, did she just pocket the balance over the original bill? Who knows and quite frankly it’s not our issue, but if all the waitresses are like ours, I doubt the Weingut Wolff heuriger will be around another 400 years …. So after a long day and night, we headed back tot he hotel and crashed … and this time there was no yelling to wake us up or at least none that I remember because I ended sleeping through the night until those “glorious” church bells started up aginst at 7:00 am….. Come on … it’s the weekend!!!