White Publishing Company

Chris & Allyson vs. Europe (2013)

Tales From Vienna, Day One: Schonbrunn Palace. A walk to Stephansdom.

Dear Someone,

We made it to Vienna! The train to the airport in Zurich was right on time (they always are), the flight took no time at all and we were on the ground by 10:15. The cab ride to the Bristol was no sweat, and it's a great hotel -- like, doorman in a costume / marble floors great. Plus you cannot beat the location, because it's right next to the opera house. The room seems soundproofed enough that the arias won't keep us up all night. I know I make fun of Allyson for being a hotel snob, but she knows how to pick ‘em. Don't ever tell her I said that.

To be honest, I'm not exactly sure why we ended up here. It wasn't on any bucket lists. Obviously there's a LOT of history, which is right up my alley. And there's a LOT of classical music, which is also right up my alley. And the Austrians do like to drink, which is … well, right up my alley. So it's probably more accurate to say that I'm not exactly sure why Allyson ended up here. But so far she seems to be enjoying the city. On the cab ride to the hotel, we were talking about how everything seemed so European -- classy-looking buildings that seem old, but not too old, like they were burned and rebuilt after a few solid wars. It seemed a little less European when Allyson made a bee-line to a Starbucks as soon as we left the hotel, but at least the Starbucks was installed in something that looked like a 19th-century storefront.

The guidebook told us that there's lots to see here, so there wasn't any point in pretending not to be tourists. We got on the metro -- which was easy to figure out, by the way -- and went straight to the #1 attraction in the city: Schonbrunn Palace. Allyson is great about letting me do my history thing, but this one wasn't a hard sell. It's a mansion with more than a thousand rooms, plus gardens and fountains and a zoo and pretzel vendors. We don't have stuff like this at home, so it's bonkers in the best way. It makes Mount Vernon look like an outhouse.

It can't hurt to tell you a little about the Habsburgs, since they're going to be our best friends for the next few days. If you're going to be a tourist in Vienna you have to know the basics. They were the family in charge of the Austrian empire for a very long time. They were related to a bunch of the other European royal families. And in the first half of the 20th century, like all the royal families, they stopped being important, real fast. There are plenty of details available, the basics are all that sunk in after two weeks zipping around Europe. Some stories make them seem OK, but from the American perspective, they were the bad guys in World War I. I get the feeling that the Austrians are a little ambivalent about them -- they're proud of their history, like most people would be, but that way of life is way, way gone. There can't be that much of a connection left.

Anyhow, they tell us Schonbrunn was their summer house. And here you thought the houses at the Jersey Shore were getting too big. I guess they started it as a hunting lodge, then people started improving on it until things got a wee bit out of hand. It's good to know that the rules of construction projects are the same across all generations. I guess you'd call it a palace -- it's a huge building, where the "wings" are almost indistinguishable from the original structure. They plastered the outside with pastel yellow, and they plastered the inside with metallic yellow -- specifically, gold. There's a ton of gilding, which I guess involves taking amazingly thing sheets of gold and then somehow blasting it onto your ceilings and walls. The gold keeps rubbing off so you have to redo it every few decades. Modern rich people don't know how good they have it.

It seems like they had a lot of blue bloods shuffling through the halls over the centuries, but to make the story a little more digestible they narrow it down to two eras. One of the wings is set up in the style of Maria Teresa -- Marie Antoinette's mom, if you're keeping score at home. She was married, but hers was one of those rare 18th-century situations where the woman stayed in charge. Before MT, the palace was empty most of the year. She made it the center of the empire, maybe because she didn't have the energy to go anywhere else -- our guide, a very funny Austrian guy named Michael, said she was more than 250 pounds and closed out her life by having servants carry her everywhere. Or as they refer to it in South Philadelphia, "the dream." It looks like she enjoyed the glitz. They kept describing her rooms as "rococo," and I'm pretty sure that's the smart person way of saying "glitzy."

The other wing is for Franz Joseph, the grandson of Maria Teresa. He was born at Schonbrunn in 1830 and died there in 1916. He was the emperor from 1848 on, which made him the longest-serving Austrian monarch. Michael wrapped his 67-year rule in this tidy package: Aside from his moustache, he was a boring and uncreative guy; he was a diligent public servant; and his wife (Sisi) was the coolest thing about him. Franz and Sisi seemed to have one of those fun royal marriages, based more on grudging respect than actual love. She was mildly nuts, probably had a bunch of affairs and was murdered by an anarchist while traveling through Switzerland in 1898. Any real style in that part of the house probably came from her, but the overall feel was baroque and a little less obnoxious than the Maria Teresa wing. They didn't let us take pictures so you'll have to take my word for it. Allyson thought the house was impressive -- anyone would -- but she really perked up for the Real Housewives drama. I think we can make a history lover of her yet.

All the learning made us hungry, so I bought an enormous pretzel once the house tour was done. Then I burned off maybe 15 percent of the calories as we walked the ridiculous palace grounds. We spent a lot of time looking at the rose garden, the privet garden, fountains designed to look like ruins and fountains designed to look like vomiting sea creatures. We had to skip the zoo -- there's a 250-year-old zoo, because when you have empire-level finances I guess you just bring the animals to you. But we did squeeze in the Gloriette, a great big pavilion thingy on a hill that gives you nice views of the palace and Vienna. It's a gazebo for people with F.U. money.

Honestly, it's hard to get your head around all that wealth, and why the European monarchs weren't constantly squashing rebellions by angry dirt farmers. I'm glad we can visit places like Schonbrunn, but the only people building anything remotely similar in the 21st century are sociopathic dictators. I guess that makes it romantic, right?

We kept the romance going with a nice dinner at Tian. Allyson asked the hotel concierge for a good vegetarian option and they knocked it out of the park. Nothing will ever beat mom's cucumber brulee, but I'll admit this was the best cucumber brulee I've ever had on vacation. There was also a coconut curry soup, and some black risotto, and a "milky way" dessert designed to look like shooting stars on the plate. I think it was rice, lychee and sorbet. Allyson had some questions about European history and I think I did a pretty good job faking my way through the answers. All those eight-hour weekend study sessions for quiz bowl totally paid off and in no way do I regret doing that over dating.

Vienna at night seemed kind of lively, so we walked down one of the pedestrian malls to the big cathedral, Stephansdom. There's a pedestrian mall and a big cathedral in all these cities, because that's just how Europe works. I guess Vienna's is one of the best. I mean, it looks like it belongs in a Tim Burton movie, so that's pretty much my standard for greatness.

I should probably go to bed so I guess that's it for now. I really don't know what to expect the rest of the way. We're checking out a concentration camp in two days, but other than that it's open season for whatever Vienna has to offer -- minus its "best" attraction, which we already scratched off the list. It seems easy enough to get around, though. We pretty much have Europe-style public transportation figured out, or at least if we've been riding things illegally or without paying it's not something we're aware of. The people we've talked to in the city seem friendly. And apparently if we're bored, the guidebook says it's considered very "Vienna" to sit in a café for four hours eating desert for lunch. One way or another we'll have a good time.

As always, my love to Mr. or Mrs. Someone,


On to Vienna Day Two

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The Full Trip