White Publishing Company

Chris & Allyson vs. Europe (2013)

Tales From Vienna, Day Two: Morning jog. Opera House. The Hofburg complex. Habsburg crypt. Stephansdom. Viennese cafes. Concert at the Kursalon.

Dear Someone,

I'm happy to report that any fears of boredom have been smashed flatter than Wiener schnitzel. I'm sad to report that we haven't had any Wiener schnitzel yet, but I think there's still time.

We did so much today that I'm not even sure where to start. You have always struck me as the discreet type, so I guess we can lead off with me getting lost. Don't tell Allyson. I make a big deal out of being the map guy, who can figure out where we're going on vacation. Allyson hates maps, so we're at the point where she actually considers this one of the few things I'm bringing to the table. I went out jogging, trying to find the big Ferris wheel from "The Third Man." It's in a huge park right next to the river so it should have been child's play. I guess I forgot the other scenes in "The Third Man," with people running down narrow, winding streets that all look exactly alike (although they were running in suits and not my far more impressive jogging gear). I got completely turned around twice, hit the river nowhere near the bridge I needed, and somehow ended up at Belvedere gardens -- which maps now tell me is in the opposite direction of where I was trying to go. This was a victimless crime, and I did get a lovely sense of which narrow streets to avoid walking down at night. But again, let's just leave Allyson out of this one.

I suppose we started our day as a couple with our first visit to a Viennese café. The city is so well known for its café culture. So many great minds and artists have mingled in its centuries-old cafes. We're really not food tourists, but we promised ourselves that we would hit up some cafes, and so we started with a charming little place right by the hotel. It's called Starbucks. I don't know if Freud ever went to this particular Starbucks but the odds are pretty good that he did. See, we're cultured!

After that, maybe because I needed a confidence builder, I successfully guided us to the Opera House. It's directly across the street from our hotel, but a win is a win.

I can't remember, are you an opera guy? I've always been big into classical music, going back to my band dork days. It mostly puts Allyson to sleep, but she absolutely was on board for the Opera House. Vienna is all about Mozart and music, so the Opera House is one of the most authentic things you can see. I mean, we weren't going to pay to watch an opera, because who wants the hassle of packing a tuxedo and opera glasses when you're living out of a suitcase for two weeks, right? But the tour was definitely impressive. It's like an ant colony for music dorks; all during the day there's set-building and piano tuning and orchestra rehearsing and that sort of thing. They supposedly do 50 different operas a year and around 10 premieres; 300 performers are on the payroll and almost as many stagehands. The hall seats 1,700. They told us about the opera house getting bombed during the war (I forget which war because there are so many, so let's say WWII) and everything that's been done to rebuild it. After seeing everything that goes into it, you can understand why they needed all the Habsburg types to keep opera going over the years. You'd need all the spare change from all the sofas in Schonbrunn just to keep the doors open. It's cool that it has sustained without royal backing.

We went from the opera house to the Hofburg, and honestly I think you would have loved it. Shocker, it's another imperial palace -- they have an oversupply of history around here -- but this one they've turned into a kind of Epcot Center for 19th century Austrian history. It's more fun than it sounds. If Schonbrunn was the summer home, then the Hofburg was where the Habsburgs set up shop the rest of the year. It was Schonbrunn before Schonbrunn, and let's just say they didn't make one of their homes the casual one. I don't think we even saw the whole thing -- they make a big deal out of the "Spanish Riding School," but we didn't go out our way to see horses dance. I know that's not Allyson's usual way of doing business, but it's not like we weren't busy. We started with the butterfly house, which is exactly what you dream of when you're planning your trip to Vienna. I don't know if the butterflies were period appropriate, but the building actually was a palm house built for the royal family. For when your oversized gazebo in the suburbs just isn't relaxing enough.

Because we aren't women in our 60s, I'll confess that we were a little bored by the museum housing all the imperial silver and china. It looks great, and I'm sure a lot of butlers died polishing it, but you don't really need to see flatware to realize that the Habsburgs had money. Case in point: The Imperial apartments were great. They're set to the era of Franz Joseph and Sisi, and it's a bit of a Schonbrunn redux. His rooms are nice but boring, while hers are clearly the dwelling of a rich crazy person. There's even a little Sisi museum, in the complex, because I guess she was the "it girl" of 19th century Austria. Try this on for size: 5'8", 100 pounds, 19-inch waist, obsessed with eating sweets and took two to three hours to do her hair every day. She had a fear of crowds, hated court life and traveled constantly, maybe to get away from her boring husband. Oh, also she washed her hair with a mix of cognac and eggs and she used a veal mask to keep her face looking young. She's a catch, right? They even got into her murder a bit, so this is probably the most Allyson-friendly history museum on the planet. I suppose it's all proof that money can't buy happiness -- Sisi seems like a trainwreck -- but at least WE got some happiness out of all the stuff her money left behind. I'd call it a silver lining, but I'm pretty sure that all the silver in Austria is currently in the form of soup tureens in that museum.

There is something weirdly fatalistic about it all. We did stop in to the nearby Capuchin Church, which sits on top of the Habsburg burial vault for the 1630s forward. The church wasn't much to look at -- but the tombs are supremely freaky. More than a few are decorated with stone and metalwork skulls wearing imperial crowns; I'm not sure if that means you can or can't take it with you. The "modern" ones were a little more subdued (Franz Joseph's seemed as boring as his legendary personality) but it's definitely an odd feeling to see almost 400 years of absolute power reduced to a few rooms of bodies in fancy boxes.

But enough cheery thoughts for one letter! The rest of the day we checked off more tourist boxes: We went to our first actual Viennese café and had some apple strudel (which was great); we peeked in Stephansdom (which is great, but only the exact same way every other giant European cathedral is great); we spent a little time in the Jewish museum (which was more than a little underwhelming. On our way out of the cathedral, we were assaulted by Vienna's answer to the weirdos outside Mann's Chinese theater. People in Mozart costumes run around to anyone who looks remotely like a visitor and try to smother them to death with pamphlets for classical music concerts. You have to go to at least one concert while you're in Vienna -- it's the law -- but we already had tickets lined up at a place called the Kursalon. As tourist traps go, it wasn't bad. It's a pretty, Italian-looking building in a park, it was built under Franz Joseph (of course) and it actually has a musical pedigree. Strauss (one of your favorites, I know) played there.

The concert we saw was absolutely for the rubes, but as you probably know we're pretty good at being rubes. It was a little chamber group going through the Blue Danube, Radetzky and something from the Merry Widow. But we at least made the effort. I didn't drag a button-down long-sleeve shirt halfway around the world to not wear them, so we got at least a little dressed up, like the guidebook suggested. The Eurotrash that made up the rest of the audience must have something else in their guidebooks -- the people-watching was a second show at no extra cost. And I will say the musicians were excellent. You know how in New Orleans, every bar has some guy you've never heard of who's somehow better than the best jazz musician in your town? I get the sense that Vienna is just crawling with people who were first chair something in college. Or maybe it's Nashville for French horn players. One of those analogies works.

It's up to you to decide which, though, because I'm powdering out for the night. Oh, but before I forget -- we did make a point of closing our evening by visiting the OLDEST coffee shop in Vienna, at least according to our guidebook. It was a bit of a stroll but we found a street called Dorthygasse and a place called Café Leopold. It was dark, wood-paneled, beat up and kind of fun. They have newspapers all over the place, for grumpy old folks who want to order one thing and sit there forever. (So American Starbucks aren't THAT inauthentic, I guess.) They also seem to have servers who are calloused from dealing with the old folks. Our waiter greeted us with "all we have are sausages and cake." It turns out "cake" included some kind of pastry with plums inside, which provided more than enough sugar to keep me awake through the end of this letter. I also had a beer to make sure I'd fall asleep right after finishing this letter. Lucky you! Lucky me!

Probably less light-hearted tomorrow, what with the visit to Mauthausen. But we do expect it to be an enlightening day. Missing home but not yet ready to leave -- after all, we haven't found you the perfect refrigerator magnet just yet.



On to Vienna Day Three

In This Episode ...

The Full Trip