As promised, here's one of two posts that will close out how we spent our time in Austria. Being so close to Vienna, Diane and I really wanted to get a chance to see part of this famous city. As we setup our schedule with my cousin Sabine, we quickly found that a trip to Vienna was going to be a little tough to do with her since she had a few commitments during the week. So we decided it might be best for us to venture to Vienna on our own to check it out.
As it happens, one of my friends from university is staying in Budapest, which is also a couple hour train ride away from Vienna. So when I told him we were going to be in Austria, we made tentative plans to meet up after Christmas in Vienna. Fortunately, this worked out well for us.
So early on Saturday morning, Diane and I waited in the Linz-Ebelsberg train station to catch the 7:00am train to St Valentin, where we transfered onto a train that took us straight into Vienna. We arrived a little less than 3 hours later. It took us a few minutes to get our bearings before we found the right way to go, and it was just a 3 block walk to our hostel for the night. Our room was ready so we checked in and left to find Mike near the university in Vienna.
Our plan for the day was pretty simple: we had downloaded an mp3 friendly audio tour called "Vienna: Hidden Corners of the First District". The starting location was where we met up with Mike, and we started out on what turned out to be a fantastic audio tour. If you're ever in Vienna and are looking for a good way to walk around the downtown core as a way to get familiar with it, and see a bunch of cool things along the way, I highly recommend this tour. We met Mike around 11am, and got started pretty soon after that - and we were at the tour for most of the day (with a few rest stops along the way, including lunch).
The tour was composed of 22 parts, and took us through some very interesting corners of Vienna. Early on in the tour, the guide had us go into a nondescript tailor's shop and ask to see the cellar -- apparently something this particular store would be asked a lot, because the lady waved us to a staircase saying something similar to "of course!". The cellar was amazing, with stairs and chambers leading us around quite a ways before we ran into a spot where the owners had blocked further exploring. According to the tour guide, these underground chambers lead quite a ways under Vienna. It was pretty cool! Even at this early stage in the tour, we all felt the money we paid for the audio tour was well spent.
The tour continued on to point out several remnants of the Roman empire, and led us on to a church where a lifesize mosaic replica of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper on the wall. The mosaic weighs an astounding 20 tons, and what amazed us the most was that it was done at such a resolution that from the ground, we couldn't tell that it was a mosaic. Apparently Napoleon had commissioned the mosaic be made so that he could take an original back to Paris with him. When it was completed, however, Napolean had already been defeated and eventually it ended up in this relatively small church in Vienna.
Our guide then led us through several more interesting facts and features of Vienna on to a side street and an unassuming doorway to a pub. Just inside, you go down a couple flights of stairs at which point the room opens up into an absolutely incredible arched ceiling cellar which was formerly used to store wine. Now, it makes probably the best atmosphere pub I've ever been in. We stopped in there for a beer and to enjoy the atmosphere, as we totally felt it was required to do!
A little while later, the guide had us walk up to a private looking door set in the side of a road, and open it to reveal a narrow passageway which eventually opened up into a Renaissance courtyard dating back to the 1500s. Already, the tour had paid for itself by showing us several parts of Vienna we would never have found on our own.
The rest of the tour pointed out several other details of Vienna including what is apparently the oldest underground public conveniences (restrooms), an old church where part of the inside plaster on the walls had been stripped away to reveal the previous stylings of the church, and some interesting details at the city's famous St. Stephen's church. We ended our tour not far from where we started it, at the gates to the Hofburg palace grounds.
Mike had a couple hours left before he had to go catch his train back to Budapest, so we made the most of it by walking around the Hofburg grounds. At this point it was dark out and the grand buildings were all lit up beautifully. It was a stunning sight. After stopping to take some photographs, we wandered our way eventually back to the train station where we waited for Mike's train in a cafe there. We wished him a good journey back and were on our own in Vienna for the evening and the next day!
It had been a bit of a long day for us though, so we didn't really feel up to doing much other than finding a place to eat dinner and retiring to sleep. The person who ran the hostel suggested we try out a little restaurant down the road from the hostel. It was a charming little Italian restaurant which we enjoyed quite a bit. Maybe the food wasn't incredible, but the waiter (whom I presume owns the place) was really charming in the way he sat down with us to explain the menu specials in his Italian accented English. We had some nice wine with dinner and tried out some Sachertorte (traditional Austrian chocolate cake) and ApfelStreusel (apple streudel) for dessert. Of the two, I actually preferred the apple streudel: it was warm and really quite tasty!
The next morning, we returned to the Hofburg grounds to attempt to see the Spanish riding horses show that morning. Unfortunately, it was all sold out except for two 135 euro tickets (each!). Instead of doing that, we left and stopped for a bite of breakfast at a nearby cafe and decided on a backup plan. Eventually we decided to check out the Austrian imperial palace: Shonbrunn. When we got there, we were dismayed by the long line up entering the palace, and decided to check out the grounds for awhile with the hope that the line would be gone when we returned. Quickly, we discovered that the palace grounds were HUGE! One could easily get lost in there. For the next hour and a half or so we wandered around the grounds just a tad in awe of the scale of the whole thing. It was a bit unfortunate that we were there in the winter -- the trees and plants were bare, and would probably look stunning in the spring/summer or fall. Still, there was lots to see including a long climb up past one set of statues to another building far up the hill that looked down on the Palace and a magnificient view of Vienna. From there, we wandered back down the hill and back around to the front of the palace to see if the line up had died down a bit. Thankfully, the lineup had disappeared into the building!
So the next thing to do was explore the palace. The tour with an accompanying audio guide was actually quite interesting. Two things really stood out for me. The first was the incredible scale of the place and the amount of decoration that went into each room. Every single room that we entered had a particular theme to the decor, and the people who were in charge of decorating the rooms did not stop at anything. Every detail was thought of and covered. Some themed rooms included Asian lacquered panelling, blue and white painted walls and decoration to imitate porcelain, and the use of rare and expensive wood panelling. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take my camera in, so I don't have any photos. The second thing that stood out for me was the tremendous amount of history behind the building. The audio tour provided with the admission rattled off several years and historical figures to the point that it turned into a blur of history. I'm going to have to spend some time reading about the history of Austria on wikipedia now! For an example of what I mean, the tour guide would say something like "Napolean stayed in this room when he stayed in Vienna in year XXXX". And it would be like that for many of the rooms.
The tour took about an hour, at which point we thought we'd return to downtown Vienna to ride the tram around town just to see the town a little bit before we sought dinner. Diane remembered a restaurant mentioned on the audio tour we took the previous day that had looked rather cozy, so we returned there to eat an early dinner before our train back to Linz. The food was fantastic, and the place was warm and cozy. It was a wonderful way to end our short trip to Vienna.
A couple of impressions we had on our short stay there. The transit was truly one of the nicest things about the city. It was incredibly easy to get around town on the numerous trams and underground lines that go through the city. On a less positive note, Austria is a lot more lax about where you can smoke -- meaning that many of the restaurants we went to during our stay were smokey which detracted a bit from the atmosphere in my opinion. Vienna is a wonderfully ornate city with most buildings looking beautiful in the crisp winter air. There's a lot to see there, and we'll definitely have to return to check out some of the public parks, the museums, and more tourist attractions!
We negotiated the train route back to Linz successfully although there was a little bit of running just to make sure we caught the next train on the two transfers we had to do on the return journey. The first leg was the longest and it was in a comfy new looking double-decker train - the likes of which I didn't know existed. So Diane and I sought seats on the upper deck, partly for the novelty of the experience.
We arrived at our stop at Linz on time to discover that Kien had come to pick us up at the station. The walk back to his place wasn't too long, but he decided to drive up and pick us up there anyways, which was thoughtful and nice of him to do!
So that was our short trip to Vienna. It was fun, and everything went pretty smoothly which was good for our first foray into continental Europe by ourselves!