Willkommen in Wien
We decided to go from Prague to Vienna by car. For one thing, it was cheaper than buying 5 air-tickets; for another, the taxi was a door-to-door service. The highway was excellent and the scenery was worth every Koruna — Our drive was like a LIVE version of Fast & Furious or Transporter-3! As we neared the border, we used up our last Korunas to buy cheap beer before crossing over. Czech Republic and Austria both belong to the EU: so beer & goodies are freely transferable.
The city of Strauss
Vienna is the rich cousin of Prague, and it showed. It was the capital of the Hapsburg monarchs who ruled for nearly 5 centuries till the World War-I. They managed to rule vast territories, not merely with military or political strength; they cleverly intermarried with nearly every royal family in Europe. The Spanish kings, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon’s second wife …all had Hapsburg blood. It was always within the family! Consequently, Vienna was the centre of Art, Architecture and Music. I had a more special reason to be there: this was the home of Johann Strauss, and I wanted to breathe the air that he had breathed!
We checked into a service apartment called Palais Brambilla. Originally built by Dr.Brambilla (a trusted courtier of Emperor Josef-II) in the 18th century, it was carefully modernised by his descendant who is an architect himself. Thus, it has lost none of its heritage charm — with winding staircase, arched ceilings, tall rooms and antique furniture!
It is on a beautiful boulevard in the first district of Vienna, which is the classy quarter. Every luxury car brand was represented on its roads and here is an example.
This was the closest I came to gifting a Rolls-Royce to Anu (Oh, what a magnificent miss)! Not far from this Rolls-Royce, was the famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral. This 12th century Romanesque-Gothic church is full of superb sculptures, paintings and artwork. The spire is 136 Mtrs tall and reflects the towering personality of Vienna itself. [Trivia: Joseph Haydn, the great composer, sang in the Boys Choir here!]. We saw it late in the night and were inspired to visit it once again in the morning!
Palais Brambilla faces a lovely road-side Park and the Little Danube canal. Just the right place for someone who wanted to soak in the atmosphere of Strauss! The Park was also a Hunde-Park (dog-park). Dogs are kept in a tight leash under Europe’s strict city laws, but in Hunde-Parks they are free of oppressive human restrictions. The autumn sun filtered through the golden leaves as the dogs were romping to their hearts content: sheer bundles of joy!
That night we attended a chamber orchestra at the Palffy Palais. This is a historic 15th century palace built originally by Count Paul Eberhard Palffy but renovated many times. The orchestra played all the famous waltzes and polkas of Strauss, including my all-time favourite — THE BLUE DANUBE. The ambience of the palace was exactly like it would have been in his time and the effect was electric — an experience of a lifetime.
The ‘Blue’ Danube is hardly Blue
The Danube was just across the road from where we stayed, so we walked to have a look…. I confess we were a tad disappointed. Strauss’ inspirational waltz built up our expectation so much, that reality couldn’t just live up to it! Worse, the Danube was more Grey than Blue! The banks were full of graffitti and teeming with bored sunbathers.
Never mind, it was part of the pilgrim’s progress. One more pilgrimage remained, which was the Srauss Memorial at Stadtpark.
The Palais Hofburg & Spanish Horses
The next morning we were in Hofburg Palace for the Spanish Horse Show. Undoubtedly, the stallions are majestic and the riders superbly skilled, but if you are not a cavalry type, this show is not for you. Sarah had booked weeks in advance for this show and paid a bomb: because, current bookings, if available, would have cost 2 bombs! I felt a twinge of regret that she spent so much on this show. The horses are sensitive to photo-flashes, so I managed only a snapshot of the spectacular stadium BEFORE the horses cantered in.
In & Around Palais Hofburg
The Hofburg Palace is an impressive structure with beautiful sculptures all over. It not only houses the Spanish stables but also the famous Sisi Museum, named after the Empress. [Sisi was the “unhappy” Empress Elizabeth, wife of Emperor Franz-Joseph-I. Apparently Franz Joseph was deeply in love with her: he overruled his domineering mother (who wanted him to marry Sisi’s elder sister) to marry her. She had the longest reign of the dynasty — 44 years. To be happy, all she had to do was to reciprocate Franz-Joseph’s love. She couldn’t! And then an anarchist assassin put an end to her misery in 1898.] Hofburg Palace looks majestic at a distance; come closer and you can see statues carved in intricate detail. (The sculptor of the Neptune Fountain must have been a master of human anatomy).
The search for Strauss
We had still not seen Strauss Memorial and this was worrying us. Wherever we asked, they said it was nearby; yet we were clearly lost, like Pinocchio. Surprisingly, the Austrians (like the Czechs) were very fond of the Italian tale of Pinocchio! Ah, we were floundering — but in very interesting places !
The Albertina Museum
And suddenly it was bang on our faces. No, not the Strauss Memorial, but the Albertina Museum. We didn’t find it, it found us! They were running an exhibition of Van Gogh and the steps were painted in Van Gogh style.
By now I was hungry (even pilgrims need food!). We found a cafe that served dishes named after great Austrians. And yes, they had dishes named after Strauss and Mozart.
We were ready to continue our search for Strauss, when somebody said — you might like to see Mozart’s House, he just lived round the corner. When Mozart calls, you don’t refuse ! So we went in, and were rewarded handsomely. They have preserved his house (one of the many he stayed in Vienna and Prague) and some of his furniture and they have a very good audio-guide that took us through 3 floors. Mozart was at once a brilliant musician, a hedonistic man with a childlike mind. A very interesting character.
I am blessed!
It was dusk now and still we had not reached Strauss Memorial. Had Herr Strauss forsaken us? Then, somebody showed the ‘right’ direction to Stadtpark. We walked at a furious pace and reached it. The park was huge. At night-fall, friends and foes looked frighteningly similar; but after some fumbling and sign-language directions, we saw the light. And Strauss shone in the divine light. On seeing Strauss I did something very instinctively Indian: I touched his feet. Badon ka pao chhoona hamara sanskriti hai !
The Vienna Pass
My Pilgrimage was complete and my place in Heaven was secured! The next day was for “secular” sightseeing. We got a 1-Day Vienna Pass (there were 2 and 3 day passes as well, but sadly 1 day was all we had!) This allows multiple journeys along all circular bus routes run only for tourists (Red, Yellow, Green, Orange, Grey and Violet routes). The Pass entitles free entry in some monuments.The buses are equipped with running audio commentary, and one can hop-on or hop-off at any place of interest.
We went here first and loved it. If you combined the Kotwal-Chavadi, Pookkadai and Mint-Street markets of Chennai and beautified it by 10x what would you get? NASCHMARKT! It is one of the oldest (16th century) and biggest (over 120 shops) markets in Vienna, located on the scenic banks of the R.Wien. You can get any agricultural produce here (I saw stripped coconuts, which looked exactly like they look in our Mandis) and you can get any meal from Indian to Vietnamese here.
No visit to Vienna is complete without seeing the Schonbrunn (beautiful spring)Palace. In the 16th century it was a small hunting lodge by the R.Wien. Sometime (circa 1750) during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, she got the lovely 1441-room Palace constructed in the finest Neo-Classical tradition. It is surrounded by a sprawling lush garden with many classic Romanesque marble statues. Most of the original period furniture, paintings and decor have been faithfully preserved inside. [Trivia: JF Kennedy and N Kruschev met here for a detente in 1961].
Museum of Natural History
We took the bus to the Natural History Museum. By this time I was insanely hungry and — getting on Anu’s nerves! Left with no alternative, Anu ordered a hot dog for me, the only street food for miles. (“It is better to eat pork than to die hungry in an alien country”). I ate the pork portion and she the bread portion. Paap to my account and Punya to hers!
By now we were running out of time. The campus is close to a Square Kilometre and houses 30 million specimens. The museum was established as the Imperial Natural History Museum in 1889 to store the Hapsburg collection; but some pieces are 250 years old. Alas, Kowie’s paradigm spares no traveler—We had time for JUST one last look. (Please see Prague: The Bohemians are hardly Bohemian! for the inevitable operation of Kowie’s Paradigm and Paradox). It was one more recce, but what an amazing recce!
1. Badon ka pao chhoona hamara sanskriti hai = An Indian custom where one touches the feet of elders as a mark of extreme respect.
2. Mandis = Traditional Indian Markets for farm & rural produce.
3. Paap & Punya = Sins & Good-deeds that get added to one’s Karma. In Hindu Karma theory, one has to reap the Reward or Punishment for every deed done in every lifetime.
4. Kowie’s Paradox = My theory that a keen traveler is never satisfied with any stay in any culture, because he is always thirsting for more!