Austria and Prague IM Tour 2014: Vienna Part 1

People who know my family know that music is almost a constant on our trips and in our house. Whether my dad is belting out power ballads that clearly show his age, my brother blasting out his car stereos in classic rock, or my mom listening to the smooth vocals of Elvis and country music; silence is a rare commodity in our house. So you could say that our trip to Austria was our chance to get back to the fundamentals and explore nature with a steady soundtrack of Beethoven and Mozart. If you’ve noticed I always seem to marvel at the mix of old archaic architecture with the modern contemporary style, and how it all seems to blend with nature. To be honest I’ve probably used this shtick so many times that one may question whether I’m just typing up these stories based on a template. So you might be surprised to find that I felt no mixing of the old and the new on this trip. Instead almost everyday felt like I was transported back into the past, sometimes so far back that the most complex structures were wooden cabins and houses surrounded by raw, unadulterated nature. But let’s start with the capital, Vienna, and venture into the City of Music.

To start off our musical journey, our first stop was the Beethoven Residence in Heiligenstadt. Though there is no official documentation confirming that Beethoven resided in the house many people believe it was where he spent the summer of 1802 during the later years of his life when he suffered through his advancing deafness. During his stay, he worked on his Second Symphony and composed the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter he never sent to his two brother regarding his increasing despair over his deafness. The museum in the house is dedicated to the later years of his life and his eventual death. Aside from the museum people are free to walk around the house and peer into the house. It’s not the largest museum and only contains two to three separate rooms, but it offers a lovely courtyard and gives you a taste at the quieter residential aspects of Vienna. As Beethoven’s condition worsened he resided in more peaceful areas and went to a nearby spa in the neighborhood.

Our journey, though, brought us more into the livelier parts of the city center. Anxious to taste some of Austria’s famous desserts, we walked to the Café Sacher for a typical Austrian coffee-house atmosphere. While Starbucks may be comfortable enough for some people to basically work and live out of, this coffee house takes the sophistication of British teatime and adds the wonderful joy of coffee to it.  We tasted their “legendary Original Sacher-Torte” and an orange-candied and ginger cake. It was slightly disappointing to find their cakes a bit on the dry side but the espressos were good enough to solve that problem and our jetlag. If anything the experience and interior architecture was what we were really paying for. Because we were gluttons and wanted to work off the calories from the cakes, we headed over to Café Central. I definitely preferred this place much more since it had a larger array of desserts and a more stunning interior. Numerous historical figures have frequented the café including, Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, and Sigmund Freud. Despite the background of some of its frequent customers, the desserts were amazing, and the service and atmosphere were friendly and welcoming. We probably could have stayed there for hours sipping our coffee and eating chocolate cake, but it was time to visit the Hofburg Palace and we couldn’t exactly leave royalty waiting.

The Hofburg Palace has housed some of the most powerful families in Austrian and European history including, he Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and is the current residence of the President of Austria. It was the primary winter residence, while the Schonbrunn Palace was the preferred summer residence. It has three museums and exhibits which include the Silver Collection, the Sisi Museum, and the Imperial Apartments. My brother may have found the Silver Collection his favorite since he has grown an affinity towards perusing his appearance in reflective surfaces, but my favorite was the Sisi Museum. The museum tells the story of Elisabeth of Austria, a beautiful but unlucky empress. She was only 16 and a half when Emperor Fraz Josef of Austria chose her as his bride. Accustomed to being free-spirited, she found the customs of the Viennese Court stifling and had a poor relationship with her overbearing mother-in-law Princess Sophie. Looking for comfort, Sisi traveled excessively and came to love Hungary, which would help bring about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The death of her only son Rudolf in a murder-suicide tragedy with his mistress pushed her into isolation as she withdrew from court duties and became obsessed with her appearance, spending two or three hours a day on her hair. Eventually her travels, unaccompanied by her family, would lead to her assassination by Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist.
The museum did a great job establishing the mood with lighting and dark colors, portraying the despair Sisi felt at the loss of her freedom. The museum mainly showcased the clothing she wore, especially the black dresses she was almost always seen in after the death of her son.
The Imperial Apartments were not as extravagant as one may assume, but since it was the winter residence more of the elaborately decorated furnishings exist in the summer palace. Most of the décor there was exhibited with the fireplaces tucked into the corners of almost every room.
We ended our day with a visit to Vienna’s most popular market, Naschmarkt. Located over the Wien River the market has existed since the 16th century. Today restaurants and shops selling exotic and local produce can be found. Luckily, we ducked under an awning for a quick bite just before the rain started to pour. Like Hawaii, the summer rains were quick and warm. Judging by the unconcerned expressions on the locals’ faces we had nothing to worry about. What we noticed when paying for our meal there and at the café was that the servers would give change directly from a change purse they carry around. Instead of running back to the cash register all of the waiters will carry a purse full of bills ready to be exchanged at your table. Most restaurants will include tax and tip in their bills, and they typically won’t give you the bill until you ask for it. By this hour the copious cups of espresso were barely staving off our jetlag so back to the hotel it was.         Vienna is a great town to walk around, especially in the city center. Its other attractions may take a while to get to, but the city center offers a variety of historical and cultural sights within walking distance from each other. On our walk back to the bus I was reminded of Vienna’s musical attributes with a series of tiles near the market. It reminded me of the Hollywood Stars, but instead of actors they celebrated famous Austrian artists, like Mozart. It doesn’t matter if you rush to every destination; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while-even down at your feet- you can miss the details that make traveling to foreign places so similar to where you come from but also so different.


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