Published: January 10th 2009April 29th 2008
In front of the parliament I believe.
Schnitzels and Museums
I got off the train in the early hours of the morning, well, early for me. After leaving Valence it had been one long and boring train after another as I passed across France, Germany and finally down into Switzerland, the only highlight of which was the half hour I spent wandering the quiet streets in front of the Strasbourg train station. Strasbourg is probably a beautiful city, it certainly has an interesting history, but it really didn’t strike me as memorable from my viewpoint - a cold and nearly deserted street full of empty kebab shops and the odd Japanese tourist, just like many boring lower class suburbs around the world, only with a gigantic glass and very modernist train station dominating one end of the road.
Vienna, on the other hand, was immediately a place I wanted to be. Something about it felt new, or different. The colours, the buildings, the general feel of the place; it was very much different from the other places I’d seen in Europe. Not in the way that China strikes a westerner as different, but in a much more subtle way.
As I started to explore the
center of the city, and it is an incredibly
small city center, I began to discover that Vienna was even more interesting than I could have imagined. I had heard of the Habsburg Empire before, somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind a lightbulb turned on for the first time in years, yet everything I saw and read was somehow unexpected. How could a gigantic empire that controlled a huge chunk of Europe within living memory have slipped by my notice so completely? Why did I not study all about this place in school? Who is this Sisi woman that seems to be mentioned everywhere? Thankfully, Vienna itself doesn’t keep any secrets. Between the dozens of museums (there are more museums than could actually fit on my map) and the cheerful signs reading “No Kangaroos in Austria” I soon learned all about that place.
I walked around a lot over the next couple of days, wandering from museum to museum. Finally I realised that the most interesting museums were the off-beat ones, such as the crypt where all the emperors and empresses were buried in metal sarcophagi (some of these were very modest, little more than a metal
coffin with an embossed cross, some of them were quite the opposite in their 8 foot tall splendour with huge embellishments and full size figures carved all over them). The more entertaining part of Vienna, in my opinion, was to just wander the old streets in the city center looking for fun cafes or restaurants. Watching the craziness around Stefansplatz was also fun - this is the center of the “tourist” area and it’s where you can find all of the interesting street performers and the throngs of package tourists. As frustrating it was to be crushed in the crowd there, I did find it intriguing to stare at the human statue making his poses in front of the massive and beautiful St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
My second favourite activity in Vienna was the hunt for Schnitzel, because really, who in their right mind could visit Vienna without eating a Vienna Schnitzel? It would be like not eating a Chicken Kiev and that’s just plain wrong! On my very first night there I set out on the hunt, completely without plan or destination mind you, I guess I thought that finding the dish would be easy. I went past a
The Emperor's Palace
Not at all like the rest of Vienna, but still a great place to check out.
number of nice looking places but nothing struck me as authentic. In fact, most places looked rather rubbish in the center of town and I found myself slowly moving further and further away from anything even remotely resembling a landmark. Thankfully, getting lost in Vienna is nearly impossible as the public transport is simply perfect (and you can drink beers on the subway!) so I wasn’t worried, but I was getting rather hungry. You see, I’m used to China where you can find food absolutely everywhere. Even if you’re in an industrial estate you can pretty well count on a street vendor appearing eventually, but here in Vienna I was struggling to find a menu that wasn’t either expensive or lacking schnitzel. Eventually I gave up on finding the perfect schnitzel for the evening and fell into a small place that looked more like a cheap and dirty pub than a restaurant, but at least it had schnitzel on the menu.
The front room was full of smoke, the back was full of burly men and their wives drinking away their sorrows. I chose the back. The plus-size barman came over and asked for my order in passable English.
The Mother of All Coffins
Fancy being buried ostentatiously? Forget Pyramids, you need a gigantic metal monstrosity!
With some trepidation I ordered the schnitzel and a local beer and then I sat back and waited. The barman’s rotund wife came out and unceremoniously dropped off my beer, all 700mL of it (oh I do love a country that serves beers based on how much you can pick up with one hand rather than in any practical sized glass), and soon after that my schnitzel arrived.
It looked pretty good. . . it seemed cooked and all that, plus the usual pub sides meant I wasn’t going to be truly disappointed. . . it was time to dig in. Well, to be honest it was simply amazing. Even though it wasn’t made any differently to what I used to get at the pub down the road from my home in Australia, something about it was just plain better. Perhaps it was the fact that I’d been searching for it so much, or maybe it was just the oversized beers.
Unfortunately my later escapades with Schnitzels did not turn out so well. Given the initial success I tried a second schnitzel, this time from a small hole in the wall near my hostel. If anything I’ve ever
An Old Church
Vienna is filled with old and very famous buildings like this one.
tasted came close to the textbook definition of low quality fast food it was that schnitzel. . . oh, I feel horrible just thinking about it. The lesson was clear: if you want good food you should look for the place which is completely without class but still refrains from having a deepfrier in clear view.
Vienna is without a doubt big. Not in sprawl, but in scale. The old part of the city doesn’t cover very much land, but all of the interesting buildings and places are just plain old huge. As an example, the palace compound where the Emperor used to live looks like a collection of row houses that were designed for Giants. The building continues off in all sorts of directions, spreading across a very large area, with roads passing through the middle of some buildings, and the walls are monolithic to say the least. The huge slabs of dark grey stone epitomise the word immovable.
On one morning I headed further afield, out into the west of the city and the Schonbrunn Palace. This was another of the Habsburg Emperors’ palaces where they used to hunt in their own private
Vienna has a lot of them, it was hard to resist snapping photos.
preserve. In more recent times the grounds were converted into a massive garden complex, complete with hedgerow maze, statues, fountains, zoo, forest, and all sorts of other intriguing novelties. Obviously this place is big, but it isn’t just big, it’s huge! Walking to the back of it was quite a hike, and the “back” happens to be some kind of replica roman forum on top of a sizeable hill from where you can see most of Vienna. I got lost again and again wandering about that place, as I explored as many of the interesting nooks and crannies as I felt the need to. If it hadn’t started to rain I probably could have spent a whole lot more time there. And I didn’t even bother going inside to explore the hundreds upon hundreds of fully furnished rooms of the palace where a young Mozart once played for emperor.
Later that night I met up with a friend from the hostel and headed out to something that sets Vienna apart from any other city I’ve seen. You see, it just so happened that it was Vienna’s independence day (what luck I have) so we went to where the party
In Schonbrunn's garden the trees are so old and oddly groomed (very tall and skinny) that several of them have to be supported by these contraptions.
was supposed to be happening: the carnival. Carnivals in my city are a once a year thing which passes through leaving a wake of rubbish and little else. In Vienna, the carnival is a place on the other side of the canal where the rides run every day of the year! Better still, being a national holiday the place was positively packed full of revelers.
We weren’t there to go on the rides though; we were more interested in the beer gardens on the periphery. Just outside of the carnival area itself we found a string makeshift drinking holes which could only be described as “strange”. The first one we found had a big confederate flag above a stage where a live Austrian band was singing American country and western songs. Just like the way ABBA used to sing, the band’s lyrics weren’t incorrect in any way but you could still tell that English wasn’t their strong suit. Additionally, Budweiser was available on tap.
We moved on rather quickly and found ourselves a significantly better bar: an impromptu outdoor karaoke bar. Oddly we couldn’t actually find the bar but everyone seemed to be drinking beers so it must have been nearby, nevertheless, listening to drunk Austrian girls singing Britney Spears was quite entertaining by itself.
Suddenly, yet completely expectedly given the day, fireworks exploded over our heads. Now, people often say that fireworks exploded over their heads while actually meaning that the fireworks exploded in the air some distance above and in front of them. That night however, I do seriously mean that they exploded over my head. Directly above me, and not very far away at all they crackled and fizzed (and exploded with vicious bangs). They seemed huge and all-encompassing; very much like Vienna in general. I hate to think of the fires which must have been sparked, but I didn’t really care at the time when the finale firework enveloped my entire field of view with glowing red fire.
Team Austria, German Pigs and Czech Beverages
Some of you may remember an adventure that I was lucky enough to be a part of many months ago in China. Three mad Austrians dragged me along (kicking and screaming of course) on a number of escapades that ended with me running out of Hong Kong with black hair and no excuse other than “same same Harry Potter” (see Austr(al)ia Hits Hong Kong
if you’re really interested). After ten months I had finally crossed the globe one way or another and now that I was in Austria I was keen to meet up with my friends. Unfortunately only two of them were in the country at the time, but two out of three aint bad.
Lo and Josef, now sporting a much less Harry Potter hairstyle, met me at a place called Schweizerhaus which, as they described it, had the best food and drink in Vienna. Unfortunately the food was German and the drinks Czech, but I didn’t really mind so long as I got to catch up with them. At first it was a little odd as we had all moved on from where we were the year before, but within ten minutes we were all right back where we had been when we last saw each other. I was actually quite surprised by this; it’s fair enough to expect your good friends at home to be roughly the same after a year as you’ve known them so long anyway that a year is trivial, but for someone that you only knew for two weeks while they were on holiday in China to be just as much your friend after almost a year as they were back then is something I didn’t see coming.
The Schweizerhaus seems to be something of an institution. It’s actually in the middle of the carnival area I talked about a minute ago and was probably one of the less weird beer gardens that we could have gone too that night. It was lunchtime on a workday when I was there and yet it was still packed full of people drinking like mad and eating the anti-epitome of healthy food. In fitting with this Lo and Josef ordered a dish for the three of us along with four healthily sized beers (read: twice as big as normal). When the dish arrived I was put aback a little as it was quite literally quarter of a pig.
You may realise that no matter which section of the pig you go for, a quarter is still going to be a lot of meat. A whole lot of bacony, meaty, juicy, rotisserie meat. Mmmmmm. . .
We gorged ourselves silly, and drank our share of that tasty beer as well, while we chatted away about everything that had happened in the intervening months. It was wonderful, and despite the fact that both of my friends had sworn that they couldn’t stick around for very long that afternoon as they were busy we were still there at six. As I said before, everything in Vienna has to be big it seems.