travelog 58

A Visit to Vienna

It's probably best to take a holiday in Europe before Swiss Air goes bankrupt and we loose all our accumulated miles. A flight to Vienna is a special offer from Swiss Air, so what can be more obvious than to visit the Austrian capital again after many years, Particularly since summer is the best time for such trips.

We want to go sightseeing and stuff ourselves with Viennese "Schmankerl" (delicacies) for one entire week. We can live and stay at Martin's sister Karla's apartment that is centrally located at the edge of the inner city.

First of all we buy a weekly ticket for public transportation. We realize that many other cities (including Zurich) should take Vienna as a model. A single ticket is worth 2 Euro; the weekly ticket that is valid for the entire city of Vienna and all its public transportation is worth 12.50 Euro - ideal for tourists who want to do without taxi cabs. Now we can ride all around Vienna on the trams, buses, railways and subways. This is really the easiest, cheapest and least stressful way of getting around in a big city. As a welcoming dinner we go to a nice restaurant where we can sit outside under old chestnut trees. Need you ask what we ordered our first evening in Vienna? A real Wiener schnitzel! It's tasty but in our memories of some years ago, we still see the huge schnitzel of Figlmüller's restaurant before our eyes. An after-dinner walk in the gardens of Schönbrunn, where half of the city seems to be jogging right now, is a perfect finish for this first evening.

Vienna has changed a lot in the years we haven't been here and in a very positive way, we think. Thanks to the EU (European Union) that apparently payed a lot for this, we can admire old palaces, monuments, fountains, and venerable city houses in all their new splendor. The gloominess disappeared from the streets of Vienna - at least while the sun is shining! All the facades are cleaned and without exception the buildings look pleasant. Museums were renovated, some even newly created and joined together in a Museum Quarter. Every restaurant and cafe uses even the smallest space on the sidewalks to put up umbrellas, chairs and tables.

At night the city offers open-air cinema or musical experiences in front of the town hall. Downtown, around Graben and Kärntner streets, you can stroll by some of the finest and most expensive shops in Vienna. Vegetables and exotic fruits, cheese and sausages, wine and fish are even more expensive at the delicatessen store, Meinl, than at the Globus, its equivalent on the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, Switzerland. Nevertheless there are enough people not only looking with watering mouths, but also buying things! But there are also areas where prices are more reasonable and where Viennese and tourists alike hunt for bargains.

In order to avoid a pilgrimage from one restaurant to the next, we also planed some cultural things. An exhibit about parasites in the natural history museum seemed pretty outmoded to us. A few illustrated charts, some huge plastic models, glass jars with tapeworm-infested livers, one single microscope and one video show inform about the nice critters which can bless you with moderate to serious troubles in your digestive tract, under your skin, or elsewhere in your body. Nevertheless we think the information is pretty poor, especially if you think about the hefty entry fee of 8 Euro per person. Well, yes, we're probably spoiled by the American national parks and their exhibits. Non-the-less, the whole thing gets under our skin. Didn't we just recently have that inexplicable fever? What about the strange rash on the skin? Does our liver look like the ones in the jar after eating meat in Mexico? Joking aside, we don't get hysterical!

There's a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition in the Museum Quarter. The entire body of graphical work by the French artist is displayed. After we looked at a documentary about the life of this little man, the drawings gained another dimension. They suddenly seemed to be taken from real life. The Hundertwasser house is on the programm too. It's really very interesting arquitecture, colorful, wonderfully planted with greenery. Unfortunately you can't visit the inside of the complex anymore because the occupants felt (understandably) disturbed by the many visitors. But there are more buildings designed by Hundertwasser; a freeway rest area, the district heating building that you can see while riding on the railway, the garbage incinerator and another building that was converted into a museum including, its well-visited souvenir shop. We also saw some very old churches that are considerably less overcrowded than the Stephan's Cathedral. Of course a visit to the latter is obligatory. It's a pity that it's always under construction. The smell of horse urine also chases you away. The many "fiakers", horse carriages, that wait for customers in long lines along the cathedral are at their busiest during the summer.

From time to time we stroll through the different parks and public gardens of the city. Schönbrunn is huge and offers many attractions. There is even a desert house. It's too expensive for us at 9 Euro, especially because we can soon drive through the Northamerican desert areas in our own car. Little cafes and ice-cream places tempt everywhere. They're extremely busy in the unusual summer heat. At night you don't have to do without culture. In front of the town hall we try exotic delicacies at different food stalls. With a little luck and a lot of patience you can even find some empty chairs and an unoccupied corner of a table. After dark the city shows musical films, for example the Verdi requiem. Many young people who don't look like classical music fans are seated there and are listening to the beautiful music. Behind us a man complains to his neighbors who use the comfortable chairs for an in depth discussion about their last week's adventures with men. From time to time we hear the bleep of a cellular, a glass breaks, and there's a lot of hustle and bustle. The atmosphere is certainly better suited for pop music than for requiems or operas, but it's fun anyway!

We have to organize our days very well because we want to taste all the different delicacies that Vienna has to offer. You should only visit the Naschmarkt with an empty stomach, otherwise the temptation would be too much! Fruits and vegetables are offered by mainly Turkish traders. They piled their goods into colorful heaps and the further away you get from downtown the cheaper the goods get. But there are also shops that sell spices and wine, bakeries and small food stands. With a gastro guide we find some interesting restaurants in this quarter of the city. Especially worth mentioning is a place called Die Drei Buchteln. Its only disadvantage is that it doesn't have an outside area. As non-smokers we find that it's quite difficult to be inside, especially when the people at the neighbouring table are a group of chain-smokers. A stocky woman with a headscarf from Eastern Europe stands in the tiny kitchen. Another woman arranges the food on the plates and serves it. That's the whole crew, so you have to be a little bit patient, but it's worth it. The decision is difficult, everythings sounds tempting. Finally we choose Piroggen, with a filling of duck meat with lentils, and Krauttaschen, stuffed cabbage, with bacon. It's delicious! But even better are the Buchteln and the hand-twisted Mohnnudeln, thick noodles of a potatoe dough, served with melted butter, ground poppy seeds, and sprinkled with confectioner's sugar.

A stay in Vienna without a visit to Figlmüller's is absolutely impossible. If you want to eat at the little restaurant behind the Stephan's Cathedral, it's best to be there well before noon to be able to grab one of the few tables. But then you can sit comfortably and nobody urges you to free your table for other waiting guests. If you don't know Figlmüller's, you will probably not believe your eyes when the Wiener schnitzel is served. Their schnitzel comes on a big white plate, but you can't see the plate! Don't worry, they'll pack whatever you can't eat. In Vienna, the doggie-bag is socially acceptable too. The schnitzel is made from veal, cut wafer-thin and perfectly breaded. It's a wonderful lunch with a potatoe salad and a glass of "heurigen", young wine.

The k. & k. Hofzuckerbäckerei, the imperial and royal court confectioner, Demel, is also one of the traditional institutions. It's a little adapted to tourism now and so also sells salads, schnitzel and sandwiches, but the cake buffet on the left side is still the main attraction. It's best not to look at their prices because a coffee for 4.60 Euro is disturbingly close to the absolute limit, even if the coffee is served in a little pot with whipping cream on the side. We start on the light side with a Topfentorte, cheese cake with fruits, and a Marillenstrudel, an apricot strudel. Then we bring up the big guns; a truffle gateau and a Senegalese gateau, both calorie-bombs. We can almost feel the layers of fat growing around our bellies. What do we order next? Unfortunately, we have to confess that after thinking about it for a long time, we're absolutely full! Even Martin, who loves sweet things has to say no. It's impossible to eat another gateau!

At night we normally ride on the railway or the bus to the surrounding districts of Vienna. We're taken with the culture of the "Heurigen"! There are famous, and notorious, Heurigen communities, as for example Grinzing, where busloads of tourists are carted to. We look for small family businesses where the selection at the buffet isn't that huge but all the more tasty and typical. A "Heuriger" is a restaurant. Above its entrance a fir branch normally hangs to indicate that it's open. Tables and benches are lined up under shady chestnut trees or arbors covered with grapevines hanging full of blue grapes. It's best to order the very drinkable "heurigen", the young and new wine of last year, by the carafe and with it a sparkling water in a siphon bottle. Then you go to the buffet and chose from the various delicacies. Begin with spreads like Liptauer (click here for the recipe) and Grammelschmalz, dripping with crackling greases. Enjoy it with black bread or salt sticks. Then you change over to the warm food; different roasts, strudel, roast chicken, vegetable souffle, dumplings, and of course various salads. Also the desserts are quite something. It's mostly sweets like apricot strudel, sweet dumplings (see our recipe for apricot dumplings à la Karla; click here for the recipe), cream slices, but also tempting small things covered with chocolate. If you want to combine this pleasant get-together with a little bit of culture, you can for example visit the Mayer am Pfarrplatz in Heiligenstadt. This Heuriger is located in an old house where Beethoven lived and composed his 6th and 9th symphony. The musicians today play rather popular music on the fiddle and the accordion.

If you have relatives in Vienna, you will also see something of the surrounding areas. We visit with Karla in her little weekend and vacation house about, located about one hour outside of the city. There we had many opportunities to hike. We decided to try the Johannesbachklamm, John's Stream Gorge, where we certainly would find many interesting plants if it were in Mexico. For our lunch snack we visit a "Most-Heurigen" in the country. Once a year local farmers can open their barns to the public and offer fresh or already fermented cider and cold delicacies. You sit on long tables and benches between the barn and the farmhouse. They serve thickly spread slices of bread and drippings, fresh goat cheese with pumpkin seed oil and cold sliced caraway roast. The many flies started us feeling almost as if we're home in our truck in Mexico.

When we arrive at the Vienna airport after a week, with a few pounds more on the ribs and happy, we realized that Vienna really has something for every taste. Here, next to all the souvenir shops, the designer clothes, the alcohol and perfume shops, we discovered that even Beate Uhse (a chain of sex shops named for its female owner) has found its way here. If a business man has forgotten to get a little present for his wife in Vienna, he can purchase provocative underware for her. He can also pass the time until his departure burrowing through the magazines and videos. Vienna is always worth a visit!

July 2003

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen