With All Saint’s Day making for an extended weekend in 2016, I took off for one more weekend in 2016, yet again not in Germany, despite a mental commitment to discover places nearer to home. For an umpteenth time I drove back to Munich to board a plane, this time with a flight time just under an hour. It was ironically my third time in Munich in a week: I had visited the city the weekend prior, had a work outing to BMW during the week, and on Friday I jetted off. Perhaps the goal to explore more of Germany can be skirtingly reworded as getting to know the route to the airport…
The destination this time was Vienna. I booked the trip rather late but even so the forecast wasn’t overly precise ten days ahead. As the trip got closer, it looked like the weather the first day would be iffy, so I planned to spend it in a museum. If the Munich Pinakothek was mentally challenging, this one was even more eccentric. More unfortunate, most of the museum was also photographically off-limits, so I didn’t have an easy way to go back and review works later.
Photography was only allowed in the basement. I’m not sure how in normal use cases the benches would break in such a manner, but I figured I needed at least some proof that I had been inside the museum!
Hours of incomprehensible art later, I left the museum and wandered around the city. It’s eminently traversable with public transportation, though on foot the city is just as manageable. The area around its opera and city hall is lined with walking paths and suited for a casual stroll. The weather held up after midday, and somehow, even after seeing the first fall foliage in Munich already a few weeks prior, the colors here turned out to be near peak leaf season.
A friend’s recommendation brought me to the University of Vienna’s campus, which like many US university buildings was open to visitors. Built in the late 1800s, the building was empty during the holidays, making the architecture seem even more grand.
Wanting to research my next day’s itinerary, I called it an early night the first day and looked at sunrise options. It looked promising in theory at Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn), but the position of the sun this time of year relative to the castle didn’t seem quite as cooperative. So I slept in a little bit and aimed simply to beat the crowds. By 9:00, most of the grounds were already crawling with visitors just as eager to shoot an empty entrance court as I was.
The eastern side of the palace was the Privy Gardens and the Crown Prince Gardens. Despite the number of visitors already inside the castle grounds, this area was still completely empty. The cloud cover made me appreciate the extra hour of sleep even more: I hadn’t missed anything at sunrise!
Far removed from the hubbub at the central courtyard is the Neptune Fountain and the Gloriette, which somewhat ironically was intended as a symbol of just war but was then partially destroyed in World War II. Rebuilt years afterward, it was once again under construction when I visited but still offers an expansive view of Vienna (the first photograph in this post is from the gardens between the Gloriette and the palace). I was at the castle until the early afternoon; by the time I left, the line to enter the grounds had extended out the courtyard. I suppose it’s not just Versailles with this much allure.
Having missed sunrise, once back in town I headed up St. Stephen’s cathedral, Stephansdom, for sunset. Not knowing that there were two towers to choose between, I ended up ascending the southern stairwell and was rather surprised to enter not an outdoor viewing platform but rather simply a… room. I think the guy looking at me was surprised to see someone taking a picture of the room and not out the four windows oriented toward the north, south, west, and east.
A peek out the windows was rewarded with more intimate views of the city than from Schloss Schönbrunn, but low clouds obscured the dazzling sunset I had been craving. At this point, my last venture into mountains was months ago, and I was missing the alpine air quite badly. Nevertheless, I lingered in the stuffy viewing room for a good 45 minutes, rotating between the windows all the while.
With only a few days in Vienna, I knew I wouldn’t be able to visit all the museums, and the Hofburg Palace ended up being an evening photo shoot rather than a day-long exploration inside its archives. The exterior of the building was extremely brightly lit, making proper exposure of all the shadows against anything in front of a lamp rather difficult. The human eye continues to be the best sensor available for memory-creating, though I’ve learned that self-contained memory storage is taking more and more effort.
Having missed one chance for sunrise, I looked around for other opportunities around Vienna and learned about a metro stop that was on elevated tracks over the Danube. I had wandered out to a stop on the 31 tram line that evening, but as the view wasn’t spectacular with a wide-angle lens I hoped the metro stop at Donauinsel would offer something better. The next morning I awoke earlier and walked empty, silent streets.
With artful stripes covering the windows at the Donauinsel stop, the sunrise was obstructed, so I returned to the city center to go to the Austrian Parliament Building. I arrived as the sunlight still cast a warm glow; it wasn’t particularly “early” by sunrise standards, but the streets were still mostly empty.
I began my trek toward the Belvedere Museum, stopping along the way at the Soviet War Memorial (Heldendenmal der Roten Armee). The memorial commemorates the nearly 20,000 Soviet soldiers who died trying to “liberate Austria from fascism.” Interestingly, the occupation of Vienna after World War II was not a particularly pleasant period for Viennese, and the memorial serves to some as an unnecessary reminder.
The light when I arrived a half hour later at the Belvedere Palace was still quite nice, illuminating the city beyond. I started at the palace itself and walked downhill initially, then once the shade became too chilly I headed back up and into the sunlight.
From its southern face, the palace reflected beautifully in its pond. The floating art in the pond was done by artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei, a collaborator on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. Comprising lotus flower-shaped groups of life jackets that collectively form a script f, the work is meant to illustrate the uncertain future of refugees while simultaneously expressing the purity and longevity that the lotus flower symbolizes. Within the building was another art collection time dictated I pass on, but seeing the gleaming building from the outside offered plenty of contemplation in the face of today’s refugee crisis in Europe.
My afternoon was spent on a visit to the Wiener Musikverein, which is one of the venues the Vienna Philharmonic performs in and which houses one of the most acoustically-ideal performing halls in the world. Impressively, the Großer Musikvereinssaal, or Golden Hall, was constructed based not on acoustics engineering or any scientific basis; the acoustics were simply replicated based on the best acoustics halls at the time and on the intuition of its designer, Theophil Hansen. Unimpressively, photography was forbidden here, too, and the Austrian tour guide (who, like so many Europeans, spoke flawless English) couldn’t explain why not. It’s therefore hard to convey the grandeur of the hall and even harder to explain the acoustics: concerts sell out routinely, and tickets are never cheap. The handful of free tickets raffled out for the New Year’s concert held by the Philharmonic have winning odds worse than lottery tickets.
My next stop was to the Austria Parliament Building, which I suspected would also not allow photography but surprisingly did. This time, I was caught up in the photos and forgot to make mental note of what the tour guide was saying — the tour was conducted by one guide who spoke first in German and then in English, and between the constant language-switching I turned off my hearing. The Federal Assembly Chamber features a massive glass ceiling with hand-painted adornments over much of the room. Used today for such occasions as the swearing-in of the president, the Federal Assembly is now largely ceremonial in function.
Mesmerized by the buildings I had just toured and feeling hungry for something culturally Viennese, I had a schnitzel for dinner at Plachutta. It’s one of the many Viennese restaurants famous for its schnitzel, but in my hunger I devoured the cutlet before thinking to take a picture of it. Legacy of the photo-unfriendly policies of the day, perhaps; sorry, Instagram, either way.
The next day was my final day in Vienna, and I managed to book tickets for one more tour before my short flight across the border and drive back home. I didn’t get to see a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic, unfortunately, but I figured touring the Vienna State Opera building would be an acceptable alternative. The tour brought back memories of preparing for and performing in my high school’s variety show. The day of the performance is the culmination of months of preparation, and seeing some of the backstage preparations was pleasantly nostalgic.
The ceiling of the main auditorium was just as massive as that from Washington D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, though the chandelier there seemed more ornate. Ironically, it, too, is a chandelier from Austria.
The foyer and stairs leading into the auditorium area were also beautifully decorated. Here, too, I was caught up enough in the richness that some (defined: most) details of the statues and art being described by the tour guide were long forgotten.
I walked slowly back to my airbnb, taking in the unseasonably warm weather and enjoying my last moments in Vienna. Vienna had been a city on my list for some time: a good friend studied abroad in Vienna while in college and enjoyed it, and her suggestions provided a good basis for my short time there. I was content with the visit. I had crammed a lot in in the space of a few days, and it was an unexpected relief to be able to visit a city with a deep appreciation of the arts. I’ll always be a fan of the outdoors, but being able to explore a city that appreciates Mahler or the beauty of sound is something I’ve admittedly missed in Charleston and in the Allgäu. The appreciation for the arts I had expected; what I didn’t expect was the complete lack of gloves: maybe it just wasn’t cold enough, but I felt like I rarely saw anyone else wearing hand shoes in that city.
It never ceases to intrigue me that European carriers routinely fly 45-60 minute flights on A320s and 737s (and serve sandwiches and drinks in that time!) where all three mainline U.S. carriers resort to flying 2.5 hour flights on cramped regional jets. I’d be interested in learning more about the financials of that decision, though staring out the window at the mountains in the distance, flying over pillowy clouds separating land from blue heaven my thoughts drifted. I didn’t mind.
We pulled up to the new section of Munich’s T2 and took the train back to the main terminal area. The designers of the car had considerately made the front glass of the train flat, making shooting my last shot of the trip happily flare-free (unlike, say, the shots I had tried taking from the train serving Zurich’s international terminal). I gave the gleaming terminal one last look, then headed to my car and back to the town at the foot of the mountains that I now call home.
I had hoped to post this prior to the end of the year, but as that didn’t happen I’ll use this chance to wish everyone a happy new year! Best wishes for a healthy and happy 2017.