Backpacking-through-Europe Part VI: Vienna
Sent Wednesday, April 01, 2009 9:11 PM
Before I visited Vienna, I had pretty strong visions of the city…and all of it, well, “classy and luxe”: The Vienna Opera House, the Viennese Waltz, Mozart, the Lippizaner Stallions, the grand ball held by Christopher Plummer and the wickedly gorgeous Countess in ‘The Sound of Music’, the Vienna Boys Choir, the mouth-watering Sacher Torte and other, luscious pastries. My first longing for Vienna, I sheepishly admit, started back in the ’70’s on TV, when those General Foods International Coffees commercials ruled the airwaves. The spot for Cafe Vienna hooked me, with its romantic images of sipping steaming cups of coffee from beautiful china cups at a charming Vienna cafe. I’m sure I bugged my Mom relentlessly until she bought a can of the hardly-Viennese, just-add-water, sugar-loaded coffee-flavored powder. But, on a chilly, Texas-winter day, it sure warmed my insides and made me feel, well, “classy and luxe”! (Oh, yeah…the not-so-little “dash” of Kahlua I snuck in there helped, too!)
And then there’s Vienna sausage; but somehow, those pale, watery, mushy fingerlings have no association with my grand visions of the legendary Austrian city. Incidentally, in Vienna, they call their city “Wien” (pronounced “vee-EHN”); and someone (or something, such as a sausage) that comes from Wien, or is in the style of Wien, is called “Wiener” (pronounced “vee-EHN-er”). How we took such a beautiful pronunciation and twisted it into the awful-sounding “WEE-ner” is beyond me!
Vienna did not disappoint. Its city center, within the well-trafficked “Ring”, is spotless-clean and filled with beautiful, wedding-cake buildings containing layer upon layer of ornate architectural flourishes. St. Stephan’s Cathedral (under construction since 1147) and the “twin” museums – Naturhistorisches and Kunsthistorisches, veritable palaces dedicated to, respectively, the sciences and the arts, are not to be missed. The Staats-Oper (Vienna State Opera House) is beautiful and iconic, but tastefully subdued, not garish. Arrive for one of the nightly musical performances in a glassed-in, Cinderella carriage pulled by a team of elegant horses. Afterward, finish your evening by crossing the street to the Sacher Hotel, home of the famous Sacher Torte: the indulgent, dark-chocolate-and-raspberry sweet.
Outide the “Ring”, government buildings, such as the towering Rathaus (City Hall) and the gleaming-white, classical Parliament Building, are a delight. My favorite visit was to the Naschmarkt, a bustling, open-air market. The fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses and spices are an explosion of high-intensity colors and enticing aromas. Make sure to sample some of the mouthwatering dried fruit, little cheeses wrapped in prosciutto, honey-sweet dates and pickles so salty-sour that, once your lips start puckering, you’re in danger of sucking your own face right in! While you sashay down this epicurean catwalk, you can also pop into one of the myriad wine bars and cafes serving delicious Viennese fare. (You’ll never taste a wienerschnitzel or apfelstrudel as amazing as the ones you’ll find here, right in their own hometown!)
Like Paris (but much, much cleaner), wide boulevards, manicured parks and symmetry in building abound. Like Rome, the scale, detail and drama in Vienna’s mythological statuary are amazing! You know by now that I like a little “rough-edge” aesthetic in my cities; and except for the area surrounding the Wien Südbahnhof rail station we pulled into, Vienna might have been (a wee bit) too polished, a movie set, for my tastes. (However, I can understand how this is the very thing that makes Vienna so attractive to the traveling set, compared to some of its rode-hard, European sister cities.)
But, what I came to Vienna for most was her museums; and she does have some fantastic ones, mainly clustered (as Berlin had done) in a beautiful, open-air square known as the MuseumsQuartier, once the royal stables. In my last travelogue, I mentioned the hours spent in the library in college. My parents’ artistic, slightly-off-center views of the world had already begun shaping (misshaping? Haha!) my own outlook; but burying my head in glossy art books and cutting-edge design journals blasted a hole in it! ‘Twas here that I met the artists, designers and craftsmen, both past and contemporary, that would become my personal deities: Frida Kahlo, Dale Chihuly, Egon Schiele, Louise Nevelson, Cindy Sherman, Gustav Klimt, Francis Bacon, Phillipe Starck, Thierry Mugler. I’ve come to Vienna to worship two of them – Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt – sons of Vienna, both.
These extraordinarily talented men, contemporaries of each other at the turn of the last century, are both particular favorites of mine. Klimt is the better-known of the two…his work, especially his hauntingly beautiful, Eastern-inspired (and controversially erotic at the time) paintings of fin-de-siecle Austrian high society, have been exhibited around the world. These are here at Vienna’s LeopoldMuseum, too; but it’s also amazing to see his less-well-known landscapes, as well as earlier work before he developed his signature style. It’s also heartbreaking to see sketches and photographs of his greatest works, lost in a fire at the ImmendorfPalace in 1945.
Egon Schiele was a student of Klimt; and I have to say that I admire his work the most. I’m thrilled to be at the Leopold, which has the world’s largest collection of Schiele’s legacy. His paintings are dramatic and dark; but I’m most captivated by his drawings and watercolors…not just erotic, as with Klimt, but dripping with unabashed sexuality. His self-portraits are my favorite, revealing a rebellious, slightly tormented, sensual creature. He draws his subjects in slightly twisted, almost unnatural poses…and they look you, bold and defiant, right in the eye. Both artists shook the art world in their day, breaking several times from the art “establishment”. In 1918, Klimt died of a stroke. Schiele sketched the last portrait of the great master at the morgue and then, at the age of 28, died that same year. Their art remains, surprisingly contemporary…and powerful as ever.
Tonight, my hostel roommates, Edmund (born in Malaysia, living in Seattle and moving to Washington, D.C.) and Dimitry (born in Russia, living in Boston, moving to New York City) and I are celebrating our last night in Vienna. I’m heading to Budapest in the morning; they’re on to Prague. Edmund is the first hostel roommate I’ve had on this trip who is gay. He’s a party-boy…always wanting to go clubbing (kinda like me when I was young!). Dimitry is straight and studious, always on his laptop, checking on the status of the economy. (He’s moving to NY to work for Citicorp.) The three of us have been sightseeing separately, then meeting back in the evening at the hostel’s lounge to share our experiences of the day over boxes (yes, that’s BOXES!) of cheap wine. Tonight, though, we’ve finally given in to Edmund’s pleas to go out for one drink on our last night. Dimitry has never been to a gay bar; Edmund has already researched the name (The Village) and location (not far from our hostel) of a bar; and I am looking forward to sampling a few more European beers.
We stop for delicious, 2.5-euro doner kebabs on the way. We arrive at The Village, a slow (no…dead) Sunday night; but the music is great. Dimitry is a great sport…a little nervous at first; but doing fine. Since the bar is empty, Edmund and I don’t have to bust out our Evil Gay Ninja moves to protect him from Leather Daddies or Lumberjacks. After finishing our Austrian Ottakringer and Puntigamer beers and listening to a few more songs, we shake hands with our bartender and walk back to the hostel…a subdued evening, but a great one amongst new friends. Dimitry arrives in NYC at the end of June; and Edmund will come into the city from D.C. to visit. We’re planning on getting together for a little reunion then, the 3 of us…The Wiener Boxwine Gang!