The Great Wiener Experience

Of all my Euro travels, this one stands out as my favourite. Not only had this city got me spellbound, but the whole Wiener experience in the so called cultural capital of Europe was just unforgettable. Thanks to Wolfgang our German colleague turned travel planner, we got to try out some popular local treats and appreciate the Wiener way of life, even for just a day and a half. Wiener Schnitzel, Sachertorte, Kaffeehauser, Huerigens, Mozart Balls! Yummmmm. That I got to do it with my dear friend Dads all the more made it one heck of a holiday. Too bad I had to lose my laptop where I stored my hi-res photos of the trip. I still can’t forgive myself for it, though I was able to salvage a few from Multiply. Well at least. But still, it sucks man.

Anyway, just some bits about the Austrian capital. Vienna’s German name Wien was derived from the Celtic word “Vedunia” which means “ river in the woods”. It served as the capital of the Habsburg Empire for several centuries and so traces of its imperial past are evident in the magnificent structures all over the city. I swear it’s like a big open museum which will drive suckers for arts and history totally over the moon. City of culture. City of music. City of art. It’s also Mercer’s No. 1 Most Liveable Cities in the World for 2010. As the web campaign goes, Vienna, NOW or NEVER.

The 7-hour train ride from Fft Hauptbahnof to the Vienna Central Station almost passed by like a breeze, obviously because we were both wide-eyed with excitement. We had a map, courtesy of Wolfgang, our itinerary and a list of must-trys according to him, who spent his university days in Vienna.

While our spirits were high, our stomachs were actually grumbling when we reached Vienna past lunchtime. From the train station we decided to head straight to the first recommended café of Wolfgang, the Figlmuller which he says serves the best Wiener Schnitzel in the world. Hmmn. We’ll see about that.

It’s located near the city centre, so on the way there it’s hard to miss Austria’s most renonwed Gothic masterpiece, Stephensdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral). Wow. A big, gasping wow. It’s a humungous piece of architecture, Romanesque and Gothic in design, the original church built in the 12th century but in 1359 Duke Rudolph IV, laid the foundation of the main body of the church with its two aisles– South Tower & North Tower. The south tower which stands at 136 meters dominates the Vienna skyline. You can climb the 343 steps to the top where there’s a viewing platform that offers a good view of the Innerstadt. One trivia goes that the composer Ludwig van Beethoven discovered the totality of his deafness when he saw birds flying out of the bell tower as a result of the bells’ tolling but could not hear the bells.

Though starved we couldn’t help but make a stop and marvel at the exquisite piece of architecture. The temptation to snap some shots was just too strong to resist.

Anyway, our lunch was superb. Wolfgang definitely wasn’t lying when he said we shouldn’t miss it for the world. Vienna is famous for Wiener Schnitzel, a cutlet of veal that is pounded flat, coated in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, and fried in clarified butter. Figlmuller claim to have the biggest schnitzel in the world! True.. If we only knew we could have just shared one plate.

After lunch we checked into our hotel, Derag, from the same family as the hotel we’re staying at in Frankfurt. Feels just like our room back home. Charming and homey but rather remote from the city centre, hence I wouldn’t recommend especially if you’re on a tight schedule like us.

After check-in, we set off to explore the rest of the city center. Our first stop was the famous Ringstrasse (also called as “The Ring”), the circular road surrounding the old city built on the original city walls in the late 19th century. Our first sighting was the Parliament Building which is where the two Houses of the Parliament of Austria conduct their sittings. The design is definitely Greek, from the pillars of the main entrance (which is said to be a copy of Athen’s Erechtheion) to the 15th ft statue of Athena in front of the building, to the marbles and Greek statues on the walls.

This is Vienna’s city hall, the seat of the mayor of Vienna and the city council, built in the late 19th cenutry. There was an ongoing fair of some sort in front of the Rathaus when we went there so we weren’t able to get a good photo of this neo-Gothic piece of work.

The Hofsburg theatre (Burgtheatre) is the Austrian National Theatre in Vienna and one of the most important German language theatres in the world.

Burggarten Park
This is the garden of the former Imperial Palace with an area of 38,000 square meter and is one of Europe’s most beautiful gardens. It houses some very famous monuments, perhaps the most famous being that of W. A. Mozart.

The Hofburg Palace
This glorious and massive edifice was the principal winter residence of the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and served as the seat of the Austrian Emperor and a home of the Habsburg dynasty up until 1918. In the modern days this is the official residence of the President of Austria.

From the Ring Boulevard we headed back to the Inner Stadt to visit some of the nearby churches names of which I unfortunately already forgot. I managed to get some photos though.

We stopped by a Turkish pizza stand (very common in Vienna) and each had a giant slice of Turkish pizza. No exaggeration (hehe, perhaps a little), it was one of the most unforgettable pizzas I have ever had!

Souvenir shopping
In between sightseeing we did some souvenir shopping. There’s an abundance of souvenir shops surrounding the Stephensdom. We made a note to buy the famous Mozartkugel or Mozart balls, an Austrian sweet originating from Salzburg and named after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. We also explored the Graben, the main shopping street in Vienna in search of the popular Sachertorte, . Wolfgang gave us a list of cafes that sell this famous Viennese culinary specialty. The one from Sacher Hotel is world famous but we didn’t really get to try it. We ended up in Zanoni & Zanoni Gelateria where we had cake and coffee.

The cake consists of two layers chocolate cake (traditionally a sponge cake) with a thin layer of apricot jam in the middle and dark chocolate icing on the top and sides. It is traditionally served with whipped cream without any sugar in it. Yum.. Divine..

Coffee is a must try in Vienna as well. The city has a reputation for having an excellent coffee culture. Another speciality is that at typical coffeehouses a coffee is always accompanied by a glass of cold clear water. And there is a law that in any restaurant you can get a glass of drinking water for free with any order, just specify tap water (“Leitungswasser”).

Day 2 reminded me of our Berlin trip, another Amazing Race kinda thing. We barely had the whole day to go around the other sights in our list.

Our first stop would be the Belverdere. On the way, we passed by the Prater Park, and had our photo taken with the Riesenrad (Giant Ferris Wheel) as the background. The Riesenrad has become a well-known symbol of Vienna and offers a spectacular panorama of the city.

This is the summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy and located outside the city walls. It’s a very vast complex, beautifully designed with Baroque flair and has lovely French gardens.

Once a palace, it is now one of the most popular museums in Vienna, mainly for traditional modern art.

Schronbrun Palace
This was our last stop before we headed to the wine tavern and I must say this is my favourite of all the sights in Vienna. I’m not surprised that this became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The massive expanse of grandiose structures and beautiful gardens gave me my ultimate palace experience. This was the summer residence of Austria’s emperors. It was built by Emperor Maximilian II in the mid 16th century. The name Schönbrunn (meaning “beautiful spring”), has its roots in an artesian well from which water was consumed by the court. We weren’t able to explore the rest of the complex as it was just tooooo big and we were toooo crunched for time. Too bad.

Mayer am Pfarrplatz
Lastly we tried Mayer am Pfarrplatz – Beethovenhaus another recommended spot from Wolfgang’s list. After a busy day, the ideal place to unwind among Viennese are the Heurigens in the suburbs, a sort of a beer garden except wine is served instead of beer, which are the only places licensed to sell new wine. New wine is made from the first pressing of the grape and can appear a little cloudy and is a bit stronger. Mayer am Pfarrplatz (where Ludwig van Beethoven lived in 1817) is one of the best known wine taverns in Vienna. The Mayer family pays only wines from their own crops and offers guests a delectable cold buffet with homemade Viennese cuisine. It’s the ultimate chill out spot for me – warm, cozy and friendly ambience and one of the best wines in the country.

The most unforgettable part of our trip was our buzzer-beater race to make it to our train in time. Our train bound for Frankfurt is supposed to leave say at 2pm (can’t remember if it’s 2 or 3 pm). And we got in at around 1:57 pm, out of breath, sweating and almost dying (the last one’s an exaggeration obviously hehe). Talk about something tougher than the Amazing Race! We even did jaywalking er jay-running if there’s such a term in front of a local polizei. We were too lucky that we didn’t get fined or jailed or anything. It was just the sweetest 7 hour trip back home.

Cheers to one amazing trip and an amazing travel buddy!

Bern, Baby, Bern!

This was our very first trip out of Germany hence our spirits were just soaring in anticipation. I’ve considered Switzerland when I was making a list of places I wanted to visit in Europe (with my eyes quite fixated on its capital, Bern for its impressive medieval architecture) and so when opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t have been more thrilled!

One of our colleagues who had a best friend living in Bern invited us to spend the weekend in the scenic Swiss Capital. This, unlike our Berlin trip that was pretty much history-loaded, was more like a weekend getaway meant to visit our colleague’s friends, unwind and get a peek of the city where my favourite Toblerone is made. The trip was quite anti-climactic but the city was certainly a revelation.

Bern as you know is the capital of Switzerland and the seat of the Bundeshaus (Houses of Parliament). It was founded by Berchtold V of Zähringen in 1191 on and around the River Aare and he allegedly named it after a bear (Bar in German) he had killed.

From Frankfurt Hauptbahnof it took us about four hours by train. We left at around midnight so it was still dark (and cold!) when we reached Bern Bahnof. We were met at the station by “Basti”, our colleague’s kind Swiss husband who took us to Hostelling International Hostel (a youth hostel just about 1 km from the central station) which will be our camp for the weekend. It was our very first hostel experience and so I had mixed feelings about it (one part excited about finally living my backpacker dreams; the other part a bit uneasy at the thought of sharing a single room with a dozen of strangers!)

I remember when we got to the hostel, the lights were out and people where in deep sleep so we had to grope in the dark to find our beds. They were all double decks and I, being slim then and therefore lighter had to be the one to climb to the top. The beds were positioned so close to each other that it felt like I was practically sharing a bed with a complete stranger. Spooky!

Then our bathroom encounter. My friends and I were wrapped in our towels and were quite careful with changing clothes and all when suddenly a middle-aged European woman just undressed before us. As in naked, nude, totally exposed! You could see culture shock written all over our faces! It was embarrassing, but we just had to laugh it off.

The hostel wasn’t bad. It helped that it was conveniently located near the old town and had a wonderful view of the River Aare. For 33 francs, our stay already included a simple breakfast of cereals and bread which is better than nothing really. I loved the patio garden where we had our breakfast while breathing in the fresh, sterilized Swiss air.

My first impression of Bern was actually formed upon my first sight of the River Aare as I took a stroll towards the river banks after breakfast. From where I come from, rivers are supposed to be brown, polluted and stinky, but I was absolutely dazed staring into the clean, clear, emerald green waters of Switzerland’s longest river, the River Aare. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the top 10 cleanest cities in the world, and among the most liveable too. I found this city very serene and the people very temperate.

From our hostel we headed to the old town to meet our colleague’s friends who would take us to see the main attractions and also do some souvenir shopping as we were told that the shops are closed on Sundays. As we moved along the city center, the picturesque old town came to view. No wonder it earned itself a place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s incredible how over the centuries it has managed to preserve its medieval townscape, from the sandstone buildings, the fountains, the clock towers and cobbled lanes. It feels like I have travelled back in time! Though the transport system in the city is very good, it’s still best to explore the old town by foot.

On the way to the old town we passed by the House of Parliament but unfortunately it was going through some kind of construction works so it was barricaded. There was a flower /veggie market at the square (usually held on Tuesdays & Saturdays) which caught my fancy. The flowers in all their vivid colors were just lovely!

From the square we walked the cobblestone lanes towards the shopping arcades referred to by locals as “Lauben” which stretch to 6 km and makes them one of the longest covered shopping promenades in Europe! Souvenir shopping! Swiss knives, magnets, mugs, postcards, plates for my collection and Lindtt chocolates! Precious!

Further north stands one of the most popular sights in Bern, the medieval clock tower called the Zytglogge (Bernese German for Time Bell) tower that has puppets that pop out before the hour and perform a little skit.

We passed by the famous house of Albert Einstein who lived in Bern at the start of the 20th century.

Münster Cathedral is Bern’s 15th century Gothic cathedral, topped by a 100 meter tall tower making it the highest Gothic cathedral in Switzerland.

The Münster-Terrasse, a square in front of the Cathedral, has been a famous meeting place over the centuries. The Munster gives a breathtaking panorama of the the Aare River and the old town.

The Bärengraben (The Bear Pit) houses live bears since the 16th century. Cute, furry bears I wish I can hug them! There’s also a souvenir shop nearby.

Our kind hosts invited us to their house for lunch where they served halabos na hipon and sinigang, two classic Filipino dish that were very good and totally filling! In the afternoon we met the rest of the Filipino community in the public area of the River Aare, just a few minutes from our hostel. It was Julius’ birthday (our colleague’s best friend’s friend) and he was having a sort of a barbecue by the river. I couldn’t stop being amazed at how the river managed to become sooooo clean and pristine. It was frigid too (as it comes from glaciers), so like a very big freezer, the beers and sodas were just left in the water to cool. I wonder how the locals are able to swim in there.

At night beer flowed, fireworks got us all fired up and the moon added drama to the night sky. Interesting experience, that’s all I’m allowed to say. =)

We spent the next morning at the Gurten, a hill near Wabern which is the already at the southern suburbs of Bern via the funicular called Gurtenbahn. It offers a magnificent view of the city.

And need I mention, photographic opportunities galore!

From here we head back to the train station to wait for our ride home. Then it was time to say goodbye to a city full of charm and beauty. Bern, baby, Bern!