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.
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!
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.
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!
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.