Eileen Casey takes in a ‘girlie’ break in Vienna
Vienna in early autumn (October), proved to be weather friendly, travel comfortable, visually stunning, expense reasonable (good value overall), a cuisine delight, culturally stimulating and exercise amenable. That’s just for starters. In short, I arrived tired and worn out (it’s been a busy year) and left, exhilarated and refreshed. Which really is how a holiday should end.
Planning a ‘girlie’ break away trip involved weeks of careful planning, ensuring everyone’s taste catered for. Ages range from 76 years to 27 years. My travelling companions comprised two daughters and one older sister /aunt plus me, (mother/companion/) to aforementioned daughters. We had a unanimous desire to travel unaccompanied by men (avoiding raised eyebrows at fashion stops or shopping extravaganzas (even if only of the window variety). After searching and probing, we settled on The Eurostar Embassy Hotel, located about fifteen minutes taxi ride from the airport. We flew Ryanair (via Lauda), leaving Dublin at 9.30 am (after a brief delay) and arriving one pm (Vienna is one hour ahead of Irish time).Weather clement, warm and balmy. The Eurostar is cosy, comfortable and very quiet. I recommend it if peace and quiet are paramount. No noisy bar, no loud music. Small but suitable for our needs. Not having a lounge meant we needed to go out in the evenings for dinner, which could only be an advantage. Sampling different dishes and different global culinary tastes has got to be an education for the palette. Some of these ‘experiments’ were easier to swallow than others. For example, the humble schnitzel for which Vienna is famous, wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, for this traveller anyway.
We booked the flight and hotel online, together with our first major port of call, to hear Antonio Lucio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in Karkskirche (Saint Charles Church), an evening performance lasting 90 minutes. Situated on the south side of Karlsplatz, it indeed took all of Vivaldi’s talent in writing such treasure, together with skilled musicians who executed it on the night, to have any chance when concentrating in such a gorgeous setting. I was consumed by the music, absolutely but while waiting for the first notes to float over the packed church, my eyes were treated to the last great work of the world famous Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. The building commenced, thanks to a vow made by Emperor Charles VI during a plague. Dedicated to the Habsburg Emperor’s namesake, Saint Karl Borromáus, the church was completed in 1739. The life and works of Karl Borromáus are depicted on the two giant columns (47 metres tall) next to the entrance portal. Frescos by Johannes Michael Rottmayr cover the lavish dome. Karlskirche is still a functioning Catholic church today. Acoustics are ideal. The church is maintained in pristine condition and looks like it was finished yesterday, so fresh the plasterwork and colours. So easy to be distracted. However, the music we heard, that night, in that setting, will remain with me for a long time to come. Since I’ve come home, I resurrected a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and fallen back in love again with it. Nigel Kennedy’s version is arguably the best (selling 3 million albums) and well worth a listen. The irony of Vivaldi is that his grave is listed as lost. What a shame.
Tickets for the performance (and worth every penny) were around the €30 mark. Mozart’s Requiem is another musical treat offered by this same venue. When we emerged into the night air, we were assaulted by the sound of high pitched thumping thumping…a pop festival was taking place near the fountain in front of the church. As one of my daughters wisely remarked ‘different notes for different folks’. Tolerance above all is a requirement for anyone on holiday….thankfully, we remained oblivious inside the walls of Saint Charles.
There are lists everywhere on the web for everything one can do while traversing the cobbled streets of Vienna. Ten best things to do…or fifteen best things to do…We didn’t get around to all the list suggestions but we experienced a goodly number and some new things in lieu. For instance, one of my daughters is vegan and the other is gluten free. So, of course we were going to attend a major vegan event (Veganmania) on the Sunday (albeit it lashed rain), a tented area serving meat free food of every persuasion. Vienna has a strong ‘green’ undercurrent and in general, it’s fair to say, people are being won over to alternative options regarding meat. The event took place on the Donauinsel (the long artificial island that splits the Danube in two as it progresses through the city). Free entry too. Rows of booths under canvas or sheltered under large umbrellas attached to vans, offered street food such as kebabs, burgers and sausages. Animal welfare stalls were plentiful also. I supported my favourite cat shelter charity and parrot sanctuary (opposing life forms but each with its own special needs). Shopping opportunity appeared in the guise of sustainable clothing and make up (not tested on animals). Sporadic entertainment on and off the stage gave us live music, yoga sessions and workshops by LUSH. Unfortunately, the rain persisted but the crowds kept coming. I sampled a meatless meatball and a dumpling covered in gluten free gravy. Verdict? Passable but not brilliant. Small price to pay for eating without guilt of cruelty or pain. The same organisers of Vegan Mania organise a winter (plant based) festival also.
Speaking of things feline, we visited a cat café, Café Neko, situated at Blumenstockgrasse 5, not far from the centre of Vienna. It gave all of the party a much needed feline boost (we’ve put a fair number of cats through our hands over the years, current number living in our house, three). It was great to see these playful animals being cared for so well. They had all the toys and climbing equipment they could want and all the treats and attention too. I absolutely loved a calico cat called Kiki, orange and white with a little black mask marking over her face. Adorable. We had coffee and cake and supported the project, a nice feeling and a great way to end that particular day.
Earlier I mentioned Emperor Charles VI and his appeasement regarding the plague by building Saint Charles Church. This brings me to the Catacombs. This tour returned us to Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the building most closely associated with historical Vienna. Seat of the city’s Bishop, Saint Stephen’s is an obligatory stop for visitors. Its multi-coloured tiled roof and Baroque fittings make it a standout congregation spot for tourists, especially at night when it’s lit up. Entry here is free unless a tour of the catacombs is on the agenda. Full cathedral tickets (with Dom Museum) can be purchased online for north and south towers but we decided to stick with the catacombs. During the plague years, people were literally funnelled into an opening in the ground, a practice that soon saw the city’s water and sewerage badly affected. Prisoners were then sent down to ‘clean’ the bones, a nasty job by any standard. Our guided tour was in German/English but because of the large crowd and the fact we were at the back (where we wanted to be – all talk of plague brought home our most recent Covid confinement). The remains of 11,000 bodies are contained here. It’s an intriguing tour with a definite ‘atmosphere’ (very suitable coming up to Halloween) and stark reminder of our mortality. In one of the narrow lanes stands a beautiful sculpture of the Pieta (artist unidentified). The catacombs also house a small church which is regularly used for Mass. Bishops and other church personages are still interred in the catacombs today. The Ducal Chamber is right under the cathedral’s high altar and holds the coffins of Rudolf IV (1339-1365) and his family. Rudolf was Duke of Austria and proved instrumental in the construction of the cathedral itself. High ranking Habsburgs share the same space as Rudolf, their remains contained in urns. For several years, expired Emperors were divided between three churches. The Capuchin Church got the body, The Augustinian Church got the heart and Saint Stephen’s got the remaining internal organs. After viewing this world of death, it was good to emerge into the Viennese daylight, with bustling tourists and natives going about their business.
Transport around the city is very efficient. A bus stop right outside our hotel and a train station about a ten minute walk away ensured we were never without options. Ubers arrived within minutes, taxis just as quick. A three day bus pass is only €25 or so and train tickets similar. We bought our tickets in a little tobacco booth across the road. There’s no cash transactions on-board. The area where we stayed has lots of shops too, with names we recognised. Aldi, Spar, C & A, Claire’s. Bakeries tempted us on every route as did ice-cream parlours. Macaroon pyramids proved difficult to resist. We missed our Barry’s Tea and Maxwell House. We forgot to pack them in our luggage (note to self for next time). Hotel breakfast is continental but what a selection: cold meats, hot foods, pastries, yogurts, fruit, delicious breads. Enough to feed an army, truth be told. Tea and coffee making facilities in our rooms were very welcome.
No visit to Vienna would be complete without going to The Belvedere, an art gallery which boasts Klimt’s masterpiece ‘The Kiss’. If Robert Burns is the poet of Scotland, his face appearing on everything from shortbread to alcohol; then Gustav Klimt is achieving the same economic boom for Vienna. ‘Lady with a Fan’/Dame mit Fácher, sold for £85.3m at Sotheby’s, becoming the most valuable work of art ever sold at auction in Europe. This painting was still on the artist’s easel when he died in 1918, aged 55. We had great expectations as we entered the gallery room showing some of Klimt’s work. We’d delayed the thrill of seeing the original ‘The Kiss’ by dallying a while in the gardens. Fine weather and spacious splendour held us until finally, we could delay our pleasure no longer. Oil on canvas with added gold leaf, silver and platinum, ‘The Kiss’ was painted sometime in 1907/1908, in what is referred to by art scholars as Klimt’s ‘Golden Period’. Originally titled ‘The Lovers’, the painting shows a couple embracing, their bodies entwined in beautiful robes. The woman’s face is upturned, waiting for the man’s kiss. We stared at this work in awe. It exuded a sense of peace and mindfulness, an awareness of intimacy, a private moment captured for all time. The colours seemed more muted than representations (which were everywhere) in silk scarves, notebooks, cards. I prefer the muted version, it achieves an oasis of calm in a world where everything is accelerated and noise everywhere. Klimt’s father was a travelling artisan specialising in gold engravings but Klimt’s use of gold leaf was inspired by a trip he made to Italy in 1903 when he saw the Byzantine mosaics in the Church of San Vitalie in Ravenna.
For the duration of our four days, we certainly packed a lot in. No, we didn’t get to see everything (The Hofburg Imperial Palace had a sales convention in progress the day we visited, corresponding to our Ideal Homes Exhibition). We missed the Lippizaner horses in the Spanish Riding School and didn’t get to ride the giant Ferris Wheel back-dropped by an evening sky. Or heard The Vienna Boys’ Choir in the chapel (Michaelerkuppel, 1010 Wien) on Sunday during service. A final standout though is The Museum of Natural History. When I say it’s possible to spend a week or two in here, I’m not exaggerating. Over 30 million specimens and artefacts from around the globe. 39 exhibition halls across 2 main levels. Minerals, meteorites, vertebrates and anthropological dioramas. There’s even a planetarium for those wanting to leave dinosaur fossils behind and head for the stars.
Night life? My sister and I left that to our younger companions. Early risers, walking and exploring all day, left us pretty much tuckered out and ready for bed by 9 most evenings. We have it on good authority that Irish pubs are a plenty in the city and good times had there by all. Before we left Vienna (vowing to return), we came across a cost of living protest outside the Rathaus (City Hall). With rents as low as €400 a month, no homeless on the (spotless) streets (that we saw), I guess it really is a case of different notes for different folks.