Vienna was our second stop on our Eastern European tour in December. We arrived via a train from Prague, but we missed our stop at the main train station because the name did not seem to match the one on our tickets (at least that’s what Ken seemed to think), so we got an extended ride through the Viennese countryside and got to see some amazing vineyards on the outskirts of town. Thank goodness one of the conductors noticed our error and encouraged us to get off at the next stop before we ended up in another city.
Our first impression of Vienna (besides finding German train station names confusing) was that of a sophisticated and refined version of Prague without the colorful facade but with similar examples of Baroque architecture and Rococo and Gothic influences.
Many people know Vienna as a cultural mecca of classical music, fine art, theater, and opera. Its most famous former resident, Mozart, claimed Vienna as his home, even though he was born and raised in Salzburg. Inspired by the rich musical history and the far reaching influence of Mozart’s music, we decided to buy tickets to see our very first opera the night we arrived. We went to the Volksoper Theater (“the people’s theater”) to see La Boheme. To our surprise, the opera was sung in German instead of Italian. It’s not as if we would’ve understood it one way or the other, but I was excited to see an authentic Italian opera in Austria. I guess we have to go to Italy for that experience. We did, however, enjoy the music, our balcony view and the breaks during intermission where we drank champagne and discussed the storyline as we interpreted it through our own imagination.
The next day, we planned a tour at Schonbrunn Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1569 the estate came into Habsburg possession through Maximilian II, and stayed in the family’s possession until the end of the monarchy in 1918. Their youngest daughter, Marie Antoinette, was married off at the ripe old age of 14 to her second cousin, Louis-Auguste, to cement the relationship between Austria and France. Her mother, Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia and ruler of the Habsburg dominions, believed strongly in alliance through marriage. Only her favorite daughter, the Archduchess Maria Christina, got to marry for love. I found it fascinating to learn little tidbits like this about the family and catch a glimpse of what it must’ve been like to stand in the same rooms as Mozart and Napoleon Bonaparte. The palace decorations and surrounding gardens were something out of a fairy tale. Right before the tour, we visited the Schonbrunn Christmas Market in front of the palace. It was a blast to be in such an awe inspiring setting drinking gluhwein, enjoying pizza pretzels and listening to angelic Christmas music.
Christmas Markets seem to be everywhere in Europe, especially in Germany and Austria, making it hard to walk without stumbling through at least one every couple of blocks. Resisting the temptation to stop in each one for another apple strudel or a warm alcoholic beverage was difficult. These markets are a sight to behold with the impressive display of holiday gifts, candles, ornaments and mouth-watering treats. The Christmas markets make the most delicious honey (“honig”). In fact, we discovered that last year on our honeymoon in Munich and could not wait to get back to a German-speaking country to find some more. The one in particular that we like is mixed with cinnamon and other spices and tastes like heaven on an English muffin with butter.
Known for its coffee culture, Vienna boasts itself as one of the top tourist destinations for a cup of joe. Aida is a popular choice amongst locals and tourists and there are many locations around town. We definitely had to let Ken branch out from his Starbucks and Nero caffeine habits to see if the stuff really lived up to its reputation. According to my coffee fiend husband, it was good but not good enough to replace his daily intake of the aforementioned favorites.
After a full day of touring the sites, Ken and I always enjoyed ending up in the Innere Stadt, Vienna’s central district (also known as the Old Town). The wide avenues, lined with majestic Baroque style buildings, high-end shops and chandelier Christmas decorations, give you a sense of the wealth, class and culture that pervade every corner of this city. To drive that point home even more, we found Villon Weinbar on quiet Habsburgergasse street in a cozy, underground cellar, and sampled some of the finest Viennese wines in Austria. We discovered all kinds of red and white varieties and gorged ourselves on parmesan cheese with truffle olive oil. We had so much fun that we came back the next day for some more. The owners, a really sweet Austrian couple, appreciated our repeat visit so much that they gave us complimentary Grappas. It was the perfect nightcap to commemorate our stay in Vienna.
We left Vienna with a whole new appreciation for the finer things and applauded ourselves for stepping outside of our cultural comfort zone.