05 June 2009

European Capitals Haircut Tour Stop 2: Vienna


As far as I know, before spending 4 days there last month, I'd spent only 3 days some 25 years ago in Vienna. Any memories of the city itself from that brief visit have been overwhelmed by the single image of my sister, then still in high school and as far as I knew a mild-mannered and wholesome midwestern girl, ralphing into a hand sink outside the WC of a bar where she'd been drinking thirst-quenching weissebiers on an empty stomach (sorry, sis-- maybe you don't want to let the kids read this one).

Though there was no chance of a repeat performance this time, I was still eagerly looking forward to the trip, since I spent time in Austria while growing up and was curious to see what it would feel like to go back. Karen mined my intimate knowledge of Austrian culture only once before we departed, asking how long it would be once we arrived in Vienna before we heard a waltz. Funny girl.

Turns out we didn't have to wait even that long. Getting on the Austrian Airlines flight at Charles de Gaulle, we were greeted by videos of breathtaking Austrian landscapes on the video monitors and the Blue Danube Waltz playing on the audio system. I was about to comment that all we were missing was the von Trapp family in dirndls and lederhosen, when a woman in a dirndl took the empty seat next to Karen. Close enough-- let's go!

As seats of major, and often opposing, European empires, Vienna and Paris share an abundance of grandeur, yet to me they have very different vibes. Vienna feels a little more North American, oddly, with wider boulevards given to car traffic now, and a more centralized sense of business district, whereas Paris feels more intimate (or just chaotic?) and bustles more. Maybe it's just that Vienna is more open, but I've spent weeks just walking around Paris; not sure I could do that in Vienna and stay as interested. Still, Vienna is a beautiful city: lots of green spaces, interesting fountains, spectacularly ornate Austrian Baroque churches, and the intricate and interesting hanging metalwork signs that scream Austria to me.

One of many green spaces in central Vienna
Taking a schwitz at the Hofburg; "How's the golf game?"
Inside Franziskirche

The workman's comp office?

And it wasn't at all difficult to fill several days there. A trip to the excellent MAK (Österreichisches Museum fuer angewandte Kunst/Austrian Museum of Applied Arts) was definitely a highlight. Halls filled with furnishings and decorative arts (chairs, lace, rugs, metal work, advertising graphics, eg) through several centuries highlighted evolution and contrast of design. The basement has study rooms with even more objects. I spent 4 h there, about double my normal museum attention span.

Hall of chairs at the MAK (from the MAK website)

As far as I know, I've no Austrian blood, but the resemblance with the sculptures on the bridge outside the MAK is disturbing.

Similarly, the collection of ancient instruments at the Hofburg was fascinating for the window onto musical technology it provided. It's hard to imagine that there was once was vigorous exploration and innovation around what have since become highly standardized classical musical instruments, with competition for both musicians and music to help establish their legitimacy. Cellos with 27 strings, horns of all shapes and sizes, even guitars with 2 necks-- turns out Jimmy Page was 200 years behind the curve.

And she's buying the stairway to heaven... (photo from the museum website; ours were blurry)

We also watched the morning exercises of the world-famous Lipizzaner horses at the Spanish Riding School, toured the Hapsburgs' modest hunting lodge, Schönbrunn, visited Freud's apartment/office, and took in a disappointing concert of Mozart's Requiem in the visually stunning Karlskirche. Though the Requiem is a wonderful piece of music, I was a little surprised by the fascination with Mozart in Vienna-- his image and name are everywhere. It makes sense that Mozart is a phenomenon in Salzburg, where he was born and is the favorite son, but Vienna has been home to so many great composers (eg, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mahler, Schubert, and Strauss), that the focus on Mozart seems odd and a little off-putting. We wanted to go to Vienna's superb opera, but without planning ahead, the only options were SRO. Not such a big deal if it's a regular opera, but we were there for Wagner's Ring cycle. Forget the issue of standing-- I'm just not sure I could handle 5 h of Wagner in one go.

Lipizzaners in action (OK, it's really the Wiener Ponny Caroussel. Paris may have mechanical carousels all over the city, but Vienna's got the real thing.)

Key info at the bottom: Beginn 17.30 Uhr, Ende 22.15 Uhr. Woof.
No respect for the dead: Funny Girl crackin' wise at the Requiem.

Eating in Vienna for me was part exploration. I had two very good modern-cuisine meals (elegantly simple food (orechietti with lentils and arugla; braised lamb with favas) at Zum Finsteren Stern, and excellent fish at Hansen), good traditional fare at casual spots (pig's knuckles and knödles at Ofenloch, wurst at Kanzleramt), and for the first time the traditional viennese taflespitz (boiled beef served in a crystal clear and very flavorful broth, with vegetables, potatoes, creamed spinach, horseradish-and-apple condiment: excellent).

But I was also in search of the foods I remember from my youth: the breads, the dark and not very sweet chocolate tortes with hazelnut and coffee-flavored fillings, and most of all, the amazing Wiener schnitzel our neighbor in the apartment upstairs made. The hotel breakfast provided a lot of familiar flavors: the long salt- and caraway seed-covered rolls, the Austrian ham and mild cheese (yes, ham and cheese isn't just a French thing), and dynamite yogurt from Salzburg, which I brought back and am using as the starter for my weekly yogurts here. The chocolate cakes were a bust-- frillier and less intense than I remember, maybe it's a Vienna vs Salzburg thing, or maybe just 30+ years of false memories.

We had better luck with the schnitzel at Schweizerhaus, thanks to a recommendation from the woman who cut my hair (I've decided I'm going to try to get my hair cut in a different European capital each month for as long as I can make it work: April was Paris, May was Vienna, June will be … ?). When I told her about Irene's amazing schnitzel and the many mushy, greasy restaurant versions I've endured in the 30 years since, she replied, “Ja, es ist immer so.” Though made of pork, rather than veal, the schnitzel at Schweizerhaus was thin, breaded and fried with aplomb, and served alongside plenty of good beer in a busy beer garden on a gorgeous May evening. The Ultimate Schnitzel or not, it was a damn fine meal. And bonus points for also having a credible version of ćevapčići on the menu.

Our waiter asked for clarification twice when we ordered 2 schnitzels and a big plate of ćevapčići for the 2 of us. Yeah, that's a lot of food. But I was taking no chances, because I've seen what happens when you drink beer in Vienna on an empty stomach. Right, sis?

Beer, good.
Schweizerhaus is actually better known for its pig knuckles, which are sold by the kilo. These are neither pig nor knuckles, but pans of calf's feet aren't common sightings everywhere.
Tafelspitz at Plachutta near Versailles, umm, Schönbrunn.

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