Thursday, October 7, 2010

On The Bucket List Tour - Oct. 4,5,6

October 4-5, 2010

We take off under cloudy skies and a cool, rainy mist. Much to our hearty approval, we are heading straight for Vienna, where we will have the afternoon and evening to ourselves. We follow the autobahn as far as we can; Matteas gets pulled over for not paying his tolls!

Later, when we deviate from the autobahn, the villages still show evidence of the communist influence: many of the houses are grey, smoke-and industry-stained. Some are in the process of being painted those lively pastel colours. Lots of green moves past the windows – fields, spindly evergreens. Ponds filled with geese and swans, coloured deciduous; even, here and there, large fat deer right out in the open. Many of the slanted red-tiled roofs sit atop crumbling stucco walls, although there is evidence of refurbishing in the new buildings and cottages with flowerboxes rising up in various locations. Whole fields of dying sunflowers await seed picking. This is a slow winding road, choked with traffic and lumbering trucks, and we wonder what happened to our nice, fast autobahn.

Just before we reach the Austrian border, the little towns turn into “pleasure palaces”. Strip clubs and nightclubs promise “non-stop action”. We wonder if the Austrians are more uptight about these establishments, so the Czechs have capitalized on the business opportunity of the European Union, which would make it easy for Austrians to visit whenever the urge hits them. I even see a huge billboard which states that a certain product is good for “connecting people”: the picture is a naked male cartoonish figure running in a straight line toward a naked woman, who is bent over in anticipation and readiness. Ha, they’d never put that advertisement up at home! We pass “Ex-Calibre”, a Disney-style area, outdoor market and playground.

Now we’re back into Austria, soon traveling into the outskirts of Vienna. It’s an enormous city. Our hotel is a nice little place in the Lower Belevedere area, in a section called Rennweg. Mary Jo, Wendy and I dump our luggage (and leave Carolyn to rest and walk around at her own pace) and head off to get tickets for the tram. A nice young Austrian woman, towing her baby in a pram, assists us with the tricky machine, but at last we have our tickets. Before boarding, we hungrily invade a bakery nearby and eat scrumptious buns filled with ham and cheese (well, I do, Cugina and MJ have something different but just as delicious). I practically moan with the taste of the crispy-but-soft-inside bread and the delicious meat.

We hop on the #71 tram as instructed by the hotel staff and alight at the Schwarzenplatz. We walk up a tree-lined, wide street reminiscent of Paris, its elegant buildings graced with carvings and decorative balconies. The Imperial Hotel is etched with gold. Despite the cold, rainy weather we enjoy the walk, oohing and ahhing over the architecture, feeling as though we’ve stepped into a giant fairy tale.

Passing the Opera House, we look up to see a huge equestrian statue above its reddish-trimmed windows and blackened brick. We reach the Albertine Museum, which is in the south end of the Hapsburg Palace. We marvel over the statues adorning this section of the castle: males, females, musical instruments, vases, ribbons, the accoutrements of war. White marble, gold, copper, painted symbols – it’s astounding. Every corner holds a wonderment, a revelation, an extraordinary sight. Each and every monument is massive; shouts, look at me, I am Ruler.

I find it almost obscene, yet can’t help but respond to the artistic beauty. Obviously, enormous amounts of money were poured into these memorials and tributes, but I can almost feel the hands behind the arrogance: those artists who created such spectacular, imaginative, brilliant objects for generations to enjoy. Thus we are totally captivated by and appreciative of the art in this place.

Inside the museum, we visit an exhibit by Walton Ford, whose art is at once sickening and entrancing. His paintings are enormous; almost life-size depictions of animals in strange, violent and bloody stances – an allegory for the rape of the environment, the stupidity of human war and posturing while nature suffers. Quotes are included with each scene, which place it at an intellectual level that challenges and saddens. The only problem I have with this display is that there are no solutions offered, no hope, no redemption. The exhibit leaves me with a feeling of helplessness.

In another part of the museum, I gain a new appreciation of Picasso. Though I am still not fond of his paintings, I admire his way of life: the activism, political statements through his art, and contributions toward peace that he initiated. The creators of this exhibit have done an admirable job; they have given me a whole new perspective on the artist. Videos, wall-sized photos, newspaper clippings, and Picasso’s posters present a figure who is far more interesting to me than the drawings I have been exposed to thus far.

We walk through Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth’s rooms, their summer residence, transformed into an art exhibit. The furniture, the wall coverings, the table settings – again, that combination of colour, opulence, and majesty. The art upon the walls is exquisite. I gain an avid interest in Franz and his wife Sisi.
When we’re satiated with museums, we walk across the square to the Café Mozart, which has been in operation since the 1700’s. We drink Amaretto hot chocolate with whipped cream – Cugina and I have two of them – and gaze at the monuments, the buildings, and the passersby, including a man in a traditional Austrian costume with his goat trotting along behind him. It’s an incredible feeling to be sitting in a Vienna café, despite the bad weather. The city is so alive. It’s tradition and accepted to sit in a café and drink coffee or study or gaze around you for as long as you want. Very civilized!

Early the next morning, we go on a tour with our guide Helene. She’s an interesting character herself, a fast walker with a burnt orange coat that helps us find her in the crowd. We only lose her (or she, us) once or twice. On the bus, we pass castle and palace after castle and palace – this city is strewn with them. Not to mention the churches and cathedrals. The Hapsburgs (Franz Joseph’s family) ruled for over six hundred years, so they had lots of time to spread their wealth and their visions around the area. Most of the former palaces and mini-palaces are now used as embassies, art exhibits, museums or music halls.

Helene speaks of the war, of the fact that Austria was divided up among the victorious Allied countries from 1945 to 1955, when they were eventually given back their independence. She mentions, in a hushed tone, the collective “shame” when she points out the Jewish memorial. Mary Jo and I find it interesting that our German guide was up front but neutral, as though the atrocities had nothing to do with her, while Helene, though also honest and about the same age, is emotional on the topic. Here is a gigantic statue of a soldier: Helene tells us the Viennese don’t like it: entitled The Unknown Russian Soldier, it was erected by, naturally, the Russians, and curiously, in a sector not their own. It must be a constant reminder of war, of guilt, and of violence that results in the oppression of others.

Vienna has excellent tap water, Helene instructs – something we’ve already sampled at the Café Mozart. It comes directly from the Alps, devised by a visionary in the 1900’s. We pass a huge modern construction site: it’s going to be the new railway station accompanied by hotels and office buildings. Trams, sleek and windowed, streak everywhere. Over 35000 little garden chalets peek out from behind the walled parks: these are for the apartment dwellers, just like in Innsbruk. Helene says some people spend most of their summer vacations here in their little slices of nature instead of heading to the country. They are especially redolent with apricot (marilla) trees.
Old castles loom outside the bus windows: stark in their age, brick dark with ancient stains. These were the – humble in comparison – abodes of the Badenburgs, whose families ruled before the Hapsburgs. Also spread about in this area are the armories built by Franz Joseph, great red-bricked, somewhat plain buildings that stored the mechanisms of defense.

I cannot possibly recount the sculptures that adorn the palaces or the gateways or the parks here: musical instruments, vases, crowns, shields, cupolas, wrought iron, gold leaves, cherubs, detailed and ideal images both male and female. Magnificent, astonishing, overwhelming and at the same time, reminders of an era when the peasants spent their lives in backbreaking work to support such opulence. Hopefully, the world is changing…

We tour the Upper Belvedere (which means beautiful) palace grounds. Clouds circle over our heads, along with the birds, but a weak light shines out on the golden decorations of the castle. Built in 1721 by Prince Eugene, the walls are laced with statues representing his interests: musical instruments, books, writing utensils, male and female figures. The garden is an enormous rectangle that tumbles down to the Lower Belvedere far below us. The Prince found LB too small for his status, so he constructed UB. Often he would meet dignitaries, those whom he wished to impress, in the meeting hall of LB. He’d walk them through the gardens up to UB, where a two-storey, chandeliered room awaited his guests. (This is the room in which the treaty giving Austria back her independence was signed in 1955.) The nymphs’ fountain dominates the greenery of the yard, conical shaped bushes and trees, flowers that would be glorious in spring and summer. All around the garden, well-endowed female sphinxes guard the nymphs. From the top of the rectangular, massive yard, we can look back and view all the spires from the myriad of churches that dominate the cityscape. The Prince, a Roman Catholic, wanted this scene to be the one his rivals remembered.

We watch as one man has his picture taken seated at the feet of a sphinx, his hands grasping her big stone breasts. Tacky, we say, but laugh anyway.

At one side of the massive building, the Prince’s favourite sculptor resided. A true Patron of the Arts! The Prince never married, with the result that his niece inherited everything when he died in 1736. Not one to dwell in castles, and unhappy in her marriage, the niece sold all the abodes to Hapsburgs.

When we reboard the bus, we pass by the French Embassy, the only building to have been created in the true French style: gold embossing and small wrought-iron balconies, plus the French flag flapping in the wind.

Around many corners, the Danube flows by; perhaps blue on a sunny day, but dark and gloomy in this rain.

In the 1860’s, the Hapsburgs tore down the walls that fortified the city and created roads instead. Nowadays they are dubbed “rings”, though they form a kind of horseshoe rather than a circle. Once the fortifications were razed, over eighty buildings were constructed in their place, all with different purposes, from different interests, and therefore in different architectural styles. Helene refers to Vienna’s architecture as eclectic: Baroque, art nouveau, Gothic. The Opera House was established as the Court’s Opera, though now it is open to the public. Some of our group attend the opera later. Fountains and copper roofs dominate the landscape. We pass the Hotel Sacher, famous for its chocolate cake.

There are dangerous pathways here that used to be for horses, but are now for racing cyclists: the riders appear from nowhere and Helene says there have been many nasty accidents between bicycle and pedestrian. Viennese are polite, will stop their cars at the walkways, but one must be careful of those on two wheels!

Everywhere we look, here are enormous monuments: Maria Therese on horseback, Goethe, Franz Joseph, Mozart, Beethoven, an ancient Regiment of War. Everything surrounded by the clean, lush lines of the green parks, the trees, and the trimmed bushes. Even the Houses of Parliament are opulent: adorned in the Greek style, enormous statues; Athena, Goddess of Wisdom; Franz Joseph handing over the constitution to the people. The People’s Garden surrounds this building; it is known for its roses and fills the air with fragrance in the growing months. Here is the Town Hall in New Gothic style, with its 100 metre spire and the predictable clock. Two neo-gothic twin spires tower over the city, a church built in thanks for Franz Joseph’s survival from an assassination attempt (a gift from his younger brother and the people).

We walk through the Hapsburg Palace, courtyards surrounded by pink and white buildings, dominated by gold and marble statues or decorations. Helene relates the complicated, fascinating history of the monarchs who lived and died here. We gaze up at the apartments where Franz Joseph, Sisi and their children lived. In the gift store, I buy a book on Franz and find his life fascinating.

We walk through the winding streets, filled with today's opulence: high end stores like Burberry, Armani, Cartier. One building is adorned with a golden bee (which stood for - and still does - industriousness): it's a bank, the first one to ever be created for the "people" - by a Catholic priest. St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a gothic wonder. Blackened by time, the sculptures and ornamentation smoky with age, it’s all angles and peaks and gargoyles. A modern building rears up next door, the mirrored walls reflecting images of old while showing off the steel and glass of today.

Later, when I read about Franzi’s life, I see a picture of his death carriage clip-clopping along these very cobblestone paths, carrying him to his resting place.

Once our tour with Helene is over, we head by bus to a picturesque little area just outside the city limits, with winding streets and traditional cottages and pubs. We walk up the cobblestones to a wooden-adorned restaurant, where the traditional costumes and artifacts decorate the walls, and long wooden tables and benches are stained with beer and fun. We feast on wine, salads and huge slabs of meat. We have a wonderful time.

As we return to the bus, it begins to pour rain. MJ, Cugina, Carolyn and I decide to go back to the hotel for a rest, then try to get tickets for a concert in one of the palaces. It’s too rainy to stroll, unfortunately, and the traffic is thick. When we get back, there’s not much time for rest. MJ has a clandestine meeting with a scalper, so we end up with cheap tickets for a Mozart-Strauss concert that promises arias and dances as well.

By 8:15, we are perched on golden-plated, round-bottomed chairs under Swarovski chandeliers, gazing around a room that Wendy says looks like a wedding cake – pink and white and flowery. We’re in one of the many small palaces built by lesser nobles in Franzi’s time. The room is huge, but the orchestra is on risers and we can all see fairly well, though we are at the back in the scalper’s section.
We are all astonished at how the music uplifts us. We are left with moist eyes and open mouths, the joy alighting our faces with silly grins. The music is cheerful, airy, fun. The title of one of Strauss’s compositions is “My Life is Love and Laughter” and this description is apt for the entire concert. We all fall completely in love with the young blond tenor, Stefan Reichmann. The soprano is not only excellent, but entertaining, as are the ballet dancers. Both lead violinist and conductor, the master of ceremonies introduces each piece and the soloists. We are giddy with the power of music.

In the lobby afterward, Carolyn spies Stefan in his street clothes and we have our pictures taken with him. He’s generous and sweet, thrilled that we want to shake his hand and take his photograph. Obviously, he’s at the beginning of his career, but we hope it will be a successful one.

We hail a taxi for the return to the hotel and, not long after, we are sound asleep. Tomorrow – home, sweet home.

Oct. 6
On the street the next day, Anne shouts out, “I’ll never forget last night” and we laugh, still delighted. The journey home is long, not to mention the fact that Cugina’s chocolate fondue gets confiscated at the gate. We are forced to drink copious amounts of wine on the plane to compensate. But I can’t wait to see my love’s face when I finally land at home… It’s been a wonderful trip, but, repeat the old adage with me…it’s always nice to come home.
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