Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Sixth Day Of Our Vacation: Vienna

One of the best things about our stay in Vienna was our hotel. Even though we stayed in Vienna only two nights, we loved the hotel and we were very happy there. It was the most interesting hotel of our trip, and it provided us with our most pleasing hotel experience.

Andrew, who knows Vienna well, had selected our Vienna hotel. He had selected the hotel based upon its location, its value and its charm.

The hotel opened in 1873 and is very much of its era. It featured grand public rooms and grand public spaces, and maintained more than a whiff of Imperial Vienna.

The grandeur was carried over to the rooms: the rooms were very large, with very large windows and very high ceilings.

The hotel definitely has seen better days—the hotel has not been renovated since 1983—and it cannot be said that the room furnishings and appointments were up to American standards. Nonetheless, the hotel had a certain faded charm—and it had air conditioning, which turned out to be essential, since Vienna was suffering a heat wave during our stay—and we very much enjoyed its frayed grandeur.

The hotel’s public areas were well-maintained, even if the guest rooms might have benefited from fresh décor and furnishings. I loved the spacious Old-World lobbies and elaborate staircases and coffered ceilings.

The hotel’s breakfast was served in the main dining room. The hotel’s dining room was very beautiful, very dignified and very grand. Even at breakfast, each table in the dining room sported full linen service, very unusual for the breakfast hour in my experience.

The hotel’s breakfast was perfectly satisfactory. There were fruits and fruit juices, cereals, breads and rolls and pastries, jams, meats, cheeses—and bacon and sausages and eggs, which we like to eat while we are on vacation.

The food was fine. It was precisely what one might expect of breakfast food in a hotel dining room.

Nevertheless, on both mornings, every guest around us complained, bitterly and nonstop, about the food. The complaints focused on what the guests perceived to be an inadequate selection of foods and an exorbitant price.

For us, breakfast had been included in the cost of our rooms, and we initially had assumed that such was the case for other guests, too.

Our assumption had been wrong.

Breakfasts were included for travelers who had booked the hotel through American travel websites such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, but breakfasts were not included for travelers who had booked the hotel through European websites such as Venere. Persons who had booked the hotel through European websites had to pay fifteen Euros for their breakfasts.

This galled our fellow diners no end, all Europeans or South Americans (we did not encounter any American guests at the hotel during our stay). These persons complained about the cost, and the selection, and the outrageousness of it all. French guests seemed to be particularly irked, as did a few travelers from Spain.

The moaning was more than we could bear—and one member of our party was unable to keep his mouth shut.

“There’s a supermarket across the street, and a McDonald’s in the next block, and a Starbuck’s another block over, and about a zillion local cafes up and down the block” my brother, in exasperation, told a French woman who could not complain loudly enough about the “robbery” to which she was being—quite voluntarily—subjected.

“For fifteen Euros, I expect strawberries and cream, and crepes, and chocolate” was her reply. “And good French cheese.”

“Well, hard cheese” said my Dad, knowing the French woman would not understand the colloquialism (while the rest of us tried to hide our laughter).

It was all we could do to keep from falling on the floor.

Ourselves, we enjoyed the breakfasts—and we enjoyed the beauty and elegance of the hotel dining room even more.

Our plan for Wednesday was to explore the very center of Vienna in the morning, hitting all the highlights, and to select a site for in-depth exploration in the afternoon.

However, oppressive heat and humidity were to govern our day.

We took a tram to The Ring, and from there we explored the exteriors of The Rathaus, The Kunsthistorisches Museum, The Natural History Museum, Burgtheater and The Austrian Parliament, all the time walking around in gruesome heat.

Our next stop was The Hofburg. We explored the various exteriors and courtyards of this main palace complex of the Habsburg dynasty, trying to stay in the shade as much as possible.

From The Hofburg, we walked to the Vienna State Opera and explored the exterior of the famed opera house while the sun beat down upon us.

Our final morning stop was Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, situated in the very center of the city. The construction of Saint Stephen’s had occupied much of the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries; the church is filled with treasures and relics from eight centuries.

We explored both the exterior and interior of Saint Stephen’s, but we did not explore the crypt nor did we attempt to climb the towers. I thought Saint Stephen’s was less interesting than several churches in Munich, but I acknowledge that Munich may have more than satisfied my quotient of historic churches for the trip.

Once we had completed our visit to Saint Stephen’s, we had a decision to make: what to do with our afternoon in Vienna.

On our list of prospective places to visit were Schonbrunn Palace, The Belvedere Palace and The Kunsthistorisches Museum.

For different reasons, we abandoned all three items on our list.

We abandoned Schonbrunn Palace because we had already visited Herrenchiemsee and because we planned to visit The Residenz once we returned to Munich—and we were, frankly, not confident that we wanted to explore a third massive palace.

My Dad: Is Schonbrunn better than Herrenchiemsee or The Residenz?

Andrew: Well, Schonbrunn is completely different from Herrenchiemsee or The Residenz—but getting there will be a bit of a journey. It will take some time on the subway, and then there will be a bit of a walk to the palace. The gardens are one of the best reasons to visit Schonbrunn. The gardens are enormous—but I’m not sure we would enjoy the gardens in this hot weather.

My Dad: Schonbrunn’s out.

We abandoned The Belvedere Palace because we had most wanted to visit The Belvedere Gardens, but the oppressive weather—it was as hot and humid as a brutal Oklahoma summer afternoon—made a visit to the gardens unattractive for us.

My Dad: Other than the gardens, what’s at The Belvedere? What’s inside?

Andrew: Well, The Belvedere houses Austrian art, much of it from the late-19th Century and early-20th Century.

My Dad: Will we like it? Is it worth a visit to The Belvedere if it’s too hot to enjoy the gardens?

Andrew: Are you intent on seeing Klimt paintings? If you MUST see Klimt paintings before leaving Vienna, you will not want to miss The Belvedere. If Klimt is not a priority, and it’s too hot to enjoy The Belvedere Gardens, I would skip it.

My Dad: Belvedere’s out.

We abandoned The Kunsthistorisches Museum because we had already visited The Alte Pinakothek in Munich, and we did not want to press our luck with my Dad or my brother by visiting more art museums.

My Dad: Is The Kunsthistorisches better than The Alte Pinakothek?

Andrew: It is not even one-half as good.

My Dad: Then I say we skip it. What are your thoughts?

My Mom: I would be happy to skip it. However, we must do something. We are in Vienna. We may not be in Vienna again for years and years and years. There has to be something we can do. We are NOT going back to the hotel and throwing away an afternoon in Vienna.

My Dad: Where can we go where it’s air-conditioned, and there is something all of us might enjoy? You must be able to suggest something.

Andrew: Well, there’s a military history museum. It’s in a beautiful building and I’m sure it’s air-conditioned. It presents a history of Austria from the 16th Century through World War II.

My Dad: What’s the best thing in the museum?

Andrew: The exhibitions on the World Wars are interesting.

My Dad: Will Shelby and her mother enjoy the museum?

Andrew: It’s not just a military museum. It’s a history museum as much as a military museum.

My Dad: Name something Shelby and her mother might want to see.

Andrew: The museum has the car in which Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. You may still see the bullet holes.

My Mom: Well, that’s all we need to know! Sign us up!

And we DID visit The Museum Of Military History.

We had to take the subway to get there, followed by a stroll, but it was not a long walk to the museum from the subway stop.

The museum was very interesting, much more interesting than we had expected. It was a perfect afternoon project for us because the building was splendid—and air-conditioned—and because the displays were first-class in every way. We found The Museum Of Military History to be 100 times more interesting than Munich’s Stadtmuseum.

The Museum Of Military History occupies a purpose-built edifice erected in the 1850’s. Originally named The Imperial War Museum, the museum was intended to be a living tribute to the glories of the Habsburg monarchy, then at its zenith of power, influence and wealth.

The museum is situated in the very center of what used to be the city’s garrison and arsenal.

One must pass through a very impressive gateway to enter the compound.

The museum itself is not far into the compound. The museum building was built in a mishmash of architectural styles, with prominent Byzantine and Moorish features.

The building is enormous, as may be seen in this watercolor from the 1850’s.

The interior spaces are very large, very imposing and very grand. The interiors reminded us of a palace more than a museum.

The ground-floor central entranceway pays tribute to prominent Austrian military leaders and is called The Hall Of Strategists.

The second-floor central space is even more impressive. It is named The Hall Of Fame and depicts mythic events from Austrian history.

There were four enormous exhibition galleries on the first floor and four enormous exhibition galleries on the second floor, each devoted to a particular theme. The galleries were sumptuously designed, decorated and lighted. Historic paintings were splendidly placed to enhance the appeal of the exhibition galleries.

The eight galleries were devoted to: The Thirty Years’ War; Empress Maria Therese and her long reign; The Napoleonic Era and The Age Of Revolution; the years 1848 to 1866, at the beginning of which Austria won a war against Italy and at the end of which Austria lost a war against Prussia, in the process losing permanently its status as a major European power; the events at Sarajevo in 1914; World War I; the aftermath of World War I, when Austria remained in a virtual state of civil war from 1919 to 1938; the Anschluss and World War II, during which Austria was part of The German Reich; and Austria’s role as a sea power (which had been ended with World War I).

We enjoyed our visit to the museum immensely. We visited every room, and we were not bored for a minute. The Museum Of Military History is one of the finest museums I have ever visited.

It was late afternoon by the time we had completed our visit to the museum, and we decided to return to our hotel and clean up.

We spent a couple of hours back at the hotel, relaxing, before we ventured out again for dinner.

We chose a very fine restaurant, perhaps the finest restaurant of our entire trip.

We started with pumpkin soup, and we continued with hot bacon-cabbage salad.

Our next course was a tiny plate of seasoned meat dumplings.

We each ordered a different entrée (but sneaked small samples of each other’s food). My Dad ordered roast rack of venison fillet cooked in red wine. My Mom ordered crispy pike with cream beet sauce. My sister ordered perch in red pepper cream sauce. My brother ordered beef and onion roast (a Viennese specialty). Andrew ordered boiled beef with apple-horseradish-chive sauce (another Viennese specialty). I ordered Hungarian goulash.

For dessert, we had white chocolate-raspberry mousse.

The food was spectacular.

For the third night in a row, we had enjoyed a magnificent dinner of genuine Austrian cuisine—and we had loved it.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel.

We were almost sorry to have to leave Vienna the following morning—we had barely scratched the surface of one of Europe’s most historic and most important cities—but we were not sorry to leave Vienna’s heat and humidity behind us.

Weather reports had informed us that Styria, our next destination, was not suffering from the heat wave that was stifling Vienna.

We found that to be welcome news.

No comments:

Post a Comment