A Page from Elsewhere: Cold Austrian Days

imageThis is a basic still life from my time in Austria. It may be of ordinary objects, but for me it stands for time spent away from wifi, hauling wood for the stoves, brewing tea to ward off chills, and folk music being strummed out in the other room. When I lived in the countryside of  Austria, I fed chickens and sheep, cooked lunch, helped in a local shop. My memories of Austria include fresh, brown bread and cold, wet days and a very happy little village.  

Why I Love Vienna

You'll hear more about my Workaway experience and my 'Austrian family' in another post, but I want to share with you a few of the reasons why I was pleasantly surprised by my time in Austria.  

The Churches

A mix of gothic and art nouveau architecture kept this city fresh and beautiful. The insides of the churches were the most extravagant I've ever seen--usually covered in golden sculptures.

St. Stephan's Cathedral (above), also known as Stephansdom, is in the center of the historic downtown. Free to enter, the gothic spirals and spikes outside create a moody romance. However, the inside was not one of my favorites.
Votivkirche (free entrance) is another gothic cathedral, but more on the outskirts of the old city. I greatly enjoyed its towering presence and quiet interior. The painted ceiling and vibrant stained glass window made me stop and stare.
Peterskirche (free entrance) is another of the famous cathedrals in Vienna, soaked in Hapsburg history. Near the central shopping district, it is easy to drop by. The exterior is simple with elegant, curving lines and turquoise accents. Don't let that fool you, the inside is almost ostentatious in it's golden slendor.

Probably my favorite was Karlskirche (€8 currently with restoration). The restoration that is taking place is both a pro and a con. While you cannot see the full church without a large scaffolding structure in the center, the scaffolding has an elevator followed by a few flights of stairs so those who are not feint of heart may climb to the very top of the cupola. This allows a lookout over the city, admittedly not great for pictures as the windows are barred. The best part is most definitely the fresco, which you can get amazingly close to via the platform the elevator reaches.


The Concerts

Vienna is known as a center for music: classical, opera, and contemporary. So there are concerts almost every day and even the street musicians are talented. I only had a chance to attend two concerts, but one day I've promised myself that I will see the Wien Philharmonik.

The first concert I attended was "Concerts at Mozarthaus." As the name implies, the four string quartet plays lots of Mozart. In fact, the concert takes place in Sala Terrena (below), a small painted room in a convent where Mozart lived for a few months. This intimate setting guarantees amazing acoustics and a sight to feast your eyes on, though also it means close-quarters for the audience. I booked a few days before the concert after asking my host family if I could take a day off and I ended up in the fifth row. Which was actually just sets of two chairs pressed in the concave of the windows, in a such a way that anyone sitting there must climb over the fourth row. But I couldn't say I really minded since the music, also including Strauss, Hayden, and Bach was fabulous.

The second concert I attended was quite spur-of-the-moment. In actuality, I hadn't even planned travelling in Vienna that day. But upon mentioning a wish to visit the gorgeous city one more time (still not enough) my hosts came to the conclusion that I should go right then and there. So I hopped on the train for a day of sightseeing. Later that night, as I was entering Karlskirche there were some people advertising for a concert in the Schönbrunn Palace. I stopped--just to look, mind you. One man told me they were selling last minute tickets for that night, and they would leave in half an hour. Yet the concert started and ended late: I was worried I would not get the last train back to Klement, or that my hosts couldn't pick me up at the station. The man selling tickets was nice enough to look up train times and draw me a subway map so that I was sure to make it in time. I was still hesitant so I slipped in the church. As I gazed out over the lights of the city from the cupola, I made my choice, I would go. Back on the street, I received the 'B' or middle seating for the price of a children's 'C' ticket. I was ecstatic. In a few hours I made my way to Schönbrunn Orangerie. The simple setting of colored lighting and Christmas trees fit the tone of the concert perfectly. A small orchestra played many pieces, focusing on Strauss who lived in Vienna for quite some time. What I didn't expect was the two magnificent opera singers and a miniature ballet company. With the musicians seated on stage, a few numbers were from famous operas and ballets. As a taste of Vienna performance culture, it was more than satisfying.


The Christkindlmarkts

In English, Christ child markets more often referred to as Christmas markets bloom like jeweled flowers in the night. Wander from one stall to another, warming your hands on a pretzel or some 'punsch' (spiked, hot punch). Here families and friends congregate to buy sweets, view possible Christmas presents, and more. I had a few tips for the markets: ask where a good is made because it may not come from Austria; return plastic drink mugs to get euros in return; travel or buy a sturdy box so you can take fragile ornaments back home; look at a few markets before buying anything, it will quickly become apparent which stalls are truly unique. I'll tell you about a few of my favorite markets below.


Located behind the Volkstheater, two streets are overflowing with beautiful goods and merrymaking. I learned from my host family that this was one of the first Christkindlmarkts and is very special. I found a handmade (in Austria), wooden watch that was perfect for my father.


The square in front of Karlskirche features a handmade, artisan market. Here you will see many beautiful objects, from glass pieces to jewelry to knitwear to metal art and even some of the artisans in action. This market was also very family-friendly with activities for the kids and a recycled-parts carousel. Plus, there was awesome live music.


The most popular market is in front of the town hall. Impossible to miss, this is probably the most beautiful Christmas market, lit up from top to bottom. The market itself is huge and very crowded after dark. I found one or two good booths, but I mainly liked this market for people watching and sightseeing, as many goods look identical to those you saw a row over. However, I did find handmade (in Austria) wooden ornaments made by soaking thin strips of wood and then curling them into beautiful shapes and glittering the edges. I got these for my mother because they remind me of her quilling (twirling thin, long pieces of paper).


The Museums

I have a confession. I only got to one museum in Vienna. A travesty, especially for a Klimt-lover like myself. Which is one of the very many reasons why I will be returning to this city.

What I did see was the Hofburg Imperial Palace. I bought the ticket for the Sisi museum, the Silver Collection, and the Imperial Appartments. A ticket to the palace includes all three of these and was €15 for me since I'm 18, but around €25 for adults. While this is pricey, I can say that it was totally worth it. It includes an audio tour--something I'm not usually a fan of--which is very engaging.

The Sisi museum is about Empress Elisabeth, the wife of Franz Josef. There are many myths surrounding her life and personality and this museum seeks to expose which idiosyncracies are false. While viewing Sisi's lavish dresses, tiny corsets, gymnastics equipment, and more, the audio guide tells you about her three hour daily coiffure (beauty) routine, her love-marriage to the emperor, and even her bouts of depression and withdrawal from court life. Maybe I'm just a history nerd, but this place was amazing.

The Silver Collection consists of porcelain and silver table settings. This sounds boring, right? I thought so too, yet the beautiful china pieces pared with interesting audio about the state relations behind each set was not boring in the least.

Finally, the Imperial Appartments were covered in silk and pretty things and here I learned about Franz Joseph more. (Did you know he used to wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning? Well the story goes that he would start the day with a bath. But his attendant couldn't wake that early, so he would stay up until 3 a.m. often not completely sober. That is until one morning, he had had a bit too much glühwein and clasped the bathing emperor to his chest and proclaimed his loyalty and love.)


The Bits and Pieces

Vienna caught me off guard. I didn't think that it could compare to the architecture in Paris and the food of Italy. But it did. I found myself caught in Vienna's charm: her gilt and mirrored kaffeehäuser, her cold and happy Christmas markets, her street musicians huddled in the subway, and her sincerely friendly people.


My First Overnight Train


I awoke and turned over to gaze out the window. The white sky flashed by and my breath was quickly stolen by mountains and dark evergreens wrapped in a morning fog.

I was in Austria after a overnight train from Florence. Fallen asleep in one country and woken up in another.

I had loaded onto the train in Italy, the first in my sleeper car of six. Although I had been a little premature in my arrival (an hour early in my nervousness), it was good to be first in the compartment as it quickly dissolved to chaos. As a single, female traveler I was in an all-female car. However the compartment was very small for six people and their international luggage. My bags wouldn't fit under my bed. The overhead racks required me to climb the ladder with my luggage and the staff were still checking tickets the door. So my small bag went under the bed--albeit halfway under--and my bigger bag behind the ladder. I took the folded sheets and blanket on my bed and made it.

Once I had stowed my stuff, the other passengers arrived. All at once they tried to situate themselves and their stuff. The train started moving before they got settled and soon bags were stacked behind the ladder and laying across the floor. I watched them struggle and jabber away in German and Korean from my bed, laying down. I was laying in bed already simply because there was no place for me to stand my bed was much to close to the above one to sit in.

After what seemed like ever, the other girls and women settled in. It was still relatively early so some talked or ate snacks. A staff member came around to collect our tickets and check on us. I made a trip tothe train bathroom, that was small, but relatively clean. Upon returning, one girl turned off the light, closed the door, and locked it.

Next came trying to fall asleep. I guess I thought I would be lulled to sleep by the rocking and repetitive shudder of the vehicle. I tossed on my bed (actually quite comfortable) kept up by the lights at every station, the sound of one girl's phone as she played some game, and the nervous thought that I was going to sleep among complete strangers. From what I could tell only one spoke English, and I felt like they could raid my bags or something while I was unconscious. I can say now that on a sleeper train, it is literally just mutual trust that keeps you with your possessions and your life. It's like everyone is hoping they aren't among a thief or serial killer, so no one has any time to steal or murder.

That is mostly an exaggeration, yet it was the train of thought that kept me awake for a few hours. Eventually, I nodded off and slept--until border patrol knocked at our door at six in the morning asking for passports. After being cleared we were all up and started to freshen up. (Note: this is when the line for the bathroom is fifteen minutes long.) Breakfast was included in the form of a surprising fresh kaiser roll with jam and coffee. Then I had an hour or two to pour over the details of my Workaway in Austria and watch the amazing landscape outside my little window.

As we got closer to the end of the line I packed my bags and pulled them into the hallway. The very kind staff came around to pull bags from overhead and rearrange the beds into seats. Finally, we came a stop and I set foot in Vienna, ready to board a regional train and get to a real bed.