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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.