Hello Harpies! I’m back from Austria and fighting off jet lag—aided by much coffee throughout the day, although I ultimately give up on some of the more difficult paperwork at the office this morning after realizing I’d racked up enough careless mistakes to make my new boss regret hiring me if she saw them. But anyway, Vienna! Suffice it to say it’s an extremely grand city. Seriously, lots of grandeur going on, and a fair amount of grandiosity, too. The buildings are all is imperialist and triumphalist and designed to impress: tall, dramatic facades, lots of domes and spires and statuary and Baroque ornamentation. Like so:
There were just blocks and blocks of museums, former palaces and government buildings belonging to the “more is more” school of architecture. Even the apartment blocks in the city center are grandly and beautifully designed. You also see plenty of the Austrian imperial double-headed eagle, including in the tile of St. Stephan’s Cathedral:
So what did we do while we were there? Well, the sheer volume of excellent museums in Vienna is a little daunting. You could go to museums all day for a week and still not have seen all of them. We managed to hit about five, including the small Roman museum, which had great archaeological finds and digital recreations from Vienna’s past as the fortress-city of Rome’s Tenth Legion, and four art museums, starting with the spectacular collections of the Kunsthistorische Museum and the Belvedere Palace, both of which deserve a full day on their own, plus the smaller Leopold and Secession museums. All four museums were featuring special exhibits of the work of Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter of “The Kiss“, whose 150th birthday would be this year. All the Klimt exhibits were memorable—if you like Klimt, this is the year to go to Vienna. Every museum we went to was beautifully and carefully curated—Vienna’s a smaller city but its museums are in the same league as the best and most famous in New York, Paris and Berlin.
We skipped a lot of the imperial palace tours, but were macabre enough to enjoy a visit to the Kapuzinerkirche, whose Imperial Crypt was the last stop for the Habsburgs from the 1500s to the present day (the most recent addition is from 2011). At least, it was the last stop for the majority of their physical remains—their hearts were removed and placed in a different church and their entrails (yes, their entrails) were placed in a third church. Maybe they wanted to increase their odds of salvation by making sure they were interred in as many holy places as possible? At any rate, we enjoyed the hushed dark and ornate creepiness of the place. Some of the Hapsburgs rest in understated bronze and marble caskets, but some of them must have been contestants on “Pimp My Sarcophagus” because there were some unbelievably lavish tombs in there. I took a photo of the corner of one which we called the “Pirates of the Caribbean” tomb:
Creepy, right? In the Schatzkammer, where you can see the Imperial Crown jewels and robes, there is also a large carved cabinet that contains the keys to all the coffins in the crypt. Why you’d need to keep those, let alone create a special cabinet for them, is beyond me, but the Habsburgs clearly took the storage of their remains very seriously.
If you like horses, the world-famous Spanish Riding School is a must-see. Tickets to the performances—in which their white Lipazzaner stallions perform kicks and elaborate dressage—are expensive, so we opted for a tour of the stables, which are near the royal palace. Lipazzaners are a special breed (read more about them here if you’re so inclined) that look like no other horses in the world, so I was really excited to get so close to them. The stalls have high bars so that the people can’t get to the horses and vice versa—for everyone’s safety, since stallions tend to be aggressive and fussy and humans tend to be stupid enough to try to touch 1,000 lb. animals they aren’t familiar with. There was a lot of eyeballing and whinnying and whuffing as we walked by their stalls, but I loved it. We couldn’t take pictures while inside the stables themselves (horses not being big fans of camera flashes) but here’s a picture of a noble-looking fellow in his outdoors stall.
So what else? Well, the food in Vienna was both great and meh. The coffee, pastries, and hot chocolate were deeelishus. We ate apple strudel nearly every day—the best we found was at Auer Martin Brot, where we returned multiple times for a strudel fix. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but even I appreciated how good Viennese coffee is, and how serious they are about the quality of their coffee (usually drunk with a lot of milk or cream and I am always in favor of MOAR DAIRY.) The rest of the food, though, was kind of bland and heavy in the usual Central European meat-and-potatoes tradition. I did have a very nice wiener schnitzel and a lot of different ham-related dishes, but after a couple days I was jonesing for spicy food, so we went out for Thai. Unfortunately, it was Thai food for the Austrian palate, which was even wimpier than Thai food for the American palate. The first thing I did when I got home was get a mountain of jerk chicken with extra hot sauce. There was also quite a bit of shopping, but there was not, fortunately, a repeat of the dreaded attack of the Euro-fug from years past.
One day we took a day trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, which is only 37 miles from Vienna but a very different city in almost every way. There are no broad avenues with grand domes and vaults and steeples and elaborately decorated apartment blocks—the historic center of Bratislava is only a couple square miles of winding cobblestone streets, small squares and tightly packed old houses that reminded me a little of an Italian hill town. The language is Slavic, not Germanic, and the Slovakians had the misfortune of spending decades behind the iron curtain, so their late 20th century experience was completely different from their Austrian neighbors’.
In the 18th and 19th century, Bratislava boasted the largest and most influential yeshiva (Jewish theological seminary) in Central Europe, which operated with the support of the Habsburg emperors. After Bratislava’s Jews died in the Holocaust, what was left of the old Jewish quarter was destroyed in the 1970s when the Soviets rammed a giant bridge and highway through the old town. The city’s splendid Moorish synagogue, built in 1893, was also demolished and now exists only in an etching on a slab of black marble that stands in front of the bridge’s underpass.
Here’s what was originally there (synagogue at lower left):
The building of the bridge was a typically appalling piece of Soviet don’t-give-a-fuck urban planning; it tears through the heart of the old town, and the on-ramp is astonishingly close—maybe 10 meters—from the front doors of the St. Martin’s Cathedral, Bratislava’s largest historic church. It’s tragic, because the old town is really beautiful:
In the main square was a display of photographic portraits of Roma people that’s part of an anti-discrimination project called “Beautiful People:”
There was also a McDonald’s, which was advertising a terrifying new sandwich of indeterminate ingredients:
Numerous Google attempts have failed to explain what exactly this is. Oozing fried cheese croquette with tartar sauce is my best guess.
So that’s my latest installment of vacation fun, gentle readers. There are no more big trips planned in upcoming months due to the new job, although I reserve the right to change my mind if I get a good invitation or see an unusually low plane fare advertised!