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Trip to Vienna (Wien) Austria, November 14-22, 2019

by Jenny and Charlie Plesums


We enjoyed a business trip to Vienna about 30 years ago but wanted to return. It is a very pleasant and interesting city, but we also discovered that the Christmas Markets were starting to open. Many had "permanent" booths that were hauled in, some of the markets had hundreds of booths, small markets only had dozens… but all sold glühwein (hot spiced red wine - ga-LU-vine) and variants, traditional snacks, ornaments, and craft gifts.

Getting there

We took advantage of the non-stop flight on British Airways from Austin to London Heathrow Terminal 5 on Thursday afternoon, then change to Terminal 3 for a BA flight to Vienna arriving 4:10 pm (now Friday afternoon).

The BA 777 from Austin to London was configured with 8 seats across in Business Class. Normally we see 4 seats across in business class. Without a long rant, I simply will never pay for a business class seat again in a plane that is configured that way - the beds were 72 inches long (too short for Charlie) and too narrow to roll over, with no storage space for eye glasses or other bedtime items, basically uncomfortable. On British Airways, Premium Economy is a better deal.

As usual, we recommend withdrawing about US$100 on arrival; there were advertising signs in the airport that credit cards were accepted everywhere, so "don't worry about withdrawing cash." We already had over €40 so we only withdrew another €50. The airport ATM had a €5,95 surcharge (ugh, US$6.62) which our bank refunded. Credit cards were used practically everywhere except in the Christmas Markets... and one restaurant (more on that below).

The SIM card offers in the airport were not cheap, so we waited until we got into town. There were T-Mobile shops every few blocks, who offered a one month plan with lots of credit that could be used for high speed data, voice, or SMS messages within Austria for only €10.

Getting from the airport into town is €42 by taxi, the highly promoted CAT City-Airport-Train that runs every 30 minutes for €12 (and dumps you at the central train station), or the "S7" regular train that runs every 30 minutes but takes a few minutes longer for extra stops, and connects you to the subway system at the central station for €4.20. We took the slow train and in about 30 minutes we were directly at our hotel, literally 50 steps from the subway exit.

Friday November 15

The nH Collection Wien Zentrum was a great hotel, right at the Zieglergasse subway stop. We checked in and wandered Mariahilfer Straße, the largely pedestrian street in front of the hotel. It is a vibrant shopping area which ultimately led to an interesting Italian restaurant. (Italy is only a couple hundred miles away,so eating Italian is okay, isn't it?)

As each person entered they were given a proximity card. Choose your line to the open kitchen... several lines for pasta and risotto, a separate line for salads, a separate line or two for pizza, a separate station for beer and wine, and another for desserts. As you place your order with the cook, put your card on the assigned spot, and it is added to your bill.

When your food is ready take it to a seat. Near most seats are live herb plants you are welcome to use - basil, etc. Yes. that is a live olive tree in the center of the dining room. If you want more, just take your card to whatever line. When done, turn in one card for each person, and your bill is tabulated. The food was good, the experience unique, prices reasonable, so we ate there multiple times.

Saturday November 16

Hofburg Palace has been the principal palace of the Habsburg dynasty since 1279 (with at least a dozen new wings added over the centuries. Today it is the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria. The statue in front is Archduke Charles, an Austrian hero of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz is the largest of Vienna's Christmas Markets. Gifts are called Christ Child Gifts, hence the name of the market. I have to snicker that City Hall is called Rathaus. There were lots of locals in addition to the tourists at the 150 or so booths, plus nearby park with ice skating rink and other activities.

At one side of the entrance was a super-size booth with all gold colored ornaments. Opposite, on the other side was a matching booth with silver ornaments. They were one of the few market booths that took credit cards.

All kinds of snacks were available from the usual bakery choices to sausages, and of course, hot spiced wine (€4 for the Christmas mug, refunded when you return it at any wine vendor.)

There was a free photo booth for "take your own" pictures. The line was short, and it is not often I appear angelic.

Towards the park was a life size creche - no live animals but another market featured lots of livestock housed in the drained plaza fountain.

For those who don't speak German or have google translate readily available, Frohe Weihnachten means Merry Christmas!

The lights were just starting to come on, and the crowds were bustling. You can seen the number of booths down this one of several aisles.

Saturday afternoon and we were near the St. Stephan's Cathedral (Stephansdom). We were early so we attended the end of the German Mass with great organ music, and stayed there for the late start of the English language Mass with only a guitar. With half the mass in each language, I guess that makes us bilingual.

The cathedral was largely burned in the closing days of the second World War; a new roof was finished in 1950, and the church was reopened in 1952. The giant organ (17,774 pipes, 233 registers, 6 consoles - when built the largest in the world, still the largest church organ in the world) was rebuilt in 1960, and a second organ installed in 1991. The church is beautiful!

Sunday November 17

"MAK" is the Museum of Applied Arts (and Crafts), and focuses on Architecture and contemporary arts. Since 1863 it has focused on education and training of designers and craftspeople. Is it a Museum, School, or what?

The outside of the building is rather ordinary, but much of the inside was quite stunning.

Some of the exhibit was current work by local craftsmen. This chest of drawers caught my eye.

However another craftsman proudly exhibited two dining room tables. One was a slab (pecan?) which he carefully pointed out as if it were a new concept. He was proud of how he had roughened the surface (can you guess how? Answer, with a chainsaw, and not just a plain chainsaw cut). How do you clean a spill on the table, I asked? Uh. Uh. Uh.

His other table had used epoxy to fill holes, but he had left inch deep splits all along the edges. If he couldn't answer cleanup of 1/4" deep sharp bottom grooves, I didn't ask him about cleaning spills on his second table. Nor did I honor him with a photo.

There were commercial exhibits, in addition to custom woodworkers, such as these lamps. Also exhibits of kitchen and bathroom fixtures and avant-garde lighting.

I am not sure whether this is new or antique work, but the four chairs are the pull-outs at the sides of the table.

Another piece where the chair slides into the piece... perhaps a desk when the doors open, since the cabinet is fairly deep.

This piece caught my eye as elegant in it's simplicity. It has to be an antique since there are several water rings on the surface, suggesting older low-tech finishes.

I have to believe this is antique work... I can't imagine somebody making it today.

I enjoyed the contrast of these two tables

Vienna is dog friendly. Quite a few hydrants had water dishes.

Monday November 18

We visited the Nascumarkt, the most popular market in Vienna, selling luxury food and produce from all over the world. The market is almost a mile long, with three rows of vendors, one row reserved for bars and restaurants. On Saturdays there is a huge flea market (Flohmarkt) that extends about 3 city blocks in the parking lot.

Jenny is a great fish fan, and loved this sign of a lady swallowing a raw herring. Gruber is the most common surname in the area, meaning a person from a valley or low area.

The Maria Theresa monument is in Maria-Theresien-Platz (clever, huh), one of the central plazas of the city. The Empress Maria Theresa ruled from 1717 to 1780, very successfully developing the Hapsburg lands through her personality and strategic marriages of her 16 children.

Also here is the Albertina, a palace and art museum, with a collection of more than a million items. We spent more time admiring the palace.

One of many very impressive wood carvings that caught my attention.

We walked through one of the many smaller Christmas markets, that was just getting set up. The pile of boxes shows the amount of merchandise that one booth will display for sale.

This was the day of the restaurant adventure. It was raining when we arrived so we didn't spend a lot of time outside looking at the window. We had a dinner, and when we tried to pay, they wouldn't accept any credit card. We didn't have enough Euros to cover the dinner. Okay, the waiter said there is an ATM machine a half block away - Jenny will remain as the hostage. But the ATM machine was apparently empty - it would do anything except dispense cash. I walked around a long block to a cambio, but the money changer was closed. I went back to the restaurant, offering to pay the shortfall in US Dollars, at twice the normal exchange rate, but the waiter refused. He drew a map to another ATM, which I found and it worked! In the restaurant window there was the usual credit card pictures, with an X across them.

The next day, when we received the dinner check at a different restaurant, the waiter said, "Will this be cash, card, or kitchen?" I don't think he knew why we laughed so hard at his joke.

Tuesday November 19

A furniture museum is sure to catch my attention, and leads to many pictures. This is one extreme of style, that I am not going to try to learn to reproduce. Look at the carving on the corners of the cabinet at the right.

An early crib. It isn't far from meeting the strict requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

An early wheelchair for a person who doesn't want to admit they are in a wheelchair. No handles for the person to move the chair themselves, but if you have a chair this fancy, your butler would probably move you wherever you want.

This chair is called 11.5°, a reference to the apparent angle of the chair. I really wanted to try sitting in it - I bet it is quite stable. I may build one!

The slot inn the back of the chair apparently is to give some spring-like flexibility to the chair back. I wish I could have tried it.

Look closely at this double door. Actually both doors are closed.

Another Christmas Market, this one just outside the cathedral.

Wednesday November 20

Next to St. Stephens Cathedral (Stephensdom) was a small Mary Magdalene Chapel that was destroyed by fire in 1781, and never rebuilt. During subway construction in 1973 the small Vergilius Chapel, under the former Magdalene Chapel, was discovered. It was originally built about 1250-1300. Entry to the chapel is through the Stephansplatz U-Bahn Station, with a €5 fee.

The almost-1000 year decorations are largely faint (as in the top of the picture above) but at least one is photogenic.

Is the Albertina an art museum inside a palace, or a palace inside a museum? Answer: both. The art collection has more than a million holdings, so only a small part can be seen. We focused on the less well-known artists. There was supposed to be a way to interact with these wings using your phone, but we just got an angelic picture.

This wood carving caught my interest

As did the lighting in this painting (note the detail in the village in the valley)

What's so special about this cask? The decorations were carved by Paul Gauguin in 1889-90.

This self-portrait is the earliest known work of Dürer, drawn at age 13.

The transition between art gallery and palace was gradual - this was one of the party rooms of the palace.

Notice the wood flooring in this room

Contrast with the wood flooring in this room!

Why would a palace have mirrors for taking selfies?

One more piece of furniture that caught my eye.

Thursday November 21

This building caught my attention. Besides the pregnant angel with claws on the corner, notice that the windows are curved into the building. It is the Knihovna of the Technical University of Wein (Vienna). Okay, but Knihovna is a Czech word for Library, not German.

Nearby is Karlskirche, or Karl's Church or the Church of St. Charles. Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI made a vow to build a church if the city was saved from the plague - the church was started in 1713. It is described as a "unique architectural curiosity" with ancient Greek and Roman elements mixed with Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. For example, the dome resembles St. Peter's Basilica, except that it is oval rather than round.

Inside the church were several huge mylar balls - an art and science exhibition. As the balls were warmed during the day, they rose, and at night they settled as they cooled, but remained aloft with the heat radiated from the floor. Note the scaffolding with elevator... built in 2002 for some renovations , but for a fee tourists can go to the top and outside for a great view. The fees collected are continuing to support the renovation, so the elevator remains.

At the top you get a view of one of the floating balls.

And you can see how the dome really is oval, not round.

Step outside (at the top) and you can see a Christmas market being set up in the drained fountain in front of the church. This market features live animals in the manger scene (and reportedly a petting zoo by day), hence the bales of straw.

I met a Czech craftsman working on a portable organ he had built. For scale, note that his right hand is where the keyboard goes; I could probably get two of the organs, console and pipes, into my Odyssey van. Despite the tiny size, the organ had marvelous tone, filling the cathedral with rich sound.

Note the keyboard on the left - white and black keys are reversed, like some harpsichords. I forgot to ask why.

As he tuned each pipe, he sometimes pulled the pipe out and cut part of the pipe off, until he got the tone and pitch he wanted. Look at the tiny size of some of the pipes on the left, yet the sound still filled the cathedral robustly.

Leaving the cathedral we passed a monument to Johann Strauss.

And a statue of J.E. Schindler. Turns out this Schindler is not the German who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, nor the Schindler of Elevator fame - just a landscape painter.

Interesting decorations on the end of this building.

Don't look at this building... look at the huge sculpture in front of the building.

I never could identify this building - shaped like a conch shell, wider at the top, open end facing us.

Friday November 22 - return home

Our departure was quite simple...a subway then a train ride from our hotel to the airport (over a half hour because we had to wait for the "every 30 minute" airport train), then British Airways to London Heathrow Terminal 3 (rather than Terminal 5 usually used by BA). Our flight on American Airlines LHR to DFW departed from Terminal 3. Then a quick flight from DFW to Austin.

We had a great time. At one point, Jenny said "If we had all the money in the world, I would come back here every year." We don't have all the money, but don't be surprised if we return.

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