It’s probably not the best idea to wake up at 5am after going to bed at 1am, sit on a train for 3 hours and go sightseeing in Vienna for 12 hours.
That being said, Vienna/Wien/Bécs (as the Hungarians call it) was beautiful. Instantly it was obvious which country had come off the worse for wear within the now-defunct Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Poor old Budapest. She’s a bit worn out and grimy, but she’s a beautiful old dame.
Wien, on the other hand, has been very well maintained. The buildings have obviously benefited from many a new coat of paint, and there were very few that appeared abandoned or completely unkempt. (We have a few of these in Budapest – I love them)
Wien was also a hive of construction activity, with scaffolding covering buildings on just about every block. Even the stunning Parliament building was fenced off and home to a building site. Whilst this took away from the romance of the architecture, it occurred to me that in fact this was what made it such a gorgeous place – it was well-maintained. I suppose they have the money to do that, unlike in parts of (read: most of) Hungary.
(Side note: The Hungarian Parliament building is a trillion times grander and prettier than Vienna’s Parliament. Sorry, Wien.)
The other thing that struck me as we strolled, dazed and somewhat cold, around beautiful Vienna, is that it’s a real art and design hub. We thought we were staying in a slightly uncool area, but not more than 50m around the corner were a string of photography shops – Canon, Leica, secondhand camera stores, giant lenses, old cameras, Polaroids… Heaven for us! Further down the road were galleries, cool cafes, boutique stores and shops full of trendy Austrians. It felt very Melbourne, actually. Vienna also has trams – bright red ones with beautiful smooth, wooden seats. They rattle up and down the streets quite quickly.
Descending towards the Innerstadt (inner city), we came across the MuseumsQuartier, a huge artistic complex with permanent museums and galleries, creative spaces, temporary exhibition areas, cafes, courtyards and restaurants. We had a very brief wander through and found that smoking is not banned indoors in Wien, which was a complete deterrent as you walk into a cool little gallery space or cafe only to find yourself enshrouded in smoke and surrounded by Austrian hipsters. (Yes, they are the same everywhere.) I can only imagine that the outdoor areas would be heaving in summer with arty types and tourists. Not so on this grey Monday in March.
A little more strolling meant we found ourselves at the Volksgarten (people’s garden) which surrounds the Hofburg Palace. More construction work going on on one part of the palace – thanks for ruining my photos, guys.
Horse-drawn carts added to the romance of the scene, as tourists whipped out video cameras and smartphones to film their ride through the palace gates. The drivers were keen to rustle up business, but there wasn’t a whole lot going on.
More exploration of the precinct resulted in the discovery of various galleries and museums, housing imperial collections (a whole gallery of royal silverware, anyone?) and costing a small fortune to enter. (€16) We decided not to have a look at this stage (we had two more days!) and continue the ambling through the Innerstadt.
The narrow streets of Europe are my favourite feature of any city, with their high, ornate buildings, cobbled roads, narrow paths, pedestrians boldly asserting that they have right of way, beautiful windows and, if you’re lucky, pot plants high above you on windowsills. I was delighted to find many such streets in Vienna, and equally pleased at their cleanliness and prettiness. Where Budapest is edgy, multi-faceted and a little gritty, Vienna is all fresh-paint and gorgeousness.
Street-vendors selling local snacks still feature in Wien, though perhaps not as heavily as in Budapest. We tried a Wiener hot dog (delicious) from one, and ate pork schnitzel, potato and bacon soup and bread rolls at a funny restaurant chain called ‘WienerWald’. (Our waiter there was a brusque little fake-tanned man who was quick on his feet and quite animated. I liked him.)
By about 3pm we were feeling the cold, and decided to take a punt on a tram – we just got on and stayed on. Eventually it stopped somewhere out in suburbia (after about 20 minutes) and after another 5 minutes of sitting still, it took off again, did a loop and got us back into the city. What I find fascinating about public transport is the kind of people who use it in different parts of the city. In the Innerstadt, it was locals and tourists, young people, a guy with a Jack Russell on a lead, a young family. All were of Anglo-Saxon heritage, save for a few Korean and Japanese girls who were so obviously tourists their cameras and maps needed a seat of their own. As we got further out of the city centre, little old Austrian ladies got on the tram, followed by various waves of families and teenagers of African and Middle Eastern background. I like to sit quietly and observe the different groups who live, work and play in various areas of a foreign city. In the same way that in Melbourne we have particular ethnic groups who tend gravitate towards certain geographical areas, it seems to be mirrored in every city where migrants arrive. Watching the Middle Eastern teenagers talk in German on the tram, I wondered if they had arrived as children and had to learn German, as kids who arrive in Melbourne from overseas have to learn English. To then think that all of the children in Austria learn English at school too, I marvelled at the possible trilingualism of these teenagers and mentally kicked myself for not paying more attention in French at school, and not studying Hungarian more.
English is far more widely spoken in Vienna than in Budapest. People are more confident using it and we did not have to ask “do you speak English?” as we do in Hungary. Even the older generation speak English very well, unlike the majority of older Hungarians, who learned Russian or German (or both) and no English. The lack of a language barrier meant I felt more comfortable in Wien than I do at times in Budapest.
We were nodding off on the tram, so popped back to the hotel for a nap and shower, and headed out again for dinner and a walk in the night. We ate at an Italian restaurant called Vapiano which at the time was lovely, but at 2am when I was violently ill, I seriously considered giving up Italian food forever.
Between dinner and what we have now dubbed ‘The Vienna Incident’, we wandered around in the cold, trying to find the kind of photo opportunities we get so easily in Budapest at night, but ultimately finding more clean and well-maintained buildings, building sites, trams and trendy Austrians. A note to anyone in the Vienna tourism office – learn to light up your buildings at night. They’d look stunning.
Perhaps the food poisoning was already setting in, as I was somewhat restless and under the weather. At the time I put it down to tiredness.
The next 6 hours were as follows: (Please tune out if you have a weak stomach or don’t want to know):
Vomit, shake, too hot, too cold, vomit, 20 minutes of sleep, diarrhoea, vomit, sleep, diarrhoea. Repeat.
B went out at 3am in search of a 24 hour pharmacy and came back with a whole gamut of products and strict instructions on administering them. I could not keep anything within the confines of my body.
Luckily there was a single bed in the room, so I sent myself to ‘the sick bed’ and stayed there.
By about 4pm the next day, I managed 2 small dry pretzels and some liquids. I was so dehydrated that my lips were cracked and my head was pounding. My eyes had tiny broken blood vessels around them and my entire torso ached. This was the most hellish illness I had experienced since I was a child. CONCLUSION: FOOD POISONING IS THE WORK OF THE DEVIL.
On the Wednesday, we got back on a train to Budapest. Early. I was dying to come home, drink tea and consume hot chicken noodle soup.
I cannot even think of pizza and Italian salad without my stomach churning. The very thought of Vienna makes my nose scrunch up a little in disapproval. I wrote a stern and businesslike email to the restaurant informing them of my displeasure. I left out the gory details, but I am now considering sending them a link to this post.
One day, we will go back and it won’t be grey, and we won’t eat at Vapiano, and I won’t get food poisoning. I will even buy some cool designer stuff from Austrian hipsters, and maybe even some new Birkenstocks, as they are half the price than in Australia. We will go the the MuseumsQuartier and see some art and design, and take more photos of well-maintained buildings. We will definitely go to the Schönbrunn Palace too.
Budapest has never felt more like home than now, yet I have not missed Melbourne more than I do this week.
PS: We stayed at the Hotel Pension Kaffemühle, Kaiserstraße 45 1070 Vienna. Looked awful on the outside but it was clean, comfortable and nice on the inside. €55 per night. We traveled to Vienna on Rail Jet (averaging 150km per hour!), which takes about 3 hours and cost €30 each, return.