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Wien: Schnitzel, Strudel and Gemutlichkeit

March 28, 2012

I have a very emotional and non-emotional relationship with the City of Vienna.  I never realized all this could be so obsessively tear-jerking until I was in my 50s, and then it only become worse – I mean better! emotionally – as I have moved forward and have done a bit of Freudian and Jungian introspection.  Last year’s movie, ‘A Dangerous Method’ might also have triggered a few insights as well.

Now I’m really trying to set all this down as a travel writer, but first I have to pour out my background, as hopefully it will make more sense to the reader.

My parents emigrated to Los Angeles from Vienna in 1939 – getting out just in the nick of time, to be followed shortly to Southern California by my father’s parents and my mother’s father.

Anyway, I was born in the 1940’s and didn’t have the faintest idea about my heritage until I could understand most of the facts about WWII in my early teens.  At home, my parents spoke English all the time to my younger brother and I.   Again in the home, amongst themselves my parents only spoke German, but outside the house, never, as they were assimilating into Americana.  The German language and Germany was still considered ‘bad’ in the late forties and early 50s.  They never  spoke to us in German, nor did they make any attempt to teach us the language – something which I regretted long after, but it was never in my control when I was very young.

I would hear stories of the glories of pre-war Vienna, the great life, the culture, the beautiful Wienerwald and the Danube.  It must have been a magnificent childhood for them.  Over the years between my parents and grandparents, they would talk about the glitz, glamour and harmony of the city as well as how my mother wished that she could live in a castle up in the Weinerwald – the Vienna Woods.  In 1954, her wish was granted when my parents bought a house with the most stunning million dollar views in the hills above UCLA in Westwood (West Los Angeles).

In the 70s I made my first visit to this fabled city.  To this day, I can’t even remember everything I saw on that first trip, but St. Stephens, der Graben and the Karntner Strasse, U-Bahn, Schonbrunn, and the Opera were the stand-outs.

Through the years, we went several times as a family and it was always my parents showing me this and that, a bit boring at times, but on one of the trips there was an enjoyable reunion with the elder Hakoah-Vienna members (the Jewish Sporting Club where as teenagers my champion fencer father met my medalist swimmer mother).

The thought of going back to Vienna and not seeing the same old, same old changed last fall.  We decided to go to Vienna yet again with friends from California we had met on a Norway fjord cruise in 2010.  They were doing Vienna, Budapest and Prague for the first time.

They had never been to Vienna so they did tons of research regarding hotels, sightseeing and restaurants and came up with the most marvelous itinerary.

Visiting Vienna in the last few days of September and first couple of days last October, we hit the most fantastic weather.  In fact, it was the warmest end of September that the Viennese had experienced in 120 years – talk about luck.  And thank goodness I had packed enough t-shirts and bermuda shorts.

Vienna is divided into 23 districts with a population of 1.7 million within a 414 square kilometers area.  It is the greenest city in Europe and the city center is a World Heritage Site. The oldest zoo in the world, the Tiergarten Schonbrunn is in Vienna.

VIENNESE HIGHLIGHTS
The Vienna State Opera House is one of the most famous structures of Europe.  Not only is it impressive from the outside, but inside it is an incredible labyrinth of hallways, corridors, small and large rooms and salons, the auditorium and boxes with multiple levels for seating, the stage and backstage plus wings to store a multitude of sets, props and costumes.  The State Opera is able to host incredibly complex productions, with different performances changing from one day to the next. Once a year, they transform the State Opera into a dance hall for the Vienna Opera Ball.  You can take backstage tours lasting around forty minutes, and even get to stand on the magnificent stage.

Of course, one cannot miss the Hofburg Palace with its glamorous staterooms and salons filled to the brim with any and everything from the Habsburg families that occupied the palace for over 600 years.  Probably hundreds of books have been written about the Palace so I’m not going to compete with them other than to urge you readers not to miss this Viennese landmark.

Within walking distance of the Palace complex is one of the most sophisticated animal performing shows anywhere in the world – the renowned Lippizaner Horses of the Spanish Riding School.  Founded in 1725, this group of incredibly trained horses with their stout, upright riders, trot, prance and gallop through a series of precise maneuvers that seriously takes one back to the Baroque era of Habsburg Vienna.  It is a performance not to be missed.

If you happen to be in Vienna on a Sunday, you might get lucky and attend a performance of the Vienna Boys Choir at the Hofburgkapelle within the Palace.

Probably the most significant landmark and focal point in central Vienna is St. Stephens Cathedral, located at St. Stephen’s Square (Stephansplatz).  With it’s distinctive colored-tiled roof and  446 foot high spire, this wonderful example of Gothic architecture attracts millions of visitors each year – and it’s well worth the visit.

Spanning out in two directions from Stephansplatz are two streets that are must-do’s for walking, people watching, window shopping, real shopping and even snacking – the Graben to the north, and the Karntner Strasse to the west.

Most of all the high-end shops and stores are situated on or near one of these two main shopping streets.  But forget the shopping – it’s a people watching paradise to be sure.  And for eating or an afternoon coffee, the best treat is Demel’s. Founded in 1786, it is a landmark  coffeehouse located on the Kohlmarkt, just a couple hundred feet west from the end of the  Graben.  It’s a six minute walk from Stephansplatz.  The apfelstrudel is to die for, and what’s even more interesting, there are huge glass windows overlooking the kitchen where all the confectionary, cakes and  cookies are rolled and pummeled together, buttered everywhere, sweetened with powdered sugar and then baked, sliced and plated.  It’s a mouth-watering production that makes you appreciate the whole place despite the fact you are paying for the privilege; it’s well worth the Euros and the calories.  You must also try the open faced sandwiches at Trzesniewski, a local fast food delicacy.

If you’re after real Viennese fare – schnitzel, sausage, potatoes, cucumber salad, boiled beef (tafelspitz) – there are several great restaurants that will satisfy those cuisine pangs.  Hotel concierges will be able to recommend and book, but some of the best dining experiences may be found at Plachutta, Zum Schwarzen Kameel, Julius Meinl and the Restaurant Steirereck in Stadtpark.

And of course, like the rest of the world who come to Vienna, you might want to try the sacher torte at the Hotel Sacher, located just behind the Opera House.  It’s an experience to say the least, but  I actually prefer the sacher torte at Demel.

Once you have shopped ‘til you drop, and eaten your fill of deluxe Austrian cuisine or street sausages and hot dogs, might I suggest you set your sites of some of the cultural attractions that can only be found in Vienna.  There is an array of simply fabulous museums beckoning one and all.

The Hofburg Palace must be first on the list. Brimming with 600 years of Habsburg history.  Including the Kaiserappartments and the Sisi Museum.  This year marks the 175‘th anniversary of the Empress Elizabeth’s birth. You must also go down to the Imperial Crypt of the Hofburg’s located a short walk from the Palace.

My next favorite is Belvedere Palace, which are really two Palaces, Upper and Lower Belvedere. The world-famous Gustave Klimt paintings are here.  Where else in the world can you gaze upon ‘The Kiss’, one of the most romantic paintings in the world?  Seeing so many beautiful Klimt paintings together will be an experience that you will never forget.

Another palace on the must-see list is Schonbrunn. A World Heritage Site, located just outside the inner rings of Vienna, the palace is a ten minute train or bus ride from the center; it was built originally as a hunting lodge for the heir to the throne.  It too is bristling with paintings, sculptures, wall and ceiling coverings fit for emperors and a huge expanse of parks and gardens.

The Art Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum), The Historical Museum of Vienna, the Kunstforum, the Wien Museum, MAK – the Museum of Applied Arts (with a wonderful shop), the Albertina, Mozart’s and Sigmund Freud’s homes, are but a handful to see.

The Karlskirche, (St. Charles Church) is one of the great religious pillars of Catholic Vienna should be on everyone’s list.  Originally built as a result of an answered prayer to the emperor, and combining three schools of architecture, Greek, Roman and Baroque, it  has a huge copper dome reminiscent of St. Peter’s in Rome. and they have installed an elevator that takes you up 236 feet, almost to the inside top of the dome. You may also climb a set of stairs to the very top.  It’s really high – not for those that suffer vertigo or a fear of heights.  My only criticism to the church maintenance staff is to clean the windows at the top.  The 360 degree views could be so magnificent if it weren’t for the dirty windows that I don’t think have been cleaned in 50 years.  My great plan for knitting together a digital 360 view of Vienna was a bust.

Of course one cannot leave Vienna without attending some kind of musical event.  You can try to get tickets to the Opera or the Musikverein to hear (and see) the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  Inaugurated by the Emperor Franz Josef in 1870, the Musikverein is nothing less than divine, and to be in the Vienna Philharmonic’s presence in one of the world best music halls is truly unforgettable; the architects and builders really knew what they were doing here.  Years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Leonard Bernstein conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and after the concert, nothing will ever replace that experience or the ‘rush’ I felt when ‘groupie me’ met Conductor Bernstein.

I’ll forever remember his comment, “What are you Americans doing here?”  I responded, “we’re here to see you, Maestro.”   He loved the answer with a wide grin and we chatted for a few minutes until he had to move on meet other people.  He was a truly unforgettable character.

Another interesting Vienna fact is that the Viennese have been cultivating grapes since the Middle Ages within the city.  630 wine producers and more than 180 wine taverns are to be found in the city.   The northwesterly suburb of Grinzing boasts numerous wine bars and restaurants that feature the huge variety of vintner’s delight.

THE DANUBE
Nothing shows off the beauty of Vienna like the Danube.  It certainly highlights the importance of the river – both past and present – of how it provides a channel for commerce and goods.  Most of the boats, nowadays are tourist boats, either cruising up and down on short river explorations, or others that connect Vienna with Budapest and Bratislava.

If you have the time, take a river cruise for an hour or two and see the quaint, picturesque towns of  Durnstein, Hainburg, Melk, Krems or Spitz. In fact the town of Melk houses a fantastic, old monastery that contains one of the largest Baroque libraries with a collection of over 80,000 books.  The monastery even used to have an original Gutenberg Bible, but sold it to Princeton University a few years ago to raise money for the completion of much-needed restorations.

Now I’ve only touched on a few of the most important ‘not to be missed’ locations in the Austrian capital.  The Austrians themselves are very proud of their country and will go to  great lengths to make sure you understand and appreciate its rich history and culture.  They’ve valiantly come through the horrors of the late 30’s and 40‘s war years and then the Allied occupation that ended in 1955, marking its independence.  It is now a busy, thriving business and leisure destination – not to mention one of the four United Nations headquarters in the world

So there you have a minuscule snapshot of Vienna – the old world, the new world – and it’s all beautifully wrapped up in delicious Gemutlichkeit.

ACCOMMODATIONS
There are numerous fabulous hotels in central Vienna, probably the most famous being the Imperial, Sacher, Bristol, Ambassador, and Grand.

Most of the major chains have properties in Vienna and more are being built.  We found the Vienna Hilton to be convenient and well situated with very friendly and accommodating, multi-lingual staff.  The rooms were very spacious and contained all the needed amenities; I loved the ample closet space, large chest of drawers and the fabulous view of the Vienna skyline.

For sheer convenience, the Vienna Hilton is located near the main railway station that connects to the subways, or as they’re known, the U-bahn, the S-bahn and also the designated train running exclusively to and from Schwechat Airport.

GETTING THERE FROM NORTH AMERICA
Austrian Airlines operates daily non-stop services to Vienna from JFK, New York, Dulles International Airport, Washington, D.C., and from Toronto (six days a week).

All the major European carriers operate numerous daily flights to Vienna via their home bases, i.e. British Airways via London Heathrow or Lufthansa via Frankfurt.  If Vienna is part of a more international itinerary, Vienna is served by most of the Middle East and Far East airlines.

Getting to Vienna by train is a no-brainer as it is connected to all the major Continental European cities.

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7 Comments
  1. Michael permalink

    As I read this article, I thought the author was chronicling my life and emotions. My parents, as well left Vienna in 1939, settling on the east coast. John Lampl has captured the essence of what it was like being a child of Viennese immigrants during those terrible years.

    My return to Vienna was filled with visits to the residences of my parents and relatives, to the main cemetery (Zentral Friedhof) and ingesting large quantities of Wienerschnitzel. I would add only two items to his list of to do and where to stay. On Saturdays, there is the Naschmarkt, a short walk from St. Stephans. And less than 50 yards from St. Stephan’s is the Hotel am Stefansplatz. I wouldn’t think of staying anywhere else in Vienna.

    It’s a great city, filled with good food, good music and wonderful people

  2. Andrea permalink

    Wonderful article, John! You have me itching to pack my bags and fly off for music, art and chocolat mit schlag!

  3. ROLFE SHELLENBERGER permalink

    John:
    What a delightful way to read my email! My wife Madge and I have stayed more frequently in Vienna than any other European (except Skopje where we have close friends). On almost all our 10 trips around the world together we have happily spent some time there and, because it’s our primary airport with access to Skopje, we will continue to enjoy it. We found a delightful small hotel (formerly a Best Western, but now independent) right next to the railroad station. It was called “Jager” but may have changed names. We’ll probably try to stay there on our trip to Rome in October.
    Shelly

  4. Loved reading the personal background but must disagree about Demel’s. Demel’s is resting on the accolades of its past. It is over-rated and over-priced for the quality (and I’m a real Viennese pastry aficionado). The cakes are dry, the apple strudel also dry and pretty apple-less. I do agree about the Danube; there’s no finer way to see Melk!
    Thanks,John

  5. Ingrid Mc Hugh permalink

    Servus John ! Very timely and enjoyable. We are off to VIE next week where
    I have not been for a while. My trips to Austria now focus on Salzburg, Tirol and Sud Tirol(Alte Adige). Would love to read a travel report of yours on that part of Austria!

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