November 2007, Wien, Österreich (Vienna, Austria)

Vienna has for me held a kind of high-class appeal, but I have never managed to get there, until November 2007. Arrival was standard, and we took an easy, if somewhat expensive train ride, compared to Berlin (but not compared to London!), to the city itself.

Walking in the streets before going to our apartment, we kept seeing these posters asking for money, but couldn't figure out what they were for, until we a couple of days later saw the first one with magazines in it. The magazines hang in a plastic pouch, and you just drop €2 in the little black container, and one copy belongs to you. A little unusual, if you are used to having to go to the store, having people hawk them everywhere, or having strong-boxes rather than plastic sacks in the street, but apparently it works in Vienna. In most places, you could divide the money the publisher had in the bank with the cost of making the magazine to find out when they would go out of business, with this kind of sales model.

When we were ready to go out in the evening, it was snowy, and the interestingly parked cars behind our (un-photographed, but not terribly spiffy) apartment were covered.

We trundled down to the Museumsquartier, to the Kunsthalle, where we chose to see an exhibition from Latin America called "¡Viva la Muerte!". Spanish culture embraces death in a very different way to northern European cultures, and some of the things were quite shocking. Photography was not allowed, as I found out when I took the photo of the bones hanging from the ceiling above coins, but that was the only thing I wanted to photograph in any case. The exhibition was quite good, but also disturbing.

Afterwards we went to the nice little café in the complex, where I had a soup with beef broth and sliced up pancakes, called Frittatensuppe. Decent, but not good enough to become a favorite. Patti took a nice portrait of me, and then she did this partial disappearance trick while I was taking my photo.

The next morning it had snowed again, and I caught a couple cleaning a car, she with an open umbrella... Effective, if unortodox.

Then we headed out to the Belvedere, one of the highlights of the trip. The outside areas were spectacularly unspectacular, but that was more due to the season, the grey weather and the construction in the garden. I managed a shot where you don't notice the construction, although the general greyness, a Vienna winter characteristic, was quite dominant. I could brighten the photo, but it would be less accurate. The inside was very beautiful and mostly well kept. We stumbled upon a professional photographer taking fashion shots with huge red velvet balls in one area. In the middle we paused, and I had a famous Viennese coffee, an Einspänner, espresso with whipped cream.

One part of the Belvedere castle is an art exhibition, which includes Gustab Klimt's very beautiful The Kiss, as well as several of his other famous pieces. Afterwards we continued to some outlying areas and a side gallery. We exited through one of the front gates. On the way home we passed the Karlskirche.

The following morning, we walked from our north-shore (of the kanal, not the river itself) apartment towards the Hundertwasserhaus. On the way, we were wondering for a while about the street-crossing apparatus, and I believe that I was able to deduce that the funky little diagram on the side of it is a "feelable" description of the crossing, ie. a blind person could feel what to expect. Interesting. I wonder how well it works? We also saw a sad, closed little beauty parlour called Schönheitsstudio Sissi. Sissi was a very popular princess, originally from Bavaria.

Unfortunately the true nature of the Hundertwasserhaus doesn't come through in this grey, drab winter lighting, but it was really an interesting place. It is an apartment block, so you cannot go inside, but we did go to a little café on the side which had a continuously running video of Friedensreich Hundertwasser himself describing the house. His original name was Friedrich Stowasser, but he changed it one bit at a time until he was satisfied. A very alternative Jewish artist in ultra-conservative and snobby Vienna, he could not have had an easy time here initially, and his work is still somewhat controversial. He did somehow get the permit to redo the facade and insides of this building, and additionally, he made the Kunsthaus Wien and redecorated a powerplant somewhere around. In the meantime, partly because of the general interest generated by his unique work, Vienna has grudgingly accepted him, in an "our weird artist" kind of way.

Across the street there was a fantastic little gallery called the Fälschermuseum or The Museum of Art Fakes (more commonly known as forgeries in English, but oh well). To properly put the friendliness of the staff in perspective, it is necessary for me first to make a sidenote and discuss the Viennese in general.

Sidenote 1: Both Patricia and I were very surprised at the stark unfriendliness and unhelpfulness of the population. We would barely be ackowledged upon entering somewhere, and would only get the most grudging of service in most places. Rarely did we hear a please or thank you, although we did appear to win some people over with ours. This initially put us in quite a bad mood which took a day or two to get over. Berlin is so friendly that the contrast was quite shocking. When I returned, I was very reluctant to tell our very nice resident Austrian about our experience, but when he heard of our visit, he burst out "oh, Vienna, the worst of Austria", so I suppose that even the Austrians know about this. It is not clear why it is like this, since apparently Austrians in general are much more friendly. A little modesty would be more appropriate, considering that all of the major Viennese attractions were built several generations ago, and all the newest additions are relatively unattractive, with few exceptions. The city in general has the feeling of being taken for granted, and of poor attention to detail, such as unattractive wires, poles and signs completely ruining the view of many of the more beautiful buildings. The impression is of a population which doesn't care.

Sidenote 2: For some unfathomable reason, Vienna is not only expensive beyond the value provided, photography is banned in many interesting places, such as castles, museums, and so on. Only the churches here are sometimes free, and photography allowed. One would think that allowing tourists to take photos to bring back as fond memories would be reasonable. As an avid photographer, I found this endlessly frustrating, and at some point I almost gave up taking pictures. I took as many photos in Dresden, a far smaller city than Vienna.

Anyway, having dispensed with the unpleasant sidenotes, we return to the wonderful Fälschermuseum, which was right across the street from the Hundertwasserhaus. A great little gallery with the most friendly staff imaginable. They had a few dozen forgeries, some commissioned for the museum, and lots of reference material and typed cards with interesting anecdotes. I would place this museum very near the top of things to see in Vienna, for those interested in art. One little snippet: it is estimated that 80% of all Dali paintings in the world are fake, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many museums and collectors refuse to have their work authenticated, knowing that they have little to gain from a dose of reality...

After this, we proceeded to the Kunshaus Wien, another Hundertwasser creation, but this time we could enter. I loved the quirky, uneven floors and weird little nooks and crannies. It is what one might imagine a kid might create, with a little fantasy. Photography was not allowed in most rooms, but I sneaked a shot here and there to give a feeling for it.
The rest of the day we spent strolling back towards our apartment, past the famous Stefansdom, and then paused for a meal in a restaurant whose name I have sadly forgotten. I had a great Wienerschnitzel, Patti had some average Austrian noodle dish, and we split a small carraffe of red wine.

After that, we went further down the pedestrian-only central streets, strolled around the Ring until we got to the city hall, where we spent some time in a Weihnachtsmarkt. While there, I had the impression that the youth in Vienna is very different, somehow more like frat parties in Canada than clubs in Berlin. Loud, drunk, pushy and immature. It may have been just this place, but it was a different feeling than we are used to from Berlin.

The next morning we took the train out to Schönbrunn castle. Here again, photography was forbidden indoors, and not only that, the older man selling us tickets seemed more interested in playing with his ridiculous, curved and pointed moustache than in giving us any useful information. How much the various attractions in the grounds cost he couldn't tell us, neither what the exact differences were between the different tours, just what the three different tour tickets cost. Seeing that we were leaning towards the cheapest one, as we were losing our interest fast, he tried to upsell us by comparing the most expensive ticket to a Mercedes and our choice to a Lada. This back-fired a bit as we stayed with our comfortable, reliable Lada, rather than opting for the over-priced, mediocre quality Mercedes. I wonder what he thought he would achieve by insulting our choice?

Already in a bad mood, things only got worse as we saw on the ticket charts that our tour tickets, at a princely €9,50 each, were good for a 35-minute tour, and an exit without seeing the Napoleon room. We walked through the tour, trying to pace ourselves, and exited. The money earned from tickets is clearly not spent on upkeep, and the too-numerous other patrons were thoroughly annoying, often stopping in the middle of doorways, blocking progress or some of the nicer views for too long, something which none of the staff cared to deal with. The very frequent tours kept getting in the way as well, and in general, the whole experience was rather miserable with the exception of Prince Ferdinand's simple desk, which I liked. At the exit, we discovered that the 35-minute limit was more of an estimate than an actual limit, but it was clearly a carefully managed misunderstanding, presumably helping them pushing more tourists through in less time.

Exiting, and walking through the bland and unattractive gardens, barely looking at the boring rear of the castle, passing by the inexplicably closed maze, we briefly considered entering the huge greenhouse, but glimpsing in from the entrance, it looked poorly maintained, and also as if we might not have access to all parts. The final straw was the fact that very large, very ordinary plants seemed to take up most of the space.

I would strongly recommend against wasting any money on this place. Poorly maintained, a rude and useless staff, over-priced, over-filled, and horribly organised. Belvedere Castle was much more attractive, a much better value, and more interesting. Schönbrunn is clearly nothing more than a cash-cow which is being milked far too often.

Both grumpy, I probably more than Patricia, we left and went downtown again. Our moods improved a bit when we found a nice, affordable (quite a trick in over-priced Vienna) café called Aida. A bit cheesy like an American diner, it was simple and pleasant, and although the cakes weren't very large, they were still good. The tables were the smallest I have ever sat at, though. In the photo it looks like half a table, but in fact that is the whole table.
Our next stop was the Stefansdom, a very nice cathedral, which was free of charge, apart from tower and basement access, a very refreshing change. Here we again improved our moods, and I enjoyed walking around freely, making photos.
Our final visit of the day was to the Schmetterlinghaus, the butterfly house. Not terribly large, but with photography allowed, and being reasonably priced, this is another of the nicer places to visit in Vienna. Quite unusual, but sadly not with a lot of interesting different kinds of butterflies in the winter, we were still enchanted with the place. It was very warm and damp, and we had to let the cameras acclimate a bit before being able to take pictures. In addition to the butterflies, there were also funny little birds running around in the bushes, which you should be able to spot in the second-last shot in this series.
Before returning to our apartment, we took a final stroll through the downtown area, and snapped a couple more photos.
On the final day, we wanted to take a quick look at the Donau (the Danube river), but upon reaching it, not only did we find it unattractive, but we also realised that we were running late for our plane, having missed a connection, twice, on our way there. With absolutely perfect execution and a quick dash through the airport, we did manage to catch our plane, but I never want to cut it that close again in my life. Not only would it have cost us another ticket each if we had missed our plane, but Vienna had absolutely stripped our bank accounts, and the rest of my month was spent at a financial level I have not experienced since I was in university.

In the end, we had a nice time and saw some interesting places, but to be completely honest, of the places we have been together, this one was by far the least interesting, most expensive, and most unpleasant. I truly cannot recommend Vienna, and the next time I visit Austria, I will ask my friendly colleague where I should go instead.

It is quite possible that by bringing along more money, planning more carefully, including carefully picking only the best attractions to visit, and perhaps scheduling it in the summer, that someone might have a good time here. However, on the same budget and with the same amount of care, you could have an unforgettable visit to many other cities, not least Berlin, so unless you really want to see specifically Vienna, perhaps you should consider something else. We do have fond memories of the Hundertwasser buildings, the Fälschermuseum, and the Schmetterlinghaus, however.