Monday, March 18, 2013

Vienna/Melk/Krems, Austria

Day 19 Continued (Tuesday, September 23rd 2008) 

After arriving in Vienna at the Sudbahnhof train station, I took a tram to the Westbahnhof station. From here, it was just a few minutes' walk to my hostel called Wombat's City Hostel.

When I arrived at the hostel, the main lobby was filled to the brim with lots of young people talking, playing pool, and just hanging out. I had chosen to stay at a hostel in Vienna due to the high costs of hotels in the city. Even the usual cheap options, such as bed and breakfasts, were quite expensive (around 100 Euro/$150 USD per night). My only rules for staying in a hostel were that it had to be very close to public transportation, I had to have my own private room with a private bathroom, and I wanted to stay at a place that had kitchen and laundry facilities. Wombat's fulfilled all of my requirements, so I decided to book my room at a cost of 50 Euro per night. My room was basic, which was fine, but unfortunately the bed was incredibly uncomfortable and I spent most of my nights tossing and turning.

Day 20 (Wednesday, September 24th 2008)

I awoke to my first morning in Vienna with lovely rain showers outside. Much to my annoyance, the wet weather seemed to be following me around from country to country.

As I only had two full days in Vienna, I had quite a busy schedule planned for the day.

After eating a crappy 3.50 Euro breakfast at my hostel (not worth the cost and over-priced; I could have bought what I ate for much cheaper at a grocery store), I left and used the subway system to make my way into the central part of town, also known as the Ringstrasse. During the 1860’s, the Emperor of Austria (Franz Josef) decided to tear down the medieval wall surrounding the core of the city. In its place a new circular road was created that was almost three miles long. This road was given the name “Ringstrasse” and nearly all of the buildings that face the road in either direction were built during the same time frame. Per the advice of Rick Steves, I hopped on tram #2 across from the Opera House and rode it all the way around, eventually getting off about 30 minutes later. This ride provided an overview of the beautiful architecture and numerous statues that lined the boulevard.
Vienna
Vienna
Vienna

From the Opera House, I walked down Karntner Strasse, stopping at a few places of interest including the Monument Against War & Fascism, the Kaisergruft Crypt, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

The Monument Against War & Fascism was a four part statue created to honor the victims of war and violence. The monument was located where hundreds of people were killed when a WWII bomb attack destroyed the building they had been hiding in.

Next, I visited the Kaisergruft Crypt, which was the final resting place to several dozen family members of the Hapsburg dynasty. I have visited other such crypts in Europe, but I was surprised when I saw the first aisle of Hapsburg tombs. Instead of being made from different colors of marble as I had seen in the other crypts, these were made from bronze and each had its own unique and intricate carving. Upon arrival, I had purchased a .50 Euro map that included a chart of the family tree of the Hapsburg family and the names of every single person whose coffin was located in the crypt. This chart proved very useful as I was more easily able to understand who belonged to whom as I was not familiar with the Hapsburg monarchy compared to others, such as the British Royal Family.
Kaisergruft Crypt
Kaisergruft Crypt
Kaisergruft Crypt

After touring the crypt, I eventually made my way to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, known in German as Stephansdom. I was very disappointed to see that the exterior of the church was extremely dirty and covered in black, presumably from the years of pollution and smog. There were a few areas of clean creamy stone and scaffolding in other parts, so I hoped that they were in the process of cleaning the building. The black color sorely detracted from the beauty of the building, at least in my opinion. The interior of the church wasn’t much to jump at either; while it wasn’t as dirty as the exterior, it definitely needed a cleaning as well, as it felt very dark and dreary inside.
St. Stephen's Cathedral
St. Stephen's Cathedral
St. Stephen's Cathedral

From the church, I headed back out into the rain and walked to the massive Hofburg Imperial Residence.
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace
Hofburg Palace

I walked into the palace through the gate from Michaelplatz and veered right, making my way to the entrance of the Imperial Apartments. This part of the palace contained three separate parts: Silver Collection, Sisi Museum, and the Imperial Apartments. I gained entrance to all three via the “Sisi Ticket.”

The tour began in the Silver Collection where I toured room after room filled with thousands of pieces from the Hapsburg's personal collections of silver, gold, glass, and porcelain. When the monarchy collapsed in 1918, the government took control of all of their possessions and, as a result, most of the sets are complete and in mint condition.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.
Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace.

Next, I walked through the Sisi Museum, which was dedicated to the life of Empress Elisabeth (more affectionately known as Sisi), wife of Emperor Franz Josef. The museum very thoroughly explained the private life and times of Sisi. After her assassination in 1898, she was almost instantaneously venerated in the press and given much more time and coverage than anyone had bothered to give her while she was alive. All of this new attention created the legend of Sisi, most of which was actually untrue. The museum does a good job a demystifying Sisi and showing the person she really was, not the one that so many people associate her with.

At the end of the Sisi Museum was the start of the Imperial Apartments. The tour took me along the private rooms of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth. I thought the most interesting rooms were Sisi’s dressing/exercise room, Franz Josef’s study, and the dining room. I learned that it would take Sisi’s servants a few hours every day to work on her hair, as she read books and learned foreign languages. In the same room, were two wooden structures on which she would exercise every day, much to the disgrace of the rest of the royal family. Franz Josef’s study was filled with family photos and several portraits of Sisi. Lastly, the dining room was lavishly set-up for an everyday family dinner: silver and gold dishes were only used for formal state dinners.

Next, I walked to the Treasury, which contained the crown jewels, swords, coronation vestments, and a smattering of other highly cherished valuables that once belonged to the Hapsburg's. My favorite items were the Throne Cradle, baptismal blankets from the 1700’s, and the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Throne Cradle was built at the request of Napoleon, who had married into the Hapsburg family. His son was born in 1811, titled King of Rome and used this cradle which was in remarkably good shape and incredibly gorgeous with intricate details. The baptismal blankets were used by the royal family during the 18th century and were a beautiful with soft pink color and very light gold embellishments. The crown of the Holy Roman Emperor was made in the 10th century and was covered with lots of gold and jewels. It was utterly amazing to me that the crown could survive for over 1,000 years and be in such good condition. Most all of the items in the Treasury were in excellent condition as they were only used during ceremonial times and otherwise stored.
Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor inside the Treasury at Hofburg Palace.
Treasury at Hofburg Palace
Throne Cradle inside the Treasury at Hofburg Palace.
Baptismal blankets inside the Treasury at Hofburg Palace.

My last stop of the day was to the Imperial Furniture Museum, which I was allowed to gain entry to at “no cost” due to the Sisi ticket I had purchased earlier in the day. This museum was home to the “leftover” collection of the furniture from the Hapsburg dynasty. The Hapsburg family had several homes sprinkled throughout their empire, but only Hofburg Palace was permanently furnished. The rest of their palaces had to be furnished with the assistance and help of the “Depot of Court Movables” whose responsibility was maintaining, organizing, and keeping inventory of all of the royal family’s items. The first part of the museum almost looked like a warehouse, with the furniture stacked closely together. As the museum continued on, it was set-up and presented as separate rooms. Unfortunately, I arrived late to the museum and only had about 30 minutes to walk around before it closed. I didn’t get to quite see everything I had wanted, but I will make sure to stop by the next time I visit Vienna.
Imperial Furniture Museum
Imperial Furniture Museum
Imperial Furniture Museum
Imperial Furniture Museum
Imperial Furniture Museum
Imperial Furniture Museum

Day 21 (Thursday September 25th, 2008)

I awoke on my second morning in Vienna to yet more rain showers. The plan for today was to take a day-trip out of Vienna into the Danube Bend region, visiting the towns of Melk and Krems. From Vienna, I took a train out to Melk, arriving about 1 ¼ hours later.

Melk is a small town that is most famous for its abbey, Stift Melk. From the train station, I walked downhill towards the old town center. Along the way, I could see the Stift Melk in the fog-covered distance. I kept keeping my fingers crossed that the sun would somehow magically appear during my short time in the city, but I felt pretty hopeless.
Melk
Melk
Melk

It only took about a ten minutes walk to reach the beautiful yellow baroque abbey. I signed up for a guided English tour as I figured it would allow me to learn about the abbey much more so than just by using my guidebooks.
Melk Abbey
Melk Abbey
Melk Abbey
Melk Abbey
Melk Abbey
Melk Abbey
Melk Abbey

When the tour started, I realized I was the only one who had signed up for the English tour, so it was just me and the guide. The guide spoke English very well, but with a tremendously thick accent; at times, I could not differentiate the words that came from her mouth. From the guide I learned that the abbey was still a working monastery and also contained a school. The building that stands today was built entirely in the baroque style between 1702 and 1738 after a fire had destroyed the original one. The tour began in the Imperial Wing, which once housed apartments for the monarchy.

Next, I walked through two of the impressive libraries, both of which had gorgeous ceiling frescoes (the abbey currently contains more than 90,000 books in its entire collection). The tour ended at the church, which was an incredible example of what Baroque architecture and art should look like. I arrived at the church just in time to hear the 12:00 prayer delivered by the monks. The highlight of the prayer was the music that was played from the church organ; I will never forget the beautiful sounds that echoed throughout the church. As I listened to each song, my eyes wandered around the interior of the building, usually making their way up to the impressive ceiling frescoes. I sat in the pew, thinking that I was quite possibly hearing the same songs played from the organ that would have been played when the church first opened in the mid 1700s. I then pictured all of the women with their tall coiffured hair and wide but exquisitely designed dresses, and the men with their white wigs and tail coats. I am completely enamored by the baroque time period of the 1700s and also fascinated by every aspect including architecture, design, furniture, clothing, lifestyle, etc. Sitting in the church while the music played gave me a small insight as to what life must have felt like during a church service in the time period. It was an incredibly amazing experience for me.
Melk Abbey
 Melk Abbey
The library at Melk Abbey.
The library at Melk Abbey.
Interior of Melk Abbey
Interior of Melk Abbey
Interior of Melk Abbey
Interior of Melk Abbey
Interior of Melk Abbey
Interior of Melk Abbey
Interior of Melk Abbey
Interior of Melk Abbey
Interior of Melk Abbey
Grounds of Melk Abbey

After visiting the church, the original plan was to walk through the town and then take a river boat cruise from Melk to Krems, which would last about 1 ¾ hours. However, as I walked out of the church into the pouring rain, I decided that the weather conditions would not make for a pleasant boating experience. Aside from that, the cloudy gray skies would not provide the backdrop I was hoping for on my Danube River experience. I had reviewed the weather report the day prior, and it had said that the sun was to appear the next day, so I decided to go back to Vienna and try the boat cruise the following day in hopes of experiencing more cooperative weather.

So instead, I hopped on a train and headed back to Vienna. Since the excursion was moved to the following day, I had to complete several of the visits that were to occur that day.

My first stop was the Vienna Opera House (known as Staatsoper) where I hoped to take the 15:00 English tour. Unfortunately, as I arrived I found out that tours were only offered on certain days of the week, and this day wasn’t one of them. As I would be completing the day-trip and a visit to Schonbrunn Palace the next day, a tour of the Opera House wasn’t feasible. I was slightly disappointed, but since I had toured the sumptuous Opera House in Budapest, I wasn’t too sad.
Vienna Opera House


Next, I walked to the Lipizzaner Museum, which houses the horses of the Austrian court and information on their 400 year old history. As you may remember from reading one of my prior entries, I had visited one of the Lipizzaner stud farms in Slovenia. The place I am referring to in Vienna, however, is different. I appeared at the doors of the museum, but the doors were shut. I was slightly perplexed as it stated in the guidebooks that the museum was open until 18:00 every day. Finally, a worker from the museum came out. I asked her if this was the “museum” and she said yes. When I asked if I could go in she informed me in her broken English that it was for groups only. Huh? That didn’t make any sense! As I had already seen the Lipizzaner horses in person but I wasn't too offended and went on my way.

At this point, I was quite hungry, so I decided to pay a visit to Naschmarkt, which was an outdoor food and produce market. The market was created in 1898 when Vienna made the decision to cover up the Vienna River; the square they built eventually turned into Naschmarkt. I was just hoping to find edible food pronto, as my hypoglycemia was setting in quickly. I did end up buying some donut holes that were covered in a cinnamon sugar mix. They did not taste like donuts from back home though; they were much sweeter and the texture was more dense. For lunch I ate some tagliatelle pasta with a pesto cream sauce. The pasta was delicious and cheap!
Naschmarkt
Donuts at Naschmarkt.
Naschmarkt
Naschmarkt
Vienna Secession Building near Naschmarkt.

From the market, I walked to Karlskirche, a Baroque church whose interior was undergoing renovation during my visit. At first, I was disappointed when I saw all of the scaffolding as it “ruined” the photos I wanted to take. However, the church had taken advantage of all of the scaffolding and built in a temporary lift that allowed visitors to ride to a platform at the base of the dome. From this platform, I was several hundred feet above the church floor, which allowed me to be able to view the incredibly gorgeous ceiling frescoes that were being restored up-close. From here, I was also able to walk up several hundred more feet to the very tip top of the dome; the walk up the wobbly stairs was extremely nerve-wracking and did not feel very safe! It was mind-boggling for me to realize that I was essentially, in the same place that the original artists had been more than 250 years prior. Over the last few years, I have visited many impressive churches in Europe with intricate ceiling frescoes. However, seeing these frescoes up-close and personal gave me a huge appreciation for the artists who created them. I cannot begin to imagine how dangerous and how scary it must have been for those painters to stand on the wood scaffolding of their times and paint with their heads tilted up. They could not have possibly had a fear of heights; I was only up there for 20 minutes and my fear was kicking in hard and fast and I was much more protected than they ever would have been! Once back down on the floor of the church, I was amazed at how high I had been. This was one of the best experiences of my trip and I enjoyed every moment, even those moments when I was shaking with fright as I walked up the stairs!
Karlskirche
Karlskirche
Karlskirche
Karlskirche
Karlskirche
Karlskirche
Scaffolding inside Karlskirche.
Karlskirche
Karlskirche
Karlskirche
Karlskirche
Scaffolding inside of Karlskirche.
Scaffolding inside of Karlskirche.

From the church, I took the metro to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which currently houses the art collection that the Hapsburg family collected over a several hundred year period. As art museums tend to easily overwhelm me, I used a self-guided tour listed in Rick Steves Eastern European book to tour the museum. Along with this commentary, most of the paintings had small English descriptions listed, which helped me to appreciate each piece. I did not see every painting, but I did review a few that looked interesting. I am personally more drawn to landscape or city scenes and detailed portraits of people. The religious art is most difficult for me to understand and appreciate. After touring the first floor, which was filled with European art, I walked down to the next level which had a surprisingly good exhibit on Egyptian art and artifacts, including a few mummies!
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Kunsthistorisches Museum

I spent about 2.5 hours at the museum and then headed back in the pouring rain to my hostel. I only hoped that the weather reports were accurate and that I would finally see sun the next day.

Day 22 (Friday, September 26th)

Unfortunately, I awoke to yet another cloudy morning in Vienna, although at least on this day, it wasn’t raining out. My first visit was to Schonbrunn Palace, which was the former summer residence of the Hapsburg dynasty. The palace was located four miles from central Vienna, although it was just a few tram stops away for me from my hostel. When I had visited Hofburg Palace a few days prior, I had purchased the “Sisi Ticket” which also allowed entry to Schonbrunn. This ticket allowed me to bypass all those standing in line to purchase their tickets; this is a good tip for those wanting to beat the crowds and save a few Euros, as the combined ticket was cheaper than buying each ticket separately.
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace

Entrance to the royal apartments also included a free audio guide, which I always thoroughly enjoy as the commentary helps bring a place to life. Most of the rooms I walked through were decorated in the Neo-Baroque style by Franz Josef during the late 19th century. However, there were a few rooms that had not been modified since the time of Maria Theresa, and were a stunning example of the flamboyant Rococo style. I liked seeing the many paintings of Maria Theresa’s children that had been hung throughout the rooms, including a few of the notorious Marie Antoinette. Sadly, I was not allowed to take any photos within the apartments, so I only have exterior shots of the palace.

After touring the interior, I went outside and walked around the palace gardens, enjoying views of the flowers and Gloriette in the background. The monument was built to celebrate a largely unknown Austrian military victory but was mainly used for decoration. I did not go up to the Gloriette as it was a large walking distance away, but I read that there was supposed to be amazing views of Vienna from the location.

Overall, I thought Schonbrunn was beautiful, however, though it can compete against Versailles, it just won’t ever be able to win the battle of most extravagant and gorgeous palace. If you've never visited Versailles, you would be very impressed with Schonbrunn. If you are in Vienna, you should definitely make time in your schedule to complete the trip. However, as biased as I might be (and I know this Francophile is!), nothing can compare to the stunning beauty found at Versailles.

After leaving the palace, I headed to one of the train stations in Vienna called Franz Joseph Bahnhof. From here, I took a train back out to Austrian countryside to complete the day-trip that I was unable to finish the day prior due to the lovely weather. This time, I traveled to the city of Krems an der Donau (more commonly referred to as “Krems”). Krems is one of the larger sized cities in the region with a population of about 25,000.

From the train station, I walked into the central historic part of town that had cobbled streets, many Art Nouveau and Neo Baroque buildings, and an overall quaint and pleasant atmosphere. I toured the interior of two churches, one Baroque and the other Gothic. After walking through town for about 30 minutes, I began the long walk to the boat station.
Krems
Krems
Krems
Krems
The interior of a church in Krems.
Krems
Krems
Krems
Krems
Krems
Krems
Krems
Krems
Krems
Krems

From here, I planned on taking a cruise down the Danube River to the town of Melk, where I had been the day before. There are two main boat companies that cruise the area between Melk and Krems. One is DDSG Blue Danube and the other is Brandner. Both cost about the same price, offer similar routes, and usually leave the towns right after one another. I opted to go with Brandner, the only reason being that it left Krems five minutes before DDSG did. The cost for the 2.5 hour ride was 19 Euros ($28.50 USD) for me. The cost was steep, but the boat was immaculately well-cared for and it looked as though the interior had just been remodeled.
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Interior of the Brandner boat.

Along the cruise route, the boat stopped at numerous towns to pick-up or drop-off passengers, including Durnstein, Spitz, and several others. The views from the boat along the way were beautiful and I really enjoyed watching the passing scenery. However, I was also slightly disappointed that it was cloudy and that the sun never appeared; the water is always more pretty when it’s lit up by the sun and blue skies.

I also ate an early dinner on-board. I had a cup of potato cream soup and for the main course had roast chicken over a bed of salad and vegetables. For dessert, I ordered a banana split, which was quite delicious and even better when I found out they forgot to charge me for it!
Potato Cream Soup on the Brandner Danube River Cruise.
Roast Chicken on the Brandner Danube River Cruise.
Banana Split on the Brandner Danube River Cruise.

In the end, cost aside, I was extremely glad I had modified my sightseeing itinerary in order to be able to participate in the river cruise. The water was smooth, the passing scenery was gorgeous and constantly changing, and the boat itself was large and comfortable, but small enough to keep the huge crowds away. This experience made me think about the possibilities of one day taking a one or two week-long cruise down the Rhine or Danube Rivers in Europe. I’m not a fan of the large cruises, but I like the idea of being able to see the charming and picturesque towns sprinkled throughout the beautiful river valleys as I relax on board a boat. Many of these boat cruises stop for a full day in each town, allowing plenty enough time to see and fully enjoy the sights and scenes.
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise
Brandner Danube River Cruise

After the boat ride ended, I hurriedly walked through Melk, as I had only 20 minutes until the train to Vienna arrived, and made it to the train station in time, with only three minutes to spare.
Exterior of the Brandner boat.
Melk Abbey

The train back to Vienna took about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Once back in the city, I went back to my hostel and collapsed. I hadn’t been sleeping well during my stay in Vienna, so I was quite exhausted.

Up next: Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

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