The Viennese are a little aloof, this happens when you rule Europe for several hundred years, but it isn’t a bad kind of aloof it’s just that the people aren’t super-American friendly. Imagine what the world will be like in another 20 years where everyone has spent 40 years on Facebook, listening to their favorite iTunes mixes, and writing blogs about their daily existence…in other words, moving to the point that everyone is the center of their own universe. I know that sounds negative, but it really isn’t meant to sound that way. I really like Vienna, but maybe that says more about me than about the city.
What Vienna offers the traveler is a collection of some of the best museums in the world (ruling Europe and stealing everybody’s stuff has it’s benefits), a music history that is unmatched, and lots of really cool old buildings built back when Vienna was the center of the world. Now don’t tell the Viennese that Vienna isn’t the center of the universe because I’m pretty sure they still think the sun circles Austria, and again, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because Vienna has done an excellent job of freezing time circa 1780.
The visitor to the city has some big decisions to make, what do you do when there is so much to do? Inevitably you will be asked, “Did you do_____________?” And you will have to say, “No.” Because you can’t do everything there is to do in Vienna. Chose carefully, but then again, don’t worry too much about it because you really can’t make a bad decision. Went to the Leopold and not the Belvedere, oh well, the Leopold is pretty awesome…and so is the Belvedere. With this in mind, I planned carefully where I would be going and then life interfered with my plans and Vienna was set upon by catastrophic storms where the wind blew like mad and rain fell so hard I thought the sidewalks might be damaged.
So, you ask, “What are the must sees in Vienna?” Okay, for once I will give a little advice. I think you must go to at least two art museums, you have to roll through the opera house, you must visit one of the famous cafes, and you should ride around in one of the trolleys that ride around beside the famous buildings. Then walk through the old town and get lost, it isn’t hard. Eat some street food and then step on the scales that seem to be next to all the street food vendors. (Yes, that’s right. You pay 20 cents to weigh yourself in Vienna. I don’t know why, I don’t really care, but the message is clear–you are fat.)
I put this advice to use and had three pretty productive days in Vienna. We took a tour of the Vienna Opera house. Where they have 180,000 costumes, and put on so many different operas each year it is slightly mind numbing, but you can go to the opera during the season for $3 and dress like a slob. The guide said what I was wearing would be fine. They also put on a ball every year that our guide said would cost you somewhere between $20,000-30,000, so I’d put that in the maybe category if I were you. I really can’t think of a bigger waste of money–pay that much to dress up and dance. I’d rather spend my hard earned money doing something fun like eating for an entire year, but our guide said the tickets are sold out six months in advance so as PT Barnum said, “Some people are so stupid they think the USA is going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.”
I went to two art museums: The Belvedere and the Kunst Historisches Museum (Art History Museum). I selected the Belvedere because it has Klimt’s The Kiss. It is one of my favorite paintings, but they don’t let you take pictures of the painting because there is a room right next door where they have a terrible poster of the painting where you can take pictures if you want a picture of a poster. I have two posters of The Kiss in my classroom if you want to roll by and get a pic there too. I also like that the Belvedere has a good selection of Klimt’s other work including really early stuff that is photo-realistic. So all you Klimt haters can see that this dude could really slap that paint around with mad skillz.
I picked the Art History Museum because they have an awesome collection of Bruegel paintings (The Tower of Babel is righteous) and have Vermeer’s Art of Painting. The Bruegel paintings are all hanging in one room, but they have hidden the Vermeer so you won’t just run into it. I’m serious, you have to walk around behind a closed door and through three tiny rooms just to find it. I would not have found it if I hadn’t reached the end of my visit and gone, “Where the hell was the Vermeer?” I then retraced my path like Hansel and Gretel and found it hiding. If you want to play a dirty trick on people then hide one of the best paintings you own in a closet. It is probably the best Vermeer because it is bigger. (That’s art critic talk for you people without a proper education.) The Rijksmuseum has a bunch more Vermeer’s but there are always 100 people standing in front of them, maybe that is why the Viennese have theirs hidden in a dark corner.
Over my days I squeezed in the two most famous cafes in town: Sacher and Demel. These are very different spaces and let me warn you upfront, you can drop some big change in these places. We tried the Demel first and there are about 400 rules to eating there. First, walk into the cafe, go by everyone and walk upstairs. There will be a much shorter line there. You will still wait but the cafe experience is about waiting, so play some solitaire on your iPhone or take pictures of your shoes accidentally. We waited about 20 minutes, sat down, and then ordered our drinks. Then you have to stand up, leave your stuff and walk over to the girl behind the dessert glass. Tell her what you want…90% of the people get the chocolate torte so I got the apple strudel because I’m a rebel. The dessert girl will give you a little piece of paper and then you take that back to your table and hand it to your waitress. 20 minutes later you will get your desserts and they will either be worth the wait or not. I ordered a big beer to drink to pass the time. I was the only person drinking a beer in the place and I was also the only one who ate the apple strudel…which wasn’t as good as other apple strudel I have had. I wanted whipped cream on it but I guess that isn’t done. It was done in Inglorious Bastards so I guess Tarantino has some explaining to do.
The next day we went to Cafe Sacher and I had the time of my life. First off, we were seated right away. It was about 11am. I was dressed like a slob but nobody looked at me like I was a deviant. Then as we got our seat we were treated to the best one Act show ever put on at Cafe Sacher, which is saying something because there have been some pretty happening things that have occurred at Cafe Sacher. (Grace Kelly ate here, JFK, Emperor Franz Joseph, Queen Elizabeth, and it was in the movie The Third Man.) As I was saying before I interrupted myself, I sat down and right away heard our neighbors complaining to no one in particular about their bill. I could understand them because they were American and talking in that familiar dialect called English. They had been drinking coffee like madman and now had a large bill to pay. These poor folks were operating under the impression that they were at the local coffee shop where you get unlimited coffee…and they were at Cafe Sacher where each cup costs five Euros. They each had five cups. The lady said, “No wonder they were here so quickly to replace our coffee.” Yeah, that’s it, this place is hard up for cash and thought they would soak a couple rubes and squeeze a few extra Euros out of them. My wife and I have been married long enough to know when it is time to talk and when it is time to listen/eavesdrop. This was eavesdropping time. We did order our food, after I asked the waiter if it was too early to order the tower of Sacher treats. “Oh, no, now is a good time,” was his response. It reminded me of the time I asked a German waiter if I should have beer or a strudel for dessert, “Why not beer and strudel?” He said. By the time the couple got up to leave we learned a lot about them: they were staying at the Hotel Sacher, they wanted their bill reduced, they thought the hard boiled egg was not hard enough, and then there was a misunderstanding about what room to charge the bill to because the room they gave was not the one they were registered in. Anyway, it was worth every cent of the tower of treats. (By the way, the tower of treats costs half of what our neighbors drank in coffee. It would be poor behavior to discuss the actual cost–22 Euros–because high class people don’t talk about money.) After couple #1 left the table, my wife and I were having such a good time. Maybe it was the chocolate, maybe we are just the right people for each other, maybe it was because we really shouldn’t be eating in places this nice, but anyway, the lady sitting to the West of us said, “Enough laughing you two.” She was also American and from Seattle…and soon we found out we knew a bunch of people who they knew…there you go, you travel all the way to Cafe Sacher to meet some people you probably already knew. (My wife said that the chocolate torte at Cafe Sacher was much better than the one at Demel, and my wife knows a lot about chocolate.)
After our visit to the cafe, we walked around the old town and got lost. We walked into a bunch of churches and looked at the bits and pieces of dead people stored in pretty awesome boxes and enjoyed our freedom to just get lost. There are plenty of churches in Vienna and St. Stephens is the only one where you have to pay a little bit to look around. The rest of them are cool with you coming in and looking at their art and relics, but don’t walk around talking on your cell phone like an idiot.
The highlight of my visit was going to be an evening outdoor opera that the city puts on every summer. I was really (I’m not lying) looking forward to sitting outside and watching a bunch of people singing songs that I hadn’t really heard before, but the damn Euro Cup cut the outdoor opera season short and I only got to see one opera for free: La Boheme…and that is only half of the story. The best part of the night was what happened before the opera.
One of the best parts of the opera experience isn’t the opera itself, it’s the fact that lots of restaurants set up little booths and serve food and drinks. This isn’t a paper plate kind of deal, these meals are served on plates and glasses are filled with beer and wine. I like this kind of thing, eating and drinking. Anyway, because this was the first night of the season, it was crowded. (I’d bet it’s always crowded.) It was so crowded that finding a seat to eat your fancy meal was challenging, so humans being human started staking out their territory. I had an advantage, my wife. So we found a table, she sat down and saved our spot and then I went hunting and gathering like the old days. Other people dashed around like a really big game of musical chairs looking for a place to sit down. Two people decided that they would “hold” their seat by putting their meals down on a table and then come back with their drinks. This is something that wouldn’t happen in America because someone would probably steal your unattended food. And guess what? The same thing happens in Vienna.
There was a lady walking around waiting for her chance and when she found it she pounced. First she shoveled everything into a plastic bag she had for such fine dining experiences, and then she realized she had plenty of time, so she ate the bits she missed tossing in the bag and then strolled off like nothing happened. I took pictures of the whole thing because I am a bad person who found the incident pretty awesome. If it had been my food, I would not have thought it was funny at all, but I’m not stupid enough to leave my food out for someone to steal. I don’t trust the better angels of mankind. Could I have stopped the lady and reported her? Sure, but I don’t think she was doing this because she had a gambling addiction, she looked like she needed that meal more than the idiots who left it there.
I’m no criminal, but I would figure once you get your food it would be a good time to hightail it outta there, but this lady stuck around and kept at it. I don’t know if she got any more food, but she was still on the lookout for more. It probably got easier as the night went along because people tend to drink a fair amount when they are about to watch a free opera. I’m not saying that you need to be drunk to enjoy opera, but it might not hurt.
Eventually, La Boheme started and I think there was one song I had heard before, but Opera isn’t one of those deals I really get. The music doesn’t seem to match with the singing and I don’t understand what is happening 80% of the time, but I do get to say, “When I was in Vienna I saw an Opera…La Boheme.” I probably won’t say I left early because it was cold and that I ran out of toothpaste and all the stores were closed because that will make me sound like an idiot.