Well, the other week was my fifth visit but the first for my lovely partner so I had the joy of introducing someone new to all my favourite places. it turned out, though, I got to see and do so many new things that it’s worth another post. Ten more reasons to fall in love with this fabulous city:
- The Prater – the green space on the edge, but still close to the centre, of the city. Well, green but also the home of quite a substantial theme park which, in Boomerang, has one of the smallest, quickest, but still scariest rollercoasters I’ve ever ridden. Totally disorientating, and probably best appreciated several hours after finishing the large bag of cream cakes you will have picked up at Demel (see 8 below) to keep you going on the short journey from the centre.
- The Riesenrad – the big wheel at the entrance to the Prater, famous to my generation for a key scene in the Orson Wells film The Third Man. No long Disney-style queue, an agreeable exhibition to browse on the way in, and a short wait for a cabin. The ride is about 20 minutes. The seats are not really enough for the ten people they put in each cabin, but that’s irrelevant as you don’t sit for long anyway: too much to watch out of the windows, great aerial views of the city and the funfair. It does stop regularly to let people on, so you find yourself hanging precariously over a fearful drop, but don’t let that bother you and concentrate on the photos that will impress your friends.
3. The Spanish Riding School – for various reasons I am not the world’s greatest lover of horses but this is very impressive. The actual performances are at the weekend, cost a lot and have to be booked in advance. But we turned up on the day for what they call Morning Exercises: 14 euros a time and you can stay for up to two hours, watching successive groups of horses being walked round and trained, to a soundtrack of agreeable Viennese music. Some people, apparently expecting a proper performance, find this disappointing but as long as you know what you are getting, relax and just get into the pace, it’s a genuine experience in a building which is incredibly gracious when you consider what is was built for.
4. The Hofburg Palace – right in the centre of the city and an obvious hub for sightseeing, but again I’d never been inside. A single ticket covers three parts: the Imperial Apartments (impressive but much the same as other palaces in various places); the Sisi Museum (see 5 below); and the Silver Collection, which is really quite remarkable. It consists of the Habsburgs’ collections of porcelain, gold, silver, linen and a remarkable range of kitchen equipment from years past. Utterly photogenic and, though not particularly ostentatious, evidence of extraordinary wealth and standing: on the journey round you discover after about an hour that this represents just a fraction of what the family has possessed over the centuries. Look, listen and marvel.
5. The Sisi Museum – commemorating the famous Empress Elisabeth, who lived a strange but very glamorous life in the 19th century: wife of the Emperor Franz Josef II, she married very young into the Royal Family, struggled with its formalities and restrictions and never really found her identity (sounds familiar?). The suicide of her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, surrounded by more than a whiff of scandal, drove another nail into her emotional coffin. She was assassinated, aged only 60, by a mad Italian anarchist. The museum is atmospheric and rapidly draws you into the oppression, restlessness and lack of fulfilment which contrasted strongly with the outward glamour.
6. The Habsburg tombs in the Kapuzinerkirche – including all the most famous names, up to the present day, with a single, simple chapel where rest Sisi, Franz Josef and Rudolf. Haunting, and even if the memorials are a bit over the top by normal standards, they are nothing compared with the preposterously ostentatious displays various popes got stuck up for themselves all over that unspiritual monument to power and wealth, St Peter’s in Rome.
7. The Mozarthaus – well, what can I say? What can anyone say, standing in the room where he wrote The Marriage of Figaro and multiple other masterpieces written during his three years there? In all honesty there isn’t much to see, as no original furniture survives and no one quite knows what it was like in His day – but … well … you know: it’s holy ground, deeply atmospheric and full of ghosts. By the way, it’s a pretty roomy and impressive place, apparently one of the top apartments in Vienna at the time. Don’t believe the nonsense about Mozart’s poverty, pauper’s burial, etc: he made money in armfuls, just happened to be rather good at spending it or losing it, usually at the gambling tables.
8. Demel Bakery – one of Sisi’s favourite indulgences: small(ish), wood panelled, formal in that informal Viennese way, and altogether rather trad. A visit on our first day led to daily expeditions – the array of impossibly exotic treats is too big to handle in one go. It’s the famous Viennese sweet tooth gone mad, with chocolate, icing and fruits plastered around in wild abandon. Everything comes mit Schlag (i.e. Schlagobers, a particularly Viennese mountain of whipped cream) – only if you want it, of course, but saying no is pretty well against the law and will certainly get you funny looks. The ice creams are pretty special too, and they and everything else are made on the premises. You can see them at work in the kitchens, but why waste good eating and drinking time?
9. The frightening efficiency – things just work, the city is staggeringly clean and they always appear to be one step ahead of you in anticipating your needs. At Wien Mitte, the terminus for the frequent trains to and from the airport, you can check in your bags for several airlines, say auf wiedersehen to them there and I would bet money that they will arrive at the same airport as you, at more or less the same time (what Heathrow will do with them is another matter, of course). If your airline doesn’t do the check-in at the station, you can leave your bags in secure lockers, self-operated and in proper working order (try finding that in Paris or London). The trams and U-Bahn (underground/metro/subway) run frequently, to the timetable and tickets for 24, 48 or 72 hours give you peace of mind about jumping on and off as often as you need to.
10. It’s the perfect place to take someone who hasn’t been before. I have never known anyone see it for the first time and not be absolutely delighted. So it’s rewarding to introduce someone to all the pleasures of the place. Yes, there are (quite big) skeletons in its cupboard, prices are not especially cheap and the laid back approach to service can border on the indifferent. But hey …