To finish off 2017, all I wanted to do was to visit a Christmas market in Europe… namely, Vienna. The ones at the St. Regis in Dubai really didn’t cut it. To have some snow would have been the greatest Christmas gift, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. Matt wasn’t even supposed to go to Vienna. He was scheduled to head to Oslo on the 22nd, but some other kind pilot swapped out his Vienna for Oslo. As much as I love Oslo, the plane usually returns to Dubai heavily laden with salmon. The chance of getting kicked off for seafood, on Christmas Eve, was just too high for my liking.
We arrived at Vienna rather late, which was a bit of a shame – it meant we weren’t able to visit the Christmas markets at night. Life goes on, and after sampling the (rather odd) range of leftover foods in the Executive Lounge, we went to bed. In the morning, we bundled up to walk into the city. Our first stop was the Belvedere Gardens.
It’s been such a long time since I wandered through a fancy garden in the cold. I forgot that the gardens are less than impressive in the winter…. the fountains were empty, and the trees all dead. Well, it was pretty in its own kind of bleak way. The area was very French looking, which wasn’t surprising, given it was built in the baroque style. Anyway, that’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site ticked off the list. I was more interested in finding the Soviet Memorial. Completely out of place with its surroundings, it is a mammoth monument to Soviet power. Vienna was liberated by the Soviets in 1945. At the end of World War II, just like in Berlin, Vienna was divided into four zones occupied by soldiers of the American, British, French and Russian armies. In the Russian zone, Stalin ordered the construction of the “Heroes’ Monument of the Red Army” after the Russians took over the city on April 14, 1945. While the Austrians were rather complicit in helping the Russians search for a perfect spot for their memorial, there was a bit of backhanded diplomacy built into its placement. It is located very close to the Hochstrahlbrunnen, a large fountain that was, conveniently, turned off whilst the memorial was being built. Once it was unveiled and the fountain switched on, the large stream of water very neatly covered up the Red Army soldier on the memorial when viewed from the correct angle. The monument is affectionately known as the Pea Monument, in homage to Stalin’s donation of 1000 tonnes of peas sent to the starving population of the city. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a very good photo of it.
We then wandered into the city centre past the Hotel Imperial, where Hilter famously stood on the balcony during his 1938 visit (which is, interestingly, now owned by Al Habtoor Group). We made it to Stephansplatz, which was looking very festive for the holidays. Unfortunately, the roving gangs of Mozart’s selling tickets had traded in their outfits for winter coats, but were still a total pain. We wandered around the square, admiring the trees for sale (which were incredibly expensive!) and the various little stalls at the Christmas markets. Wandering around the corner, we found the Judenplatz, and the Holocaust Memorial. It is a very stark memorial, and was an interesting juxtaposition to the events making the news in Austria. There were hints of social unrest in the city, and we came across some interesting bread loaf installation with swastikas in them later that day.
We wanted to keep looking around the city, so walked towards the Hofburg and the Spanish Riding School. All the horses must have been tucked up for winter – last time I visited, you could peek into the stables. This wasn’t the case this time, but I still saw lots of horses pulling carriages around the city. They looked more cheerful than the ones we saw in Jordan. We came across more Christmas markets, but they were a bit disappointing. Tacky crap is tacky crap the world over. I remember the Christmas markets I visited in Germany had lots of lovely handmade items, but these mainly consisted of alcoholic punch and decorations.
It was starting to cool down as we walked through the Maria-Theresien-Platz, but the little market in front of the Natural History Museum was a bit nicer. The best markets by far, though, were those located next to the Rathaus. They were Christmassy, busy, and there was lots of variety. The atmosphere was lovely. I still didn’t buy anything… I’m not much of a shopper.. but I was glad we stopped by. There was even a crappy little fun fair next door. Most exciting!
By this time, we were getting a bit hungry, so I suggested visiting the most touristy place in town – the Hotel Sacher. The Sacher has been run by the Gürtler & Winkler family since 1934, and is one of the very few privately owned five-star luxury hotels left in the world run by a family. Most people visit for one reason only – cake. It is the home of the Sachertorte, a delicious chocolate and apricot cake. Yes, its overpriced, but its a must-do when visiting the city. For 15 euros, you can get a mineral water, coffee/tea/hot chocolate, and a slice of tasty cake. Mine was actually a tiny bit dry, but it’s still a magical experience. Don’t be put off by the line out the door. We were seated in about three minutes. It was worth it just to see the fantastic gingerbread model of the Hotel Sacher in lobby. Impressive!
Following our cake pig-out, we took a quick detour to the Burggarten, where Matt kindly pointed out all the dead butterflies deposited in the windows of the Schmetterlinghaus. Delightful. We opted not to go inside, and instead visited the Mozart statue.. looking less exciting without its flower treble clef out the front. By this time, we were slowly starting to freeze, so took our time wandering back to the hotel. Our hotel, incidentally, was located in the former site of the Imperial Riding School. The courtyard had a neat old equestrian statue that had been requested from the roof of the hotel, and a horsey motif featured throughout. It was actually quite a nice hotel – and good value when you look at the cost of staying in the city. If you are visiting Vienna and don’t mind a 20 minute walk to the city (or a few quick hops on the U-Bahn), I’d recommend taking a look!
Stay: Imperial Riding School Renaissance Vienna Hotel, Ungargasse 60, Wien 1030. From 300AED per night.
Eat: Hotel Sacher, Philharmoniker Str. 4, 1010 Wien. From 7.50 euros.
Tips: If you are interested in Viennese history, there is a fascinating book called ‘A Nervous Splendour‘. I would write my own description, but this one sums it up nicely. “A Nervous Splendor is a study of a single year – 1888-1889 – in the fairy tale city of Vienna. During this year Johann Strauss Jr. wrote his Emperor Waltz; Sigmund Freud, having quit his lucrative job as assistant physician to a Nerve Specialist for the Very Rich, used the term “subconscious” for the first time in print; there was a renaissance of Viennese music, art, literature, and architecture; and Vienna became the Suicide Capital of the world. It was the year Crown Prince Rudolph, handsome and popular heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, shot his 17 year-old mistress Mary Vetsera and then himself at his hunting lodge Mayerling. It was also the year Clara Hitler gave birth to Adolph. For many Austrians, it was the year the Western Dream died.”