Day 6: “City of music” would not be an exaggeration.

Looks like the weather intends to carry on being obliging here in Austria; it continues to be sunny and cool, which is fortunate as Europe continues to not go in that hard on air conditioning.

We opened today with a nice little breakfast in Hotel Kugel’s cute little dining area:

…and then set about working out the public transit. The hotel was kind enough to help arrange transit passes for us – and here we learned that rather than rely on TTC-style turnstiles or tap-on Presto-style cards, Vienna has elected to make all of its transit run on basically the honour system: you hop on to a vehicle or walk into a station, validate your ticket, and at any time a transit official may hop onto the train, ask to see said ticket, and you had better hope you’ve got it, lest you face a stiff fine of many Euros. A single validation was enough for our 72-hour passes, happily, so after that it was just a matter of finding the right vehicle.

Many of the transit stops have convenient little digital signboards near them showing the lines that serve that stop, when to expect the next vehicle on that line, and what direction it’s going in. (Some of them are also very near to parts of what seems to be an excellent cycling infrastructure, including bike sharing and little stations with air pumps and the like. Kara would love it.)

The fellow in the middle is one of a series of ads we saw around town featuring men proudly displaying various unfortunate sausages (tiny, horribly burnt, etc) with the slogan “Each sausage is perfect!…with the right beer.”

Anyway! Since we didn’t get to do our orientation last night, we did our best to make up for it by hopping on the “big red bus” sightseeing tour for a drive around the city with narration from the tour company. This was surprisingly pricey, considering; we’re fairly poor in Vienna, much as we were in Scotland. (As of today the exchange rate is something like half again the posted prices.)

The tour runs more or less around the Ringstrasse (with a diversion for the construction that prevented our tram-ride plan from happening) and then out to some areas we didn’t anticipate spending time during our stay, like the Prater amusement park.

Here are some notes I made along with a random selection of photos from the bus (please forgive odd angles and such):

  • Vienna’s famous cafe culture apparently came to the city via an enterprising sort of guy who was undercover as a Turk during the long-ago conflict between them and the Austrians. When they booted the Turks out the retreating army left all this coffee nobody wanted behind, and since he’d picked up the ins and outs of it he gladly took it…then opened a shop where the Viennese learned to drink it. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • A startling number of famous political folk lived here at the same time – including, at one point, Trotsky, Lenin, AND Hitler. I find myself wondering what might have happened if they’d all run into each other in a cafe somewhere. Awkward looks? Fisticuffs? Long philosophical arguments that went on until the police were called?
  • Like Prague, Vienna had a Jewish quarter up until World War II. This part of Vienna was known as the Matzoh Island, though if the bus commentary hadn’t called it out I have no idea whether you’d know when you entered it. Today it looks much like the rest of the city; drugstores and little shops, the same regulation white buildings.

  • Much of the city is of course a post WWII reconstruction, as the city was bombed out pretty hard during the fighting. Some relics of the war are still around, though, like the huge concrete flak towers built by the Nazis. One of them has now been converted into an aquarium, the Haus des Meeres. A happier use for it, certainly.
  • The sailor suits worn by the Vienna Boys’ Choir are meant to be an equalizer, so that the boys’ social class, etc., isn’t what’s on display. They still perform on Sunday mornings, at the Hofburg palace chapel.
  • The area around the Prater is a popular entertainment district, and has been for ages: long ago, this was where you went to go do the Vegas thing before there was a Vegas. These days, it seems to be more of a family spot; the famous Ferris wheel’s still running, and on a sunny day like this one it was crowded with people buying ice cream, milling about and generally enjoying the weather. (The Prater is also home to this amusing ATM.)

Vienna was, for a very very VERY long time, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the marks of that are everywhere. If Prague is a city that in some ways seems to be struggling to define itself moving forward, Vienna is absolutely and completely aware of exactly what it is. The empire may be gone, and it may have been some time since the days of Mozart and Strauss, but the city does not feel faded – it has a kind of confident assurance of its character. One gets the sense that it is what it has always been, in its own mind – the seat of a particular flavour of “high” culture.

So it is that we remember that the emperor Franz Josef loved tafelspitz (boiled beef, which doesn’t sound all THAT appetizing but I guess you never know) and that the area around the Praterstern used to be a private hunting ground. It’s a train station now, bustling with commuters; I wonder how many of them think, as they head to the platform, of deer.

So it also is that we know that the Empress Elisabeth (or “Sisi,” as she is known everywhere) had a tattoo on her shoulder, of an anchor, usually covered by her dresses. Sisi seems to have been the Princess Diana of the Austro-Hungarian empire; her name is all over Vienna’s tourist zones, and romantic-looking portraits of her make a backdrop to ads on the subway. “Where Sisi would have shopped,” one says, in coy English.

We also heard that once upon a time Vienna had a film scene as robust as Toronto’s…until WWII. (Quite a lot of “…until WWII”. I suspect I’ll be seeing that a lot over the next few days.) At around that point a lot of the film scene here fled to…less-scary climes, like Hollywood’s. (Perhaps Max Steiner, composer for Gone with the Wind, was one of them; he was apparently born here.)

The Third Man was, of course, filmed here. I’ve never seen it, but apparently the fellow who played that famous soundtrack (Anton Karas?) became super famous as a result and absolutely hated it. I guess I would get pretty sick of being asked to play the same thing a billion times over, too.

But my earphones are already telling me about another kind of music: waltzes. We hear about how much the church hates the waltz when the dance became popular. All those ankles, tempting the heart of man to sin. Shameful!

Still, without the waltz would we have had Strauss as we know him? He composed his first when he was six, says the polite recorded lady-voice. Oh, and by the way, the Danube is almost never blue these days, she adds, though it lends its name to the tallest building in Austria, the Donau tower.

As I stare out at the river (sort of a greenish gray, today) she goes on to add that Vienna is very proud of its water. It flows down from the Alps – powerful enough to generate electricity – and is pure enough to need no filtration when at last it arrives. (I had noticed that the tap water seemed unusually tasty last night but assumed I was just thirsty. Can that really be it?)

As we return to our starting point we can make out the spires of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (the Stefansdom), and learn that apparently the biggest of the bells there is only rarely rung today. So powerful is the sound of it that its ring can actually affect the cathedral’s structure. (Oops. Perhaps sound engineering wasn’t advanced enough to have thought of that when the bell was made?)

As we hopped off the bus we headed once again for the Opera; it makes both a handy reference point and was the starting point for our next bit of exploring, this time on foot.  Just behind the Opera is the aptly-named Albertinaplatz, presumably so called for reasons that have to do with the Albertina museum’s rather dramatic presence at once side of the square.  It and Hotel Sacher make somewhat incongruous flanking elements for the “Monument against war and fascism.”

It’s an amusing coincidence (…or perhaps an amusing act of great deliberation) that many of the city’s bingo-card sights for first timers like us are concentrated in a particular zone of downtown that also happens to house some very high-end shopping. We passed, for example, a shop selling glass and crystal that I didn’t dare breathe in the direction of, much less enter, as the price of a single plate in one of the windows worked out to about, oh, 1/4 of my monthly income or so. (Worthy window-shopping opportunities though, even if some of those windows are of the “behold the majestic glory of this single handbag” variety.)

Some lovely flower stalls as well.

There’s an unassuming little church on one of the not-very-square squares in Vienna.  It’s a Capuchin church, one that like the convent in Prague is still run by folk of a religious order.  And like that convent, it houses a sight that may be of interest to the passer-by: the “Kaisergruft,” or the imperial burial vault.  Curious at what manner of intersection of the Gothic and the Baroque we might meet down there, we went in for a look.

Not all of the imperial bloodline are interred here.  And, indeed, not all of the people who ARE interred here is interred here; apparently some of their organs are likely to be in urns and such elsewhere in the city.  But their bones are here, and the resting places of said bones range from the modest…

…to the impressive…

…to the “Holy crap, is all that really….well, I guess you’re doing you, so go for it”:

That last one perhaps has an excuse for its drama: the bones in it belong to the legendary Empress Maria Theresa.  In Austria, Empress Elisabeth is to Princess Diana as Maria Theresa is to Queen Victoria, and it seems that just about everywhere in the city there are traces of her passing.  She’s one of the rare, lucky royals who seems to have had a love match; those sixteen (!!) children had to have come about somehow.  The caskets (is that the right word?) for her and her husband here in the crypt enhance the impression; the two of them look almost as though they were only just waking up in bed together on a lazy Sunday morning. 

It’s oddly sweet, especially after a relatively steady diet of Goth-ier elements in the various burial sites we’ve visited in Prague and elsewhere.

Sisi and her husband Franz Josef are here as well, and it seems that Sisi’s got a lot of fans, including this person who apparently felt themselves to be a kindred spirit:

Emerging once again into the afternoon, we paused for lunch at Konditorei Oberlaa, where we had our first encounter with the Viennese fondness for outdoor dining when the weather is fine (it’s almost as much of a Thing as patio culture is in Toronto.)  I’m not normally much of an eating outdoors sort of person, but it would have been lovely here had it not been for an unfortunate convergence of smokers and breezes.

I did absolutely have one of the best bits of cheesecake I have ever put in my mouth, though – and they had this rather charming chocolate Klimt:

(Now seems like a good time to mention that it’s apparently the anniversary of Klimt’s death this year, though it took us a good while to sort this out. There were a LOT of Klimt-themed elements in town, though.)

Anyway, with lunch concluded and a brief interlude to convert some dollars into Euros, we made our way past a fountain that apparently scandalized Maria Theresa once upon a time (because bare breasts, you know), and took a brief peek at the actual St. Stephen’s.  It feels a little crowded into its square somehow, though perhaps that was just a byproduct of the general festiveness of the square itself, full of street food and hawkers and at least one of those tiny little carnival rides that manage to look dangerous and whimsical at the same time.

Much of the cathedral is a reconstruction: as with so much else in the city, it was seriously, seriously bombed-out in World War II, though there are still some rather nice views to be had inside.

Back on the street again, we found ourselves ambling up another pleasant, broad avenue – past an early prototype of the now-ubiquitous pay toilets and up to a pretty extravagant example of the plague column:

Yeah.  That’s baroque AF.  Supposedly it was a model for other constructions of its type, with then-emperor Leopold begging Lady Faith (or anyone who would listen, one suspects) to save the city from the terrible disease.  When the plague eventually burnt itself out, grateful cities took to building monuments like this one.

Not far from here is another little church, this one called St. Peter’s – and though honestly I think one could be forgiven for having all these religious establishments blur together by now this one had a nice little surprise for us in the form of a free afternoon organ concert.  We settled in on the pews for a few moments to listen, and I snapped a photo or two:

I’m pretty sure that gent is St. John of Nepomuk, who we heard a lot about in Prague.

As if to prove that music is what Vienna is really all about, as we were leaving we heard music of a very different kind.  Investigation of the lively march revealed it was being played by these guys:

Who were they?  Why were they marching down the Graben on a sunny afternoon?  I honestly have no idea, but it was the second musical moment we blundered into today.

All of this was buildup to a more significant musical moment, though: an attempt to get in to see a show at the Opera house itself.  These can be outrageously expensive – something on the order of 150 Euros for tickets – but here’s a little something I didn’t know before doing my research for this trip: On the day of a performance, standing room tickets may be had for just 3-4 Euros.   On the downside, yes, you have to stand, and there’s a fair bit of waiting about beforehand – but on the upside, you get to see a performance from one of the legendary opera houses of the world for a mere six to eight Canadian dollars.  After reading up on what one needs to do to make this happen, we set out to give it a try for today’s show: L’elisir d’amore.

Tip number one: Show up early enough to secure a decent spot in line.  Around 4 we wandered by the Opera to see whether the line had started.  To my mild surprise, it had, with a couple who were clearly old hands: both perhaps in their seventies, they were well-supplied with folding chairs, food and reading material. (Seriously, bring a book or a handheld console or something; you’ll be there a while if you try this.)  Reasoning that this meant we’d better get on this, we resolved to have a late dinner after the show ended and settled in just behind them.  Third and fourth in line: not bad!

Not long after we staked our claim, the line began lengthening and we were treated to the interesting assortment of folks who go for this kind of thing.  A little crew of girls who reminded me quite a lot of the LA contingent from our food tour in Prague.  A fellow of Asian extraction with extravagant dreads.  An earnest, serious-looking kid with ginger hair, glasses and a German-language copy of (if I was translating correctly) Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.  A second Asian kid who had either the cultural ignorance or the extraordinary balls to cut in front of me in line (though after getting over my astonishment I opted not to raise a scene.  Fourth and fifth in line were equally good places.)

After a time, the outermost door opens, and the standing-room folk move in to take their place in the winding indoor queue…and then, more waiting.  Several times we watched an usher with the unenviable job of turning folk away for improper dress do so when someone turned up with torn jeans.  (Apparently, jeans in good repair are just fine in standing room, but ripped jeans and shorts that fall too far above the knee are less so.  My advice: dress up at least slightly if you can.  Dark jeans and a decent top/shoes will probably do just fine.)

At some point during all this waiting, we fell into conversation with the old pros in front of us.  They were a Dutch couple, and only the man spoke much English, but apparently they’ve been doing this for going on twenty years now, every time they’re in Vienna.  Like us, they’d opted for this show largely because they weren’t in much of a mood to watch people die horribly and have tragic things occur to them in song for several hours, though they did mention that apparently in act two there’s an aria that’s known for being especially fine.  (Future me: I think this is the one.)

They seemed quite pleased to pass on their accumulated wisdom, though, and were definitely big opera fans.  It was a slightly disjointed conversation thanks to the language barriers, but they were lovely; I wonder a little if they saw some of themselves in us.

Eventually the little ticket booth opens, and we could finally buy our actual tickets (this is about two hours before showtime, so around 5:30 pm or thereabouts.)  Tip #2: Have exact change for your ticket.  I’d heard that they can actually be real sticklers about this, but we’d carefully hoarded four 2-Euro coins, so this bit wasn’t a big deal.

Once you have your ticket in hand, you’re not quite done queueing yet.  Hurry to one of the doors for the kind of ticket you’ve bought.  This will be either “Gallery,” in which case you need to hurry upstairs, or “Parterre,” as in our case, which meant we had to hurry up slightly fewer stairs and, at the advice of our Dutch mentors, duck left instead of right.  After waiting here for a bit longer, the final rank of doors will open, and you can at long last claim your standing-room space.

Tip #3: Have something on hand to actually mark your space with.  Classically this will be a scarf; I brought the very lightest one I own to mark my own place.  (The Dutch couple had a clever little magnetic contraption that marked both their places out.  Like I said: old hands at this.)

That thing my scarf is tied around is a little screen that will show you the opera’s subtitles in English or German – but that’s still a while off.  Once your space is marked with whatever you’ve brought with you, you’re free to explore the Opera House itself.  It’s not as big as you’d think, not inside, though it’s every bit as grand as you might be imagining:

Also as you might be imagining, it’s stuffed to the brim with artwork depicting various muses, composers, and so on.  Naturally there was at least one we had to make a point of seeking out:

And then, after a bit more Baroque-flavored exploring, it was showtime.

I know the folks reading this may have some Opinions about opera, maybe not favorable.  Myself, I’ve always rather enjoyed it; here’s a world that’s so over the top that not only are people constantly bursting into song to express themselves and their feelings, they are doing it often for reasons that are totally crazy – plus, if you’re lucky, the music is rather beautiful.

I didn’t have any prior experience with this particular show, but it’s rather charming.  In a nutshell: We open somewhere in rural Italy, where a crew of harvesters sing about the merciless heat of the sun – and the even more merciless heat of love.  As they say: Happy is the harvester that can protect himself from it!

Then again, if one really could, shows like this wouldn’t be much fun.

Our Hero’s a simple country boy, and he’s got it bad, BIG time, for the lovely and intelligent girl who lives stage left.  She, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to be all that into him – while not actively hostile or anything, she just…doesn’t seem to feel the urge to be tied down.  Cue the arrival of a rather ridiculously pompous soldier who’s mighty full of himself and is very into our heroine – and then, to touch off the whole romantic powder-keg, a con man so gleeful in his charlatanry it is a goddamn miracle the townsfolk are even slightly inclined to trust him.

Inspired by a recent reading of Tristan and Isolde (no, seriously), Our Hero begs the con artist, a Dr. Dulcamara, for a love potion.  Of course, there is one – for a steep fee; nobody has to know it’s just a good strong Bordeaux, right?  Drunkenness and various forms of hilarity ensue; by the time all’s said and done our heroine has realized she wasn’t nearly as indifferent as she thought, our hero has discovered some self-confidence (and come into an unexpected inheritance for good measure), and one way or another it all works out.

At one point during the second act, the Dutch lady suddenly got very excited, tapping me on the arm.  “Schon!  Sehr schon!” she murmured rapturously, and I realized this must be The Big One.

And…uh…yeah.  Yeah, it was.  I don’t know my modern opera singers, but this guy was amazing here; at least twice I realized suddenly that I’d gotten so involved in watching him I was forgetting to glance down for the libretto.  The spontaneous applause that broke out afterward was well-deserved.

I’ve seen Pavarotti doing Rigoletto on video before, with a little sidelong glance at the audience just before launching into “La donna e mobile” that says “Yeah, here it comes, you know you want it.”  (Appropriate, I guess, for an aria that is both one of the super stonking famous ones and also translates loosely into modern parlance as “Bitches be fickle, yo.”)  No swagger here, though; just a completely in-character if somewhat painful earnestness.

Once the third or fourth curtain call had wound down and the glitzily-dressed patrons were making for the exits (followed closely by the plebes like us), we wished the Dutch couple bon voyage and set forth in search of what was by then becoming a ridiculously late dinner.

Happily, there’s something of a tradition regarding this as well.  Remember the Albertinaplatz I mentioned earlier?  Well, on it is one of many, many little streetside establishments offering beer and various permutations of sausagey goodness – and one of the other things I read about while working out how to do this whole standing-room thing is that apparently it is the done thing to hit up a spot like this just after the show’s ended.  Mark was definitely into the idea:

Curry wurst for me, and for Mark a “Riesen hot dog” – an appropriately-sized baguette impaled on what seems to be a specially made implement to punch a just-right hole in the bread without actually splitting the crust except for a cut-off end.  Condiments go either into the hole or are loosely applied to the top, with the grilled sausage eventually punched in after them to make a mostly-mess-free takeout option.  (I keep wanting to call it “reise wurst” for “travel sausage.”)

Not fancy eats, but we certainly weren’t the only ones with that notion in mind:

And I was definitely happy to collapse onto a convenient curb and dig in before heading home for the night, humming to myself.  A crazy long day, but it’s hard to feel much regret about that when there was so much music in it.