Western Europe at Christmas is a special place to be, the incredibly popular markets, the darkness closing in and the lights that sparkle in the gloom. It’s now my 4th year in a cool climate for Christmas (only 3 consecutive) and I knew I needed to shake it up a little and did not want to spend it in London, so off we went to Vienna, the beautiful Baroque Imperial capital of Austria. There were several Christkindmarhts, the biggest was in Rathausplatz, the impressive spire of the Rathaus (Town Hall) giving the market a nostalgic feel.
Vienna is a elegantly beautiful city, the older parts still have cobbled streets and beautifully kept buildings, but with almost an aggressive nod to antiquity, a statue of Athena is prominent out the front of Parliament, classical looking statues are lined up on the top of buildings and Caryatids adorn the entry ways to some buildings. This was to emphasis the democratic nature of Austria after the dissolution of the monarchy. London is definitely a city that grows, ugly things next to beauty, antiquity squashed in with shiny, graceful architecture and grey concrete. According to the audio tour on the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus, ( if it rains the whole day and is -1C, the best way to see a city is on a cosy bus!) the Viennese are quite nostalgic and a lot of the Old City reflects this, horse and carriages are everywhere and the hawkers for the opera are dressed in 18thC costumes. Cobbled streets and a feeling that you could bump into Mozart, running down the streets near the Stephenplatz.
Of the many museums and galleries, we went to one that boasted a fine collection of Arms & Armoury, antique musical instruments and stuff pillaged from Ephesus. It was housed in a beautiful building, all marble & chandeliers and grand staircases. The building was part of the Imperial Palace, an enormous place that now has several museums and some Royal apartments that you can visit.
Our second morning, we woke up to a light snow shower that soon changed to a freezing drizzle, drizzle that continued all day. A good day for a little bus sight-seeing. Apart from waiting for over 1/2 hour, cold and a bit wet, for the bus to turn up, it was a good idea. The bus was warm, the audio commentary informative and it gave a good view of the city. We drove past several residential streets that featured new and old buildings, courtesy of heavy bombing in WW2. We drove past Schonnbrun Palace, where Franz Josef I lived with his wife Sisi – who is somewhat of a bohemian figure these days. An Empress who went around with bare feet and frustrated the ritual bound servants, she looked on with much affection these days, although it seems that she didn’t really show much affection for Vienna or Austria at all. We hopped off the bus at Belevedere Palace, and after searching first for a ticket office and then some shelter & a ‘cup of warm’ we found our way inside the building via the bistro. This also happens to be the way to get in without paying for a ticket (wink!)
The Belvedere was once a grand Baroque palace, lavishly decorated with beautiful manicured gardens. The entrance has these impressive columns of Hercules and statues of some of the previous occupants, such as Empress Marie Therese (mother of Marie Antoinette). These days it holds a fabulous art collection, including Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’. After seeing the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain earlier in the year, I could see where Klimt had some inspiration, with his own flair. Stunning and with a different style and flair than the British PreRaphaelite crowd. Quite a few rooms still retained their elegance & glamour from the Imperial days, with painted ceilings, gilt and chandeliers.
Once we’d done a tour of the collection, we went outside to the Christmas market for a bite to eat, sheltering under a small awning around the food stall. It would have been lovely to walk around the garden, even in the depths of winter, but it was just too wet & miserable. Back on the bus, we got off at the Opera House and found the famed Figlmuller, where we had a an early dinner, composed almost entirely of a schnitzel larger than the plate and completely delicious.
Christmas Eve in Vienna was fabulously foggy and atmospheric. The Stephansdom, the beautiful cathedral in the heart of the Innerplatz, was full of tourists, who were barred from gawking at most of the cathedral due to a service that was about to start. Sadly, this meant we didn’t get a look at the Crypt or the altar, which I’m sure would have been stunning.
Jacinta’s friend, whom we had met up with outside the Dom, took us to a traditional Viennese coffee house, where we all had a piece of chocolate cake and a warm drink. We found the Mozart House, which was a bit disappointing. A wordy audio tour did nothing to enhance the experience of standing in largely empty rooms starring blankly at the ceiling. There were a few pictures and artefacts, but nothing very remarkable. The best was a light & shadow style theatre of the Magic Flute in one room. In the actual quarters where Wolfgang and Costance lived, there was a half-hearted attempt at period style decoration, but it was almost like they were trying hard not to make any assumptions – which was weird when they had a small excerpt from the movie Amadeus playing on a small screen! So, in the gathering gloom, we spent a few hours in the market outside the Rathaus, marvelling at the pretties and eating chocolate covered strawberries & banana. Incidentally, strawberries in German are ‘earth berries’.
And for Christmas Day, we had long chats with family, presents, a walk in a eerie park and a lovely feast – with lots of left over food.