Our time in Europe is in its waning days. Holiday
season was approaching and we wanted to go somewhere to which we
hadnít been before. We put our heads together, looked at some maps,
threw some darts at the wall and, voila, up popped Vienna. Vienna at
Christmas turned out to be a very special time.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania calls itself the
Christmas City, probably because of the name, but one could make an
excellent case that the title belongs to Vienna. Lights are
everywhere, all very tastefully done, and the whole atmosphere is
quite festive. Vienna is filled with horses and buggies, called
Fiakers, and because it was so cold, about 15įF, many of the horses
had ear-warmers on. In many cases, the ear-warmers were Santa hats.
A horse in a Santa hat is a
to see. There are several very wide and very long pedestrian
filled with people and musicians, many of whom were really good.
Inasmuch as this is the city of Mozart, Franz Schubert, Johann
Strauss, and the Viennese Waltz, this was no surprise.
Vienna is in the most eastern part of Austria
very close to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. It is
called the easternmost western city in the world. Itís pretty big
and spread out but the central area of the Old City is very compact
and walkable, and thatís where most of what a tourist wants to see
is located. The Ring Road marks the Old City. Along the ring are
some significant buildings. The Rathaus, city hall, is an imposing
structure. While we were there, a Christmas market was open in the
area in front of the Rathaus. Vienna has several Christmas
markets and this is the
The market has hundreds of booths selling crafts, food, and this
terrific concoction called
GlŁhwein that can really warm your innards. A little way down
the street is the Kunsthistorisches Museum (an art museum) and the
Museum of Natural History. The Vienna Opera House is a few blocks
farther on. Apparently when the building was new, it was roundly
criticized and the
architect took it so personally that he committed suicide. It
was severely damaged in World War II and has since been rebuilt.
While walking in this area, we discovered that Vienna may not be as
home as we thought!
Inside the ring, are lots of other beautiful
Stephansdom, St. Stephens Cathedral, is on the main square near
the center of the Old City. The cathedral made it through almost the
whole war but right near the end, street fighting between Nazis and
Russian troops created fires that reached the roof and the church
bell crashed to the ground. Hereís a great picture of what the
roof looks like today.
A short walk from Stephansplatz is the
Palace. This place is massive, so massive thatís hard to get a
handle on where you are while inside. It was built over several
centuries and meanders in many directions. Symmetry is not a concept
here. The palace is the home of the Vienna Boysí Choir and the
Office of the Austrian Federal President. The Hapsburgs were the
ruling family of the Austrian Empire for 640 years until World War I
and earlier were part of the Holy Roman Empire. The extended family,
some cousins, and another emperorís kid brother, had kingdoms and
dukedoms as far away as Mexico. The world was like a big board game.
We walked though the
Imperial Apartments and saw the residence quarters of Emperor
Franz Josef, the last emperor, and his wife Elisabeth, known as Sisi.
These are pretty grand rooms and it was kind of odd to hear how the
emperor lived a Spartan life, relatively speaking. His bed was a
plain metal frame thing pushed up against the wall. He was devoted
to his duty and appeared not to care too much for ceremony. Although
not interested in democracy (he never visited the parliament
building), his subjects were able to have weekly audiences with him;
once a week about a hundred people would tell him, in a minute or
two, what was on their minds. Sisi was another story. She was a kid
when they married and never really fit in. She would leave her
empressly duties from time to time because she couldnít stand it any
more and go off to remote places. Franz Josef loved her dearly and
even though they became estranged, she continued to occupy the space
next to his in the palace whenever she made it back to town. She was
assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898. Her story
was eerily similar to Princess Dianaís.
Many countries have their own types of cuisines,
but Vienna is supposed to be the only city that does. Except maybe
for Philadelphia cheese steaks. On Christmas Eve, we went to a very
small place that had room for about 35 people. It seemed that almost
everyone in there was American and one of the women at the table
next to us was from the Philadelphia Ďburbs. On Christmas night we
had dinner in a larger place and had what we heard is a very
unViennese experience. Although people around us usually speak some
other language, we are aware that they almost always understand
English so we never say anything catty like, "Jeez, can you believe
how sloppily he eats?" We just have our ordinary conversation. We
were almost finished with dinner when Lynn saw one of the desserts
at the next table. Lynn is very soft-spoken. She said to me, "That
looks really good. I wonder what itís called." One of the men at the
next table, part of two couples who were all having a grand old
time, continued his conversation with his party but picked up a
clean dish, scooped some of the dessert onto the dish, and handed it
to Lynn. "Here. Try!" It made our evening!
I donít ordinarily do commercials in these pieces
but Iím going to make an exception here. We like to stay in
relatively simple hotels or B&Bs. They are not five star places but
all are very clean, comfortable, and well-located. The Hotel
Schweizerhof was all this and more. We left the hotel on the morning
of December 24 and returned at about 5 p.m. to get ready for dinner.
As expected, the room had been cleaned. What was not expected were
some small gifts on each pillow, a little bottle of champagne, a
plate of cookies, and a two foot high Christmas tree on the
Itís a family owned
hotel and it showed. If you ever get yourself to Vienna, you
could do a whole lot worse than staying here.
See all my pictures of Vienna.
See a video from Vienna.