5 Days in Prague and Vienna – Part II
In contrast to Part One, I’m writing on a sunny train coach, watching the rich, green trees and tiny houses whizz past. Coincidentally, we decided to take the train between Prague and Vienna. This was a good decision, as the train was basically like a jet plane on wheels, but with way better legroom. The journey was also only 4 hours, and we arrived in Vienna mid-afternoon – Plenty of time to take in a few sights!
Vienna -To See
Luckily for us, one of Vienna’s most beautiful palaces (yes, Vienna has several palaces) was just a stone’s throw away from the train station, and the Air BnB we’d booked. The Belvedere Palace consists of vast, well-groomed grounds, two main buildings and an additional Orangery and Stables. The grounds are completely open to the public, and there were several locals enjoying a jog. Inside the main palace, there are wings displaying art from different eras, one of which is full of weird Medieval art. Is it just me, or was everything really fucked-up in the Middle-Ages? All the snails with spears, cats with human faces and babies that just look like shrunken adults. If you’re looking for more fine art than hilarity, the palace also houses a number of beautiful Impressionist works, including a large collection of Gustav Klimt paintings.
More contemporary works are housed nearby the Belevedere, through a short walk in a wooded park with little ponds and lakes, in the 21er Haus. The 21er Haus building itself is bold and striking, with clean geometric lines and heavy use of tall ceilings and concrete. The art itself though… I think the word to describe it would be “self-indulgent”. There were maybe one or two pieces that looked like they required some effort and artistic skill, and had some genuine thought behind them, and the rest was that generic, trite, vaguely Freudian rubbish that seems to make up the bulk of contemporary art. The gift shop was pretty sweet though.
I will fall short of trashing all Modern Art, mostly because of the exhibits in mumok in the MuseumsQuartier. Firstly, an aside – The MuseumsQuartier is a huge complex of classic and modern architecture, and houses several museums, galleries, cafes and shops. Mumok is a blocky fortress with skinny windows, reminiscent of arrow slits in old castles, and it houses collections of modern art. Mumok’s art was a lot more varied and thought provoking than the specimens at 21er Haus. At the time of our visit, there were two floors on the Feminist Movement of the 1970s, and this was with bold photography, sculpture and video installations. Although the art was conveying strong messages regarding women’s rights, stereotypes and place in society, a lot of the art was also fun and engaging. Kind of like a Peaches music video (if you’ve never seen one, I recommend Rub. Be warned, this is pretty NSFW).
Vienna -To Do
The most magnificent palace in Vienna, Schönbrunn Palace, is a whole day’s activity in itself. There is the main palace with hundreds of rooms, the children’s palace, stables, acres of grounds and even a zoo and apple strudel kitchen. Top tip – If you have the Vienna Pass, you can bypass the huge queues at the gates to get tickets to tour the palace. Instead, just to the left of the palace, before the entrance to the Orangery, there is a little tin shack. Nip over there and get a ticket and a time to go on the self-guided palace tour. I would do this first, then take a leisurely stroll round the grounds and up to the Gloriette on the hill for impressive views over the city. There are also several incredibly ornate fountains and even a mocked-up Roman ruin to find hidden among the richly wooded gardens.
Then, if you’re like us, bolt down the hill to make it back in time for the tour and prepare to be absolutely overwhelmed by Baroque lushness and decadence. All the rooms were ornate to the point of nauseating, and there was more gold leaf than sense. The self-guided tour was interesting and well narrated, and full of little gossipy tid-bits that made each room seem a little more alive. The palace gardens also contain a full zoo, The Tiergarten Schönbrunn, with well-kept enclosures and well-preserved 18th century structures. Of these, the rainforest building was really special. This was basically a huge, humid enclosure that you can enter and come face-to-face with tropical birds, fish and huge flying foxes. As well as the usual little snack-bars and cafes, the appearance of a rowdy beer garden was a very nice Austrian touch.
Another opportunity to get up close and personal with wildlife is the Schmetterlinghaus (butterfly house), housed in a beautiful Art Noveau styled tropical greenhouse. There were hundreds of shmetterlings (isn’t that such a better word than butterfly?) lazily fluttering in the damp heat, and some were kind enough to sit still long enough for a photograph.
“The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt “~ Karl Kraus
Vienna does seem fond of huge complexes of historically significant buildings. The Hofburg Palace (yes, another palace!), Neue Burg, Weltmuseum and Imperial Treasury all crowd around a large public square, the Heldenplatz. Annoyingly, all of these are worthy of a visit, but we only managed to fit in the Imperial Treasury and Neue Burg. The Imperial Treasury is a must do, and is absolutely astounding. The treasury is split into a Secular collection and an Ecclesiastical collection. The secular collection consists of important artefacts demonstrating the wealth and power of the Holy Roman Empire, such as the crown jewels, beautiful pieces of jewellery dripping with diamonds and opals, and one of the world’s largest emeralds, which has been carved and decorated with gold to create probably the world’s most valuable trinket box. The Ecclesiastical collection contains literally hundreds of reliquaries and ceremonial items. The reliquaries were particularly fascinating, as I can’t say I’ve come across them before. They are basically very highly decorated containers for supposed saint bones, hairs and other odd body parts. The Neue Burg, or “New Castle”, is an extension of the Hofburg Palace which was completed in 1913, and this contains a few smaller museums, uncluding the Ephesos Musem of Greek artefacts, and collections of arms and armor, and ancient musical instruments. The main marble staircase of the Neue Burg wing is exceptional, and makes for a brilliant photograph
The last museum we visited was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. This was the Museum of Military History, which Keir was dead-set on seeing, and which I was initially much less dead-set on seeing. The museum is housed in Vienna’s arsenal – a complex of military buildings – and is constructed chiefly of brick, occasionally worked into pleasing, Byzantine Era-inspired patterns around doors and windows. The museum foyer is a forest of columns surrounded by life-sized statues of famous figures of the Austrian military, between which a sweeping stone staircase emerges to take you to the upper levels. The building really is beautiful inside, with high vaulted ceilings and old, creaky parquet. It reminded me of how museums used to be in my childhood, without hundreds of interactive games and touchscreens. Just collections of interesting and relevant artefacts of war, with little nooks and dead-ends, housed in a slightly neglected grand old building. Sort of a museum of a museum. I think this is part of the reason I loved it so much more than I expected, and also it was endearing how basic and honest the exhibits were, and how it clearly advertised an important overall message – “Wars Belong in Museums”.
Having had enough of art and culture, we decided to check out the local drinking scene, and headed out to Kruger’s American Bar for a cigar and a cocktail… Or two. There is nothing quite like smoking a thick cigar with an expertly made cocktail in a wood panelled bar that evokes a strange mix of Havana and 1920’s speakeasies. As much as we would have liked to work our way through Kruger’s extensive cocktail menu, we had to move on for a cheaper option. This landed us in the bustling 1516 Brewing Company, which serves its own unpasteurised lagers. The beers were tasty and very distinctive, the crowds were merry and the music good. Needless to say, we stayed for more than a few before staggering back to the apartment.
Vienna -To Eat
For lunch on our first day, we braved the bustling Naschtmarkt in the rain. The Naschmarkt has apparently been going in one form or another since the 16th century, and consists of long stalls housing restaurants and vendors. We ended up at the cheap and basic Landsknect Treff, which did a pretty decent, rich goulash. There were actually a good number of restaurants with national and international cusine, ranging from traditional Austrian to modern Asian. The market stalls, however, became samey very quickly – They were all selling the same dates, nuts, fruits and Turkish delight with slight variations on price. Two little gems, however, include a cheese vendor with a huge, selection of cheese from every corner of the world touted by an assistant bursting with banter, and a little wholefood shop where I discovered Zotter chocolate (they do free delivery to the UK with £15 orders which, trust me, is a very easy total to achieve with their astounding variety). After an exhausting 15 minutes of walking, we decided to reward ourselves with a coffee and cake from the Oberlaa cake shop. The coffee was strong and the cake was sweet, over-the-top fancy and perfectly Viennese.
Just round the corner from the MuseumsQuartier, down stairs covered in plants, is the Glacis Beisl restaurant. The restaurant has a conservatory and outdoor seating area surrounded by walnut trees, perfect for a summer lunch. Unfortunately for us, it was a grey, drizzly day, but on the plus side this made it perfectly acceptable for me to enjoy a generous portion of goulash and dumplings.
After saving a wee bit of cash by self-catering for breakfasts and a few lunches, we decided to splash out and do dinner at Liebsteinsky, a chic bistro and wine-bar. Even though the evening was a bit brisk, the bistro was open to the street, and we braved the slight chill to sit and watch the Vienna night unfold. There must have been a very skilled chef in the kitchen, as the steak was an ideal, melt-in-the-mouth medium rare, and crème brûlée had a perfect, glassy burnt sugar crust that was so satisfying to crack into, and reach the well-set orange cream underneath.
Vienna was a grand old city, bursting with history and modern culture. We could have stayed for an entire month, and we would still be short of experiencing everything Vienna has to offer! Were there any sights we missed out on? Let me know in the comments below!