Vienna: City of Wonder
Friday, July 24, 2015
For the first-time visitor, Viking offers a comprehensive Ringstrasse tour, as the ring road that encircles Vienna is called. They also offer optional excursions to Schonbrunn Palace and an evening classical music concert in the heart of the city.
The coolest thing Viking offers, though, is a walking tour to the nearby U-Bahn, or underground, stop. There, you’re shown how to purchase tickets (which are actually bought for you by Viking), and your guide rides with you to Stephansplatz, where St. Stephan’s Cathedral is located.
Having learned how to take the metro in the past courtesy of Viking, I now had all the tools to get into town on my own. But I always want to do something new in Vienna. To guide me through this fantastic city, I talked last week to Viking Vidar’s friendly Hotel Manager, Thomas. Born and residing in Vienna, I explained to Thomas about what I’d done in the past, and he made some great new suggestions, even going so far as to print out some information for me and circle locations on a map.
With a map and a plan, I set out to see and do more in Vienna than ever before!
Take the U-Bahn!
From our docking location near St. Francis of Assisi Church, it’s about a 10-minute walk to the Vorgartenstrasse U-Bahn station (which will be listed as Vorgartenstraßs on maps due to the special character in place of the double ‘s’). All U-Bahn stations are marked with a blue square with a ‘U’ character, making them easy to find on maps and in person.
To get to Stephansplatz in the heart of Vienna, take the U1 line bound for Reumannplatz and get off after the fourth stop, Stephansplatz. Announcements can be hard to hear, but most newer trains have digital displays announcing the next station. Alternately, you can get off one stop earlier at Schwedenplatz and be right on the Ringstrasse next to the Altes Rathaus, one of the oldest buildings in Vienna.
Total time from boarding the U-Bahn to getting off: 12 minutes. Total cost: just €2.20 for a single trip. A day ticket, which allows unlimited use of the U-Bahn, bus and tram system, runs for €7.60. Ticket machines are marked in red, and their text can be changed to English using a button located on the lower left corner of the screen. Purchase the number of tickets you require and, if you plan to use them immediately, have the machine validate them. For day passes, validate your ticket using the small red boxes just prior to entering the track area.
Vienna’s traffic is legendary, and the U-Bahn subway is far faster than the bus, which can take an hour to hit the city center. If you want to get in and get going – and feel like a local doing it – I highly recommend the subway as your mode of transportation for increased flexibility.
I have a love affair with Vienna – or, as the Austrian’s call it, Wien. I’ve loved it since I first arrived there on a cold December night back in 2011. To me, Vienna is a beautiful woman; a lover I cannot get enough of. This is my seventh trip down the Danube, and my seventh visit to Vienna. It’s the port of call, aside from Budapest, that I am most excited about.
Why? Vienna is – and was – the epicenter of culture in Europe. If you were anyone at the turn of the last century, or if you were a nobody who wanted to be somebody, you came to Wien.
Sigmund Freud maintained a practice here, on Berggasse 19. I finally paid a visit to it last July. He took his coffee at the Café Landtmann, which I ate at back in 2012. A young man named Adolf Hitler tried – and failed – to be a painter here. He liked to take his beverages, along with Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, at a place called Café Central, which is tucked away on Herrengasse 14 near the Freyung Passage just to the east of the Hofburg Palace. I ticked that off my list three years ago, and have been going back to Café Central ever since.
Vienna is mysterious. Some of my favorite novels – like Philipp Kerr’s Bernie Gunther mysteries – are set in Vienna. Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 fiction book, Traumnovelle (The Dream Story), is also set in Vienna. It concentrates on the thoughts and obsessions of one Dr. Fridolin over a 48-hour period after he learns his wife has had sexual fantasies about another man. It rocked Viennese culture upon its publication, and became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s sprawling 1999 masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut, which swapped out Vienna for New York City as a setting.
Speaking of The Dream Story, I finally found a copy of it today, at a bookstore at the rear of St. Stephan’s Cathedral. For a small book, I paid the astonishingly-large sum of €17.20. But, when in Rome…
Get a Coffee!
My first stop of the day, on Viking Vidar Hotel Manager Thomas’ recommendation: Café Hawelka, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the tourists on Dorotheergasse 6 in Vienna’s Inner Stadt, or First District.
It’s hard to believe that Café Hawelka is just two minutes’ from St. Stephan’s Cathedral. It’s also hard to find: you have to watch the street signs like a hawk, but I’ll let you in on the secret: walk along the Graben pedestrian zone, heading towards Kohlmarkt. Look on your left-hand side for a giant, circular “FOSSIL” sign and hang a left. That’s Dorotheergasse, and your destination is the third building in on the right.
Thomas was right: Café Hawelka is fantastic. It lacks the polish and tourist appeal of Café Central. The inside of the café is showing its age, but in a good, almost Bohemian way. In the winter, it must be cozy as all heck inside. In the summer, the lack of air conditioning that my North American body is accustomed to drove me out on the patio, where I ordered Café Melange (coffee with milk) and wasser mit gas (sparking water).
Café Hawelka was opened by Leopold Hawelka and his wife Josefine in May of 1939. They had previously operated Kaffe Alt Wein (still a famous institution to this day), and they concentrated on refitting the former Café Ludwig to their standards.
It was short-lived: the outbreak of World War II meant that the café had to close until the end of the war in 1945, but the building – and the café – were largely intact. It became a major meeting place for some of Austria’s most famous writers and artists. Josefine Hawelka died in 2005, and Leopold Hawelka followed in 2011. Today, their son Gunther still manages the Café.
Goulash and a Hair Cut
Freshly caffeinated, I moved on to my second stop: Vienna’s Goulash Museum. No, it’s not really a museum – it’s a restaurant in its own right, serving up dozens of varieties of the traditional stew dish. Located on Schulerstrasse 20, it’s just behind St. Stephan’s Cathedral and down the street about three blocks.
But on my way there, I got sidetracked: I needed a haircut. I hadn’t cut my hair since early June, when I got the chop onboard the Carnival Miracle. My hair gets unruly when it’s long, and the 36°C temperatures weren’t helping. So I stopped into Ossig on Stephansplatz 4 and made an appointment for 12:30p.m.
With an hour to spare, I raced back to the goulash museum (perhaps not the best idea in searing heat) and sampled the traditional Goulash of Beef. Amazing. So amazing, I forgot to snap a photo. Time flies when you’re eating great food! Highly recommended on any visit to Vienna.
Full, I raced (again, don’t do that in the heat!) back to the Salon for my hair cut. It was a little intimidating at first; no one really knew where to send me, and when I finally went upstairs to see stylist Mijo and said I had an appointment, he replied “how nice for you.”
But things soon improved. I like to think it’s because I wasn’t playing the role of the dumb, passive tourist and had used some basic German phrases, but everyone at Ossig spoke perfect English. For €37, I got one of the best haircuts (and most colourful banter) I’ve ever had, plus a nice scalp massage. Bonus points for the use of a straight razor to do the back of the neck and trim the sideburns; no electric clippers here!
Do As The Viennese Do: Meet Friends
Hotel Director Thomas had also recommended I take the 71 Tram to the Zentralfriedhof – the Central Cemetery of Vienna. Here, the great composers are buried. I actually love graveyards, so that sounded like an awesome idea to me.
Two things happened to change my plans: one, as mentioned, it was hot as hell outside. The idea of sitting on what I assumed would be an un-air conditioned tram wasn’t exactly filling me with wonder.
So, we talked shop while enjoying beers at what has to be the only Australian pub in town, near the Albertinaplatz. That was followed up by dinner at a cool restaurant (a Northern European chain, Ralph says) called Vapiano.
Located at Walfischgasse 11, this cool chain serves up Italian-style food that’s made fresh to order and is really healthy. You pay using a unique system: you’re given what looks like a hotel room keycard, and you tap it against an RFID-reader when you order a salad, a pasta or pizza, or a beverage. In our case: Caesar salads and Margherita pizzas were in order, coupled with a couple of German Radlers: light beer infused with lemon or pink grapefruit juice. The perfect thing to beat the heat.
Do Coffee Again.
Ralph had heard about my Café Hawelka excursion in the morning, so nearly 12 hours after my journey began, I was back at what could be my new favorite Viennese haunt. We both had Café Melange with sparkling water. Ralph sampled the Apfelstrudel (he assures me it was excellent), and we generally soaked in the atmosphere of all that makes Vienna great.
At Stephansplatz, we went our separate ways. I returned to the Viking Lofn, while Ralph returned to the palatial Hotel Imperial.
And that, my friends, is how you spend a darn good day in Vienna – doing as the locals do. Still, I think Hungarian writer Sándor Márai says it best:
“Vienna wasn’t just a city, it was a tone that either one carries forever in one’s soul or one does not. It was the most beautiful thing in my life. I was poor, but I was not alone, because I had a friend. And Vienna was like another friend.
“When it rained in the tropics, I always heard the voice of Vienna. And at other times too. Sometimes deep in the virgin forests I smelled the musty smell of the entrance hall in Hietzing. Music and everything I loved was in the stones of Vienna, and in people’s glances and their behavior, the way pure feelings are part of one’s very heart.
“You know when the feelings stop hurting. Vienna in winter and spring. The allés in Schönbrunn. The blue light in the dormitory at the academy, the great white stairwell with the baroque statue. Morning ridings in the Prater. The mildew in the riding school. I remember all of it exactly, and I wanted to see it again…”
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Lofn’s Grand European Tour continues tomorrow from Bratislava, Slovakia! Be sure to follow along with our adventures on Twitter @deckchairblog.