My love affair with Austria began in the autumn of 2013 when I arrived in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia to attend language courses. While staying in the university dormitory, I was lucky enough to befriend a group of Austrians, three of whom would later host me in their homes the following winter.
During the 12 days or so in the land of the much loved ‘bonsa’, I was given a unique ‘private tour’ of each of the trio’s hometowns, and thus never set foot in Vienna city centre. Odd, I know, to have visited a country so extensively, yet not even know how tap water tastes in its capital. (For the record, it tastes splendid.)
For a few days, I was in Austria again, in Wien—its luxurious capital—for business and not pleasure, at least not officially.
Sunday, August 9, 2015
Having arrived at just past 10 a.m. on Sunday, I did have time to walk around the ringed city centre, and more, after concluding a much anticipated first meeting with ‘the boss’, a nice guy who calls me “dude”.
A few things are different since last my feet touched Austrian soil; these are more to do with the circumstances of my visit and not the country itself. For one, it’s the middle of one of the hottest summers on record for Europe as a whole, and while I was wearing boots, a scarf, and a coat during my last visit, I arrived this morning wearing Converses, a T-shirt, and shorts.
It was also snowing when I took the lonely journey from Moscow in February 2013, whereas today it was an astonishing 37 degrees Celsius and will continue to be for well beyond the duration of my business trip. I sweated bucketfuls.
And then there’s the issue of solo travel. Well, I say issue, but the reality is that it can actually be easy travelling alone. You only go to places of your choosing, since there’s no one around to challenge your decisions. Although sometimes I wish there were someone to give me a smack on my head so I don’t keep torturing my feet.
However, with the first of many of my planned trips to Vienna being only three days, I really had no time to waste; I wanted to see all the ‘big ones’ first, so I can spend my future trips slowly sifting the gold from the sand.
My first stop was conveniently chosen for its location near the company head office. (Although it’s actually more that the head office is close to the place, as I’m sure there was an imperial residence in southern Vienna long before there was a small news agency.) And so it was Schönbrunn Palace, Austria’s most visited tourist destination, where I went to first.
The massive (believe me, this is a gross understatement) grounds of the former summer residence of the Habsburg monarchs, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, are simply to die for, literally. Walking on foot from one end to another in this heat is torture at best, suicide at worst. Possibly the most beautiful mazes and labyrinths I’ve ever laid eyes on are also on the palace grounds. I can only image what aristocrats used those for.
If my name were Alice and I wore a blue and white dress while chasing around a rabbit, I’d have been lost there. And to think that the vast gardens of the Summer Palace used to belong to one family. Ludicrous.
The gardens, by the way, are stunning. Enter at whichever gate you please and you will quickly find rows of evergreen trees pointing to the 1,441-room Baroque palace, which, incidentally, is one of the country’s most important architectural, cultural, and historical monuments.
In front of the palace is a hill—literally a hill—of keep-your-dirty-feet-off grass that leads to the gloriette, which, if I’m honest, looks better than most presidential palaces. And it’s just a small room.
A short U-bahn journey from Schönbrunn to the centre of what is known as the Old Town places you right in front of St. Stephan’s Cathedral, which, compared to the one in Budapest, is another level of glorious.
The mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese also serves as a tourist hub, as several underground lines meet at Stephansplatz U-bahn, bringing minute by minute hundreds upon thousands of camera-wielding nobodies such as myself.
Despite having about a dozen world-famous sights to choose from, there was really only one place I wanted and needed to go: Hofburg Palace—former imperial estate and winter residence of the Habsburgs—under whose dome I was nearly trampled to death by a horse-drawn carriage while taking a photograph.
“Epic” doesn’t even begin to describe some of the architecture I’ve seen in Vienna. It’s a city so steeped in cultural and musical history that a landmark slaps you in the face at every turn. The Winter Palace is, of course, no different, and the grounds its walls encompass are in and of themselves the thing of fairytales.
The summer and winter palaces differ from one another in the perfect way, and it’s easy to comprehend how each served its own purpose: Schönbrunn, a colossal garden filled with trees, flowers, and mazes to get lost in during the summer; Hofburg, a place of stateliness and authority, surrounded by museums, concert halls, and the National Library.
As I strolled past the gardens into Maria-Theresien-Platz, I felt for once at ease being amongst so many tourists. It felt as if they were helping me share the “burden” of taking in such a grandiose mouthful of history.
Speaking of old things, I’ve made a special note to visit the Museum of Natural History as well as the Kunsthistorisches Museum of fine arts the next time I’m in the Austrian capital. Those two buildings are in a dramatic stand-off to the left and right of the square dedicated to Maria Theresa, the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions.
After my short-lived weekend (aren’t they all?) ended on a foot-aching note, I spent the next two days experiencing the life of a commuter as I took the underground to and from the office. Long hours at my desk prevented me from scouting out more picture-worthy buildings, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Work is work.
While on the coach back to Hungary, I began noticing the location signs telling me how long it would take until I reached “home” once again. I started counting down the distance and the time it would take to suddenly appear in the capital of another country entirely.
Budapest 112: On the westautobahn back to Hungary I was filled with an obviously different feeling to the last time I left Austria. Instead of wondering whether I’d ever get to the see the country again, I began thinking about my next trip, armed with the knowledge that I now live just around the corner.
Budapest 84: The countryside is seamless between Austria and Hungary. I’m sure they are not the only two countries with a border like this, but there’s just something oddly satisfying about not “seeing” a physical frontier between two countries. I can only imagine what it must have been like to live in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an era lost in time, whose traditions are now for me only learnable from history books—or Wikipedia. Whatever floats your boat.
Budapest 56: Sunflower fields fly past the wind. They’re so uniform and so boundless that I can trace the yellow bobbing tops across the horizon. Where there is grass the land is not green but a light shade of brown and yellow. The heat suffocates the fields, leaving them baking in the heatwave.
Budapest 24: As we near the Hungarian capital, traffic increases, as do the houses. Small cottages dot the countryside which is now actually the outskirts of Budapest. Where and when did we cross the border? I don’t know. It just crept up on us. I wonder how these small houses compare to the dachas in Russia.
Budapest 12: We race the sunset. The grapefruit-coloured ball of fire dips ever closer to the horizon to our south-west. I’ll race you back to Hernád utca, Helios.
BUDAPEST: Hello again—itt vagyok.
Seeing farmers on horseback tending their fields elicits in me an image from a bygone era. It’s like watching 21st century motorcars racing through centuries-old Viennese streets. I can accept it, but wouldn’t it be great if I had a black and white or sepia filter to place over my eyes, which could then turn all the cars into carriages and all the hipsters into tuxedo-wearing, top hat-touting concertgoers?
The sun, now a deep, deep orange and undisturbed by haze, hangs to my right. It glows brightly with some extra oomph, as if to brag, as if to gloat; as if to remind me that it’ll be there for millions of years to come, long after my body is returned to the earth and its chemical compounds help fertilise another being, human or otherwise, to take my place in the unending race against the universe and the end of all time. JSF.
A small gallery of pictures from Vienna can be found here.