Paula Swenson

Waltzing Through Vienna

In Travel on March 11, 2009 at 11:09 am

Vienna is many things; monumental former capital of Empires, playground of child prodigy Mozart, home of the original Café Culture and the Waltz. . . . after several visits I have concluded that Vienna IS a waltz . . . open, sweeping, elegant, ornamented, lyric, Vienna sweeps you up, whirls you about and then gently releases you, feeling just slightly giddy and breathless.

We spent last weekend in this lovely European capital, and once again were delighted by it.  Our excursion started mid-afternoon on Friday when I met Steve in Ceska Trebova with my backpack and his previously packed shoulder bag.  He had left on the 6:45 bus to go to Lanskroun and teach for the morning with as little ‘teaching equipment’ as possible and his camera bag.  We rendezvoused in CT (it being a main railway connection about 14 km from Litomyšl) and caught an EC train to Vienna. EC is the designation for the European inter-city rail network.  With speeds up to 200 km/hr and frequent trains connecting main cities in Europe, the EC is a fast and convenient way of traveling across borders. 

In the time prior to our departure (we had about an hour to wait) we managed another official hurdle and submitted the applications for our InKarta rail passes.  Like many EU countries, Czech Railways sells an ID card that entitles the bearer to rail travel discounts, not only in CZ, but also while traveling in other European countries – the whole network is referred to as Rail+.  In CZ a 3-year InKarta costs 600 Czech Koruns (about $30 currently) and gives an automatic 25% discount, one or two longer trips and it pays for itself.  We found a sympathetic clerk who with a combination of Czech, German and English talked us through the process and even filled out the forms for us. I suppose she thought it faster, as the forms are in Czech, and it helped, I think, that we both pass through this railway station at least once a week, so she recognized our faces.

Originally she told us it would take about 3 weeks to get our cards and we could only have discounts locally until then, and we were OK with that, as we had just wanted to get it in process, since we hope to be traveling more in the coming year.  Once we had handed over photos and signed the forms, we asked to buy tickets to Vienna.  The clerk got a bit flustered, consulted her computer, and then said, “I need 2 photos in this case.”  No problem (we have been working our way through the stack of about a million ID pictures we had taken in Turkey) we handed over two more passport-size photos.  It seems that there was the possibility to make us temporary ID cards to allow us to have the local discount and take advantage of a special fare that was being offered this month to Vienna!  So in the end, our new rail cards paid for themselves before we have even received them!! It was a bit more complicated, as she had to issue the tickets in segments, but she seemed pleased to do it for us and we were certainly grateful for the effort.  The trip to Vienna takes only about 2.5 hours from Ceska Trebova, the train stops only 4 times and speeds through the picturesque countryside.  We arrived just after 6pm and settled into our lodgings.

Our main intention was to visit the Van Gogh exhibition, which the museum publicized as follows: This year’s autumn exhibition at the Albertina looks at Vincent van Gogh from an entirely new perspective: as both painter and draughtsman.  The 150 works assembled highlight the impact of the artist’s expressive draughtsmanship on the evolution of his brushwork.

We had heard that the exhibit was drawing record crowds and so we took the advice to by our tickets online and save some waiting time.  We probably saved about 15 or 20 minutes all told, because the lines were badly managed and everyone was in basically the same line until about 10 meters before the entrance.  It was a rainy Saturday, so everyone had the same idea ‘It’s a great day to be indoors! Let’s go to the museum.”  The lines were 6 to 8 people deep and stretched about 3 blocks at 10 o’clock in the morning.  We spent almost as much time in line as we did in the Exhibit, but it was really quite a fine show.  Unfortunately it was far too crowded inside the galleries to linger or step back to get some perspective, but it was interesting and informative anyway.  I considered buying the show catalog, but it was ensconced in a heavy tome, with lots of scholarly exposition and hard covers, weighing more than my entire backpack, so I decided to pass, investing in some lovely postcards of the show instead.

After escaping the museum crowds we wandered a while in the open air and stopped in one of the ubiquitous Viennese cafés for coffee and Sacher torte.  By then the rain had stopped so we strolled the cobbled streets of Vienna’s first district a while, just drinking in the ambience until we were a bit too chilled, and then made our way to the famous tea vendor, Schoenbichler.  This is an old-fashioned tea emporium with huge tins of exotic teas stacked floor to ceiling and a winding staircase leading to a balcony with small tables where you can taste the wares.  The balcony has soothing peach-colored walls, soft lighting and comfy nooks all blessedly empty, the perfect antidote to the over-crowded museum scene. We each ordered a pot of tea and relaxed, watching the parade of customers below us.

After tea, we caught the U1 back to our lodgings and met up with Helene,a friend living in Austria’s capital, to set out on our evening’s adventure to the Vienna CouchSurfing Stammtisch, a meeting that was international (I spoke to an Uzbeki, a Romanian, 2 Frenchmen, a Portuguese woman, a Brazilian and several Austrians), loud (everyone was trying to talk over the music, and of course they kept turning up the music!) and quite festive. Couchsurfing is an international hospitality organization which you can check out at  – we managed to meet up there with our summer Vienna host, Albert, and meet his new flatmate Yvy.  We also connected briefly with Matej, who had stayed with us in Litomyšl just the weekend before.  After several hours of mingling and shouting over the music, we three decided to head home, but not before visiting Helene’s favorite sausage stand for a midnite nosh!

We eased into Sunday with a wonderful breakfast of eggs and Norwegian salmon, before heading out to meet a former student of Steve’s for lunch (yes, it was ALL about eating! almost).  Julia lives in Salzburg, about the same distance from Vienna as Litomyšl, but in a different direction . . . and she decided to meet us in Vienna for lunch. We met in the first district again, at Vienna’s most famous schnitzel house Figlmüller, famed for their enormous schnitzels (seriously folks, bigger than a turkey platter!).  After seeing the size of said schnitzel being delivered to a nearby table, I opted for the Goulash and gnocchi instead.  Julia ordered Cordon Bleu “I can make schnitzel at home” she explained, and Steve, never one to shrink from a culinary challenge, order the monster schnitzel.  It was all delicious and Steve did manage to finish 80% of his breaded wonder and most of his field potato salad as well!

Stuffed and content, we wandered about the parks of central Vienna until dusk and, too full to eat dinner, simply whiled away the evening chatting with our friends in one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses.  Monday morning came all too soon and we headed off to our train home, and an evening of teaching — just a little giddy and slightly out of breath from our Viennese Waltz.

~ this was originally published January 18, 2009 in a subscription e-newsletter. © Paula Swenson

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