Monday, April 9, 2012

Monumental Vienna

Vienna is nothing if not clean and orderly and you’d better follow the rules or risk reprimand by either your peers or those in charge. Yes, Italy’s motorini have disappeared, the chaos has calmed and graffiti is nowhere to be found, but neither is the warmth.  

Our hotel was a good long walk outside Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse, so on our very first outing into the city center, we were quickly schooled in the art of walking the city and picking a lane. Trolleys, busses and cars share the broad, busy boulevards and bicycles and pedestrians share the sidewalks. And as we’d quickly learned in Innsbruck, no one jaywalks or double-parks or disobeys the traffic signals in Austria. Ever. You walk when the little green man invites you to walk and you stop on a dime when he turns red and tells you to halt. Walkers stay in the clearly marked pedestrian alleys and do not stray into those marked for bicycles. Don’t get me wrong, order can be nice and the contrast with Italy was evident, but the extent to which the Viennese obeyed the rules was astonishing. At one particularly complicated intersection of trolleys, cars, bike paths and pedestrian ways, a woman in front of us stopped in her tracks, hugging her purse to her chest. She appeared genuinely confused because the pedestrian path had ended and it wasn’t immediately apparent how to proceed. She needed to be told where to walk and didn’t carry on until she’d found the stenciled guidelines on the pavement. That seemed to us to be taking compliance a bit too far.

Later that day, we’d made it to the ever-crowded Stephansplatz in front of the famous cathedral with the iconic gold, black and green geometrically patterned roof. A man dragged behind him a big black lab that started to relieve himself on the plaza. The master allowed the droppings to fall as they might and continued tugging away as the poor dog was forced to poop in transit. Several onlookers stopped, turned and stared with mouths agape, not at the insensitivity of the master but at the audacity of not cleaning up the mess. One older, well-dressed gentleman was among the moat astonished and after building up a head of steam shouted “scheisse f**ker” and then repeated it even louder. He was outraged that the rules weren’t followed and his city had been sullied. There are signs all over town demanding that owners clean up after their pets and plastic bag dispensers are available for the unprepared. We were later startled by colossal full-color public announcement posters with a huge pile of steaming feces in the foreground, which dwarfed an innocent dog and the guilty owner standing close by. It was difficult not to notice the disgusting image accompanied by the slogan, "Du hast es in der Hand – bau keinen Mist!" (It’s in your hands – don’t mess it up!). Sanitation is serious business in Vienna and I definitely wouldn’t want to try to defy this clean-as-you-go mandate.

I’m certain there are nice people in Austria, but none of them work in transportation. First there was the train fiasco in Innsbruck and then we had a run-in with a ticket collector on a Vienna trolley. As in so many European cities, individual tickets must be validated with the time and date at a franking machine just before boarding or on the bus or tram itself. We’re more than familiar with the process and took great care after buying one-day passes to determine if they needed to be stamped. The tickets clearly stated the date and we thus decided that no validation was necessary. We hopped on a trolley, headed into town and flashed our passes when the ticket collector came by. You would think we had just robbed a bank by his reaction. Apparently we’d guessed wrong about the validation process and the awful mass transit official was determined to make us feel bad about it. He brashly scolded and grumbled and gesticulated as he stomped off to stamp our tickets in the machine. Fine, I understand, we’d made a mistake, but did he have to be so gosh-darned mean about it? As in Innsbruck, I again felt the heat of anger flush my face. The effort it took to be civil in response to someone so abrasive and disrespectful was wearing but an aggressive response was beyond my emotional ken at that point. Would it really take that much effort to show just a little kindness to visitors not indoctrinated in the country's severe ways?

Vienna is laden with the legacy of the once powerful Austrian Empire and Hapsburg Dynasty. Monumental buildings appear around every corner and titanic statues on massive pedestals dominate almost every public space. For the most part, all are lovely and work well together along with the many wide-open lawns that surround them. But we couldn’t shake the sense as we walked for miles in and out of the Ringstrasse and around the palace grounds at Schöenbrunn that all the grandeur was simply an ever-present reminder of glories long gone and an Austrian empire that will never again be such an important player on the world stage.

This was my second trip to Vienna and as in 1977, the grandiosity failed to provoke an emotional response; much of it just left me cold, but there were two notable exceptions. The first was the Stadtpark on the east side of town -- a delightful green space built on a human scale that very much reminded me of a lovely London park. It undulated gently and was filled with flowers, blossoming trees and plenty of seating on which to relax. At the top of the park, the Vienna Kursalon, the glowing, Italian Renaissance palace built in the mid-1800s as a grand venue for waltzing balls and concerts, continues to welcome audiences for a variety of musical pleasures. We decided to pass on a concert to save our resources for a morning practice with the famous gray stallions at the Spanish Riding School, the second Vienna attraction that moved me.

Joe and I were both children of the 1960s who anxiously awaited Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color every Sunday evening and fondly remember the 1963 installment about saving the Lipizzaners during World War II, Miracle of the White Stallions, starring Robert Taylor. It was such a singular thrill to set foot in the hall where much of the movie tool place. A horse lover from an early age, I took riding lessons when young and thus it was especially enchanting to watch the trainers in their dashing empire-style uniforms (golden ribboned bicorn hats, brown frock coats, yellow-tinged breeches, buckskin gloves and high leather boots) and the handsome horses with their beautiful white coats go through their classical paces. The long, white baroque riding hall, completed in 1735, is encircled by two levels of visitor galleries and lit by three enormous crystal chandeliers that sparkle above the ring and are suspended by chains wrapped in rich burgundy velvet. Viennese waltzes played while the stallions performed their exercises. Surely this is the most glamorous practice ring in the world and training cannot get more elegant. I was fascinated by the horses and their moves -- the delicate trots, athletic balances on their hind legs with forelegs tucked, cross-stepping, high stepping and lead changing every two strides such that they appeared to be dancing -- and Joe was intrigued by the historic location, beautiful building and classic cultural event. Four to six horses trained at a time for about 25 minutes of exercise and then a fresh set entered the ring with their trainers. I fell in love with a darling dappled grey stallion with the most beautiful face and whose coat had not yet gone white. I followed his every move until it was finally his turn to leave the ring. We thoroughly enjoyed our morning at the Spanish Riding School and witnessing the miracle of the white stallions for ourselves.  

The Third Man was our choice for a movie with local color to watch on Joe’s computer while in Vienna. Its dark, atmospheric scenes on the famous Prater Ferris wheel and in the depths of the sewers, the jangling zither playing all the while, certainly put us in the proper Viennese film noir mood. We enjoyed seeing the movie scenes in the Sacher Hotel, where we’d stopped one afternoon for coffee, apfelstrudel and a delicious slice of the celebrated, original recipe chocolate Sachertorte.

We capped off our visit to Vienna with a quick 50-minute train ride over the Slovakian border to Bratislava. The capital cities of Austria and its neighbor to the east are apparently the closest in the world at just 40 miles apart. We had absolutely no expectations about what we would find and were pleasantly surprised by Bratislava’s pretty old town center that was buzzing with activity. The compact cobblestoned area is eminently strollable, filled with pedestrian plazas and alleys, dark medieval and pastel 18th-century buildings and open-air cafés along every street. One of the first things we noticed was a preponderance of tall, pretty women à la Paulina Porizkova, all with too much makeup, long legs in tight skinny jeans and stilettos to finish the picture. Bratislava appeared to be a hotbed of supermodels. We hiked up the rocky hill to the white rectangular castle with its four corner towers and distinctive orange-tiled roof that overlooks the old town and shares the skyline with the ugly, gray institutional housing blocks of the Soviet era and the cold communist constructions beyond. Several times over the course of ambling the streets we crossed paths with a motley crew of loud, rowdy rugby players (are there any other kind?) from the UK. They were clearly dressed for drinking and having fun (certainly not to meet the aforementioned women) with their outlandish mismatched ensembles of short shorts, bright tees, kooky hats and wacky hair. It was a cool 55 degrees and definitely not shorts-and-T-shirts weather by my estimation but they were having a good time on their rugby tour to Slovakia. After a late lunch of schnitzel and salad in the warming sunshine outdoors and served by a gracious, accommodating young Bratislavan gentleman, we headed back for our final night in Austria.

Five nights in Vienna proved to be more than enough. Austria was definitely not the apfelstrudel of my eye – at least not as far as some of the people and their brusque attitudes were concerned. We were happy to be moving on to Hungary and the Czech Republic and hoped for some kinder, gentler treatment.

Pictures of our adventures:

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