Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Checking out the Wieners

For Ascension Day break, which means a 4-day weekend for a national holiday, we flew down to Vienna, Austria to visit my friend Yu Nagai and to see the sights of this famous capital.  Yu is a fellow GT grad that I met on my study abroad in Germany some 7 years ago.  Since then he finished up at GT, then grabbed a Master's at a uni in Tokyo, and is now working on becoming Dr. Nagai at a university in Vienna.  It had been a really long time since I'd seen him and it was nice to see another familiar face on this continent.  He was an awesome host that opened up his student housing to us and helped us navigate the local transportation.  We were also happy to have him come along to see some of the sights in his own city.
Yu Nagai and me - one can imagine how much fun and confusion in conversation comes up when talking with or about this guy.  It was awesome hanging out with him after 7 years or so and we really appreciate his different world view and his world travels.

On our first day we trekked out to the Schoenbrunn Palace, which was an enormous palace of the famous Habsburg Dynasty.  Now I didn't know much about the Habsburgs before this trip, and now I understand that they ruled for 6 centuries in many parts of Europe, including Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, northern Italy, and Spain - these guys got around.  Their family included some famous names such as Marie Antoinette who would later be beheaded in France, Franz Ferdinand who would be assassinated to start WWI, and Napoleon even married into this family after defeating the Habsburgs.  This palace featured over 1400 rooms and an amazing collection of gardens, and was most recently the home of Franz Josef and his wife Elizabeth (aka "Sisi") in the early 1900s. 

Schoenbrunn - the Summer palace

Wicked fountain in the surrounding parks of Schoenbrunn

A better view from atop the Gloriette

The Habsburgs even thought to include a maze in their gardens......not quite as redneck as the corn mazes in Georgia

Lots of games to be found in this park (still at Schoenbrunn)

Moments before we had Yu race another Asian guy to the top - I was way too tired for another one (I know.....ironic that we had the asians do the gymnastics events and for the record, Yu was victorious)

View of the Neptune Fountain (below) and the Gloriette (above) from the palace

Also on day one we were able to make it down to the city center and enjoy a famous schnitzel from a restaurant, Figlmueller, that has been cranking them out since 1905 or so.  Now here's a clarification for my fellow American counterparts............Wiener Schnitzel is not a sausage and it's not even a German food.  Wiener schnitzel is a large, flat, pan-fried piece of veal or pork.  It's called "Wiener" because it comes from Vienna, which is called Wien in the German language.  So, the Wiener schnitzel just means that its the pan fried pork usually served with a slice of lemon.  Fast food chains like "Wienerschnitzel" do you an injustice by making you think that wiener schnitzel is a hot dog or something - see for yourself the photographic evidence below.
Wiener Schnitzel - definitely not a sausage and definitely bigger than my dead serious face

On day two we used our handy dandy Rick Steve's "Best of Europe 2010" guide to take a self-guided city tour, including all of the following sites:
"The Gates of Violence" - part of the Monument Against War and Fascism; this part remembers victims of all wars and violence with wartime images on all sides; the entire monument serves as a reminder to keep our governments in check, since they came under Nazi rule from 1938-1945

Stephansdom at the center of Vienna

Inside the dom;  while not directly bombed during the war, the roof tragically caught fire from a nearby bombing and collapsed; the stained glass at the center was all removed by locals before the city was attacked and was thus preserved - the stained glass around the perimeter, however, all blew out during the fire when the roof collapsed

Holy Trinity plague column - erected by Emperor Leopold I in memory of the 75,000 Viennese people that died from the bubonic plague in 1679; Leopold prayed on his knees in public (in middle of statue) for the city to be spared and it was, so the bottom shows the Lady Faith casting an old naked lady (the plague) into an abyss

For lunch we checked out the Naschmarkt, which is a huge farmer's market/bazaar that had a little of everything, but mostly food.  Then we made it to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (art history museum) which was huge and included an interesting variety of Egyptian and Greek artifacts, as well as paintings from Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Flemish painters.  It was quite and undertaking for the end of a long day, but we really enjoyed it.

"Theseus Clubbing the Centaur" in the main staircase of the Kunsthistoriches Museum

Of course no trip to Vienna would be complete without a sampling of the original Sacher Torte cake at Cafe Sacher - sorry, we ate the cake too fast to take a picture of it.  It's basically a chocolate cake with a thin layer of apricot jelly in between layers with a hard chocolate shell on the outside.  It was good, but not sure that it lived up to all of the hype.  I mean Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker put together some nice stuff in a box too.
Moments after savoring the delightfully plain Sacher Torte (chocolate cake)

On our final day in Vienna, we found the elusive Mozart statue and visited the Habsburg's Treasury which was a real hit.  It was a quaint little museum that contained loads of regalia and jewels and gold and well-preserved dress from the Holy Roman Empire.  They also had some embroidery work with gold and silver thread that was made to look like a painting - unbelievable craftsmanship.  On the weirder side of things, they had a lot of religious artifacts and ornate glass vessels that claimed to contain splinters from Christ's cross, thorns from Christ's crown, the nail that was driven through his right wrist, and one of John the Baptist's teeth.  I'm not sure how they came across these things or why they claim they are what they are, but it definitely was skeptical at the very least.

crown of Rudolf II (1602); this was the adopted crown of the Austrian empire which was established in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Holy Roman Empire

freakin' huge emerald (Marisa's birthstone) that was worked into a vessel

Apparently this is the nail that was forced through Christ's right wrist (take it or leave it)

15th century royal vestments, woven with gold and silver thread - be impressed by the detail

One of the world famous Lipizzaner Stallions - they supposedly jump up on two legs and do lots of sweet kick flips and roundhouses to the face, but we just saw them walk normally across their courtyard and to into their stables to eat hay and take craps like every other horse does

Mozart statue - pretty popular attraction

Randomly, we ran into the Kentucky women's volleyball team who were doing a European exhibition tour and happened to be in Vienna for a few hours while were were there.  We were able to chat for a minute with one of Marisa's former teammates, Lindsay Gray who coaches at UK now, and Sara who Marisa met at Lauren Sauer's wedding a few weeks ago.  We knew that they'd be in Vienna, but we didn't really think that we'd run into them without cell phones and whatnot - but it did help that most of the girls were all wearing royal blue and stood over 6' tall.

It's great to see familiar faces in foreign places

Later that day we ventured out to see Austria's answer to our Frank Lloyd Wright - Friedensreich Hundertwasser.  This guy is an environmentalist that can't stand conformity and straight lines, so he tries to design buildings that stand out against the norm and have loads of character.  It reminded me of Gaudy's work in Barcelona.  Hundertwasser has designed a few places in Austria, but has also shared his style with buildings literally all over the world.  He's an interesting character to look up if you like wacky architecture.
Hundertwasser Museum

Hundertwasserhaus - lucky people actually get to live here

Our last taste of Vienna included a trip outside of the city to a Heutiger, which is a strong part of Viennese culture.  Wine is pretty popular in this part of Austria, so many of the wine-making families have family run buffet restaurants.  All of the wine on the menu is made by the family, as well as the food which is self-served.  This seems to be a family event where large groups of people sit together at big tables and stay as long as they like.  We enjoyed the evening with Yu and a couple other Japanese friends.
Trying to get acclimated to wine before traveling to Italy this Summer; at 1 Euro per glass, I was definitely impressed (not sure if you can buy Boone's Farm that cheap)

Our company at the Heutiger - we learned all kinds of stuff about Japanese culture; for example, it is tradition for others at the table to keep your glass filled so you're supposed to always be looking out for everyone else - an easy way to get past your limit in a hurry

All in all, a fantastic trip and a great start to our Spring/Summer traveling spree.  Vienna, or Wien, is a beautiful city that is small enough to see in a few days with a rich heritage of royalty and the arts.  While it once was a dominant force in Europe, after being on the losing end of two World Wars, it has been reduced to a quiet and charming European capital.  I'd definitely recommend it to anyone, although if coming from the States one would want to line up at least one other stop on the trip.
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