[22-27 Dec 2015]
Vienna is first and foremost known for 2 ubiquitous icons: Mozart and Sachertorte. While Vienna is not Mozart’s birthplace, it played a very important role during his formative years as a child prodigy and later on also bore witness to his death that, till today, is shrouded in mystery. I might have mentioned this before – Mozart is my favourite composer and I’d wanted to visit Vienna in the same trip we did Salzburg in 2011 but as usual, I wanted to go far too many places in one trip. The mister had to arm-twist me, metaphorically, by making me choose between these two. For convenience of the trip route, I settled for Salzburg.
It was 4 years later that I managed to plan a trip that includes Vienna. And I was elated!
Out of habit, I searched for the tallest viewing tower in Vienna and found it in Donauturm Wien aka The Vienna Danube Tower just by the Danube River. The observation deck is supposed to present a ‘heavenly view all over Vienna‘, only that we never got to verify the claim. Let’s just say that it was a combination of it being Christmas Eve and spending too much time enjoying the view at Donaupark that did us in. We were minutes too late for final admission for the day, stranded at the entrance together with several other visitors. A quick check of the website indicated that they never did update the revised opening hours for the day. Donauturm Wien, you’ve gotta do better than this.
It was pure coincidence that our Christmas Eve was spent in Austria yet again. In 2011 it was Salzburg and in 2015, Vienna. From the prior (rather unpleasant) experience of not being able to find food on Christmas Eve in Salzburg, I had asked the mister if we should make a restaurant reservation way in advance in Vienna for fear of history repeating itself. He very confidently told me there wasn’t a need to, because Vienna is a bigger city and the capital of Austria. In short, he was beyond certain he could find food.
He was not wrong in this respect. Many restaurants were still open and in operation on the Eve, but the queues were horrendous for those without reservations, ourselves included. We walked to and fro along Vienna Ring Road trying to locate a suitable place to settle dinner i.e. with the shortest queue. There weren’t that many places to pick from after all, hence we decided upon Café Mozart. We were about the 5th pair in the queue. And even then we had to wait 40 minutes before we had a table. Out in the cold, exposed to the elements. We really ought to make a table reservation if we ever do travel during Christmas season again. On this matter, I’m not ever going to listen to him again.
We were shown to a single table meant for two, and it was a snug fit right in the centre of a row of similar table set-ups. Suffice it to say that instantly we knew it wasn’t meant to be a comfortable dinner, and wanted to be done with our meal as quickly as possible. While not a fan of deep-fried food in general, I wanted a dish that could be quickly prepared and eaten. And so I ended up ordering Wiener Schnitzel, which is also a signature dish of Austria. Killing two birds with one stone, one could say. Incidentally, the mister ordered a deep-fried course too, the Viennese Fried Chicken.
After a rather harried dinner, we decided to make our way back to our hotel for a short break before heading out again to attend the Midnight Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna.
Also affectionately referred to as ‘Steffi‘ by locals, the first structure of St. Stephen’s Cathedral was completed in 1160 and commands an imposing presence in the hearts of Austrians. It is also the one and same church where Haydn once sang as a choir boy and where Mozart held his wedding. What really stood out for me when I first saw the cathedral were the beautifully ornated roofs: on one side (apparently the south side) the glazed tiles form a mosaic of the double-headed eagle that is symbolic of the Habsburg Empire that ruled Vienna for several hundred years. On the north front, the mosaic depicted coat of arms representing Vienna and Austria.
A lethal combination of post-dinner sluggishness and lackadaisical attitude led us to head out to Stephansplatz later than I initially planned to. I reckon we only arrived close to 2300hrs, joining the long queue of worshippers awaiting the opening of doors to the cathedral for Midnight Mass. Needless to say, we didn’t make it to the centre section where we could see the altar. Instead we chose a pew on the left wing, and depended on a live tv telecast to follow the Mass proceedings. Compared to the Midnight Mass we attended in Salzburg some years back, this one had far more curious transient visitors who became bored after a while and left, vacating seats for many worshippers who couldn’t secure one at first instance.
It was a beautiful service. There is just something about the spirt of Christmas that moves me deeply.
Knowing that the interior of the church would not be as brightly lit the next day, we lingered after Mass ended and waited till the crowd kind of thinned before jostling with the remaining worshippers attempting to take a good picture of the dressed-up altar. While the mister really detests travelling during Christmas Season (and he has expressed his abhorrence more than once, or twice) due to the cold, the crowd and the high costs, I cannot help but gravitate towards travelling in winter every single time a Europe vacation is planned for. Christmas in Europe is vastly different from Singapore’s (where we hail from) – yes, the commercial element cannot be fully eradicated but have you seen what it’s like here? I’m finishing up this post in Dec 2018 and this year, Orchard Road has a ‘Disney Princesses’ theme for the Christmas Light-Up. Disney. For an annual national Christmas light-up. Speechless.
As with most parts of Europe, Christmas Eve and Day are days meant to be spent with family so most business and attractions close from late afternoon on the Eve and may only resume business on Boxing Day or even later. In light of this, a trip to Schloss Schönbrunn was planned for after I ascertained that it was going to be opened. Evidently we were not the only ones with the thought – the palace grounds were milling with visitors, locals and foreigners alike so much so that it took the mister a while in the line before he bought our entrance tickets. And I meant quite a while. So if you are intending to visit on an expected busy day, I highly recommend buying the tickets online prior to your trip. Then again, I didn’t expect Christmas Day to be crowded so… well… just secure your tickets online. It’ll save you quite a bit of time.
Not that I was complaining. We had great weather and I was busy taking in the amazing sight of the sprawling imperial summer palace grounds while he queued. 😛
We walked (more like jostled along by the crowd, actually) through the state rooms and private apartments quickly and found ourselves out in the open in no time. And at that point, absolutely nothing would cheer me up (after a failed attempt to enjoy the interior), except a good Christmas Market.
Once again, the mister found himself a part of the longest human line visible, totally out of his own volition this time though. Since he wanted the freshly-made chips, he had to queue. Simple equation lol.
Jokes aside, it was absolutely worth the time. Possibly one of the best chips we’d ever had.
And just like that, a heavy fog descended upon the palace grounds. I wanted to kick myself for indulging too much time in exploring the food market instead of heading for the parks and gardens in the back first. Promptly, we made a beeline for the Gloriette standing a distance away on the hill that we could still make out in thickening fog, but only ventured as far as the Neptune Fountain (Neptunbrunnen) since visibility was rapidly reducing and we were not comfortable proceeding further.
We took a wefie in front of Neptune Fountain for keepsake before quickening our footsteps to join a miserable number of brave souls ahead of us attempting to return to the safety of the Christmas Market before the frigid fog completely engulfed us.
Comparatively, the atmosphere at the market was decidedly livelier and warmer. There was even a performance going on, entertaining hundreds of visitors who were all likely considering to leave due to the rapidly decreasing temperature. After a short few minutes of watching the performance, we decided to do just that.
Since it was one of our last nights in Vienna, a trip to Café Sacher for the legendary original Sachertorte, arguably the quintessential Vienna experience, was a must. While there was a short queue (to be honest, was there any place without one?), we didn’t wait long since the cafe is massive with several salons. We were shown to the one to the salon on the left once we entered.
The salon was brightly lit by dangling chandeliers and wall lamps, with deep-red wallpaper with couches in similar shade. Christmas cheer was keenly felt with the decor that was up on the walls..
So what exactly is this sachertorte? It’s essentially a dense chocolate cake replete with apricot glazing and chocolate icing, and always served with a dollop of whipped cream on the side meant to be eaten with every bite of the cake since it tends to be dry and somewhat bitter due to the high cocoa content of the chocolate. Not a huge fan of chocolate here, and while the mister is one, he isn’t big on whipped cream so neither of us would be able to give an honest opinion of the sachertorte. Let’s just say… I like it enough to eat it again should the opportunity present itself but only the original in Vienna, not other renditions.
We had our last look at Vienna while walking back to our hotel. Although we stayed a total of five nights in this enigmatic capital of Austria, it felt like we didn’t even scratch the surface of what it has to offer.
This was probably the only picture I have taken of our hotel – Motel One Wien-Staatsoper – during our entire stay in Vienna. Loved the location, the simple but tastefully done up rooms and the affordability (only €115 per night). We were generally mighty pleased with this hotel, and we would readily recommend it to our friends. Or return to stay here when we revisit.