48 Hours In… Vienna

Despite having yet another awful case of swine flu, I dragged myself (and about two handbags I hid from the eager eyes of Easyjet gate staff) on a plane to Vienna, to visit an old friend I haven’t seen for years. I’ve not been to Austria’s capital before, so I get to add another wonderful European capital to my travel list.

Besides, post-Brexit Britain is also a world I am keen to leave. Politics is an omnishambles, democracy is dissolving in front of my eyes, and 80% of Brits are just racist AF. Yet somehow I always find myself mildly annoyed whenever I travel somewhere and find it infinitely better than home. What do you mean the trains are clean, safe, and run on time? How come the people are so friendly? And why is this airport so shiny? All questions I asked myself as I made my way into town.

Once I’d finished silently envying the extra efficient public transport, I embraced my friend Terri at the train station and we made our way back to her lovely apartment. Which is conveniently close to a McDonald’s. The thought of Maccy D’s usually repulses me, but in Austria, I’ll make an exception. I’m not sure why, but they have an entire veggie menu here that’s off the charts. I’m talking ‘chicken’ burgers and wraps that taste, look and feel so much like actual chicken I had to double check with the cashier that it wasn’t. Twice. It’s so unnerving it almost stops you from enjoying it. Almost.

Day 1’s itinerary was simple. One word was all I had in my head: Ringstrasse. This is a grand Victorian boulevard that one Hapsburg emperor made his passion project, so he built all the grand buildings you can possibly imagine along here. The road, which encircles the historic district, counts the University of Vienna, the City Hall, Opera House, two museums and the Hofburg Palace among its residents. I’d learned about the Ringstrasse at uni, and I was eager to see if it lived up to its reputation.

Well, it had other ideas. Presumably just to spite me, the city of Vienna had put scaffolding up over every. Single. Nice. Building.

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What you can’t see is the four-storey Portacabin in front of Parliament. FOUR STOREYS, PEOPLE.

Still, the sun came out, and it didn’t stop Terri and I from enjoying our morning stroll.

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Terri is a cosmopolitan student at the University of Vienna, and one-time fellow Poole resident.

Vienna is impossibly grand, but a little confusing. It took me half a bloody hour to find the entrance to the Hofburg palace. I also discovered that Vienna is even worse than London for finding free toilets. Even in the major tourist attractions, they aren’t free. I’ve long believed that free and accessible bogs should be a civil right for everybody, and paying for them is a con by whoever owns them, because 50p to use a toilet that’s never cleaned is outrageous.

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View of the old Hofburg from the 60 cent toilet.

After getting my ticket – the ‘Sisi’ combo ticket, since I wanted to go Schonbrunn as well so this combination ticket was good value – I walked through a labyrinth of white corridors, filled to the brim with the finest tableware. I’ve literally never seen so many plates in my life, nor seen so many people so engulfed in learning about said plates, but it was very nice crockery.

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The ostentatious display of wealth both angers me and makes me extremely jealous.

The owners of these plates belonged to the Hofburg’s builders. It was once home to the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s royal family, the Hapsburgs. One particular Hapsburg has enchanted the popular imagination here in Austria – Empress Elizabeth, otherwise known as Sisi. Beautiful, eccentric and rather rebellious, she was beloved by the people (Hungarians specifically, as she actually bothered to learn their language) and has been immortalised on both the stage and screen.

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This is she. It’s crazy how beautiful she is. I want to know who her stylist is.

Long story short, she was a German aristocrat who was thrust into the insane spotlight and ridiculous protocols that came along with marrying the Emperor of Austria, which wasn’t even her idea in the first place. She hated everything about court life, and by modern standards, her erratic behaviour – such as suffering from long periods of melancholy and withdrawing from those close to her – implies she was seriously depressed.

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The dress she wore to her coronation in Hungary – her waist was just 20 inches.

The only thing she found solace in was her renowned beauty, but it came at great cost. She’d eat very little, weighing just 45 kilos, and would exercise vigorously. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but her bedroom had a ton of wooden gym equipment, such as a ladder and hoops. It was weirdly similar to a primary school gymnasium, but inside a palace bedroom.

Naturally, people hated her for these unladylike habits – but being a woman in the spotlight, they probably would have found something else to hate her for, if not this. Sisi’s hair came down to her ankles, and took a day to wash. Brings a whole new meaning to the excuse “Can’t come today mate, washing my hair”.

After the age of 32, Sisi withdrew completely from public life, and refused to sit for photographs of portraits. She wanted her youthful beauty to be the image people knew of her, and apparently 32 was past-it in those days. She continued her exercise and strict fasting regimens, though. She probably had some kind of eating disorder, which was exacerbated by tragic events in her life, such as the suicide of her only son. The Empress herself was assassinated while holidaying in Italy, but her life was momentarily prolonged by the pressure applied to the stab wound by her tightly-laced corset.

I can’t say I usually care much for royals, but Sisi’s fate was a sad one.

But I’m on me holiday, so I can’t be sad for long. Me, Terri and her boyfriend headed out to a party in the ‘non-touristy’ 8th district of Vienna. I was embarrassed by my complete inability to speak German, only being able to muster “meine Deutsche ist schiezer” – roughly translating to “my German is shit”. Sounds about right. Thankfully, music is universal, so I managed to communicate with my infamous dance moves. Terri’s urbane friends probably thought I was a moron.

Waking up with the mildest of hangovers this morning as the warm sun shone through the window – much to my drowsy annoyance – I headed out of the city to see the incredible Schonbrunn Palace, which was #1 on my list of things to see in Vienna from the start. The summer residence of the Hapsburgs, including Empress Maria Theresa, Sisi and her husband Franz-Joseph, the yellow mansion is a spectacular sight.

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It’s also Vienna’s foremost landmark, despite lying on the outskirts of the city.

After going on a quest to find a free toilet, I headed on inside, audioguide in hand. It told me of the palace’s fascinating history, how its occupants lived, and the important visitors it had received in its heyday. There was a bit of recycled information from the Sisi Museum at the Hofburg, but I guess it’s to be expected.

Something I really loved about this palace was that you could get up and close to the splendour – in the Great Hall, for example, you were afforded the opportunity touch part of the ornate wall decorations and sumptuous hangings. Again, the no photo rule prevented me from showing anything of the palace’s gorgeous interior, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to Google it.

If you’re on a tight budget and don’t want to pay to go inside the palace, most of the gardens at the Schonbrunn are completely free. You can spend hours here, and there’s even a zoo with some adorable new leopard cubs to see (although you have to pay for that). Perhaps the most iconic part of the gardens is the Gloriette, a pavilion designed by empress Maria Theresa that sits atop a fairly big hill.

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Gloriette poking up at the top. My life in Bristol prepared me for this moment.

Once you’ve climbed the hill, you’re greeted with unparalleled views of the palace and the surrounding city.  Hopefully the view alone has made the climb worthwhile – though I should probably add that there is a land train to save the walk.

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Wasn’t the best day to forget my sunglasses.

Some people brought picnics up there with them, which was a stroke of genius on their part. All I’d had were a couple of angel cake slices to keep me going, so I trundled back down the hill and headed into the city to get some lunch. With the weather reaching a balmy 23 degrees, I treated myself to a cheeky ice cream, too. Because I’m on holiday, so I’m going to act like a tourist.

The last thing on my list for the day was to see Stephansplatz, where Vienna’s beautiful cathedral is. There’s also about 50 guys dressed as Mozart who will try to sell you something, but if you can dodge them you can admire the church’s elegant simplicity.

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I went inside because it was free.

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Yep, looks like a church. Moving on.

My poor feet had done about 20,000 steps at this point, so were crying out to go home. I wandered back to Terri’s flat slowly, soaking up the sun and the delightful atmosphere of old Vienna. Something I find fascinating about the city is that the Ottomans really, really wanted it – the border of their Empire stretched right up to about ten miles away, but they never quite conquered the city. Seeing the old city, it’s easy to see why they were so keen. Who wouldn’t want to have this beautiful place on the Danube all to themselves?

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I think this shopping arcade is from the 19th century, but it gives you a sense of the prettiness of the place.

That about concludes the story of the past two days. It’s like my version of Travel Man, but far less explanatory, or indeed useful. Tonight, we’re heading to a Pakistani restaurant (because I can never be too far away from Anaab’s food), so hopefully the spice will clear my congested sinuses. A demain, folks.


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