Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Tonight might be short because it’s nearly midnight already and we’ve had another exhaustive day of heavy walking and are looking forward to an early morning. Fortunately(?), full as our day was it contained relatively few individual activities—we stayed focused today.
When we woke up we found it raining, and the temperature had descended with the rain, so we scrapped plans for an early-morning jaunt up to the Hundtertwasserhaus (we might try again another day) and headed straight for the subway. Our destination: Schloss Shönbrunn, the former summer palace of the Habsburgs. Today it’s a vast museum of the Empire, but Jennifer and I had elected to forego the palace itself and focus instead on the grounds, which include a large maze and a labyrinth, several flower gardens, a wooded area, walking paths, dozens and dozens of statues and several impressive fountains, and even fake Roman ruins added by one of the emperors to give the illusion of some connection between the Habsburgs and the Roman Empire. There’s also a sprawling and highly embellished triumphal arch call the Gloriette, but it closes for the winter. But our real destination was the Tiergarten, the zoo housed on the grounds of the Schönbrunn. It’s described as the oldest zoo in the world, having evolved from the private royal menagerie kept by Franz Stephan in the mid-18th century, and because of this description I’d half expected it to be a simple affair of a few dozen wild animals—a zebra, a few moneys, maybe a big cat—but when we arrived we found a vast and extremely well-designed zoo spread across a huge area, including a wooded hillside with a treetop catwalk overlooking timberwolves and owls. Among the pleasanter discoveries were a small red panda, a pair of snoozing koalas, a European lynx, and a small but well-executed rain forest. We missed the lions because their habitat was being cleaned (we think), and the tigers were restive and barely visible, but the elephants were active, we got very close to the giraffes, and we spent several minutes petting a housecat named Sergei, who lurked in the doorway of the monkey house and invited us inside (we think he belongs to one of the employees, which is how we learned his name).
The monkey house, too, is worth mentioning, because despite the updates required of a modern zoo, the architecture remains the Baroque original and retains much of its old charm, as does the octagonal pavilion in which Franz Stephan and the royal family once ate their breakfasts among the animals—the enchanting building operates now as an excellent little café, but it has retained the ornamented wooden walls and the painted dome ceiling depicting Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all original to the pavilion.
We had a delightful time, but the zoo required a LOT of walking—again—and so after a long, cold, wet adventure, we decided to pack it in and head back into the city, where we hoped to put in a little shopping before finding dinner and heading back to the hotel. However, on the way into the city, I talked Jennifer into visiting the genuine Roman ruins in the heart of the Innere Stadt, just north of the Stephansdom on Hoher Markt. There, excavations have uncovered the foundations of the ancient Roman fort of Vindobona, an important military outpost during the wars with the Germanic tribes and a common stop for Marcus Aurelius—according to some sources, he might even have died here. As a fan of Stoicism and a reader of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, I was thrilled to learn of the connection and was anxious to find the ruins. Today, not much exists in public view, but what archaeologists have unearthed is very well presented in a small but excellent museum built over the foundations of two soldiers’ homes. The basement level is particularly fascinating, as here they have not only preserved the foundations in such a way that you can walk through them, but they also display some of the inner workings of the home, including the ingenious underfloor heating system. Upstairs are displays and videos on everything from fortress construction and religious beliefs to funeral rites and Roman toilets, and there are several great interactive exhibits for kids (which I’m unashamed to count myself among, because I played with the toys, too!).
Still, it had been a long day already and by the time we slipped south again to put in some shopping, we both were feeling more in the legs than we’d thought we would, so instead of an extensive shopping tour we decided to head back to the Spittelberg Christmas markets, where we sipped glühwien (mulled wine) as we browsed for Christmas gifts, and for our “dinner” we simply grabbed a handful of specialty cakes and pastries and ate a dinner of desert back in our hotel room.
Jennifer and I enjoyed a healthy trip to the hotel’s sauna, watched a sad but terrific movie on BBC, and then Jennifer called her mother to wish her a happy birthday, and now we both are collapsing, so that’s it for tonight. Tomorrow, more adventure awaits.