Wednesday, December 2, 2009
I’m not sure how to briefly write about today, and it will have to be brief because it’s very late and tomorrow is our last day. In some respects, today actually felt like two days, one a trip down the Danube to tiny medieval villages and a vast Baroque abbey, and the other a long evening stroll through the Christmas market and a delightful carriage ride through the city center. In one of the todays, we endured a trio of obnoxious tourists, and in the other today we endured a viciously unpleasant film; but in one of our todays we followed a goofy and pleasant tour guide through quaint little hillside villages and another mousy but delightful guide through a sprawling monastic complex, and in the other we savored an impromptu treat of hot potato wedges, fresh donut-like desserts and hot glühwien before riding through ancient narrow streets on a horse-drawn carriage piloted by the most charming and adorably stereotypical little mustachioed Austrian driver.
But sleep and who knows how many tomorrows are calling to me now, and this, my shortest entry, will have to wait till another day for the fuller details.
Day 5 follow-up:
As our trip has sifted through the mental filters, I’d have expected the details to intermingle, like two colors of sand sieved into the same bowl, but indeed the separate days I first described have stayed that way, and the largest part of our Wednesday—our tour of the Wachau region in the Danube valley—has far outweighed the brief evening that followed it.
We woke that morning supremely sore first from our long hike out to the Friedhof der Namenlosen then our drizzly tour through the Schönbrunn zoo, and we were glad this day to be spending most of our tour on a bus. After meeting our guide (a chipper, funny man with limp disheveled curls who, Jennifer said, looked like an Austrian Michael Palin), we settled into our bus seats and gazed out the huge windows as the city slipped past and we ascended into the foothills. As we crossed the Danube for the first time, the tour guide began humming the Blue Danube Waltz into the buzzing microphone and then explained how lucky we were to see the Danube blue, as it reportedly only appears to people in love. Jennifer and I wanted to take credit for the color of the river, but in fact there was also a delightful older Scottish couple who seemed very much in love and, just across from us for most of the bus ride, a young honeymooning couple, so Jennifer and I had some help turning the Danube blue.
Along the way we marveled at little villages tucked away in the hillsides and towering church steeples reflected in the waters, and all Jennifer and I gasped when we came into sight of the Dürnstein Castle, a ruined medieval fortress where Leopold V, Duke of Austria, briefly held captive Richard the Lionheart, King of England. In the late winter of 1192, Richard was on his way home from the Crusades, where he’d offended the Duke by denying him credit in sacking a city, and as he passed through the Austrian Empire the Duke saw an opportunity and had the King kidnapped and held for ransom. Of course, kidnapping a crusader was against Church law at the time, and it got Leopold V excommunicated. Our tour guide apologized on behalf of the Austrians and claimed they were still ashamed of the episode, but then he delightedly explained that Leopold used his share of the English ransom money to build a new city, Wiener Neustadt, which—our guide declared—was intended to benefit future tourists to Austria.
About halfway through our drive we stopped in a little town called Krems, or, more fully, Krems an der Donau. The town today is actually a melding of three medieval villages, Krems, Und, and Stein, and for some reason the old gates leading into the once-separate walled cities are named backward: when we alit from the bus for a short walking tour and shopping trip (on which I bought a fantastic tweed hat), we walked into the dolled-up downtown Krems through the Steiner Tor, while the matching gate leading into Stein is called Kremsor Tor. Whatever the reasons behind the gate names, the towns are today, as far as I could tell, indistinguishable, and the little cobblestone shopping lane through downtown Krems was window-dressed and sugarcoated but charming nonetheless, mostly because no matter what they did to try and evoke a romanticized Renaissance atmosphere, the streets were undeniably medieval in their narrowness and the winding, organic way they lay against the hillside.
The same was true of Emmersdorf an der Donau, where we had lunch at a little hotel restaurant called Zum schwarzen Bären (The Black Bear), as well as the tiny village of Melk, our final destination for the day. Melk, actually, was a kind of detour: our true destination was the Melk Stift, a huge Benedictine abbey settled inside a medieval fortress that in early 18th century had been renovated with much elaborate glitz and pomp in the Baroque style, but we’d arrived early for our scheduled tour and our guide led us down steep stone stairs into the narrow Melk.
But charming as these little towns and villages were, the crowning jewel was definitely the abbey, a huge complex that despite its Baroque extravagance retains its monastic solemnity. Sure, the ceilings were richly painted in wild and sometimes surprising frescos, and yes, the columns and friezes and altars were literally dripping in gold, and okay, the museum section of the abbey was jarringly modern. But the atmosphere was restrained, and frankly, the ceilings were beautiful, the gold-drenched the architecture and furniture were so dimly lit that they offered a kind of quiet warmth, and the museum was so intriguingly designed along a kind of metaphorical narrative that I felt pulled through it. The Stiftkirche, the huge cathedral at the rear of the complex, was especially beautiful, particularly seen from the long curving terrace across the back edge of the complex, which also overlooked Melk and the Danube valley in a stunning panorama.
But for Jennifer and me both, the highlight was the library, a tall multiroom wing of the abbey stacked with stuffed bookcases rising at least fourteen feet and displaying only a fraction of the library’s thousands and thousands of volumes. For Jennifer, the library held the same personal attraction of all libraries, since she is herself a librarian. I confess that I, too, was thrilled at the library, partly because I’ve always viewed libraries as sanctuaries of learning, and being in an ecclesiastical library that was literary in a sanctuary was a secret treat for me. But more importantly, I was surprised to learn that the abbey’s library had long been devoted to combining religion and science, first as a repository for astronomical tomes (the main reading room included a large telescope) and most recently as host to a series of conferences on religion and science. Each of the delegates attending the annual conference contributed an essay recording their musings and conclusions, which was then sealed in a metal scroll-tube and installed in a large figure-eight sculpture representing eternity; among the scrolls in the library was a contribution by former conference attendee the Dalai Lama (whose scroll is labeled simply “Tenzin Gyatso,” omitting his title).
Descending from the library, we made our way into the Stiftkirche and marveled at the huge, gilded interior and bizarre side altars. The latter held particular interest for me, especially the twin altars dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. Michael, each of which included a full—and very real—human skeleton of some anonymous martyr dressed in Baroque-era finery and reclining inside a glass display case. But the personal thrill was learning that the first side altar on the left, as you enter the church, was dedicated to St. Nicolas, a personal favorite of mine since I first saw his holy relics (a jaw bone, some fingers and a rib, as I recall) in a museum near his home city of Mira, Turkey. And, of course, we’d come to Vienna in part looking for a little Christmas spirit, as we were at the time only a few days away from St. Nicolas’s saint day of December 6, so it was a fortuitous find.
We napped in the early dark on the bus ride back to Vienna, but back in the city center, we decided we were in the Christmas spirit and headed out for a stroll through some of the Innere Stadt’s several Christmas markets, including the small affairs at Freyung and Am Hof, and then headed to the Stephansplatz to pick up a fiaker, one of the city’s traditional horse-drawn carriages. These rides exist in every major city in the world, I think—I remember seeing them running the circuit through downtown San Antonio, and we even have a few trotting around the Marina Mall here in Abu Dhabi—so we knew they might seem an absurdly touristy thing to do. But the fiakers in Vienna were in fact once the city’s official taxi service, and touristy though they might have become, they do have a legitimate history and purpose in the city, and when we met our fiaker driver, we knew we had to hop aboard. Our driver was a short, round gentleman with superbly practiced manners—when Jennifer approached him and said good evening in German (guten abend), he actually gave a small bow. We discussed prices and then he helped us both into the half-covered carriage, handed Jennifer a faux-fur blanket, and we were off. Mostly it was just a clopping trot through the same narrow old streets Jennifer and I had walked already, but it was nice to ride in style, and our driver had excellent and easy control over the horses. When we rounded our last slow corner and rolled in to the Stephansplatz again, I helped Jennifer down and then took out the camera, and before I could even ask, our driver gestured toward his horses and said in his thick accent, “Picture?” I nodded and said “Ja,” and he proudly posed with his horses—then waved Jennifer over to join him! She leaned over him (Jennifer was at least a head taller) and took his politely offered elbow, and then he stepped forward and motioned that I should join Jennifer with the horses so he could take our picture! A truly delightful man and a wonderful way to end our evening.
Friday, December 11, 2009