Vienna: Day 6

Day 6

Thursday, December 3, 2009

We have had as solid a last day as I could have hoped for, made all the better for its spontaneity—while we knew the handful of things we wanted to fit in today, we weren’t sure we’d get around to them all or in what order we’d do them, but in the end we managed everything we’d planned as well as an impromptu trip, and we picked up a few last-minute souvenirs. Then, to crown our day and our vacation, we went to a recommended vegetarian restaurant down near the Schönbrunn and not only had a good meal in a delightfully atmospheric restaurant but also got to experience Viennese long-form dining at its fullest, spending (not entirely willingly) a full three and a half hours at dinner.

Which put us back at our hotel late, meaning we started packing late, meaning I have precious little time left for this entry and will have to revisit the last few days in a final mammoth entry later. But such is the nature of vacation—sometimes this sort of leisure writing makes way for other forms of leisure, and especially in my case I usually wind up tidying up the recounting in the days following vacation, which has actually served me well over the years, because it gives me a chance to relive our adventures and solidify my memories.

But the memories would be far less worth having if they didn’t include Jennifer, so I think I’ll set this aside for now and join my wife for our last hours in Vienna, because that’s really the point in all these travels anyway—to have our adventures together.

2:40 am

Day 6 follow-up:

Jennifer and I had been wanting to drop by the Hundertwasserhaus since our friend Steve Bowman recommended everything Hundertwasser-related, but I’d been waiting for a bright sunny morning to see the multicolored building at its best. On the other hand, we’d come to Vienna for some much-needed cold fall weather, and while the first few days were cool but sunny, the latter half of our vacation was exactly what we’d hoped for: overcast, windy, and quite chilly. Which meant that when our final day in Vienna dawned gray and cold, we shrugged and decided to head out to the Hundertwasserhaus anyway, because it was now or never, and we definitely didn’t want to miss this childish delight.

From what I’d read of Hundertwasser, the guy seems rebelliously whimsical, bored as he was with the austere blocks of concrete that seemed to dominate Austrian architecture during the first half of the 20th century. His reaction is almost excessively in the other direction—he refused to draw straight lines, splashed every surface he could find with all manner of incongruous colors, and seemed to revel in mixing artistic style almost at random. He’s like a child who all his life have been using eight crayons to bubble in the little black outlines of a coloring book and suddenly, for Christmas, receives a pad of blank white paper and the big box of 128 Crayolas and a pack of glue sticks and glitter and told, “Have fun, kid!” The result is a delight, as much fun to behold as it must have been to create, and Jennifer and I had a lot of fun just walking around the building. But our favorite find—Jennifer’s discovery, actually—was not officially connected to the building at all. Across the street, as a diversion for overly curious tourists (the Hundertwasserhaus is still a private apartment complex, and the residents get a little weary of people like us poking around their homes), Hundertwasser’s admirers have set up a kitschy little souvenir boutique, and outside, on an arrow pointing into the shop, Jennifer found a sign reading “Toilet of Modern Art.” It seemed somehow simultaneously a legitimate directional sign and a comment on the effusive art-related souvenirs found within (or even on the art itself).

Our last day seemed a day for catching up on things we didn’t want to miss, because after Hundertwasserhaus, we hopped on a series of trams and worked our way over to the Upper Belvedere. We weren’t sure we’d get over to it this trip. But on our tour of the Danube valley our fellow travelers raved about the art collection there so enthusiastically that we decided we had to fit it in. Besides, as impressed as we were with the Klimts on display at the Leopold, we knew the grand prizes were at the Belvedere: Klimt’s “The Kiss” and “Judith I.” Plus, Jennifer had fallen in love with Schiele’s art, and the Belvedere boasted a healthy collection of some of Schiele’s best as well.

Klimt’s work was indeed phenomenal to behold in person. I have always loved “The Kiss,” though of course I’d only ever seen it in art books and poster shops and on postcards. Seeing it in person illuminates the true depth of the painting, the most intriguing aspect of which is the way it plays with light. I had always assumed that Klimt’s highly detailed figures wrapped in very flat, stylized cloaks and clothing was a means both of trapping the figures in two-dimensional space and of showing off the human form, alive against that flat, dead surrounding. And indeed from one angle this is precisely how it looks, and the effect in person is even more striking, because you can see the fine brushstrokes and textures in the figures. (The Belvedere also displays some of Klimt’s unfinished works, which reveal that he liked to paint his human being fully and in great detail before swathing them in flat clothes, as though in process he wanted to acknowledge the living person underneath the painted clothes.) But then you move to the other side and catch the painting in the light, and something interesting happens: The muted gray and pink fleshtones of the human form recede to the background as the gold and silver paints of the clothing catch the light and flare up in almost religious illumination. The paintings wind up looking like the negatives of themselves, the colors and their effects transverse to produce an opposite painting every bit as powerful as the original. For an artist who was so fond of playing with dimension and perspective, and who was so technically proficient, this cannot be just an accidental trick of the light, and it was wonderful to discover.

After a light (and somewhat disappointing) snack at the Belvedere’s café, we headed back into the Innere Stadt to try for the Stephansdom catacombs we’d missed a few days earlier. I was a bit disappointed that I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the catacombs, and our guide seemed almost bored with his own tour, but the catacombs were precisely what I’d hoped to see. They aren’t as extensive or, indeed, as grisly as the vast catacombs under other European cities, but they were somber and cold and rife (literally) with the history they represented, particularly in the mass plague graves where the stale odor of rot lingers like wet leaves in the shallow-roofed corridors, the blackened shreds of ancient clothing like burned paper still visible among the disheveled piles of ribs, thigh bones and skulls. When we emerged out a back stairs into the gray daylit square of the Stephansplatz, we all were a bit relieved to be among the living (and, smartly, the tour waits to charge your fee at the back door, jokingly threatening not to let you out until you pay!).

To celebrate and, as I’d wanted to do our first trip to the Stephansdom, to complement our subterranean tour with an elevated view of the city, we headed north across the Danube canal to the Prater, the giant park filled half with deep wild forest and half with a glittering old amusement park. It was once the private hunting grounds for the Imperial family, but in the 18th century the Emperor gifted it to the city as public grounds and it quickly became the most popular spot in Vienna, great for family picnics, casual hikes, and—very soon after it become public—a fun fair full of old-fashioned games and rides. It remains so today, and while it was sparsely populated on the chilly autumn afternoon when we went, it was still a fun place to be. We’d come, of course, to ride the giant Reisenrad, the Ferris wheel made famous in movies like The Third Man and our beloved Before Sunrise. We hopped aboard and road our circuit more or less quietly, observing the city as though in farewell, and when we descended from our red railroad-like boxcar, we were ready for a quiet coffee in a traditional Viennese coffeehouse to wrap up our afternoon.

Jennifer had the terrific idea to head out to the Café Benno, where there is a small but recommended Kaffeemuseum. I’d read about it in one of our tour guides but wasn’t sure we’d be able to fit it in, but now, in search of coffee and wanted to get in the best of Vienna before we left, Jennifer insisted it’d be worth the trip out of the city center to find it, and indeed she was right. The now-traditional Viennese coffeehouse is a modern but charming hybrid of traditional coffee shop and hip bohemian pub, and the Café Benno seems the perfect embodiment of that ideal. The wood-paneled walls are covered in quirky, coffee-related décor like antique signage and various coffee-making apparatus as well as loads of pop art and posters. Best of all, they serve a special version of the Viennese café mélange (a small coffee something like a mix between a cappuccino and a latte, but in a double-espresso-sized cup); the Benno mélange comes topped with cinnamon smiley face!

The big treat for me, of course, was the Kaffeemuseum, really just a broom closet stuffed with display cases, but the displays were excellent and included coffee urns and pots from all over the world (including Persia, Turkey, and Morocco), every variety of bean grinder ever invented, and several bizarre and ingenious brewers, some with multiple hoses and gears that looked something like alien torture devices or machines for milking cows. There were also displays of coffee bean varieties, coffee containers, and coffee cups, and a few very cool displays on early coffeehouse culture and the near-vitriolic outcry against the evils of coffee (and the equally vehement supporting ads and editorials promoting coffee and coffee culture!). I loved every inch of that tiny “museum”!

After coffee we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner, which we’d arranged to eat at the hip and highly recommended Hollerei Vegetarian Restaurant (where we also had a discount thanks to our Wienkart, a special promotional card for visitors to Vienna). We’d been hearing, too, about the leisurely dining in Vienna, how you can—and should—spend hours in any Viennese café or restaurant and shouldn’t expect anything approaching “fast” service from a Viennese server. So far we’d avoided that cliché, partly by asking for our bill early in the meal, but on this night we wound up in a restaurant slammed with two large parties and only two servers on staff, one who was learning the ropes her first day on the job and the other who was training her. So we spent a full three and a half leisurely hours nibbling, chatting, and waiting around, and it was very, very late by the time we got back to the hotel.

We packed, we searched the room for any sundries we might have left lying in the closet or behind the desk, we set our alarms, and we collapsed. We’d done our share of walking through Vienna and beyond, and the day ahead was all sitting—on a subway, on a train, in an airport, on a plane….. Still, reluctant though we were to leave this beautiful city, we knew we’d nearly exhausted it and ourselves, and would leave the next morning satisfied that we’d done all the Vienna a person can manage in a week. It was a stupendous little holiday and we can already add Vienna to our list of favorite cities in the world.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

10:47 p.m.

(Tomorrow: Final thoughts and things I missed!)

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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