Vienna, Austria: City of Musicians

Vienna, Austria —

Vienna: Grand, Fun, Musical, and Tasty

I have said many times that my love of travel has most often been focused on small towns and villages — Varenna, with it’s population of 800, first among them — as opposed to the major cities that seem to occupy the most space in travel sections of newspapers and bookstores. But a handful of cities  has risen to a short list of ‘favorite’ places we have visited; and Vienna is one of them.
We had the advantage of staying in a lovely suite in a small hotel, Pension Nosek, with two balconies hanging directly over Vienna’s wonderful Graben (pronounced GRAH-ben). The Graben is regularly transformed from a near-deserted pedestrian square to a bustling festival of music, jugglers, mimes, and horse carriages. (Pictures will be added later.) It is a neighborhood that seems to know how to have a good time without being too loud or intimidating.
For the ‘Fashionistas’ among us (and you know who you are), a stroll down the Graben and its side streets provides a window-shoppers paradise with all of the Louis Voiton, Geox, Versace, Cartier, etc, you would find on the Champs Elyses, Rockefeller Center, Florence, or San Francisco. On this street, you can see dozens of:
2,500-euro dresses
700-euro blouses
500-euro purses
400-euro pairs of shoes
to choose from ($1.21 = 1 euro today).
I was delighted each time we walked away from one of these.

Vienna has been known as the city of musicians for hundreds of years and the name still works. Mozart is everywhere — his music as well as Mozart look-alikes selling tickets to tonight’s performance.
Before we left home, we did something we recommend — ordered tickets months ago to a concert at Vienna’s magnificent Musikverein (a photo is in my email). The most beautiful of it’s four concert halls — The Golden Hall — is worth the price of admission just to sit and look up at it for two hours, soaking up its loveliness. When we sat down and said aloud, “This is beautiful!” an older lady sitting behind us at our terrific seats told us, “and it is very old, 1817, and was not destroyed.” In Vienna, which has been in the midst of much modern warfare, the expression “was not destroyed” is used with great feeling. The golden interior design and sparkling chandeliers are breathtaking.
As for the music, I ordered our tickets based on the date we would be there and a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic in the beautiful Golden Hall. The specific musical program was not my choice. I will say only: the twentieth century produced some brutal music. The pieces we heard successfully conveyed the tension, fear, and unresolved dissonance of war-torn Europe. I am glad we had such beauty to look at during the concert.
Fortunately, the city provided much more listenable music — and for free. At the grand entrance on Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, an orchestra and soprano performed outdoors for a large crowd gathered in front of the palace. Also for free was a Baroque quartet performing in St. Peter’s church just a block off the Graben.

That brings us to churches; we visited two in Vienna: St. Stephen’s cathedral and St. Peter’s.  St. Stephen’s, as we see it today, was built between 1300-1450, when Vienna had a population of only ten thousand. It was part of a campaign to elevate the status of the city by convincing Rome to assign a bishop to it by providing a church grand enough for a bishop. Today it is still oversized for its immediate surroundings — pressed in close on every side by the modern city, so much so that it is impossible to get far enough away to get an unobstructed view (or photo) of it. It is black-stained on the outside and dark on the inside, typical of cathedrals of it’s style and time. A blue-laser projected light show drew the attention of lots of cameras; but I hesitate to speculate on any other purpose for it. It didn’t seem to fit the ambiance of a 500-year-old cathedral.
The other church we visited was St. Peter’s — the one I mentioned with the quartet. It turned out that Friday night was the annual ‘long night of the church’ during which churches all over the city are open all night and some have special events (like the free music we enjoyed). We decided that this church had the most beautiful interior of any we have seen. Gretta’s artistic eye was drawn to the wonderful array of colors and the stunning contrast of the many bright shades of blue and the pervasive gold appointments everywhere. (Pictures to come.)

The Food
Our experience of food on Vienna was a surprise. I will reveal here that the best gelato we have tasted anywhere is NOT in Italy (heresy!). It is in a little shop right here beneath our balcony on the Graben.  Zanzoni & Zanzoni is run by an Italian couple — the best gelato anywhere.
My second embarrassing revelation is that the best lasagna I have eaten anywhere is also here on the Graben at The Europa Cafe. No foolin’. Light, soft noodles and a deep, rich Southey-Italian sauce that stood up to a complex Sicilian Nero d’Avola red wine. And the best Apple Strudel is, well, everywhere; BUT, it is all second to Gretta’s apple pie (but you knew that).
Wine here is sort of random–Pinot from France, Rhinewein from this neighborhood, even a little Proseco from Italy–but we have been going to cafes here in Vienna and not the fancier restaurants that would have greater selection.

The ‘cafe life’ on the Graben (lunch and dinner at the Europa Cafe) is delightful except for the smoke. I believe they have a new indoor smoking ban here but that means that the outdoor cafes are the place to go for smokers. Smoking here is not American-style smoking, it appears to be the primary method of conveying one’s personality — like in old movies, with the prolonged inhaling, stylized holding aloft of the cigarette, and the dramatic directional exhaling they seem to relish so much. It probably is not good news that we are getting used to it.

Vienna is fun and friendly; it is grand with a sense of humor; it is musical and brimming with good food. I also observe that Vienna is less expensive than Venice and has more places to sit and enjoy the gelato.  Altogether, it turns out to be our favorite city in Europe.

2 Responses “Vienna, Austria: City of Musicians”

  1. Andrea says:

    Vienna sounds WONDERFUL (sans the ciggy smoke). Can’t wait to go there…maybe next year.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Dan – After your food experiences in Vienna, perhaps you will not be surprised that the best pizza I (and Peter) have ever eaten was from a small pizzaria in Vienna. The brick oven was presided over by an Italian named Mario. I am pleased you enjoyed Vienna. Three years living in Vienna was the experience of a lifetime. It is a magnificent city.