For my first visit to central and eastern Europe I choose to travel by river boat. This is a comfortable way to see many cities in a short time, since they are often located along major rivers. We arrive at the second of Vienna’s three train stations, then take a short taxi ride to our boat – the Uniworld River Princess. We will sail the Danube from here to Romania, drive to Bucharest then fly to Istanbul.
It’s April and early in the cruising season, so the boat is less than half full. Forty crew members will serve just 63 passengers. The service will be excellent – never an empty wine glass. Unlike ocean cruises, most of our time will be spent docked at river ports, surrounded by city lights casting their sparkly reflection on the river, often docked in the middle of the action. Before we even untie from this first dock, we’ll spend three days in Vienna.
Vienna is more than just schnitzel and Sacher torte. This Austrian capital was the seat of the power for the Hapsburg monarchs for four centuries. When not busy with plunder and conquest, the Hapsburg family were also great patrons of the arts. Mozart, Beethoven, Johann Strauss and many other notable composers lived here, adding immeasurably to the world’s cultural wealth. Today Vienna calls itself ‘the musical city.’ For a metropolitan area of under two million, they have a point. They support no less than three opera companies and five full orchestras. Together they offer thousands of performances every year. There are perhaps more classical music performances per capita in Vienna than any other major city.
We begin with the standard introductory half-day bus tour, in which we ride on a bus as a local guide rattles off the names of important buildings and statues, sprinkling the story with a few anecdotes, trying to condense five or six centuries of history into our afternoon excursion. Most of the architecture is old and attractive, with a pleasing degree of uniformity, from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The culture however is thoroughly modern. Global companies are all represented here and the city seems to balance the old with the new. One third of Vienna was destroyed during WWII, which our guide conveys in a positive light. Could have been much worse.
We visit the National Library with its collection of over 200,000 books. The ornate and cavernous room is a magnificent tribute to the value of knowledge, prized by ruling classes throughout human history. I gaze at the very tall bookshelves, accessed by tall ladders, filled with their leather-bound volumes, color-coded to distinguish between law, science and religious topics. Most of the books are in Latin. There are marble columns, endless wood shelves, magnificent marble floors, colorful frescoes hand-painted on the ceiling, and a pre-digital catalogue system. Uniformed workers move as quietly as mice, wearing cotton gloves as they carefully clean the books. And despite all of this beauty and the library’s central role in humanity’s march of progress, I cannot help but marvel at the power of our digital age. I have access to more knowledge on my iPhone than in this library. And there is probably an app to decorate my screen with marble columns. (If not, then you heard it here first.)
On our second evening in Vienna we are treated to a live show in one of Vienna’s many 19th century performance halls. Thirteen musicians plus four vocalist/dancers perform some of the most popular classical pieces. Marriage of Figaro, Waltz of the Blue Danube and other enduring crowd-pleasers entertain several hundred tourists for the evening.
My third day in Vienna is for exploring without tour guides. I buy an all-day subway ticket for 5 Euro, then take the subway with a dozen other passengers to explore the city. Two of us head to the Belvedere Palace to view their art collection. While navigating the subway and tram system, we make a few wrong turns and ask for directions. At one point, an older German gentleman, speaking fluent English, helps us. He lives in Germany, though frequently travels to Vienna because he enjoys it here. Today he is traveling with a young Russian woman. They join us in line to buy tickets and we stroll together toward the palace. Within less than 30 seconds of meeting these people, I somehow find myself discussing the causes of the two world wars. The gentleman was adamant that the first conflict was caused by Franz Joseph, and that this long-ruling Hapsburg patriarch, despite dying in 1916, somehow also caused WWII. The entire conversation lasted perhaps five or six minutes, so I didn’t have time to delve more deeply into his perspective, though he did agree with me that the punitive nature of the Treaty of Versailles was also a contributing factor in WWII. I wonder how many other people were wandering around Vienna this morning discussing Herr Joseph’s culpability?
We enter the palace, switching gears away from political history to art history. The most famous piece on display here is Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, and, as is typical in galleries, the original piece is much more impressive than in photographs or small reprints. The collection is pleasant to view, though not especially notable for those of us with limited knowledge of art history. The palace itself is impressive, affirming the old adage ‘it’s good to be king.’ We return to the subway and travel to the central district in search of a good meal.
It is the lunch hour and the central district is crowded with shoppers on the wide promenade. Cars are excluded in this part of town, so it’s a pleasant stroll. We find a nice upscale Italian restaurant, where I seamlessly switch from not understanding German to not understanding Italian. I point at the menu, ending up with a Tuscan bean soup, then a potato gnocchi with salmon. I finish with a cappuccino and biscotti, all the while watching the crowd. Young women hobble by, literally voting with their feet in the dilemma of sensible shoes versus stylish shoes. Some are sporting current European styles, while the younger ones dress in the more globally accepted fashion of youth, which is plain, dark, somewhat misfitting garments. It’s a look that is tough to pull off for the over-forty crowd.
After a wonderful meal we wander back toward the metro. We stamp our day passes in a machine at the subway entrance and board the train heading back to the river. Big mistake. Unbeknownst to us, we should not have stamped our tickets a second time. A plain-clothes train officer checks our tickets, notices that the double timestamp is unreadable, then escorts us off the train and announces that we each owe a fine of 100 Euros. We plead innocence – we are just hapless tourists and didn’t understand the system. He is all business, though polite and professional in demeanor. He reveals a trace of pity as he reduces our fine to 50 euro each, though it must be in cash, which we don’t have. So he escorts us out of the station and we follow him for several blocks to an ATM where we get Euros and pay him. Then he escorts us back to the station for a quick lesson in Viennese ticket purchasing. Having completed this embarrassing and costly mishap, we wish him a pleasant day and return to the train.
I take account of my day. I’ve debated WWII with German and a Russian, discussed gnocchi with an Italian, negotiated a subway violation with an Austrian. Tonight I’ll dine with Canadians as we enjoy a fine meal cooked by Bulgarians, served by Slovakians, in a dining room managed by a Hungarian, on a boat run by a Dutchman. All of which makes traveling such a pleasure, subway fines notwithstanding.
Sometime after midnight the boat will untie from the dock and sail 80 kilometers to Bratislava, carrying us out of Austria toward that small and contentious region of the world knows as the Balkan peninsula.