I wrote about Vienna last year. The city is fast becoming my favorite European destination. There seems always something new to discover or experience here. After about 10 visits in the last few years I'm still enjoying new discoveries. A week ago I wrote about still getting excited about certain aspects of European travel, even after 17 years of guiding. Vienna is one of those places that constantly reveals new angles. To begin with, I'd never been here so late in the season. The Oct air is crisp and clear and the autumn sky is an intense blue. It felt good just to wander around and drink in the city's energy.
I arrived after dark and only had time to check into my hotel and grab some dinner. I chose the famous Figlmuller restaurant. For more than a century they've been serving Vienna's best Wienerschnitzel (literally: schnitzel Vienna style). The massive schnitzels are certainly Vienna's biggest, spilling off all sides of the plate. I once took a group to this tiny restaurant - they shoe-horned us into a tiny back room. It was very crowded but I loved it - one of the most memorable meals of any tour. My dinner was excellent and I left feeling completely stuffed.
One of the great pleasures of Vienna in the fall is the availability of Sturm. Sturm is an early press wine, barely fermented, which they only serve in the autumn. It is cloudy and sweet, comes in either red or white, is usually served in a small mug, and I've quickly acquired a taste for it. I had a glass with my Figlemuller dinner. The next day I stumbled upon an autumn market
which had a distinctly Sturm and Pumpkin (Kurbiss in German) theme. I had kurbiss sausage for lunch, sampled pumpkin cheese, applied some pumpkin oil to my lips, and watched children carving. Surrounded by Vienna's typically beautiful architecture, I had another mug of sturm with my lunch. I learned from the vendor that sturm is considered food rather than drink in Vienna. Thus, one does not make the traditional toast of "prost" before drinking. In fact, if you forget yourself and make that faux pas you are required to buy a round for your friends. Rather than toasting before they drink, they say "Mahlzeit", the Viennese version of Guten Appetite.
Since it was Sunday I had attended a mass/concert at the Augustiner church in the Hofburg Palace complex prior to my pumpkin/sturm-themed market lunch. It was an impressive service, more famous for its world-class choir, organist, and orchestra than for the content of its mass. I arrived just in time to slip into one of the last single seats available. The program included Haydn's Nicolaimesse, Mozart's Laudate Dominum, and Schubert's Auguste iam Coelestium. The acoustics were marvelous and the setting inspiring. I must admit the high liturgy of the mass, complete with responsive readings and incense, combined with the operatic-quality music, was very inspiring. I often talk of transcendent moments on tour - this was one for me.
In the afternoon I continued my wandering. Eventually I was ready for a break and found my way to a "Viennese living room" - one of her famed coffee houses. Locals all have their favorites. Tourists flock to the Sacher Cafe (for the cake) or the Mozart Cafe (for the name). But I like the venerable Tyrolerhof with its threadbare upholstered booths and well worn
wooden floors. Its not the most classy of coffee houses, but the waiters are still wearing tuxedos and the coffee still comes on a silver tray. Once you order you coffee the table is yours for as long as you like. Select a newspaper from the dozens available and relax. This is a Viennese institution I can get used to. I'm sure Starbucks had a look a Vienna's coffee culture as well as Italy's when they developed their marketing strategy.
My last stop of the day was the famous Vienna State Opera. In an attempt to keep opera accessible for everyone, a number of very affordable (3-4 euros) standing room tickets are sold for each performance. I went to see Verdi's Don Carlos. Sold out months ahead, I bought my standing ticket 5 minutes before the curtain. Granted, I was at the back of the standing section but people began to filter out after the first 30 minutes and I had a very good view after that. I must confess, opera is not my cup of tea and I too departed long before the closing act. In fact, I enjoyed the Augustiner concert much more. One last highlight of Vienna to mention - her horse-drawn carriages. Many of Europe's city's boast this service. But I have to say, in most cases I find it a bit on the campy side. Somehow riding around in Florence in a carriage seems both pretentious and incongruent with the historical setting. Vienna on the other hand, with its regal and imperial ambiance, its wide boulevards and 19th century architecture, and its famous Lipizzaner stallions, seems tailor-made and eminently appropriate for a carriage ride in the historic center. And I love the colorful ear coverings the horses wear in cold weather. Even the horses seem to get imperial treatment in this town! Paris is . . . well, Paris. Prague is architecturally stunning. Barcelona is energetic. Rome is a lasagna of historical layers. But for my money, Vienna is the greatest city in Europe.