Friday, June 24, 2005

Vienna: The Gift Shop at the Top of the Universe

The Stephansdom.

Two connections and sixteen hours later, Eric makes it to Vienna. And immediately falls in love with Viennese efficiency on the new CAT airport train. A few misdirected steps around the Stephansdom later, he manages to get to the Hotel Konig von Ungarn, where Mary Ellen and her Dad have been already relaxing in the blessed air-conditioning of their luxury suite (no kidding about that!)

Eric’s going to go for the 38 hour mark, however (go, Eric, go!), and rolls himself into the shower, pulls on some khakis and sandals, and we’re off!

To lunch, because of course, that’s the first thing on everyone’s mind, always. We go in search of a restaurant recommended in the guidebook and can’t locate it (the guidebook, we later discover has a misprint) but we end up outside the old University a couple of blocks from our hotel at a student hangout called Inigo’s. Prices are low, portions are large, beer is cold, everyone is happy.

After lunch we notice we’re opposite the Jesuit church, which looks fairly plain from the outside, but when you step inside, blows your eyeballs out with Baroque gilding and mock architectural murals on the ceiling. As we wander the place, a group of some twenty earnest looking young men pile into one of the pews, pray hard for about five minutes, and then leave. Soccer team? Jesuits priests? Or participants in the new “Five Minutes to Heavenly Abs” regime? We may never know.

There’s a concert of the Schubert mass scheduled for Sunday morning, so already discussion ensues about what musical events we’ll be going to hear.

Stephansdom - The Gift Shop at the Top of the Universe
Our next target -- after changing some euros, making a dinner reservation and most importantly, locating a WC—is Stephansdom, the Gothic monolith of a cathedral at the heart of the Old Town.

Outside, all three of us make a beeline for the poster advertising Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the cathedral on Saturday. Unfortunately it conflicts with our plans to hear the Vienna Philharmonic. They are in fact also playing a Gounod mass on Sunday at the same time as the one at the Jesuitkirche. One hour in Vienna and already we have too many musical choices.

A Dominican monk stands at the door trying to sell cheesy booklets to benefit the handicapped children, one of which my Dad buys, and promptly sets down someplace inside the cathedral, saying he did his part. Inside this Catholic cathedral though, things look a little more Protestant than in the Jesuit’s church – less in the way of painting or gilding, or decoration of anything really. We wander through the building which is already overrun by camera-wielding tourists just like us, but Eric decides that he’d like to get high…

Outside there’s a small un-prepossessing door that leads to a man, who is pleased to charge you 3 Euros to climb yourself silly. Of course we don’t realize this at the time and happily pass through the turnstile and start heading up the stone, spiral stairway. The narrow, stone, spiral stairway. The dark, narrow, stone, spiral stairway. Did I mention there was no railing?

About a quarter of the way up, we thought might almost be there, when we passed a woman on the way down. (Did I mention there was no railing and it was narrow? And dark?) Eric bounded ahead like a mountain goat, while Dad and I struggled up the 465th step (about halfway). Did I mention there was no railing?

Admittedly, the views through the narrow slit windows are wonderful, and you can see the tiled roof in all its glory from the stairs.

We arrived at the old bell room (About halfway—okay, two-thirds up.) More stairs. Eric bounded ahead. Suddenly we heard a voice echoing through the stone spiral, “You’re almost there.” Yeah, sure. “You gotta see this!” Uh-huh, puff, puff.

As we came up the last of the 1035 steps, we found Eric sitting gnome-like on the doorway of…a cheery, brightly lit gift shop. At the top of the spire. At the end of the Universe. Struggling for enlightenment? Trying to get closer to God? Well, folks, thereÂ’s a postcard and rosary shop at the end of your pilgrimage. Did God and redemption await when the Crusaders got to Jerusalem? Or maybe just cheap slides and T-shirts?

The thing that got us thinking was that, someone – maybe the novice monks?—had to carry all that crap up the stairs. The cards, the rosaries, the slides, the postcard rack, the cash register, AND the telescopic binocular machines that afford you a view over Vienna for 1 Euro. No T-shirts that said “I Climbed Closer to God and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” though, danke schon.

The gift shop at the top of the universe

Well that was enough of that.

We went back down – enough to make you nauseous going around the spiral, let me tell you! – and headed for our first cafe down the Graben.

Cafe Hawelka and the discovery of Eiskaffee

A few steps from the dom, hidden down a little side street called Dorotheergasse, there was, just as described in several books, a quiet, slightly musty-looking place called Cafe Hawelka. Also as promised, at the doorway, Leopold, the founder, who is now at age 90-plus, sits on a stool, greeting everyone with a “Gruss Gott” as you enter.

We sink into one of the striped overstuffed couches opposite a little cafe table and take in the atmosphere, which is circa 1930’s, wood paneling with well worn booths and tables, that look like they’ve served everyone from Kafka to, well, us.

In the book I read about something heavenly called “Eiskaffee” –made with coffee and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. You can get it “mit schlagobers” (which would be whipped cream) or “ohne schlagobers” (which would be without whipped cream.) Definitely “mit.”

There are tourists like us posted in various corners of the room, but also people who look much more attuned to cafe pacing who are reading the newspapers and writing. It’s a pretty far cry from Starbucks, although I do feel they could benefit from wireless access if they want to keep the young writers coming here.

We suck down the eiskaffee with unearthly speed. Ooops. So much for the tradition of lingering for hours over your drink. But we do hang out for at least half an hour, at which point it’s obvious from our heads, which droop like fading wildflowers, that we need to go back to the hotel for a siesta.

We went back to the blessed air-conditioning of our hotel, figuring God can always find us there if He needs us. We’re planning on instituting the siesta in the afternoon.

Dinner at the Restaurant Slightly Lower Than the Top of the Universe, But Which Has an Elevator
Do & Co.

First night in Vienna and our first restaurant from the Let’s Go book recommendations is a big hit. Do & Co is above Stephansdomplatz in what is surely Vienna’s Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a bustling tourist filled shopping area right around Stephansdom, in the heart of old Vienna. All in all much more interesting than the Wharf, what with the combination of a huge gothic cathedral intermixed with street performers painted silver and barkers trying to sell you tickets to a “Mozart Concert” in which all the musicians are dressed up in powdered wigs and they play “The Blue Danube Waltz” and “Eine Kliene Nacht Musik” over and over.

Well, up the elevator to the 7th floor and a table outside overlooking the platz, it’s dinner time.

The view from our table on the balcony at Do & Co.

This meal started with white asparagus, or “spargel,” with a small boat of hollandaise sauce to drizzle over them. I now understand why this veggie is such a big deal here. Unbelievably creamy, sweet and vegetal, this is not anything like asparagus I’ve had in the U.S. (though you can find white asparagus at Whole Paycheck or other fine stores, it doesn’t even come close to the Austrian kind).

Next we pulled the cork on what has become my favorite Gruner Veltliner so far, a 2003 Emmerich Knoll, designated “Reid Loibenberg” vineyard from the Wachau region. This wine is crisp like a Riesling, and has the body of a good dry Chardonnay. It also accompanied everything on the table. More on Gruners later.

OK, now the real fun. I had a filet of Uruguayan Veal with mushroom risotto, and crispy vegetable tempura. Excellent creamy risotto and the veal was coked moist and just pink, in other words, just right. We don’t see Uruguayan beef much in San Fran, but they sure raise good beef there. Dad had giant prawns in a decadent butter sauce, a little paprika and a few other mystery spices. Big fat juicy succulent prawns -- a plate full. Eric tackles monkfish and green asparagus (hey the stuff is good here) in a curried lobster sauce. The sauce was so good we wanted to swim in it, all the fish was fresh, and the beef moist and grass fed. Our meal was so good we vowed to come back, and we did, on our last night in Vienna.

Walking off dinner

After the fabulous meal at Do & Co, we needed a walk, and so we strolled down the Graben, the large mostly pedestrian avenue that leads away from the Stephansdom. I was fascinated by the tidbit of information that the Graben was originally a ditch where all the bodies of plague victims were thrown. There’s an enormous memorial column in fact, known as the Pestsaule, that marks this history in the middle of the street, but it was under renovation when we were there, although a very informative display surrounded the scaffolding, replete with disturbing images of the plague years.

It’s off the Graben that you can find Dorotheergasse where lurks Cafe Hawelka and also the famed Trzeniewski sandwich shop that we plan to hit the next day. This time, though, we continue all the way down to Kohlmarkt at the end of the Graben and turn down the street, just wandering randomly.

Along the way, we pass Demel, a konditorei which is the home to the some of the fanciest confections and desserts known to humankind. The window display looks like a sort of sugar version of Cartier’s, with elegant arrangements of meringues and chocolates that make it easy to believe this place used to supply the emperor. Luckily they’re closed, so our willpower is not tested.

We continue on to the impressive looking Michaelertor, where a looming stone edifice of a gateway leads into the Hofburg Palace. There are monumental statues depicting the labors of Hercules spaced out along the front of this behemoth, and our guidebook informs us amusingly, that the statues once inspired Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger and beloved son of Austria to new heights of bodybuilding bulk. Seeing them, I can well believe it.

In front of the place is a rounded pit in which you can see the remains of a Roman encampment, apparently where Marcus Aurelius once sat. It just reminds you of the vast swath of history that Vienna, which was called Vindobona in Roman times, encompasses. It also makes me giggle a little at the memory of signs you see in America “Established in 1972,” which seems pretty pale in contrast with “Established in 15 B.C.”

The square (or circle, or sort of half circle) of Michaelerplatz has some other interesting buildings around it though. Adolf Loos’s modernist -- and therefore to our eyes, much less fussy – building stands to one side. This was the building that Loos – a Moravian architect– created, and standing as it does, opposite those heavily ornamented and overwrought sculptures, you can see how it pretty much embodies the principles of his manifesto “Ornament and Crime.”

We wander into the Michaelerkirche, a lovely unpreprossessing church that faces the gate on the other side of Michaelerplatz, which houses a spectacular organ. After reading the article about the mysterious “Organ Leprosy” that is sweeping Europe, I can’t help wondering about the state of health of every organ we come across. The crypt, which promised open coffins was unfortunately closed, but we decided that that was probably… okay.

It’s still light out – I often forget how much further north everything is, and how late it stays light. We often found ourselves still wandering out at 10:30 pm thinking it was perhaps only 8:30 or so. The air is so pleasant though, without the heat of the day, and everyone else is also walking about, so it seems more normal to be “flaneur-ing” our way about the city than it ever does in San Francisco, where you scurry through the fog huddled in a full leather jacket to get back to a warm cup of tea at about 10 pm.

But this is Vienna. Strolling down Herrengasse, to one side of the gate, we happened upon Cafe Central, which is quiet, but still inviting, with a lovely golden hued interior in the evening light. We stop in for a cafe melange and lounge in what feels like splendor with all the chandeliers and other ornamental crimes hanging about. It’s getting late though and so reluctantly, after a nice rest, we decide it’s time to head back to the hotel.

Wandering past the Am Hof, we make our way back up to the Graben. Along the way, an English couple stops us to ask for directions to the U-Bahn and feeling like we're at home already, we send them off towards the nearest stop. For a moment, it feels like we live here.

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