A Misty Christmas Day in Vienna

Wide awake at 3.30am, pitch black outside.  No snow but a thick, eerie, mist hung low over the buildings and the lane way below shrouding the lamp posts like a scene from a thriller movie.  A mobile beeped in the silence, it’s mine!!  Checked my phone, as quietly as possible, don’t want to wake Ty. Messages of Merry Christmas coming in from family and friends, replied to them all then tried to sleep again.

Woke again at 6am, Ty was also awake so we exchanged Christmas presents.  Felt a bit like being a child again waking up early in anticipation of the gifts Santa had left, except this time we knew the gifts we’d bought each other…..organised as usual!!  Although I had purchased Ty two books that weighed heavily in my bag, it was so good to pass them over to him.

The three of us met for breakfast in the little hotel dining room, with decor befitting Vienna and the Hapsburg connection. Oh, and we shouldn’t forget Strauss, Mozart and classical music connection.  The entire hotel was styled with features and furniture from 17th and 18th century such as pictures in thick gold frames of the Hapsburg royal family, gold edgings on doors and walls, classical chairs and lounges. The Hotel does say in its spiel that it was an old Baroque palace so it looked exactly as I expected.  It was certainly centrally located with all attractions within easy walking distance.

This morning we attended the Christmas Day service at St Stephans’s cathedral, an amazing structure inside and out.  The service was crowded and the fashions were equally amazing.  All manner of winter hats, coats and boots!  St Stephan’s has massive ceilings and ornate carvings on its pillars, the pews are also ornately carved.  As you would expect, the service was very theatrical, a Cardinal said the mass and the choir wore black and a full orchestra was also dressed in black.  The service started at 10.15am luckily we arrived 20 minutes before so we managed to snare a seat for the service.  Seating was at a premium and if someone left their seat to wander closer to the altar to take a photo someone would quickly jump in. The service was still hadn’t concluded at 12 noon so we decided to leave, we were heading to Schonbrunn Palace for a tour and Christmas Markets.  Sitting for so long in the cold environs of the cathedral our feet and legs were frozen which made it hard to walk.  The freezing weather also caught us as we stepped out the massive doors.  It was -3 degrees with the mist still hanging around us.  The Christmas decorations in the streets and shops sparkle and twinkle even in the mist. It makes for a very pretty scene even though there is no snow!!!!  If you’re in Vienna on Christmas day I would highly recommend attending a Mass, no matter what denomination you are.

The U-bahn was the quickest and easiest way to reach Schonbrunn Palace, line 4, which for us was no more than a 10 minute walk from our Hotel on Annagasse Strase and then 6 stops at a cost of 2 euros. The mist was starting to dissipate as we stepped through the gates of the Palace. The scene in front of us was one of a long building with a very large Christmas tree front and centre with brightly lit market huts spread out around the main quadrangle.  At the entrance gates and across the road were patchy remnants of the snow that had been falling up until 4 days ago.  It had rained since then so most of the snow had disappeared.  Typical, it must have known I was visiting and looking forward to a white Christmas. No such luck this year.

By the time we arrived at the Palace it was close to 2pm and time for lunch.  There is a café in the grounds called the Residenz Café which was our first stop.  Lunch menu was extensive, service was quick and friendly, the food was good.  After eating it was time to swap our prepaid tour pass for tickets to gain access to the palace rooms.  As sometimes happens I knew we had received the prepaid pass but couldn’t find it… wasn’t in the folder with the other passes.  Couldn’t work out where it had gone or how I could have lost it.  Ty said “It’s not the end of the world; we’ll just pay for the tour again.” “I suppose so” I replied absentmindedly as I tried to think where it could have gone.  Even though we were resigned to paying the entrance fee again I still made mention how we had purchased a package but now I didn’t have the palace tour pass, the customer service rep took the folder, opened it and pulled out the pass….it had been stuck to another one!!  What a dummy I am sometimes!!

The tour was interesting, although I’ve toured a number of palaces and castles on my travels and, although it had a number of wow factors, it wasn’t any more impressive than Versailles near Paris or Neuschwanstein castle Bavaria.  The curators of Schonbrunn don’t allow photography in any of the rooms on show to the public whereas other Palaces do.  I understand the reasoning behind this, of course there are always those of us who ignore rules and try to take furtive photos…the people taking sneaky photos at Schonbrunn weren’t too smart – they were using the flash on their camera thereby alerting everyone to what they were doing !!!

As usual when crowds of people are visiting these popular attractions the rude side of human nature often appears.  There was certainly no shortage of this behaviour today.   The lines were quite lengthy to pass through the ticket checkpoints and groups of individuals walked up past the lines and pushed their way in, some did it blatantly whilst others just slowly moved over in front as if they’d been there the whole time.  Aussies are a fairly easy going bunch and, for the most part, we tend to join the back of the queue and wait our turn.   Not so some other cultures that don’t appear to see the queue at all.   As we moved closer to the turnstiles more people were rushing up and pushing past including those with strollers so Ty became our backstop so we didn’t get hit in the legs with strollers or pushed aside by others.  Porky husbands with backpacks come in handy in these types of situations!!!!

The grounds and gardens are huge, of course there are no flowers in sight but none were expected given its winter.  There is some snow in patches around the lawns and in between pockets of trees.  Snow sits on tree branches in the mist giving that wintery look.  A squirrel suddenly runs by, stops to look at us, obviously wondering whether we have food he comes a little closer, and then darts off.  Poor thing, he probably can’t find where he buried his acorns in readiness for winter – was going to say ‘where he buried his nuts’ but thought better of it!! Take a few photos then head back around to the front of the palace.

We wandered around the Christmas market stalls, of course, I had to purchase a Christmas ornament; one can’t walk around a market without buying something!!!  Time to go back to the hotel, it’s getting dark and it’s only 3.30pm plus the temperature is dropping again – 3 degrees today.   Our dinner reservation is for 6.30pm back at the Orangerie in the palace grounds, with the concert commencing at 8pm.  It’s so easy to forget that it is mid-afternoon and almost dark. No wonder our body clocks are finding it hard to adapt!!!!

The subway system is very fast and we’re back at out hotel in no time at all.  Plenty of time to shower, change and try to make myself presentable for the evening out. Rather than take the subway dressed in our “finery” we opt for a taxi…..17 euro and  a 15 minute drive from centre of Vienna has us at the palace 6pm – half an hour early which turns out to be a good thing considering what happens next.

As we’re early we take a few more photos of the palace and the stalls.  People are still pouring in the gates. We then amble across to the restaurant, damn, we’re still early, we hover in the foyer area not wanting to appear too eager. It’s now quarter past 6, “may as well go in” I say “no point in standing around here any longer”. Upon entering the Restaurant the maître D takes our name and looks up the register then comes back and says “You will be seated in the TGF (can’t say even say the whole name let alone write it here) for your meal” we look at her quizzically, “Where?”  “In the Orangerie” The woman very kindly gave us directions, which sounded helpful at the time but weren’t really.  We found the Orangerie and the concert hall – that was easy – finding the restaurant was not.  We could see people dining in a room near the concert hall but couldn’t access it, was this the place we were supposed to be anyway?.  We weren’t the only ones confused; several other couples were also wandering around aimlessly. We found an access door so we went in….it lead into the main area of the Orangerie but still no dining area.  Ah, an attendant, let’s ask him.  So we did, he sent us back outside, turn right head to the other end of the building turn right again, pass a restaurant/bar, take another right and you will enter the TGF.  Off we went….it was now 6.30pm.  It was also freezing outside. As we hurried past the exterior of the palace buildings and reached the bar/restaurant Ty became a little annoyed or perhaps agitated night be a more apt description because we were back at the area where we had first entered the gates of the Orangerie.  We had walked in a very large square – can’t call it a circle ‘cos it wasn’t!!!  Another couple that were ahead of us doing the same lap had disappeared.  “Hmm, perhaps we need to try these doors”  I said to a now frustrated and angry Ty. “We tried them before and couldn’t get in” he replied.  “Not those doors” I said, “ these over here on the side”   “We’ve already been in there, it’s an empty room” Ty mentioned more to himself because I stepped inside and saw a row of coats hanging up, as we walked past those we noticed a door into a dining area.  In we strode, Ty leading the way, wrong end of the room, of course, so everyone in the room looked up as we passed their table, We were now 15 minutes late and instead of slipping in through the front entrance and slinking quietly to our table we had to walk the length of the room so everyone was aware we were late.   As is usual in these circumstances our table was just inside the main entrance so if we entered through the correct door no one would have noticed us!!!

We weren’t too late because people were still being served their soup.  As we sat down the waitress was asking what we wanted to drink, I suppose this is to be expected as there was now only 45 minutes until we were to take our seats for the Recital. The wine arrived at the same time as the soup, obviously a set menu as we weren’t given a choice of meal.  The soup was a little like chicken noodle soup, not too bad really. Main course was set down in front of us, a slice of boiled beef, potato fritter, 2 small slices of carrot, what we discovered were beans floating in a white garlic sauce and some small slices of what we think was squash.  The potato fritter was very nice but the beef had no taste except to say it tasted like it had been in water for quite some time.  Needless to say, as most of you who know me won’t be surprised; I ate the potato fritter and a small portion of the beef.  Ty ate the most and Maryanne ate marginally more than me.  Hmm, that sounds like the  start of a maths question the teacher might give you……if three people had this much food on their plate and one ate all the fritters, one at fritter and half the meat, how much did the other person eat? Yes, yes, I  know, probably sounds like a silly maths question but I was never good at maths anyway so you can’t expect me to write a sensible mathematical problem!!!!

After the main they served dessert, we had already taken bets on what that would be, we were partly right.  It was Strudel but not apple strudel…it was like a sultana strudel…in a very thin pastry.  Ty ate most of his, we picked at it.  Just as well we had the wine!!!   It was time to move to the Recital Hall.  The line was already quite long for entry to the seating area.  We took up our seats in the first row…we had VIP seating. The tour of the palace, the ‘dinner” and the Recital were part of a package purchased several months ago. It was quite reasonable but if you’re visiting Vienna and want to take in the Recital at the Palace I wouldn’t suggest taking the dinner option, unless you like your beef boiled to such an extent it tastes like water and no amount of sauce will improve it. I know that boiled beef is a Viennese staple but so is Weiner Schnitzel – perhaps it  could be served as a 2nd choice in future.  Chocolate Torte could also have been the 2nd course for dessert for those that don’t particularly like fruit strudel. Just a suggestion in case the event coordinator of the dinner/recital package reads this.

The recital wasn’t too bad at all.  It had the orchestra, of course, a male and female opera singer and ballet dancers. It was light entertainment with some comedy thrown in.  The orchestra rose after each number to bow and the conductor shook the hand of the lead violinist after each number as well. That amused us a little but perhaps that’s the protocol for these types of recitals.

Sitting in the same row as us were a couple of Australian girls, as they sat down one of them proceeded to take her boots off so the rest of us could enjoy the not so good aroma of smelly feet.  Quite rude and lacking respect is what we thought; this girl wasn’t in her private lounge room.  I wonder what the orchestra and the dancers thought when they saw her bulky tan woolly socks staring at them from the front row.

Just before interval we all started to fade a little, you know what I mean, when that wave of tiredness hits you and you have to do all in your power not it let it envelop you. Ah, how good it would be to put your head down on something soft and sleep or not even something soft, just close your eyes and let you head sway back and forth!!!  Not a good look especially if you have a habit of dribbling in your sleep! Not me…..wouldn’t do that but I have seen others do it when I was commuting by train.  We daren’t look at each other else we’d all be yawning so leaving our seats at intervals was a good move.  Wine was on offer however in the best interests of staying awake I chose orange juice, warm orange juice at that.  One thing about many European countries is they don’t refrigerate all their drinks including milk.

CD;s were also given to the VIP seats, a nice gesture but given the fact my bags was already bursting I felt this cd and its case could cause me to rethink a future purchase and that would be earthshattering for me.  It’s been almost 3 days and I haven’t been near a shopping centre or a store. Oh and airport stores don’t count!!!

We’ve finished our drinks and the little bell has rang several times heralding the second part of the recital…in we file, hopefully the overwhelming tiredness has left us at least for the next hour and a half.. Orchestra takes their seat, conductor bounces up the stairs to his dais and music once again fills the room.  Yes, in case you’re wondering, the girl two up still has her boots off and every so often the aroma of smelly feet wafts around us. We settle into our chairs and out dance the opera singers, certainly can’t sleep through their arias……

Oh no, here it comes again, the ballet dancers are doing their thing but I can feel my eyes closing, no, not again, don’t do this, don’t blink or I’m sure I’ll nod off. Great, just at this moment the music stops and everyone starts to applaud – I’m awake again!!  The concert is good but the jetlag is more persistent so could the concert please finish sooner rather than later? It’s over, all the artists have stepped onto the dais, curtseys and bows follow, audience is in raptures and applauds long and loud, asking for more, oh no, please, no more, bed is calling.  The conductor leaves the stage, smiling broadly and applauding the orchestra and the audience.  The orchestra is heading for the back of the stage….it’s over. Leaving the concert hall took some time due to the hallway leading to the exit doors was extremely narrow.  When we stepped out into the freezing night we suddenly woke up….funny how the bitter cold does that to a person.  Next challenge was finding an available taxi and that wasn’t going to be easy, there were quite a lot of people wandering up and down the road waiting for a taxi.  We stood in a line for about 10 minutes, I looked across at the subway and said “why don’t we just take a train it will be quicker than a taxi?”  The train arrived within 2 minutes and we were inside our hotel within 15 minutes.  Subway in Vienna is fast, runs regularly every few minutes and is safe.

A very different but enjoyable Christmas Day, no snow unfortunately, so no white Christmas, perhaps we’ll have snow in New York  for New !!

Schonbrunn Palace

The Quest for a White Christmas

I write this as our plane flies over the Australian desert winging its way to Vienna via London with a short break in Singapore. It’s December 23rd and this trip has been in the planning for almost 12 months. Originally it was to be a simple trip to Las Vegas to celebrate Ty’s milestone birthday on January 7th. However, planning a trip and the word “simple” don’t really work for me. Once I start to plan all manner of ideas go through my head hence we are travelling to Vienna, Austria to spend Christmas.

How did we get from Las Vegas to Vienna you’re asking, and rightly so, Austria is across the other side of the world and bears absolutely no relation to Las Vegas. Well, let me tell you…you will be aware that prices go through the roof at holiday times and to fly to the US was quite expensive so after some research I found that purchasing a multitrip was not that much more expensive. So here we are, winging our way to Vienna, Why did I choose Vienna? Christmas markets are held at Schonbrunn Palace on Christmas Day, love those pictures of Christmas markets, and I’m hoping for the magical, old world, white Christmas scene.

We’re travelling in business class this leg of the trip, the longest leg,. I requested an upgrade at the time of the original flight booking and was informed last night that we had been upgraded. Now all I had to do was let our friend know that we wouldn’t be sitting in economy with her. Maryanne was very understanding as she had booked this trip after us.

The temperature was 37 degrees Celsius, when we left for the airport, making it very difficult to even think about the sub zero temperatures in Austria. We’re dressed for summer in short sleeves and sandals but carrying a large woollen overcoat!! A shock to the system is in store methinks!!!!

As usual, we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Can’t say we enjoyed a late lunch, food is so expensive and not really that appetising, so best to say, we had a light lunch. Yes, I know, we could have utilised the Qantas lounge but Maryanne couldn’t so we chose not to spend all our time in the lounge.. We did wander through the retail stores and Ty purchased what has become the obligatory Pandora charm for my bracelet. This tradition started several years ago on our first overseas trip together and I have 3 Pandora bracelets now.

As we settled into our pods we were offered orange juice or champagne…..we chose champagne and why wouldn’t we it’s Christmas time!!! I had a window seat so there was lots of space with little cubby holes along the wall to hold all our bits and pieces. This is the way to travel on a long haul flight, I think, will let you know after we’ve arrived in Vienna…..so perhaps I’d better reserve my judgement till then. Looks like dinner is being served so I’ll have to interrupt this paragraph for the entrée….oh and the main , hmm, chicken is delicious, served on crockery and presented as if from a restaurant with at least 1 hat. “Would you like another drink, perhaps a wine?’ “Oh, no, thank you, I still have my gin ‘n’ tonic”. Didn’t tell you about that one did I? About 30 minutes after take-off the drinks trolley came by and a refreshing G’n’T was ordered. Of course by now I really needed food or I’d be a little on the tipsy side in no time, Dessert was very tasty, a sorbet with mango sauce and peaches. Are you hungry yet??? Now I’ve overeaten with no chance to exercise for another 4 hours.

There are several toddlers in the cabin and one has been very unhappy since the family boarded, selfishly I’m hoping they’ll be disembarking in Singapore!!!

I managed to get about 6 hours sleep, which was very good. Breakfast was served in the dark.

Arrived in London around 30 minutes late, it’s raining and dark, by the time we disembarked there was only a two and a half hour wait for our connecting flight. Shopping was not on my agenda whilst in transit, absolutely no room for any goodies at this point in time. Freshening up and changing from summer clothes to winter clothing was high on the “to do list”, after that came coffee. These things out of the way it was time to have a wander through the stores with wallet firmly out of reach. Right, that took up 45 minutes, now what? Ty says ‘I’m hungry let’s get something to eat”. Eating and drinking our way across the other side of the world isn’t particularly appealing but I did manage to squeeze in a little bowl of oatmeal with fruit and honey…..

Finally it’s time to head for the gate to await the bus taking us to our plane. The 2 BA staff checking our boarding passes were in a very happy mood this Christmas Eve and as one of them checked our pass he said ‘do you mind if I ask you a question?” I noticed the other staff member covered her face and shook her head as he said” what’s happening on Neighbours at the moment” Maryanne and I both said “ Wouldn’t know, never watched the show” to which he laughed and replied “I’ve never met an Australian yet that will admit to watching Neighbours”. Obviously he hasn’t met too many Australians – I know lots of people who watch that show…..

The aircraft was at capacity with people heading home for Christmas or holidaying in Vienna. So much so that the luggage compartments were full before half the passengers had walked up the rollaway steps to the aircraft. No one seems to want to check in their suitcases anymore. Are travellers so time poor that they have no time to wait around a carousel for their baggage? What better way to people watch than standing around a carousel cursing because your luggage hasn’t popped out of the hole in the wall yet. “What are they doing behind there?” “How long does it take for the bags to be loaded onto the conveyor belt?” Should we, as the traveller, be allowed to take away the power of baggage handlers? No more open suitcases or items of clothing making their way around the carousel with the owner too embarrassed to retrieve them.

We were the second wave of bus people to enter the plane to find there was no room in the overhead lockers for our carryon. After a bit of shuffling and a fellow traveller across the aisle moving some of his good 2 bags were placed in the locker. The rest are under our feet…coats on our laps – uncomfortable and cramped – thank goodness the flight is only 1 hour 40 minutes!!

As the plane taxied it was all over the place, across one side of the runway then the other, as we lifted off the wind pushed us off to the side again. People were holding hands across the aisle – not sure what that was going to do but if it makes them feel secure then go for it. Once up in the air it was extremely bumpy, the plane was being buffeted sideways, then it would drop, this went on for at least 10 minutes and is probably one of the roughest take offs I’ve encountered and I’ve flown many times.

Food (frozen roll) and soft drinks, water, juice were offered – all three of us declined the food but accepted a drink…were given 2 because, in the words of the steward “I’m feeling quite generous today” well lucky us, we only want 1 drink each – tried to hand one back but he said “no”, and refused to accept it. He was very forceful and had already spoken harshly to others in the cabin. We daren’t refuse but accepted his generosity!!!! Now let’s hope we don’t need to go to the loo because we have Buckley’s chance of getting out of our seats to go anywhere.

Just looked around me and I’m sitting between two Zorro’s!!! Both Ty and Maryanne have their eye masks on. I know, you’re thinking what is she on….but it amused me. Looks like we’re starting our descent let’s hope it’s a little smoother than the take off!!!

Next stop Vienna……