Viennese voyage of discovery

One of the many majestic buildings that dominate the Vienna landscape. PHOTOS: TONY NEILSON
One of the many majestic buildings that dominate the Vienna landscape. PHOTOS: TONY NEILSON
After a hot and tired start, Dunedin writer Tony Neilson discovers Vienna is a classy city.

My grand plan for my European adventure began with a jet-lagged layover in Frankfurt before I unzipped my Eurail pass and hit the tracks.

My first destination was Copenhagen, where I met up with my son and we conducted a two-person pilgrimage to the birthplace of my paternal grandfather in Southern Zealand.

Next up Berlin, and onwards to Prague, one of the Continent's eternal battlefields over the centuries. So far, so good; my voyage of discovery was unfolding even better than I had anticipated.

Vienna sort of snuck up on me as I stumbled on to the platform from the train. That line could've originated from a Tom Jones song, but I digress.

I had embarked from Prague a few hours earlier, and my memories of that beautiful city were still resonating.

More to the point, my journey between these two attractive European capitals was on board an overnight service on Eurail. Having never experienced my own cabin with a fold-down bunk before, my romantic idea of this service turned out to be rather divorced from the reality.

The fold-down bunk meant that you ended up lying quite close to the ceiling. Not only did you have a close encounter with the cabin's roof and an affront to my issue with claustrophobia, it was also uncomfortable because of the warm air, remembering that I was travelling in a late European summer, and of course hot air rises.

Yes there are a few modern buildings to offset those which have centuries-old stories to tell.
Yes there are a few modern buildings to offset those which have centuries-old stories to tell.
All of the above meant that my arrival in Vienna was a little messy, even more so when I later discovered that I had left behind my new Icebreaker jacket. If you are in Austria keep an eye out for me.

My tired and grumpy attitude was very temporary though because it did not take long to notice that Vienna is one classy city. Rich not just in history, but also the arts, music, architecture and obviously the people too, who mostly looked as though they'd stepped out of a Vogue shoot.

Vienna's history dates back to at least the 14th century, and today this is evidenced by the architecture, which is a stand-out aspect of the city. Being perfectly poised on the banks of the beautiful Danube just adds to the appeal.

My initial approach was to just walk the streets to get a feel for Vienna. I spent a lot of time revelling in the atmosphere around the Vienna State Opera because there is so much to see and absorb.

Literally at your feet you are reminded about the amazing musical heritage which Vienna brings to the table. This is celebrated by a star walk across the substantial and imposing front court of the state opera's building and on to the surrounding streets.

Classical music's superstars are honoured, as they should be. Among the names leaping out at me were Mozart, Rossini, Debussy, Bernstein, Beethoven and Sibelius.

It was hard to move on from the state opera, not just because it was fascinating to check out the names on its walk of fame, but also because across the front of the building was a massive video wall.

Recordings of performances inside were constantly being replayed, which I found especially beguiling as it was obvious that only the most talented opera singers made it on to that stage.

Vienna’s walk of fame in front of the Vienna State Opera salutes the city’s musical legends.
Vienna’s walk of fame in front of the Vienna State Opera salutes the city’s musical legends.
It was also great to be greeted by the special opera ambassadors who mingled among the crowds as well as posing for photos.

In 1857 Emperor Franz Joseph ordered the building of what became the Ringstrasse, which evolved over the next 30-plus years into a 5.3km boulevard of magnificent homes.

Vienna boasts many beautiful buildings, many of them centuries old.
Vienna boasts many beautiful buildings, many of them centuries old.
The local nobles and the rich set all tried to best each other with their magnificent homes.

It didn't stop there though because grandiose though they were the homes that were designed by the city's top architects eventually were surpassed by the much larger and even grander buildings commissioned by Vienna's leaders.

The state opera is one such edifice but there are numerous others to admire. The Parliament building, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Applied Art, the stock exchange, the Natural History Museum and city hall - it's almost as if the architects competed with each other to create their masterpiece.

There is no adherence to a particular architectural style. I guess they felt variety was the keynote of their particular challenge.

Strolling through the boulevard is a delight, and only added to my appreciation of Vienna as a city with both feet firmly planted in history.

So the streets around Ringstrasse and the state opera section of Vienna were very appealing, with many retail destinations occupying the former homes of the hoi polloi, but with a strong emphasis on being pedestrian-friendly as well.

That's where I landed for an early dinner and the opportunity to plan my visit in more detail over glass or two of French red.

At that stage my Eurail pass had already taken me to Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Berlin and Prague, so I very much needed a refresh of my earlier research to enable me to make the most of my short time in Austria.

One fact that really staggered me was that there are over 100 museums in Vienna. Yes, 100. That being so, it was especially important to make wise decisions so that my memories would reflect just what a special place this city was.

I certainly wasn't going to rush around trying to see them all, so choosing wisely was imperative. Given my interest in art it was a no-brainer to spend some hours at the Belvedere, standing majestically on a hill overlooking Vienna. The building itself is wonderful, but it's the artwork that impresses more.

It's the home of Gustav Klimt's Art Nouveau works The Kiss and Judith. It's not a place that you want to rush through, with art by Cezanne, Degas, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Renoir among others.

Among the many music and art-related attractions are Schubert's birthplace, the apartment where Beethoven worked and the Art History Museum. Basically, you need to determine what aspect of history is of most interest to you and create your must-see list from there, having regard for how much time you are spending in Vienna.

One of the more than 100 museums to visit in Vienna.
One of the more than 100 museums to visit in Vienna.
Not just museums made it on to my list. For example, I just had to see the Imperial Court Library, which dates from 1368, and the fabulous Saint Stephens Cathedral, which began its life back in the 12th century.

All of these constitute just a small sample of how Vienna has a history that's centuries old, and rich in design and the artefacts that are on show.

For me my attention narrowed down to art and music, but even that meant that I was not able to visit all the key attractions which came under those categories.

You need a three-month stay in Vienna to do the place full justice, hence the need to make some tough decisions and prioritise your must-see locations.

I did just that and as a consequence only gave my full attention to a handful of the city's many beautiful buildings and art-related museums. I don't have any regrets actually as I think I made good choices and carry the memories with me in technicolour.

While I think my grand plan of seeing the best of Europe within a fairly tight timeframe worked well overall, I definitely didn't allow enough time to savour all the sights that Vienna had to offer.

Not only that, but I didn't include Budapest on my itinerary at all - my one big regret.

In retrospect, I should have added a further week to my adventure, which would have allowed me to detour from Prague to Budapest as well as allowing an extra couple of days in Vienna.

That way I also would have avoided the discomfort of the overnight service and the bunk bed. I also (probably) would not have made the mistake of leaving my new jacket behind. Of course, it's easy to be wise in retrospect.

One thing is for sure, while it's hard to compare the major cities of Europe with each other, there is no doubt in my mind that Vienna is a must-see on any European travel agenda.

Hopefully, I will get the chance to make a return there someday.


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