As we boarded our Qatar Airways flight in Sydney I was caught humming the tune to Driving Home for Christmas. Chris Rea at his best!
This would be our first flight / drive for Christmas in Europe since 2015. Our first Christmas in Europe together 🙂
But not quite yet. We take a slightly different path home
When booking our flights we were offered the choice of arriving in a number of ports in Europe. A chance of a mini-break before the madness of our families and the holiday season.
We ended up with a choice between Budapest and Vienna – we had been to Budapest for our mini moon and absolutely loved it but had never been to Vienna so that was the decision made.
Snow Globe City
After another long flight we touched down on the tarmac at Vienna International Airport (VIE), around 18km south-east of the city center. The airport has an interesting history ; built in 1938 as a military aircraft and design complex for Heinkel it was then taken over by the British RAF (as RAF Schewchat) in 1945. Becoming the main airport for Vienna in 1954 it spend the next 30 years being expanded and linked to the main autobahn.
What was more interesting was the white powdery substance on the tarmac and starting to cling to the body of the plane as we landed – snow!! This was the first snow we had seen in a few years.
As we drove into the city the snow got heavier and it made for a great ‘Welcome Home to the Northern Hemisphere’. Looking out the windows there was a curious mix of old buildings and new. Gothic churches next to newer apartments buildings a rich tapestry betraying a little of what has gone on here….
Vienna is a city drenched in history and a very old city with evidence of settlement going back to 500 bc when Celtic tribes settled on the Danube before the Romans arrived and built the fortified settlement of Vindobona ( in 180 ad this was the resting place of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius – the one from Gladiator).
Various battles with the Hungarians led to sieges in the following centuries before the Turks, led by Suleiman the Magnificent arrived in the 16th Century and laid siege to the city (twice) across 150 years of military conflict. Although the Turkish failed to assail the city parts of their culture did with bath houses and coffee shops becoming part of the cities identities in the proceeding years.
In between the Turkish sieges the Great Plague of Vienna hit in 1679. The streets of the city empty save for rats and plague doctors. The 19th Century brought Napoleonic warfare and the Sound of Music before an identity crisis in the 20th Century as the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, the Anschluss with Germany, the Soviet occupation and eventual European Union membership transformed Vienna into the multicultural city it is today.
We booked an apartment in Alsergrund (9th District) that looked like the old fashioned rooms you see in period dramas, wooden shutters and doors, high decorative ceilings and large windows. It forms part of the University of Wien with a number of departments located nearby.
We were in good company as Alsergrund is the home district of composer Franz Schubert, an apartment around the corner from ours is where Ludwig Beethoven died. Sigman Freud had an office and a home in the area before he flew to England in 1938. The park at the end of the street we stayed on has a park named in his honour.
After a few hours of jetlag sleep we went out and walked into the Inner Stadt – exploring by foot this characterful city.
The park had the first of many Cathedrals and churches we would see in Vienna – the Voltivkirche (‘Votive Church’) – built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian to thank god for saving his brother’s life. His brother was Emperor Franz Joseph who survived an assassination attempt in 1853 while out on a stroll with an another officer. That other officer was Count Maximilian Karl Lamoral O’Donnell – a descendant of the Tyrconnell nobility and the product of the Flight of the Earls in 1607.
Down the road we encountered our first Christmas Market – the first of many on this trip. A cute collection of wooden chalets selling everything from mulled wine to christmas cookies. In the corner was a church with christmas trees for sail. Fine looking pine trees. The church itself is more evidence of that earlier celtic connection – this is the Scots Abbey ‘Schottenstift’ founded by Irish Benedictine Monks in the 12th Century.
A little further on and we were in Stephansplatz – the center of the city. All manner of shops and stores flanked us as we walked down to the Stephansdom – the mother church of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. It is a fantastic mixture of Gothic and Romanesque features and is one of the tallest churches in the world. It’s distinctive features being the tall spires and ornately multi-coloured tile roof. It is normally can be found present on the front cover of most tourist guide books of Vienna. Those spires are so high that they are actually the highest point in the city and were used as an observation post during historical sieges and as recently as 1955 to watch out for fires in the city.
It has seen its fair share of events – the marraiges of Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor) in 1515, Haydn, Mozart. It was also the place for the funeral of Mozart, Vivaldi, Emperor Franz Joseph I, Former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim in 2007.
We spent the evening exploring the platz and side streets and then buying Karen a winter coat in Zara – her Australian coat was no match for near zero temperatures.
The city was alive with the pre-christmas bustle and hustle, last minute gift shopping, tree hunting and catch-ups.
Dont Hassle the Hof-burg
The next day we set out early to explore the grounds of The Hofburg – the former principal palace of the Hapsburgs and the current residence and office of the President of Austria. It was located just down the road on the Herrengasse Strauss. On the way we walked past a triangular fronted building with a large queue forming outside. This was the Cafe Central – a very popular restaurant and coffee shop located on the ground floor of a fascinating looking building. This is part of the Coffee Culture that sprung up in the city after the successful lifting of the 2nd Turkish siege.
The list of regulars is long but in 1913 alone would have had Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky and Tito (yes that Tito) chatting politics over a cup of coffee. As we continued down the street a horse and cart whizzed by. Called Fiakers, there was nearly 1,000 of these on the streets at the turn of the 20th Century. There are a lot fewer these days but they are meant to be the best way to see the city – but maybe not in the snow 🙂
The Hofburg is a vast sector filled with numerous buildings, wings and courtyards with the Heldenplatz (Heroes Square) taking up the most space. A huge statue of Archduke Charles dominates the center of it. The Circular wing of the Hofburg opposite this is called the Neue Berg (New Castle) – it is from that central balcony that Adolf Hitler announced the ‘Anchluss’ of Austria and Germany in 1938 to crowds in the Heldenplatz.
In a little corner of the palace opposite the Heldenplatz is a curious looking gate – a completely different colour to the rest of the building. This is the Schweizertor or Swiss Gate and guards the entrance to the Schweizerhof (Swiss Court) – one of the oldest parts of the Hofburg. The Swiss Gate dates from the Renaissance and is covered in insignia related to Emperor Ferdinand I.
We crossed the road to another square – Marie Theresien Platz and a huge Christmas Market. Sick of palaces and windy Squares- Karen needed a cup of mulled wine to heat her up.
We rounded out our first 24 hours with the only appropriate dinner we could have in Vienna – some wiener schnitzel.
Unlike a ‘Schnitty’ that we would have in Sydney – the wiener schnitzel is made with veal (not chicken) and could be considered the national dish of Austria.