In April I attended a conference in Vienna. Because food makes me very sleepy and there were a lot of interesting papers I did not want to miss, I skipped all my lunch-breaks and visited museums instead. And Vienna has got an excellent offering of museums.
First things first: I travelled to Vienna by bus, from Nürnberg. This cost around 15 EUR (I think; it is a while back now). There is (or at least, used to be) a direct bus-line between Amsterdam and Vienna, so there are a fair few places across Holland and Germany where you could hop on. The bus, in theory, has wi-fi, so apart from snoring passengers I find it a rather comfortable 7 hour journey. It only stops at ridiculous sponsored places for food / breaks though, so make sure to pack a sandwich yourself. Also, beware, public toilets in Germany nearly always cost money to use.
I staid at the Wombats City Hostel (the Naschmarkt location), which is unfortunately part of a big chain and thus a bit commercial and perhaps a few EUR more expensive than what I normally go for. But, the facilities were absolutely excellent. Internet, bedding, wonderful shower, pretty clean, a large selection of well-behaved room-mates and an ok kitchen. Just, do not let them trick you into their super expensive breakfast. There are several shops nearby where you can get something nicer and much cheaper (not to mention the Naschmarkt). Another note: shops in Austria (and Germany) usually close around 8pm and are closed on Sundays altogether.
Ok, my first lunch-break I only had to venture 5 minutes away from the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Maybe some find Mozart a little too well-known or classical (pun not even intended) but I quite like his music so I was very keen to try the Mozart House. I was not allowed to take photos inside which is sad but I suppose understandable: there was a fair amount of his original notes and compositions on display and I would have printed off photos to try and play the music at home. I believe Mozart lived in a bunch of different places and this was just one of them; I am not even sure it is where he lived the longest or composed the most pieces or any other such extreme. Of course the museum would emphasise it was a very important location in his life though. Either way, I found it very interesting and I would definitely recommend it. I believe the ticket was in the region of 10 EUR (but not eating lunch helps here). I cannot quite remember whether there was a student discount. I just tried to check the website but it is a little unclear too.
Smooth transition here: Mozart got married in St Stephen’s Cathedral. St Stephen’s Cathedral (or Stephansdom) is literally the only memory I had of my previous visit of Vienna. Specifically, the rooftiles. The cathedral, which seems to be permanently under construction, originally dates to the 14th century CE. Apparently the view from the top is stunning; do not ask me about it, because after a particularly memorable vertigo incident atop Cologne cathedral I can rarely be convinced to climb towers. I already touched briefly on my love for multicoloured rooftiles in my blogpost about Budapest, but let me tell you in detail about the ones here. The first samples of these glaced tiles were placed on the roof circa 1450 CE, probably to test and see which colours would work. By the 1470s things were starting to take shape, as can be seen in old illustrations. Vienna became well-known for it and images of the cathedral were recogniseable all around the world. Apparently this type of rooftiling may have been inspired by treasury designs (such as Cologne). It is not totally certain, because it was so expensive to do, that not many early examples (still) exist. The tiles are actually quite durable but of course the Cathedral suffered some damage throughout the centuries so they were probably replaced and even re-designed a couple of times. I think the way it looks now dates to the 19th century. The rooftiles on one side form the Habsburg logo (a double-headed eagle) (the family that made up the old Austrian Empire) and the rooftiles on the other side make up the coat of arms of the city of Vienna (two single eagles) (also the modern Republic of Austria). The most recent re-construction (not counting ongoing work) dates to the period after World War II. Alright, I will stop writing about rooftiles now.
Next museum! Because of the conference I had free access to this one so I am not sure how much it costs otherwise. Being the super keen historian that I am, I managed to turn up to the Kunsthistorisches Museum five minutes before it even opened, on a weekday. Needless to say, I had the entire place to myself. It was wonderful. First stop inside this impressive building, which houses multiple collections, was the Ephesos Museum. Back in the day when it was apparently normal to transport all your excavated findings abroad and display them several thousand kilometres from the civilisation they belong to, the Austrians took home a large chunk of Ephesos. Anyone who visits the site in Turkey now has to make an unfortunate detour home through Austria, because this is really a rather stunning exhibition. I am a big Ephesos fan and was very happy to have gotten up to see this. A different section of the museum houses a collection of Historic Musical Instruments. As a clarinetist, I especially loved seeing the evolution of the clarinet. I am not sure which is more of a niche interest – Ephesos or ancient clarinets – either way, if you are remotely interested in Roman / Greek / Anatolian history, music, musical instruments or composers, this complex is well worth a visit. I think there may have been a collection of weapons or something too. I did not check because my interest kind of plummets there; and I had a conference to get back to.
A few miscellaneous notes about Vienna: the underground is great and cheap so getting around is easy. I used it only twice though, once when I was coming from the bus station and once when I got lost and was late for a paper. The centre is very easy (and beautiful) to just walk around. As I will describe in my next blog-post it is also ridiculously easy and cheap to take a train to Bratislava; just make sure you get the right ticket.
Vienna is famous for its cafés but if you are wary about your budget (like me) and you are looking for a single thing to try, I would go for Kaiserschmarrn. These are lightly caramelised, super fluffy ‘scrambled’ pancakes, made with brandy-soaked raisins, and often served with a plum sauce. Yes. They can be eaten as a desert, but I found a café willing to serve them as a breakfast / brunch item too (without raised eyebrows or angry Austrian mumbling behind my back). Kaiserschmarrn were reportedly a favourite of Emperor Francis Joseph, but I find the truth of their origin hard to trace back. Anyway, besides insane pancakes, a budget-friendly food option is visiting one of the many wonderful Austrian bakeries. Even a simple brezel makes a fine lunch in my opinion.
As I mentioned, my hostel was right across from the Naschmarkt. I found it to be a very ‘hipster’ oriented place and wonder if it was a lot cooler twenty years ago. For example, a very hip café there serves traditional Turkish breakfast, for something like 9 EUR. I am not sure whether my friends in Turkey would go for that. There were also stalls with fantastic, but completely unaffordable cheese; and dozens of crowded restaurants each with its own very loud music. The market has its origins in the 18th century, when it sold primarily milk and vegetables. The word ‘Nasch’ probably evolved from ‘ash’, either because it was near an ash deposit, or because the milk bottles were made from ash wood. It makes for a nice stroll, especially if you manage to pick a time when a) the stalls are open and b) it is not completely crowded. Timing is everything. This is from a solo travel perspective of course. If you are with a group of friends, who all appreciate crowds and loud music, then do go at night. It looks like fun can be had.
Another note I want to make is about a couple of ‘public ruins’ in Vienna. For example, at Michaelerplatz it is possible to see the remains of a Roman outpost. There used to be a settlement where Vienna is now by the name of Vindobona. Right around the time the Roman Empire came into existence, the ‘Germanic problem’ became a notable issue. The Romans went on to conquer some of these Germanic lands and the Danube became the northern frontier of the Roman Empire (later expanded all the way up to Transylvania in Romania). (Also see the Roman history of Budapest.) The Germanic tribes remained a problem however and they did manage to burn down Vindobona in the 2nd century CE (fyi, around the same time that Queen Zenobia claimed an independent Palmyra on the other side of the Roman Empire). (Un?)fortunately Emperor Aurelian managed to get everything under control and Vindobona was rebuilt (and Palmyra conquered; sigh). The Germanic warriors persisted however, attacking again and again over the centuries. By the 4th-5th century CE it was all downhill (for the Roman Empire in general, really). The city was taken over by the Langobards, the Avars and then Charlemagne.
Another great place I visited in Vienna was the Sigmund Freud Museum. This was a bit of a run up and down during lunch at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, I have to say! Ow my feet. This Museum is housed in Freud’s former office and apartment. For anyone who needs a brief summary: Freud was a psychologist or psychoanalyst, born in the 1850s and died in the 1930s. This was a very exciting time for the development of psychology and related disciplines. Freud qualified as a doctor and then professor in neuropathology, but he is most famous for his redefinition of sexuality. Apart from his professional work, which is heavily debated of course, I found it very interesting to learn about this man’s personal life. I was especially interested in reading about his sometimes contradictory views on feminism. At the time, there was a temporary exhibition about precisely this topic, exploring female followers of Freud and, randomly, but interestingly, 19th-20th century contraception. The museum has an audio guide, but, if, like me, you have an aversion to those, they also provide a book with the guide text written out. Entry for students is 7.50 EUR.
What I would do if I make it back to Vienna? Book opera tickets in advance. There was not a chance I could arrange it while I was there and I really wish I had done some planning ahead. However! Last-minute tickets are supposedly really easy to get a hold of if you show up on the evening itself (there just weren’t any performances I wanted to see on my one free evening). Also, sometimes they stream performances outside, so if you are a true opera aficionado, that would be an option. The Vienna State Opera really only goes back to the 19th century but it is world famous and it has a very large repertoire.
What do you want to see in Vienna?