Thursday, June 12, 2008

Vienna (the one in Austria)

Vienna, Austria is only a quick train ride away from the small towns of Hungary but a world apart in sophistication. The city just oozes cosmopolitan elegance and charm. The grand white buildings, the beautiful statues, the steeples so tall and high they just beg to be photographed, yet no photo can do them justice... they have to be experienced in person. Smartly-suited businessmen and ladies of all attire stroll the back streets and sit at cafes, chatting on cell phones to--no doubt-- other impeccably dressed Austrians sitting at other cafes.
This is where the cafe was invented (not Paris, contrary to popular belief), and even better, the chocolate house, where people would go to drink the new concoction from the New World. I was in search of a special version of the drink I discovered in Paris called "chocolate Viennese", which consists of melted fudge (real fudge, not some stuff from a bottle), hot milk and sugar. You mix them together for the richest, tastiest hot chocolate drink you ever smacked your lips to. Or, if you like, they mix it for you and top it off with whipped cream... the piece de irresistable. Anyway I figured it was probably invented in Vienna since it was named after the town and should be available everywhere. But no dice. I checked at least ten cafes and spoke to waiters at each one and they had either never heard of it or said they didn't serve it. The last waiter I asked finally explained: "We don't serve it like this in Vienna." So I sadly had to order the regular stuff, which, along with some whipped cream on top, was really very good on its own. OK, so I couldn't rest a spoon on it, but it was the best I'd had in a long time! I guess my bourgeois Parisian tastes were a bit bohemian for the Viennese!
I also discovered, right around the corner from my cozy hotel room, a blocks-long outdoor row of markets, selling everything from gourmet cheeses to all kinds of Mediterranean and middle-eastern foods, spices, clothes, etc. I immediately found that wonderful orange cheese I discovered in Germany that turned out to be well-aged Gouda. When new it has a completely different taste from the mature stuff. I tried some that was "middle-aged", and it was very good too. I also found some great spinach pies and had a nice lunch. The photo is of me having a big dumpling and other things for lunch the next day at an Austrian cafe in the market. There's another photo of a beggar holding a dog...not liking the fact that I'm taking his picture! Some people use animals to play on people's emotions for money, but the animals are usually treated badly and have a hard life on the street. I give no money to these people.
I mostly just wandered for the two days I was there... and just by sheer accident I stumbled upon the "Musik Museum" which I had heard about... it was great, it had lots of high-tech hands-on stuff where you could, for instance, mix your voice with sound effects, or test your hearing, or see how sound waves created sand ripples (pictured), and even conduct a symphony orchestra. The exhibit I looked forward to the most was where you could create your own music, but the setup was faulty and it only produced a cacaphony of noises. I also paid (too much) to check out part of the National Library, set in a stunningly beautiful hall that again the photos cannot begin to match. The thousands of old books must have been priceless... I'd love to be able to read german and browse in there for a while.
I tried to find some other museums but they were either too far away or blocked off by a huge fence covering much of the public areas in the core of the inner historic district. It turns out it was a soccer ralley-slash-festival, where people who paid could get in and watch the games on huge outdoor screens. Strangely enough they even blocked off tourist attactions like the Parliament building, so I couldn't get in them. I saw at least a hundred policemen guarding the perimeter, huge pavilions and giant corporate logos inside, and I couldn't help but wonder how many millions of dollars had been spent on the whole thing, and what help even a tiny percentage of that could have done if sent to, say, the little animal shelter in Romania paid for now out of the pockets of the very volunteers who run it. I know some of you are probably rolling your eyes now, but I think it's important to keep things in perspective and not forget that when we spend money on our entertainment, that amount that could have gone towards a more worthy cause is gone forever. Sports scores will be forgotten tomorrow, perhaps it's good to occasionally remember that.
Anyway that's about it for the Vienna stopover; the final morning I took the fast, clean underground metro back to the train station and was a bit nervous that they wouldn't have trains going to Bratislava; I've gotten in the routine of buying my ticket to the next destination when I arrive at a train station, so I don't have to worry about it. I forgot this time, but was told not to worry, that they had trains going often to nearby Bratislava. I've learned by now not to take anything I hear as gospel, but this time they were right; there was a train leaving in 15 minutes and I got a comfy seat and settled in to read a bit, and was almost disappointed when I arrived within an hour! (I was just getting into "Call of the Wild", a book I haven't read since I was a teen.)

Next: Bratislava

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