Tag Archives: Vienna

A Viennese Christmas

Austrian Countryside en route from Prague to Vienna
En route from Prague to Vienna

My son Devan’s and my  arrival into Vienna on December 23 was efficient  as the Student Agency bus deposited us on time at Stadion Center near the Danube. From there, we jumped on the U2 U-bahn and transferred at Taborstraße at the advice of the TripAdvisor Vienna destination experts to Tram 2 which stopped at Marienbrücke, a short  walk to the relatively utilitarian Hotel Mercure Wien City,  just north of the Danube Canal. Since it was already mid-afternoon by the time we checked into the hotel, we decided to wander into the city center to get our bearings and an early dinner.  Speaking for my son, we were looking forward to spending the Christmas holiday in such an amazing and festive setting. Coming from the heat and humidity that prevails in South Florida for the majority of the year, the chilly temperatures in Vienna at Christmastime were a welcome departure.

Domkirche St. Stephan zu Wien
Domkirche St. Stephan zu Wien

We found our way to the city center using Stephansdom’s ornate towering spire to guide us in the right direction, grabbed a  quick dinner and took a tour of the resplendent cathedral .

Domkirche St. Stephan zu Wien
Domkirche St. Stephan zu Wien

From there, we opted to make good use of our 72 hour public transport card and give ourselves a brief respite from our usual incessant hoofing it around town. We rode both tram Lines 1 and 2  to complete the Ringstraße circuit  and take in the city from the relative warmth of the streetcar in between hops on and off to check out various points of interest and give Devan time to up his caloric intake with some local fare.

Austrian Parliament
Austrian Parliament
Maria Theresien Platz of Vienna
Maria Theresien Platz of Vienna

 

 

 

Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, MuseumsQuartier
Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, MuseumsQuartier

 

I can’t imagine a more festive place to spend Christmas than Vienna. Everywhere we turned looked like Christmas, from the Christmas markets all around the city to the beautiful decorations in the stores and restaurants around the city to the actual streets adorned with shimmering lights. Fortuitous timing brought us back to Mariahilfer Straße to wander around the shops until we came upon a celebratory lighting of the Menorah at Kartner Straße.

Christmas in Vienna
Christmas in Vienna
Christkindlmarkt am Wiener Rathausplatz
Christkindlmarkt am Wiener Rathausplatz

 

 

 

 

After a long day and possibly a wee bit of visual overload at the endless spectacle of the Christmas season on display, we hopped the U-bahn U1 Line from Stephanplatz back to Schwedenplatz so we could take the short walk across the  canal to our hotel to rest up and get ready for Christmas Eve the next day.

Schloß Schönbrunn
Schloß Schönbrunn

We decided to get up and at ’em early on Christmas Eve morning to visit Schloß Schönbrunn  a bit southwest of the city center. We arrived too early for entrance, so we visited the open stalls of the Christmas market in the palace courtyard for a coffee and sugar covered waffle before we headed in and selected the abbreviated Imperial Tour of 22 rooms of the massive 1441 room Baroque summer palace of the Habsburgs.  Devan and I’ve seen a good many palaces in our days, but the royal extravagance never ceases to amaze.

Naschmarkt, Vienna
Naschmarkt, Vienna

We headed back to the city center to have lunch at Naschmarkt and browse the market offerings which ranged from touristy souvenir items to meat, cheese, produce. spices, local delicacies  and other food products whose booths are frequented by locals. (Okay, I admit I didn’t JUST browse).  Since this trip was more loosely structured than most of my travels , we missed out on having the chance to tour the  Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Military Museum), as the opening hours were limited during the Christmas holiday, and we didn’t have our visit specifically on the agenda.

Heeresgeschichtliches Museum
Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna

Missing out on opportunities like this is more reinforcement that my future travels should revert back to my typical way of planning a “schedule skeleton” and then adjusting from there. While this trip was different than most for me due to its complete lack of agenda and was also enjoyable due to flexibility, we did miss out on a few attractions we’d hoped to visit in each of our destination cities of Prague, Vienna and Budapest. We did wander the Military Museum grounds which along with the castle-like architecture of the many buildings in the complex were impressive in and of themselves. We spent the remainder of the afternoon checking out the Museumsquartier, various churches around the city such as Votivkirche and Karlskirche and the Hofburg  Complex, of course, stopping for a Glühwein along the way for an occasional warm-up (and because it just tastes good).

Hofburg Palace Gardens
Hofburg Palace Gardens
Dev and I were disqualified by the last stipulation.
Dev and I were disqualified by the last stipulation.

As evening approached we continued our walking tour of the city to enjoy all of the sights and sounds of Christmas Eve prior to our dinner reservations at Restaurant Chamäleon, near Stephansdom, for a Swiss-style fondue Christmas dinner. After dinner, we headed to Stadtkirche (Lutheran City Church), just a short walk from the restaurant to attend midnight mass. We thought it might be interesting to attend a Lutheran Christmas Eve service to see if we could follow along based upon liturgy even though the service was to be conducted in German.

My German is better than Devan’s (since he doesn’t speak any), but we barely got to try our hand at following along with the service as, upon our presumed early arrival at 11:30 pm, we quickly discovered that “midnight mass” at this Evangelische church inexplicably starts at 11 pm. Apparently, Viennese Lutherans like to get an early jump on Christmas. At least we were able to find pew space since there isn’t an overabundance of Lutherans in Austria and were able to enjoy a little Stille Nacht and the last twenty minutes of the misnamed midnight mass. We were able to find a Christmas Day service the following morning in English at Christ Church, an Anglican church not too far southeast from the Ring Road. We learned that holiday church attendees in Vienna are no different than the congregants at our home church, meaning that people pile into the church even on major church holidays about one minute before the service is set to start, expecting to find a seat; so the first 15 minutes or so of the service were spent squishing the late arrivals into the already-cozy pew space. The game of musical pews didn’t detract from the beautiful service and friendly nature of this church’s staff and attendees.

Sankt Marxer Friedhof
Devan asking Mozart’s guardian angel how he managed to drop the ball. Poor guy looks distraught. – Sankt Marxer Friedhof

The next order of business on Christmas Day was our mission to visit Mozart’s burial monument to add to our previous visit to Chopin and Jim Morrison’s grave sites during our 2010 trip to Paris. Yes, it’s kind of morbid, but we were a bit curious as to how Mozart’s presumed burial site at Friedhof St. Marx (apparently there is some uncertainty as to his exact resting place) compared to that of Chopin and Morrison at Père Lachaise Cemetery. After our eventual arrival after hoofing it a good distance from the public transport stop we selected (likely not the nearest or most convenient) through the chilly drizzle, we learned that Friedhof Sankt Marx itself was certainly a fraction of the size of Père Lachaise and not nearly as grand. Mozart’s monument is an interesting one, considered to be an angel in mourning, given that Mozart died way too young. The monument clearly shows the angel’s dismay; Devan wondered if the angel was meant to signify Mozart’s guardian angel showing remorse that he didn’t do a better job preserving Mozart’s existence. We at least got a little giggle out of Devan’s apropos description of the monument, making the schlepping our way to St. Marx and the subsequent uphill hike via the gravel path to Mozart’s monument worthwhile.

We spent the remainder of our time wandering around the Hofburg complex and the rest of the Museumsquartier with a visit to the Haus der Musik (Das Klangmuseum), which was an interesting stop. The museum provided music history as well as interactive displays. Devan was even able to play the piano in the museum lobby for a bit to keep himself from getting too rusty during our vacation.

Haus der Musik Wien
Haus der Musik
Haus der Musik
Haus der Musik

The exit to the museum spit us out at the entrance of the 1516 Brewing Company where Devan and I were able to enjoy some delicious spaetzel (mmmm spaetzel!) before our train ride from the new Hauptbahnhof (train station) to Budapest the next day. I can’t imagine a better place to have spent Christmas with my son; Vienna was truly a magical place (although my son always makes Christmas special, regardless of the location).

 

Student Agency Bus from Prague to Vienna

After researching various mechanisms for transport between Prague and Vienna, I had opted for Student Agency bus service after having read comparative reviews on TripAdvisor. From what I read, it seemed that travel time (just under 5 hours) and fare (19 Euros) were comparable for train or bus travel between Prague and Vienna. The reviews did, however, make mention that the comfort level on Student Agency bus service was a bit superior to that of the train.

As I’m writing this on the bus en route to Vienna, I have to say that I was not led wrong by the reviews on TripAdvisor. The bus is quite new, with touch screen TVs at each seat. There is an onboard attendant who offers beverage service, headphones and reading material. Wifi is even available on the bus so that bloggers can post about their bus ride mid-trip! The bus even offers electrical outlets for those in need of electronic device recharge.

Another reason I opted for Student Agency bus service for my son’s and my travel to Vienna from Prague was on account of the proximity of Florenc bus station to our hotel in Prague, the Hilton Old Town. While everything in Prague is quite accessible via public transport, I figured hauling our luggage on and off of a tram or up and down platforms of metro lines would be something of a hassle. Florenc was literally a 10 minute walk from the Old Town Hilton.

Our bus arrived at platform 1 shortly after 8:00 am for loading bags and passengers for the scheduled 8:30 am departure. The driver pulled out of Florenc at 8:31 am. I believe the attendant mentioned the bus would be making a short rest stop at 11:30 am to allow passengers to stretch their legs and, I imagine, to utilize the facilities.

While our ride aboard Student Agency’s bus is still underway, so far, so good. And now I’m going to sign off so that I can enjoy the view some more as we traverse the Czech countryside.

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Oh, Vienna……

Continuing my quest to learn some random facts about my December travel destinations, a little online research brought me to these (unverified) bits of trivia about Austria and Vienna:

  • Legal voting age in Austria is only 16 years old. While that’s really young, I doubt teen Austrian voters could be any less informed than the majority of their 18 year old U.S. counterpart first time voters. Interestingly, Austrian teens may not receive their first drivers license until they are 18; but legal drinking age for Austrians is 16.  I guess the Austrian kids can build up a tolerance to alcohol before getting behind the wheel in a couple of years. Hmmmmm……
  • Tiergarten Schönbrunn, founded in 1752 and located in Vienna, is world’s oldest zoological garden.
  • People from Vienna are called Viennese, which has a much classier ring to it than my Milwaukeean or Wisconsinite label.
  • The Austrian Alps cover about 62% of Austria’s total land area.
  • Classical composers, including Strauss, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert have all performed and lived in Vienna.
  • Europe’s second largest cemetery, Zentralfriedhof, is located in Vienna, and has a total size of one square mile. Zentralfriedhof contains over 2.5 million tombs, almost double the city’s living population.  Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Strauss not only lived in Vienna, but were also buried there.
  • Approximately one fourth of Austria’s population reside in the capital city of Vienna.
  • Vienna, along with Bratislava, Belgrade and Budapest, is one of four capital cities through with the Danube River flows.
  •  This fact did not come from online research, but rather from my longstanding addiction to ’80s British Invasion era music:  “Vienna” is the name of a synth-pop ballad (an awesome one, in my humble opinion) released in 1981 by the British band Ultravox and featuring the haunting vocals of none other than Midge Ure.

Enjoy!

 

Holding Pattern

Now that I’ve finally determined that I’ll be visiting Prague, Vienna and Budapest during my next “big”  trip (I will likely take a “little” one the month prior) as well as with whom I will be traveling (my son – YAY!), I’ve become incredibly antsy (yes, a surprise for those who know me) to get all of my proverbial ducks in a row so that I have a general game plan to review and tweak as travel day approaches. However, in this case, definitive planning is somewhat stalled for the time being, although my nerd research continues full bore.

Some of the structural bones to the trip have been defined to date, which is a nice feeling since those are the essential elements to trip planning, while the activities laced between are all somewhat adaptable to circumstances. Thus far, I’ve secured our flights to Prague and home from Budapest (after much ado weighing the virtues of convenient flight times, reasonable layovers and palatable fares) as well as our lodgings in each of the cities we’ll be visiting. As per usual, we’ll take advantage of my credit card points in Prague and Budapest – hey, not much beats “free” – and, Hotwire helped me find a conveniently located and reasonable, yet decent, hotel in Vienna, where the hotels included in my rewards plan would have drained my points stockpile a bit further than I would have liked.

Our airport transfer modes have also been determined (though not yet secured) with utilizing the Airport Express bus service from Vaclav Havel Airport Prague (no reservation is required) and a private pre-arranged transfer (too early to book) at the miserable hour of 2:45 am from the hotel in Budapest to catch our 5 am flight home from Ferenc Liszt International Airport. However, my logistical planning has been slightly delayed on account of train schedules being a bit in flux at the current juncture. From what I’ve read, a new main train station in Vienna (Wien Hauptbahnhof) has been under construction for some time and should be fully operational by the start of December, with schedules not being released until mid-October. Since Vienna is flanked by Prague and Budapest in our itinerary and arrival and departure via train are part of the plan, this logistical detail will have to wait until schedules are available. Once train schedules are finally released, there’s even the possibility we’ll utilize a bus service between cities instead, if those schedules turn out to be more conducive to our overall game plan.

In the meantime, there’s much to research in each of our destination cities. But my holding pattern is twofold, though, since I want to consider my son’s input in the activity planning. Given that he’s been incommunicado whilst at training at Fort Knox for three weeks now (sniff, sniff), he’s neither been able to do his own research nor even provide input to ideas I’ve garnered to date.  At least soon he’ll have access to the outside world once he arrives at Fort Polk for infantry training (big time YAY!), so he’ll be able to provide his thoughts about how we should spend our time during the trip.  Without a doubt, sampling some fine Czech pilsners will end up on his to-do list. I’m sure we can work that into the schedule for him somehow….

And the winner is……. Prague!

Well, the headline of this post is quite incomplete, possibly even a bit inaccurate, since I’m the real winner being that my son agreed to be my travel buddy on my upcoming trip once again. But as far as the travel destination selection goes, Prague, along with Vienna and Budapest, won my internal debate about where I should spend Christmas with my son this year. It’s been an arduous process just to arrive at this conclusion, but now that I’m finally there… the fun begins!

Vienna, Austria at Christmas
Vienna doesn’t seem to be a bad place to spend Christmas with my son!

I took the first leap yesterday and bought our plane tickets via Kayak and Vayama after spending many hours researching flights on Skyscanner, Airfarewatchdog, and Google Flights amongst many of the other flight aggregator sites. It wasn’t easy to decide the right approach, but “right” is subjective. For me, it turned out to be finding a good mix of relatively conveniently scheduled and relatively reasonable flights. I say “relatively” on both counts since the flights to Prague and from Budapest both have layovers in Lisbon (TAP Portugal) with the layover on the journey to Prague being unpleasantly long (a bit over four hours), the departure flight from Budapest is at an unreasonably early hour (5 am – YUCK!), and the price, while the cheapest I’ve paid to get to Europe in many years, still wasn’t a real bargain. But, all things considered, these flights seemed a good option to grab so I can forge ahead with the next stages of the trip planning process.

So, now I’m in full research mode….looking into accommodation options as well as logistical details, mainly the train schedule between Prague and Vienna and from Vienna and Budapest at this stage in the game. The train schedule could very well affect my plan for travel dates between cities since I don’t want to cut the stay in any of the cities we’ll be visiting too short. It looks like Devan and I will be spending Christmas 2014 in Vienna, though! I’ve never spent Christmas overseas before, but Christmas in Vienna looks magical and seems like a good way to give a European Christmas a try! Really, how bad could it be?!

Now that “big decision number one” has been determined, the Tripadvisor forums will be one of the places you’ll be able to find me over the next several months. These forums are invaluable tools for seeking out advice from destination experts around the globe. They’re also quite entertaining, since there are typically resident know-it-alls, who are not only very knowledgeable about the destination they claim as their area of expertise, but who also enjoy lacing a bit of sarcasm and wit into their responses to posts, particularly to newbies.

I can't wait to take my own photos in Budapest!
I can’t wait to take my own photos in Budapest!

So much to do…but at least I have a bit of time to get all of my proverbial ducks in a row. Since my son is still incommunicado at Fort Knox Army ROTC training, he is unaware that our Christmas trip destination has been finalized. When he’s allowed to communicate with the outside world once again next month, I’m hoping he’ll be pleased with the outcome of what was the question of the hour. At the very least, I’m sure he’ll be thrilled at the prospect of sampling some fine Czech pilsners!

 

 
Continue reading And the winner is……. Prague!