Welcome to Vienna

I have great intentions to continue blogging in between trips but it doesn’t seem to happen very consistently. And so for the next three weeks, my blog will be all about my adventures in Vienna, London, and Scotland.

My European trip this year begins in Vienna where my second novel of “historical fiction with an arts twist” is set. Called “A Woman of Note”, the novel tells the story of a woman composer and virtuosa pianist between 1827 and 1833. The novel opens on the day of Beethoven’s funeral in Vienna on March 29, 1827.

My intention is to soak up some atmosphere, see a few music concerts, and get a good sense of this “City of Music.”

On August 27, after an uneventful flight from Toronto from Vancouver, I board the Austrian Airlines flight to Vienna. The initial signs are good. Viennese waltzes (what else?) are playing over the sound system. Cheerful red pillows and black blankets edged in red and white gingham sit demurely on each seat. The attendants are dressed in red literally from top to toe—red neckerchiefs, red dresses, red stockings, red shoes. Most of the passengers are speaking German and look like extras from the Sound of Music. OK – cultural stereotyping, but seriously. I have a distinct feeling they are minutes away from breaking out into the chorus from Edelweiss. On all the little screens is running a montage of Austrian fun—people skiing, snow-covered mountains and blue skies morph into hundreds of dancing couples. Girls in white dresses (I’ve heard the line before) are attached to men in black tuxes are waltzing in an enormous baroque ballroom. The waltz became popular during the time “A Woman of Note” is set.  The Viennese bourgeois were hungry for innocent pleasures in a Vienna that was, essentially, a police state. In 18030, you kept your mouth shut and waltzed.

On the screen now is beach volleyball (seriously?), the Danube sparkling in the sun, sunny-looking blond people cavorting in front of big white buildings and lots of shots of generic Austrian flora and fauna. In the time it takes to complete the crossword puzzle in the National Post, the plane takes off.

Major score—the man on the other side of the three across middle seats is seated elsewhere. As a result, the girl next to me shifts over and we have an empty seat between us. It’s amazing how liberated this feels. She’s still only three feet away but on a plane that feels like a kilometer.

After two movies, a few TV shows, surprisingly good food, and a short nap, I arrive in Vienna in a very different way from how my characters Josef or Amelia or Isabette would have arrived back in 1827. The sleek airport is small and efficiently laid out. I am through passport control in five minutes and on the platform of the City Airport Train (CAT) within ten minutes for the sixteen-minute trip into Vienna. The train rides smoothly. I have my laptop out and can type with as much ease as if I was working on my desk at home. The train passes the usual hideously ugly sprawl that always infects the outskirts of major European cities–massive cylinders and futuristic structures that must have something to do with energy production, junk yards and railway tracks, massive electrical pylons, a blue Vienna sky. I could be anywhere.

I leave the CAT at the central station and hop on to the U train – Vienna’s very efficient subway system. I bought my combo CAT ticket and 3-day transit pass online so I theoretically don’t need to worry about transit tickets for the next three days. All I have is a printout with the dates that the pass is valid. It doesn’t feel very official to carry around a piece of paper rather than a ticket-sized pass, but the guy on the CAT train scanned it with his phone and I’ve yet to see anywhere in the U train system where I need to show the pass anyway.

As usual, my carefully printed Google maps are useless. I never learn! I emerge from the U station to a massive busy street surrounded by large, white and very clean buildings—buildings that I am destined to see a lot of over the next 40-odd minutes. I have no idea which way my street is and so I turn left. It’s a good a direction as any. I walk awhile and don’t see any street that is on my map so I turn back and walk the other way for a good 15 minutes only to finally conclude that no, the first direction I’d taken was the right one. Sighing, I wheel my brand new, four-wheeled suitcase (it’s a keeper) around and trudge back the way I came, only barely registering in my post-flight fog that I’m passing the massive Kunsthistoriches museum which squats in 19th Century splendor across from the equally massive Natural History museum. I remember visiting both museums on my only other trip to Vienna in 2000 with the family. We walked into the reptile room in the Natural History museum and I had to literally sprint through it with my eyes closed. It was a huge and heavy room full from floor to ceiling with stuffed snakes. I don’t mean the cute plush variety; I mean very real, very menacing, very snaky snakes. Ugh! I don’t think I’ll have time for either museum on this trip, although I would like to see the Archimbolos in the Kunsthistoriches again.

But I digress.

When finally my right foot—which is starting the trip in an already compromised state with a painful case of plantar fasciitis—begins to scream so loud I can no longer ignore it, I ask a passing jogger where my street is and am delighted to discover that I am standing across the road from it. Phew. I set off up the street with renewed resolve and minutes later am being greeted by my AirBnB host.

The thing about staying in an AirBnB place is that you really are like an honorary Viennese, or Parisian or Londoner, or whatever. You are led through various thick doors, up old and dark stairwells, given a lesson in the complicated use of at least three different keys (really) and then finally ushered into an apartment that looks like, well, an apartment. It’s not a hotel room with mini bar and wrapped soaps. It’s a kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom that look like the kind of place you might actually want to live in. In other words, it’s pretty cool.


Lovely bathroom

My AirBnB place is living up to the expectations formed by the listing. I chose it first because its location is pretty good (about a 15 minute walk from the old town), second because the price was outstanding ($113/night) and third because it has a piano. I have since tried it and confess to reveling in the expected burst of romantic swooning despite clunky action and doubtful tuning. I played the Schubert Impromptu that has a role in “A Woman of Note” and really did get a bit of a buzz imagining Schubert himself playing the piece only a few blocks and about 185 years away.

I am in Vienna, playing Schubert! Yes!

Living Room

Living room with piano to the right

The apartment overlooks a courtyard in which there is a nice little hole-in-the-wall café called the Kandinsky Café. I get a coffee to go and a bun from the very friendly proprietor who knows all about Vancouver. Ah! Mountains, very beautiful, the Olympics.

After a much needed injection of caffeine, a bout of Schubert, and an hour’s rest to shake off the worst of the plane miasma, I set off for the Wien Museum in the Karlsplatz—two metro stops away. Thanks to my landlady, I have a better sense of my location with relation to the city and hope not to get quite so lost again. A vain hope indeed.

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Burgtheater on the Ringstrasse – typical big building

My plan was to eat lunch at the café at the Wien Museum only to discover that it is closed—the café, not the museum. I hike another half mile across the Ring Road (the streets outside the old town are really big) and found a café for lunch. The first café I go into is filled with men smoking hookahs so I make a graceful exit and go next door to join a jolly looking crowd sitting at tables lining the street. Here’s a transcription of my notes:

First meal in Vienna – outdoors – hearty food but I resist the lure of weiner schnitzel, at least at lunch, and opt for a salad and beer. My firs taste of Austrian blonde beer – Oh yeah. It cuts the dust of the 10,000 mile trip. The salad arrives—it looks good with lots of chicken and avocado pieces. The first bites are excellent—the chicken flavorful and tender The trouble is that the salad greens are soaked to sogginess with a heavy salad dressing that finally defeats me with still half a bowl left to eat. But at least the empty corners of my stomach are filled and I’ve lost that awful achy, empty, lightheaded feeling that comes from almost no sleep and widely spaced meals.

After lunch, I finish my beer and again take up my pen to wax lyrical.

The first few hours of a European trip are a strange mix of sensory stimulation. The new noises and smells, the incessant traffic and voices talking in German accentuate my aloneness. I don’t mind – I love the anonymity of solitary travel. I am here in Vienna to do a job. My hope is that something will jump out at me, will give me the key to “A Woman of Note.” So far, wide boulevards grinding full of 21st Century traffic, prosperous people and rides on the metro have yielded nothing, which I guess is hardly surprising. The Vienna of 2013 is very, very far from the Vienna of 1827. I need to get into the old town where hopefully something will resonate.

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Stumbled on Johann Brahms hanging out in the park

I pay for lunch and set off back the way I came for the Wien Museum where I know there are lots of old maps and examples of furniture and paintings from the era of “A Woman of Note.” After about ten minutes of walking, I am again lost. I’m discovering quickly that navigating around Vienna is not a waltz in the park. The streets angle all over the place and it’s the work of a few steps to take the wrong angle and find yourself many blocks from where you thought you were just a few minutes before. Fortunately, after many long blocks and increasingly hot feet, I emerge into the square containing the museum.

Total fluke.

The museum is not quite as exciting as I had hoped but I do get to look at quite a few old maps and a few scale models of Vienna back in the day. The museum mostly focuses on the “new Vienna” – the post-1850s version after the medieval outer wall was demolished and the famous Ringstrasse was built. In 1827 when “A Woman of Note” starts, Vienna was still a walled city of 290,000 people which sounds like a lot but I was surprised to discover that at the same time, Paris had 860,000 inhabitants and London had 1,340,000. Vienna was not that big of a town as it turns out which actually works well with my plot since a central motivator of at least one character is to go to Paris.

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral all cleaned up

After the museum, I wander back over the Ringstrasse into the old town. By this time, I am starting to get seriously wiped! But like a seasoned traveler, I persevere – walking, walking, walking. The old town teems with tourists and locals on its many pedestrian streets. I make it to the St. Stephansplatz where the massive cathedral looms very whitely. I remember it being black in 2000 so I guess it’s had a bath. In fact, I notice that Vienna is looking decidedly less gray on this trip. I remember darker buildings but now every building looks brand new. As a result it’s even more of a challenge to imagine how they might have looked back in 1827.

I find a music store (as in sheet music) and spend a happy half hour having the attendant unearth copies of music by 19th century women composers. I end up with three books of piano music—Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendellsohn and Maria Theresia von Paradis who was a contemporary of Mozart. I won’t try out the music on the rough-sounding apartment piano. Besides, the music looks hard, best left to when I have time on my trusty Petrov.

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Reflection of old town in 21st Century plate glass window

I walk back to the apartment—a good and steamy half hour of increasingly achy feet. These first days in Europe walking on cobblestones are always a killer after Bowen Island paths! I find a grocery store and load up on yogurt, crackers, cheese, and a nice bottle of Austrian rosé wine. I love European grocery stores. They are inevitably quite small because they had to be shoe-horned into old buildingd. In the mornings, they are full of older people with string bags and in the late afternoon, they are packed with young locals dressed in business clothes and stocking up for their evening meal. I love deciphering the German labels and searching out things like crackers which are never the same and harder to find in European stores. I’m not sure why that is. The cheese cooler has no Canadian cheddar (funny that!) but instead is full of lots of mild-looking white cheeses. And what is it with the yogurt? Maybe the little individual yogurts sold in Canada taste just as good but since I never buy little individual yogurts in Canada I don’t know. I do know that the ones I buy in Vienna are spectacular with flavours like coconut, mango, and coffee. It’s probably because they are full fat, which I only indulge in on holiday!

I arrive back at the apartment and post on Facebook about my burning stump feet while rolling them over a tub of frozen yoghurt. One needs to improvise on vacation. After a wee sleep and a nice interlude at the piano, I saunter into the balmy night air in search of dinner. I am looking of course for a nice, typical Austrian restaurant. Two of the ones I pass are empty which I do not take as a good sign and two more are Asian which I can get at home. The restaurant I finally choose is comfortably full and noisy and, as it turns out, Italian, with weiner schnitzel nowhere to be seen. Oh well – I have found on many a European sojourn that you can always count on an Italian restaurant to serve a good meal. And they do. I have my favorite gnocchi in gorgonzola – another indulgence best kept to once every few years. I can’t say the gnocchi is anywhere near as heavenly as what I’ve had in Italy, but it is certainly fresh and tasty and was washed down nicely with an Austrian white wine.

I also have a ringside seat to drama among the waitstaff. One of the waiters—the one who does not look Italian and I don’t think is—brings the wrong order to the table next to mine and is chastised roundly and volubly by the other two waiters who both look very Italian and probably related. For the rest of my meal, the poor guy is relegated to washing and drying wine glasses at the bar. The look of resentment on his face transcends language. I didn’t need to understand German or Italian to know that he is pissed. Every so often one of the other waiters wanders by and says something to the guy which only serves to deepen his scowl. The whole scenario looks like a good start for a Viennese murder mystery. Good thing I write historical fiction.

By the time I make it back to the apartment via two heavy door, a keyed elevator, and final staircase that looks like it dates from the 19th century or earlier, I am too tired to do anything but pass out. Sleep comes surprisingly slowly, however, because of a group of young people in the courtyard five floors below (I’m on the top floor). Thanks to the funneling upward of sound in the narrow courtyard, the conversation sounds like it is in my bedroom. If only I understood German, I could have been well entertained. As it was I just wish I knew how to yell Shut Up in German. Fortunately, another tenant does know how and finally the kids move on.

And so Day 1 of waltzing through Vienna ends.