The journey continues in Austria..
29.05.2012 - 01.06.2012
The second leg of our Europe tour started with us flying to Vienna from Frankfurt. Vienna is the largest city as well as the capital of Austria. Almost immediately we left for a bus tour of the city to familiarise ourselves with the sights and sounds of Vienna. The highlight of the tour was a visit to the Schonbrunn Palace, the former imperial 1,441-room summer residence of the Habsburg monarchs. This palace is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was home to some illustrious names like Empress Maria Theresa (the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg), Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife Empress Elisabeth of Austria popularly known as “Sissi”. The gardens of this palace are a must visit! They have some of the most beautifully sculpted landscapes I have ever seen.
That evening, we booked tickets for a not-to-be-missed event in Vienna, the Mozart Concert. The world famous Wiener- Mozart Orchestra was performing their New Year’s Concert at the Goldener Saal or Golden Hall in the Musikverein concert hall. The hall has a spellbinding ambience with wonderful acoustics. The orchestra performed some of the greatest works by W.A.Mozart and John Strauss. It was my first time listening live to an opera and I was waiting for glasses to break, sadly that did not happen
The next day, we took a leisurely walking tour of the city. A Vienna City Day Pass is the most convenient and economical way to do some self-exploration of the city. This pass allows unlimited rides on trams, trains and buses for the duration of 24 hours. Multiple day passes and shopping passes (8 am to 8 pm) are some of the other options. These passes can be bought at any tram or train station from the vending machines. Some of the places worth a visit are the State Opera, The Parliament constructed in Roman style, the Hofburg Palace (the winter residence of the Habsburg monarchs), the RatHaus, Karlskirche, the Museumsquartier (housing 4 museums and flanked by the Museum of Natural History and Museum of Fine Arts), the Albertina etc. etc. There are way too many museums in Vienna!
One of the best attractions in Vienna is the St. Stephen’s Cathedral or Stephansdom. It is located in the heart of the city and most of its surrounding area is entirely pedestrian. I highly recommend exploring the area on foot. There are a number of local handicraft shops all around the cathedral and the spiral potato chips became something of my favourite!! A little farther away you will also find regular branded shops and souvenir stores, a pedestrianised shopping haven!
The Cathedral itself is marvellous. The inside appears multicoloured due to the various stain glass windows reflecting light. We also took a guided tour to the catacombs below the cathedral. It was a pretty creepy experience to say the least. There were different rooms housing the bodies & organs respectively of priests and bishops. These organs are stored in huge urns and had to be removed before the process of mummification of the bodies. Over the years, the smell of the decaying organs led to the transfer of the original smaller urns into bigger and bigger ones leading finally to the huge urns that we see there today. Many of the Habsburg emperors are also buried here. There was also a mass grave for those who died in the Great Plague. Due to the exceedingly large number of bodies, the bones are stacked one on top of the other like firewood and this sight is pretty unnerving... Gives me goosebumps even writing about it!
Our next Viennese attraction was the Prater. It is an amusement park with a big ferris wheel offering beautiful views of the city and their very own Madam Tussauds museum!
Since I haven’t visited the original Madame Tussauds, I was pretty excited and I wasn’t disappointed at all. Life-like wax figures of Arnold Schwarzenegger & Kate Winslet greet you at the entrance and although this museum features many Austrian celebrities (especially the sports section), it doesn’t have any dearth of other world famous personalities. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo di Caprio, Albert Einstein, these are just few of the names. Needless to say, Mozart, Beethoven and Pope Benedict XVI are also part of this museum.
In the later part of the day, rain played spoilsport and our plans of visiting the Vienna Zoo were washed away (literally!!). But we did visit the zoo, more on that later.
Next on the agenda was the Grand Danube Cruise. Thankfully, the rain had stopped by then and our cruise proceeded as planned. The Danube is Europe’s second longest river (the longest being Volga) and it flows through 10 different countries!!! Even more interesting is the fact that this river flows through four capital cities, more than any river in the world! The scenic beauty surrounding the Danube is magical. Lush green trees, floating fisherman houses and cool winds made for a perfect journey. We also passed through a lock gate mechanism operated dam which was quite interesting because we had to wait for 30 minutes inside 2 closed gates while water filled up and our boat was raised to a higher level.
After a few stops we reached a place called MexicoPlatz. The colossal & magnificent Church of St. Francis of Assisi is located here. It is a Roman Catholic Church built to commemorate the golden jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph I. It is less crowded and apparently not a very touristy area. A nice place to spend a peaceful hour away from the hustle bustle of the city!
The following morning, we took a bus tour to another country on our itinerary, Hungary. The drive to Budapest, the capital of Hungary, took about 3 hours. First stop was at the Heroes’ Square. The central site of this square, as well as a landmark of Budapest, is the Millennium Monument with statues of the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century and other outstanding figures of Hungarian history. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art are located on the two sides of this square. Behind this square is a beautiful lake with a fantastic view of the Vajdahunyad castle.
The modern day city of Budapest is in fact made up of two cities, ‘Buda’ & ‘Pest’ which are located opposite each other on the banks of the Danube. Buda has more of a hilly terrain while Pest is on flat land. The Castle Hill on the Buda side has some of the most famous sites of Budapest, namely the Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church. The Fisherman’s Bastion is a terrace offering majestic views of the city and the Danube. Its seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes that founded Hungary and the Bastion gets its name from the guild of fishermen that was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages. The architecture of the Matthias church is very beautiful and unique. In 1541, this church was converted to a mosque. The frescoes in this church were completely destroyed and the walls were whitewashed. In later years it was restored to its former glory. During our visit, the church was undergoing restoration and entrance tickets were heavily priced. So we simply enjoyed the beauty from the outside
The Parliament building, St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Great Synagogue are landmarks on the Pest side. It was my first visit to any synagogue and the guided tour was extremely informative. This Synagogue (a Jewish place of worship) in Budapest, according to our guide is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. Men are required to cover their heads with a small cap called “Kippah” while entering the synagogue as a sign of respect to God. A holocaust memorial has also been erected in the backyard to remember those Jewish civilians who took shelter here and died in the World War II. A “Tree of Life” whose leaves bear the names of the victims stands in the courtyard as a reminder of the tragedy of the war.
The next morning, we made our way back to the zoo. The Vienna Zoo is the oldest zoo in the world. I was really excited to see the Giant Panda, since there are only a handful of zoos in the world that house this animal. I was always under the impression that Pandas are extremely lazy creatures who just like to eat bamboo the entire day, but what I saw there changed my view entirely! There was some awesome kung-fu action going on between two pandas, one slightly bigger than the other and the younger one ended up being bullied by the other. It was so much fun to watch them!! We also saw the zookeepers feeding Emperor penguins, something which I have never seen before. One of the penguins was standing so close to the trainer, literally touching him and refused to budge when he threw the fish a little farther away. It kept standing there till he fed the fish into its mouth! What royal treatment!! The zoo of course had its normal share of giraffes, leopards, elephants etc. We climbed up a steep hill to see the Arctic wolves too. Three of them fought over a dead rabbit as we watched. I was extremely excited to see the polar bear enclosure but unfortunately the construction was still going on and they haven’t got the bears yet. Hopefully, some years down the line, I’ll visit again and see the bears!
Too very soon, it was time to say goodbye to the City of Music and move on to the Land of Pizza & Pasta. Yep, I was going to Italy!! Part III will be posted soon with those stories.