Thursday, January 23, 2014

Vienna: From Cafes to Crypts

The next morning in Vienna was cold and foggy. We walked to the historic old town center and saw St. Stephen's Cathedral. It was reduced to rubble by fire during WWII and rebuilt from the ashes in only seven years. The detailing on the exterior of the gothic church is amazing. The interior was beautiful, also very gothic and imposing. The church is still used for services today and is considered the most important Catholic church in Vienna.

We decided that the weather was still a little too miserable so we retired to a Viennese institution, Cafe Central. It first opened in 1876 and was a popular meeting place for great minds like Sigmund Freud and Leo Trotzki. The Viennese Coffee House Culture is listed as "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by UNESCO. We had a grand time enjoying Viennese coffee, pastries, and goulash soup in the impressive, columned interior. 

Our next stop was the Sisi Museum. Sisi refers to Empress Elisabeth of Austria. I really didn't know much about the Empress or even the Habsburgs before our trip to Vienna. I found the history fascinating and was completely enthralled by the story of the misunderstood Empress. The museum is inside the Hofburg Palace, in a different section from the one we were in for the ball.

Sisi Museum Entrance

We began with a comprehensive tour of the Imperial Silver Collection. It includes everything from tableware and linen to toothbrush holders and bedpans. There are around 7,000 items of solid gold and silver displayed. I thought the description of the foot-washing ceremony was the most interesting part of the tour. Each year on Holy Thursday the Empress and Emperor washed the feet of twelve (each) elderly men and women in a ceremony meant to emulate Christ washing the feet of his disciples. The elderly paupers then received gifts of wine, food, and coins. On display were the gold lavabo sets used during the ceremony.

Next is the Sisi Museum. More than 300 items from Empress Elisabeth's life are on display. Visitors are taken through her childhood, betrothal to Emperor Franz Joseph, marriage, motherhood, and finally her death by assassination. She seemed to be a complicated and intriguing woman. Her beauty was world-famous and she went to great lengths to make sure it stayed that way. She had her own gymnasium set up in her apartments in the palace and performed a strenuous daily exercise program followed by massages. Her ankle-length hair was washed during an all-day process with egg yolk and cognac. She took warm olive oil baths and wore face masks made from crushed strawberries or raw veal, which she wore all night. Her largest waist measurement was 19.5 inches, and at one point she had reduced it to 16 inches. She was once described as "almost inhumanly slender."

After the suicide of her son in 1889, she spent the rest of her life in mourning. She wore only black jewelry, became withdrawn, and traveled incessantly. She went to Geneva in September 1898 for a health cure. Luigi Lucheni, an anarchist, was in the city on a mission to assassinate a ruling member of a royal family as part of a protest. His intended victim was a prince who canceled his visit at the last minute. Lucheni read about the empress' visit and schedule in a newspaper and decided she would do. He attacked her with a sharpened file while she was strolling at a lake promenade. The wound was small, so small in fact that the empress believed she had just been punched. It was only after she had boarded a steamship that her companion noticed blood on her chemise and realized she'd been stabbed. Empress Elisabeth died of internal bleeding from the fatal wound. Lucheni was arrested and eventually hung himself in his jail cell.

Once you learn about Sisi's life, the tour brings you to the Imperial Apartments. The Hofburg was the residence of the Habsburgs for over 600 years. The apartments of Franz Joseph and Emperor Elisabeth offer a glimpse into their royal lives. Their bedrooms, dressing rooms, and personal desks are on display. It was interesting to see Elisabeth's exercise equipment and the tub where she bathed in olive oil. 

The Sisi Museum is a must-do in Vienna. We spent several happy hours wandering through the palace and learning about Empress Elisabeth. 

The next day was spent in Bratislava, Slovakia and that deserves its own entry so I'll finish up with Vienna before we hop on the train.

Our most notable dinner, aside from the one before the ball, was at the Le LOFT restaurant at the top of the Sofitel. The gourmet French restaurant is on the 18th floor, offering magnificent views of Vienna. We were spellbound by the all-around glass windows and colorful ceiling that seemed to project itself out into the Viennese sky. The menu was what you'd expect at a place like this: overpriced, hoity-toity, with a gin and tonic setting you back a staggering 18 Euros. I don't think that I would recommend the Le LOFT restaurant because it's the kind of place  where you pay a lot and leave hungry, but I would suggest eating a reasonably-priced dinner elsewhere and having one fancy drink at the bar so you can enjoy the view. 

On our final morning in Vienna we went to another coffee house, this time the Demel. It was established in 1786 and known for its confections and pastries. We sat upstairs in the non-smoking section and I absolutely loved the Rococo interior. I ordered the goulash soup to compare it to Cafe Central. Demel's is the hands-down winner. It was rich, thick, and delicious. I washed it down with raspberry water. My husband had traditional Viennese sausage served with mustard and shredded horseradish.

Last on our list was a visit to the Imperial Crypt at Capuchin Church. The exterior of the church is completely unassuming, especially compared to St. Stephen's Cathedral. The Imperial Crypt is the burial vault of the Habsburgs. There is a double sarcophagus with the bodies of Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen, the parents of Marie Antoinette. The crypt also contains the tombs of Franz Joseph, Empress Elisabeth, and their son. Interestingly, the tombs contain only the bodies while their hearts are in urns at a different chapel and their entrails are in a crypt under St. Stephen's Cathedral. Burials still take place in the crypt today, the most recent entombment being that of Otto Habsburg who died in 2011.

Our sightseeing in Vienna was at its end. I really loved the city. It was clean and lovely and people were friendly. The food, in general, was very good and affordable (with the exception of Le LOFT). The highlights for me were the ball and the Sisi museum. 

So long, Vienna! Maybe I'll see you at the opera some time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An Evening at a Ball in Vienna

It's ball season in Vienna! I can't think of a better reason to hop on a plane and travel to the capital and largest city in Austria. Every year, Vienna hosts more than 450 balls! I never thought I'd attend one but this year the opportunity was presented to us and we thought, "Why not?" The ball we attended was held in the Hofburg Palace, the residence of the Austrian sovereigns for over 600 years. Today it houses the offices of the democratic Republic of Austria. 

Reichenberger Griechenbeisl
After we were suited up appropriately according to dress code, we headed off to dinner at the Reichenberger Griechenbeisl. The first mention of this building was in 1350. The tower, still standing today, survives from the Middle Ages. The inn has endured attacks from the Turks, earthquakes, floods, and the plague. Since then, the Griechenbeisl has been the meeting place for many prominent scholars, artists, and politicians including Mark Twain, Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, and even Johnny Cash. We dined in the Mark Twain Room where the ceiling and walls are covered with the signatures of the famous. The food and service was excellent and dinner was a fabulous beginning to our magical evening.

We arrived at the palace just as the doors were officially opening. There was a long line of people outside, some being dropped off in horse-drawn carriages. The men were elegantly dressed in tailcoats and dinner jackets while the women dazzled in floor-length gowns, jewels, and fur stoles. The scenery was so surreal. With the carriages, palace, and lavish dress, it was easy to imagine we had been transported to a different century, awaiting the doors to open into the palace where we would all be greeted the Habsburgs. 

Soon the doors opened and the line moved swiftly. The electricity buzzing through the crowd grew more intense as we arrived in the entry room. It was illuminated by a grand chandelier. Straight ahead was a stately staircase covered by red carpet. Different languages floated around us as we ascended into room after room, each one more splendid than the last. 

Main Ballroom
We watched the opening ceremony, with the lovely debutantes and their escorts parading through the main ballroom followed by Austrian dignitaries. At one point we unintentionally found ourselves in the service quarters of the palace, looking for the toilets. We asked a lone trumpet player to direct us. When we came out, he was still sitting on a bench practicing his music. He asked where we were from and when we told him he said, "Wow! You've come such a long way! And I hope you can stay a few more days to enjoy our wonderful city." We replied that we were lucky to have a couple more days after the ball to explore Vienna. He wished us a good night and a wonderful time in his city and when we reached the elevator, we heard the first few notes of the Star-Spangled Banner trumpeted behind us!

We remained bewitched throughout the rest of the evening. We watched couples, both amateur and expert, waltzing around the many dance floors. Eventually we retired to one of the rooms to rest our feet for a while. The band playing in this room was interesting because they were called something like Flowers on the Wind or Petals Flowing -- basically a tribute band to the 1970's. They sounded great and I was surprised to hear "Runaway Trains" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a few other American rock songs. Couples took to the floor in full ball regalia and managed to waltz beautifully to the music.

Soon some debutantes arrived. The girls were beautiful and elegant, all dressed in snowy white gowns with white gloves to their elbows. Some danced with their handsome escorts while others mingled with the crowd. My favorite moment was when two of the girls broke away from their partners and clasped hands. They swung around in a circle, laughing and smiling at each other. Their demure gowns flaunted their purity and wholesomeness. In one second they went from chic women to little girls and I thought about how, too soon, moments like this would become rarer and rarer as they fully entered society and grew up to become perfectly-coiffed, flawlessly-dressed women on the arms of their husbands, laden with the responsibilities of being an adult. It was a spontaneous, carefree moment of innocence and happiness that I felt somehow lucky to have witnessed. Maybe I'm a little too sentimental but it really touched me. 

The ball didn't end until four in the morning and we made a good show of staying out as long as possible. The party was still in full-swing as we departed. The rest of the attendees still looked flawless despite being on their feet for hours. I wondered how many of them would be attending 10 or 15 other balls (perhaps more!) throughout the rest of the season. What an exciting time to be Viennese!

I certainly never imagined myself attending a ball in Vienna. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that I feel very fortunate to have had. There are many times I wake up and ask myself, "Is this really my life?" For a girl from a one-horse town in north Florida it was a dream come true, and since I saw the Viennese waltz to Tom Petty (from Florida), I now know that you don't have to be Cinderella to get an invitation to the ball.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Final Moments in Moscow

Oops, I took an unintended hiatus from the blog but I haven't forgotten about Moscow!

We spent the entire final day touring the Kremlin. We joined many other visitors in a long line early in the morning. Because we weren't attached to a tour group, we had to secure our own tickets and the process was a little confusing but we finally managed to enter the sprawling complex.

We strolled through Ivan Square and saw the Tsar Bell and Cannon. We were able to tour a new museum, the Ivan the Great Bell-Tower. We were given audio guides to take us through the tower. It was an interesting blend of old and new, with multimedia images projected onto the tower's walls. The history of the Kremlin's construction is so vast. I admit that at some points during the extremely comprehensive audio lesson I zoned out and missed huge gaps of information.

In one of the rooms I remember listening to something about the 16th century and then suddenly the voice in my ears had brought us up to the current date. I must have somehow missed at least 15 minutes of information. But no matter, I think the crowning moment of the tour of the tower is climbing to the upper gallery and being rewarded (for all of that hard work listening) with a bird's eye view of the Kremlin and the city of Moscow beyond.

After the tower, we made our way to Cathedral Square and visited all of the grand cathedrals. They were very different from any I've seen before, with their golden cupolas and what seems like thousands of frescoes lining the walls from floor to ceiling. All of the cathedrals were crowded with tourists and walking through them was almost overwhelming because there was so much to see.

By now it was afternoon and we were hungry so we decided to break for lunch and then return to the Kremlin to tour the Armoury. As we made our way out we noticed lots of fancy black sedans with tinted windows parked outside the Grand Kremlin Palace. We thought something must be happening, that perhaps we might catch a glimpse of Vladimir. We stood around with a hundred other people, watching the comings and goings of the anonymous cars but finally hunger overtook us.

Just outside the Kremlin is a shopping mall with lots of chain restaurants. I was surprised to see a Sbarro and we decided that would probably be the quickest and most economical choice for our quick lunch. On our way to the restaurant we noticed some military buses lined up on the road leading to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We could also see that a military band was getting ready to march. There was an electricity in the air, an anticipation of something, and people were beginning to gather. Of course now my curiosity was on overload and I was dying to know what was happening.

Sbarro actually has windows facing out toward the Tomb and I decided to ask the friendly server if she knew about any special event.

"I'll just have a slice of cheese pizza please," I said.
"Excellent choice!" she replied. "Is there something else?"
"Actually, I was wondering if you know what's going on at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider," I said.
She frowned in concentration and then said, "Ahh, yes! There is some king who's coming. He's going to lay the wreath."
"Wow!" I almost shouted. "Do you know which king?"
"Hmmm... I cannot remember," she said regrettfully.
"Okay, well thank you!"

This was enough information for me anyway. I was already imagining Prince William and Kate. I wondered if they would bring George and Harry. Or the Queen. I gathered my tray and began walking away from the line, stars in my eyes as I imagined the monumental moment the British Royal Family would spot me in the crowd and shout, "Hello! We are having a party later and you're invited!" This was a little like my minor hallucination that George Clooney was going to organize a birthday party for me at his villa in Lake Como. But I digress.

Before I could walk away, the kind woman shouted after me, "Wait! I just remembered! It's the Prince of Monaco!"

Hmmmm... slightly less exciting than Will and Kate but I'd take it! I rushed over to the table and breathlessly told my husband (in a terrible run-on sentence), "I just found out what's happening. A prince is going to lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier! And it's happening in 15 minutes! So we have to eat and drink fast because I'm NOT missing this! And guess who it is. You will never guess!"

He stared at me blankly, a slice of pizza hovering halfway to his mouth. "I give up," he said.

With an exasperated sigh I said, "Prince Albert!!!!"

He began to chew on the pizza, accompanied still by a blank look.

With a look that I hoped conveyed to him how disappointed I was by his lack of knowledge about princes, I exclaimed, "Monaco! The Prince of Monaco! GEEZ! You know, Grace Kelly?!"

I sat down huffily and began inhaling my food. I sensed that this event was not as life-altering for my husband as it was for me but I knew he would humor me so he also wolfed down his food and then I practically ran out of the mall and onto the steps overlooking the Tomb.

What greeted us outside was a scene similar to the one we left when we went in for lunch: people milling around, excitement bristling in the cold temperatures, and even more military getting into formation. What had changed was also pretty thrilling. There were now plainclothes secret servicemen patrolling the crowds and there were very Russian-looking men standing guard a few feet from the crowds, wearing earpieces and scanning everyone. I felt like I was in a movie. I hate to feed stereotypes but these burly men really did all look like James Bond. Just behind us, we saw two of the plainclothes guys approach two surly-looking men. One of them was holding a backpack. The agents leaned down and calmly spoke to them. Suddenly they followed the guards into the mall and away from the crowd and we never saw them again! I admit I have a flair for the dramatic, but that is really what happened! It was very surreal.

Eventually the military marched in, playing their instruments. Lots of official-looking people followed behind them and approached the Tomb. I used my camera for binoculars and soon spotted the thinning hair on top of Prince Albert's head. Of course, the ceremony was quite short. As soon as the wreath was laid and pictures were posed for, Albert and his entourage were swiftly driven away from the Tomb and back inside the Kremlin. The crowds dispersed and the Russian James Bonds went back to their secret lairs filled with weapons and technology we don't even know of yet. Or they just went to lunch. They probably went to lunch.

Next up was the Kremlin Armoury. It's one of the oldest museums in Moscow. We waited in another long line, this time behind some young Russian men. I only mention this anecdote because I found it amusing. We'd been in Moscow for a couple of days by now and we were accustomed to the curious stares we received when people realized we are American. No one had been hostile or confrontational, though, and I actually found Russians to be more genial than lots of Germans we've met since living here. Russians might be curious about an American but at least they didn't fix us with unflinching, piercing stares.

Anyway, the two men ahead of us in line heard us speaking at some point and both turned around with curious glances at us. After a while it seemed like any time we'd say something, one of them would turn around to look at us and then look to each other and smirk. We weren't talking about anything interesting, certainly not about politics, but this was during the government shutdown in America and I guess even people in Russia were talking about it. Eventually the more brazen of the two said something to his friend and then turned so we would be sure to hear him as he said, "government shutdown. Ha ha ha." I'm not sure if he expected some response but we just smiled and diverted our eyes. I had the impression that he thought he was making fun of us but I couldn't be certain. Oh, to be fluent in a thousand languages. It was quite bizarre.

We finally made it inside the Armoury and kept our distance from the Russian comedians. The Armoury contains a dizzying collection of more than four thousand items. There's everything from armor and weapons to crowns and jewels. I found the room with imperial horse-drawn carriages the most interesting. You could truly spend an entire day perusing all of the collections in the Armoury. It was very impressive.

The day had gone by in a blur; we'd seen and done so much in a short amount of time. The only thing left was our final dinner in Moscow.

My husband is always tasked with finding restaurants during our travels. He's usually pretty spot-on and has a knack for finding hip places off-the-beaten path, with interesting menus. Ragout is located just outside the Presnya neighborhood. Reservations are a must. The vibe was young and cool, but also comfortable. The restaurant was filled with bustling activity and the sound of buoyant conversation and laughter. We were shown to our table right away and attended to by an engaging waiter with excellent English. An Israeli chef keeps the menu interesting and fun. I had delicious hummus as an appetizer. When it was time for dessert I went out on a limb and chose beet ice cream. It was surprisingly tasty!

We decided to take a long stroll back to our hotel. There was a lot going on in Moscow that night. Metal detectors and security guards were posted all over the grounds outside the Kremlin. We had to go through several checkpoints, emptying our pockets and having our bags checked. There was a military convoy surrounding a building but upon closer inspection we saw wires hanging above and it looked as if they might have been filming something. While we didn't know what was happening or why, it was exciting to wander through the maze of people enjoying the sights and sounds of Moscow at night.

I would return to Moscow in a heartbeat. There is still a lot left to see and do in this vibrant city. People are standoffish but friendly, going out to dinner is a truly wonderful experience, and seeing St. Basil's Cathedral in person is astounding.

I admit that some of the buildings are austere and cold. It sometimes seems as if there couldn't possibly be people living and breathing inside these places. Driving into Moscow from the airport isn't exactly pleasing. Apartments don't look particularly inviting or homey under dreary skies and clouds of pollution. I am also aware that we visited but one place in Russia, a staggeringly huge country. What's more, we were in a city, not the vast Siberia that stretches beyond the walls of the Kremlin.

But in Moscow, people are dining out, going on dates, strolling through parks, and shopping in malls. There may be security guards and metal detectors at the entrances of buildings but everyone walks through and goes about their daily lives. By the end of our stay, I couldn't help but feel that the shroud of gray I saw covering Moscow on the way in from the airport had lifted. I hope I'm fortunate enough to return to Russia someday.