Winter in Middle Europe (part 4)

25 Mar

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

At 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon we boarded a bus to Vienna from Prague, the last stop of our official Mid Europe trip. I visited Vienna many years ago on an Insight Vacation tour, but it was more of a passing through, so was looking forward to the visit. Also, after much walking for many days, I was looking forward to putting my feet up for a few hours!

Our hotel in Vienna was outside the city center and as we were only arriving after 7pm, the plan was to just go for dinner close by and have an early night. As usual, I had a walking tour booked for the next morning…

When we arrived in Vienna, it was drizzling and I immediately called an Uber to take us to our hotel. After settling in, connecting to the wifi, we walked down the road to get some dinner. There were a few options, but we decided on the most authentic looking Viennese restaurant, Mimoza, on Siebenbrunnenplatz. The food portions were astonishingly big and extremely reasonably priced (Bianca had a Chicken Cordon-Blue for €6.90 and Anya and I both had Schnitzels for €6.50 each).

After dinner we retired to our hotel as we had an early day the next morning.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

After a delicious buffet breakfast, we set off to find the bus into town. The map provided by the hotel was slightly confusing, and we were not sure where the bus stop was but after spotting a bus with our number on it, and a bit of a sprint to make it to the bus, we arrived at our meeting place in front of the Albertina, for our walking tour with Good Vienna Tours.

Ready for another walking tour

I booked the tour in advance, even though there was no upfront fee, but rather tip based and I was very glad I did. The group was quite big, so initially I was a bit apprehensive, but Iva, our guide controlled the group very well. She was equipped with an iPad which gave her the opportunity to show some pictures of art and even a couple of movie previews along the way to spice up the tour a bit.

Our meeting point was across the street from the Hotel Sacher Wien, and Iva started off by telling us the story of the most famous Viennese culinary specialty, created by Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel von Metternich in 1832, the Sachertorte. We never managed to go and eat this special chocolate cake at the Hotel Sacher, but I did manage to eat a piece at the airport on the way out, and it really is deserving of its fame!

Sachertorte at the airport

Iva also explained how the standing tickets for the Vienna State Opera works, that’s of course assuming we had the energy to stand in line for a few hours for the chance to get cheap standing tickets to the Opera…which we didn’t.

Next, we moved on to the entrance of the Albertina, a large art museum built on the last remnants of the fortifications of Vienna. She showed us a picture of the most famous picture in the Albertina, the Young Hare, a watercolour painting by Albrecht Dürer, dating back to 1502.

We proceeded to the Burggarten, behind the Hofburg palace, with its statue of the emperor Franz Joseph and of course the famous Mozart marble statue. Iva spent some time explaining the importance of the Habsburg family in the history of Vienna and contributed some more to the discussion of the Viennese love-hate relationship with Mozart. The Mozart statue or denkmal, is situated on Southwestern end of the Burggarten and has a flower planting area in front of it in the shape of a treble clef (music note). Apparently it is beautiful in summer as the flowers bloom. But apparently much more difficult to take a picture!

Emperor Franz Joseph, Burggarten

Mozart denkmal, Burggarten

Mozart denkmal, with flower planting in front

Our next stop was the Heldenplatz, where Hitler announced the Austrian annexation by Nazi Germany (the Anschluss) on 15 March 1938. The Heldenplatz was commissioned by emperor Franz Joseph as part of the Ringstraße boulevard project. It has been the setting for many historic battles and events in the course of Viennese history. Iva explained many of the historical events that took place and showed another video clip (the name of which escaped me now…).

Hofberg Palace from Heldenplatz

We walked through the entrance of the Hofburg palace past the Imperial Treasure Museum towards the Spanish Riding school, where they still train Lipizzaner horses (tracing back to 800 AD) in the classical dressage methods. Iva highly recommended attending a show of the horses which I’m sure would have been fabulous. As a side note, we have our own Lipizzaner horses, tracing back to the Croatian branch of the Tulipan breed of Lipizzaners in Kyalami in South Africa, where these Spanish horses are still trained in the classical method as well. The South African Lipizzaners were brought to South Africa by Count Jankovich-Besan in 1944 from a war-torn Europe. I saw these horses perform with the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir a number of years ago and it was magnificent! It was great to see where they originate from.

Entrance gate at Hofburg palace

Quite impressive is the fact that entrance to most museums in Vienna is free to under 19 year olds. Unfortunately there are so many fantastic museums that we barely scratched the surface!

After the Hofburg Palace we stopped at Rosenberger restaurant, a large buffet style underground food hall for the quick coffee to warm up from the cold.

On our way to St Stephen’s Cathedral, we walked through the Neuer Markt, which is actually one of the oldest places in Vienna. The elongated square is surrounded by shops, including A. E. Köchert, a jeweler where original diamond hair stars, such as those worn by the much loved empress Sisi, can be bought for a small fortune. The square also hosts the Donnerbrunnen fountain, which didn’t have any water in when we were there but was still very impressive. The naked figures (allegories of the Danube’s tributaries) were removed by the Empress Maria Theresia when she established the Chastity Commission in 1773, but was thankfully restored to their rightful place in 1801.

Donnerbrunnen fountain, Neuer Markt

A. E. Köchert jeweler, selling Sisi star jewelry and hairpins

St Stephen’s Cathedral (or Domkirche St Stephan) with its multi coloured roof tiles, is breathtaking. The current Romanesque and Gothic style building dates back to the 14th century but stands on the ruins of two earlier churches. We decided to return at a later stage, as we were told that the view from the roof is magnificent.

St Stephen’s Cathedral

We also walked past the Mozarthaus, where Mozart lived (in apparent luxury that seems quite a contrast to the poor pauper end of his life) and composed. A short walk took us past Figlmüller, a restaurant famous for the best Wiener Schnitzels in the whole of Vienna at not an unreasonable price of €14.90 (for a schnitzel big enough to feed two people with leftovers…). The restaurant is however very busy, so even though we did try and get in the next day, we were not successful.

Finally we walked down Fleischmarkt street and ended our tour at St Rupert’s Church (Ruprechtskirche) an ivy covered old church dating back to the 12th century. At the end of the tour Iva spent a bit of time giving some recommendations for restaurants, and answered some questions. It was certainly a very worthwhile tour and a great way to kick-start our trip to Vienna.


After a quick snack, we made our way back to the Albertina museum, as I was very keen to see the Monet to Picasso exhibition. There was also a Ways of Pointillism exhibition on at that time, showcasing the transition of art through Pointillism from George Seurat, Signac and Van Gogh, which I found breathtaking and very informative.

Entrance to the Albertine, the steps showcasing Van Gogh’s Sower

At the Albertina

We spent a few hours in the museum and eventually had to rest our weary feet!

We went for dinner at Reinthaler’s Beisl (another recommendation) and had delicious schnitzels (as you do…) and made our way back to our hotel.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The morning started with much excitement. Bianca had applied for au pair work in America, as she decided to take a gap year, before starting varsity. She turned down a potential family just before we started our trip, following her instincts, and I was very proud of her for making such a brave decision, with no other options to fall back onto. And then almost two weeks passed, in which I could see she was stressing about what she would do if she did not receive any further interview requests. So, it was with huge relief that she woke up to an interview request from a family in New Jersey. She sent off a return email but since it was the middle of the night in the States, we would have to be patient.

As a bonus, it was a beautiful sunny day, although it was freezing cold outside. We had a tour planned to Schonbrunn palace on the outskirts of Vienna and we were very excited. After breakfast I realised that our tickets were only valid for entrance for a very specific time, and we decided to take an Uber to the palace, saving us the hassle of finding our way to the palace via public transport.

At entrance to Schonbrunn palace

We has booked the Grand Tour and spent a good hour plus walking through the imperial rooms of the palace, from the impressive Hall of Ceremonies to the intimate rooms of Maria Theresia, who ruled the Habsburg dynasty for 40 years) for with her many kids and doting husband, the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I.

I was quite impressed by the number of her 16 children (10 of whom survived into adulthood) went on to become queens and kings and princes in their own rights. She was also the mother of the famous (or infamous) Marie Antoinette of France, who died under the guillotine after the French Revolution.

Afterwards we strolled through the beautiful palace gardens, which very much reminded me of Versailles. It was really cold, but it was lovely to experience the bright winter sunshine.

Schonbrunn palace gardens

In front of frozen fountain, Schonbrunn palace gardens

The girls entranced by icy fountain

A walk in the woods, Schonbrunn palace

View over palace gardens

Schonbrunn palace in the background, with the girls

Beautiful skyline with Schonbrunn palace in foreground

We made our way back (on the metro this time around) to the city centre and decided to take the historical Vienna Ring Tram, a 30 minute tram ride around the Vienna Ringstraße with commentary. Of course we had some Käsekrainer or hot dogs with chunks of cheese in the sausages on Stephanplatz before we boarded the Ring Tram! It was delicious.

On board the Vienna Ring Tram

Afterwards we tried to find a restaurant for lunch. As mentioned above, we tried Figlmüller but unfortunately we would have to wait too long for a table. We found an Italian restaurant on Schulerstraße, which looked like the type of place we could sit down, enjoy a glass of wine and a relaxing lunch. And indeed, Ristorante Da Capo was such a place.

Unfortunately, it was during lunch that we received notification that our flight to Amsterdam, which was due to leave at 6:55 the next morning, has been cancelled. A quick internet search confirmed that lots of flights to Amsterdam Schiphol had been cancelled and delayed as a result of fog. This did create a bit of a panic but we were told to wait for re-booking information so there was little we could do but wait.

The sun was starting to set as we walked to St Stephen’s Cathedral. I wanted to go up to the tower and catch the sunset from there. It was a bit of a squeeze into a tiny lift, but the view from the top was magnificent. The multi coloured roof tiles were even more impressive from close up! Unfortunately, there is a cage-like structure at the top (presumably to protect people from falling off the tower) but this does distract a bit from the view.

View from roof of St Stephen’s Cathedral

From the other side of St Stephen’s Cathedral roof

On top of the roof

Afterwards we made our way back to the hotel, to give Bianca a chance to email the family and to try and find out what the plan was with our flight. We had accommodation booked in Amsterdam and I was uncertain whether we would be able to extend our stay at our hotel in Vienna, so it was important to find out if we would still be able to get a flight to Amsterdam the next day.

St Stephen’s cathedral at dusk

The Vienna State Opera at night

Finally, just after 8:30 in the evening we received confirmation that our flights were re-booked, but only on the 31st of December, which would mean that we would only arrive in Amsterdam in the afternoon of the 31st. Luckily we were able to find a room in our hotel in Vienna. We had to move to a smaller room though but at least that was sorted. And all of the sudden we had an extra day in Vienna, so we decided to have a bit of a sleep in.

Friday, 30 December 2016

We had a relaxing morning, went to breakfast a little later, packed and moved rooms. Late morning, we made our way back to the city centre. It was another glorius, sunny day and I gave the girls a choice as to what they would like to go and do.

They chose the Natural History Museum, which they were keen on the day before, but we decided it would be too rushed. I googled the museum that morning and realised that we struck gold. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the NHM arranges a tour to the roof of the museum, and as our luck would have it, there was a tour on this Friday afternoon at 3:00pm. It promised to be an unforgettable experience.

In front of the Natural History Museum, Vienna

Once again, under 19 year olds could enter the museum for free and adult entrance fees were only €10. We did have to pay an extra €8 per person for this extra tour, but it was definitely worth it!

The Natural History Museum is housed in one of two identical buildings on either side of the Maria-Theresien-platz. The other building houses the Kunsthistorisches Museum or Museum of Art History. If we had more time I would have been very keen to visit this museum as well. The two museums were commissioned to house the formidable collection of the Habsburgs. The two buildings are exactly the same on the outside, but apparently the interior is different.

Statue of Maria Theresia on Maria-Theresien-platz

The Natural History Museum

Christmas markets in Maria Theresia square

The NHM opened in 1889 to the public. The museum hosts a very large, very impressive and informative collection. The audio guides were great, the many interactive displays provided entertainment for kids (and adults) of all ages and we just loved it. I could spend a whole blog post talking about everything we saw and learned, but suffice to say that some of the most impressive exhibitions were the Venus of Willendorf exhibition, the history of science exhibition, some of the wonderful gemstones (including the gemstone-and-diamond bouquet of flowers which Maria Theresia had made as a present for her husband), the dinosaur collection and the huge mammal exhibit.

The famous gemstone-and-diamond bouquet, NHM Vienna

Some dinosaurs, NHM Vienna

Venus of Willendorf, 28 000 to 25 000 BC (the artifact is 11 cm high)

The view of the dome of museum from bottom

And then of course, as part of the rooftop tour, we got to see some areas that are not open to the public, including the 40 000 large human skull collection in the Anthropology department! There were even some decorated and skulls painted with flowers from the Bone House in Hallstatt.

The skull collection, Vienna NHM

View of dome from top

View of restaurant below from top

And of course, the view from the rooftop was just amazing. We made it up there just as the sun was setting and I would have quite happily spent another half an hour up there taking pictures but alas, it was time to go back down. A fantastic experience all and all.

The rooftop of the Natural History Museum, Vienna

View of Vienna from NHM roof

The sun is setting behind the dome of the NHM

With the girls on the roof of the NHM

Statues holding guard on the roof of NHM

We left the museum when it was already dark, and after a bit of gift shopping near St Stephen’s Cathedral, we started making our way back to the hotel.

Trdlenik at the Christmas market on Maria Theresia square

Bianca had an interview with her potential family at 6:00pm, which went very well and afterwards we went for dinner at another restaurant in the area, Restaurant Maria Rosa. I would be amiss to say that there were not Schnitzels served at our table…and beers.

Some more Schnitzels…

The next day was going to be a busy day, with our flight scheduled to leave at noon, but we went to bed satisfied to have had such an excellent bonus day.

We loved out time in Vienna!

Next up, New Year in Amsterdam

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Posted by on March 25, 2017 in Family, Travel


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