Sunday, September 23, 2007

Wilkommen in Wien (Part I)

I arrived in Vienna to rain. The flight may as well have been domestic; there was no border control or customs on departure or arrival as the flight was within the EU. This time I'd had the novel idea of actually emailing the hotel to ask for directions. This worked out mostly well; I took a shuttle bus to "Südbahnhof" and was then to take a "bim D" train one stop to "Schloss Belvedere." Right. My flight was a late one, leaving Italy at 9:30 and arriving in Vienna after 11. I fortunately made the last shuttle bus - very fortunately, as the next wasn't until early morning (5 or 6 AM). Based on this fact, when I got to Südbahnhof (a train station), I was unsurprised that the public transportation was largely done for the night. I figured I would have to take a cab - ok, at least I'd made it most of the way from the airport so it probably wouldn't be too bad. A taxi sat in the parking lot; I asked the driver how much to get to the hotel. To my great surprise he said it was straight ahead, only a few blocks away, maybe 500 meters or so, and even returned to the car to get a map and showed me how to get there. What a pleasant surprise!

I began to fish my umbrella out of my bag; he came back and said he would take me for 6 or 7 euros. Not particularly keen to walk in the rain and dark, I agreed. As we set out he named the lower price of 6 euros. We reached the hotel, and I was greeted by a very friendly, somewhat eccentric-seeming fellow at the reception desk. I took some tour brochures/maps (something which had of course been absent from the hotel in Rome). Among them were day trips to Bratislava and Budapest (and Prague, incidentally) - maybe I would reach them after all! There looked to be a ton of things to do; I lamented my short stay.

The next day I walked around after breakfast. Oh, what a terrific hotel! Sure, more cornflakes and ham/cheese sandwiches, but the location was marvelous. The room was quite nice too - whereas some of the others I likened to cozy little bedrooms, this was like a cozy master bedroom. It wasn't all that expensive either. Although I was enamored by Vienna, thus far I loathed the weather, which skittered between overcast, rain, and heavy rain. My first stop was a colossal palace, Belvedere, which was quite close to the hotel. There was a WWI monument there too - oh, right, Austria/Hungary used to be an empire not too long ago.

Afterwards, I made my way to the center. On the way, I passed a WWII monument; I thought to myself that it looked very much like a Soviet war memorial. Sure enough, I turned the corner and saw "Август 1945." Who'd have known Russian would follow me everywhere (as well as that damned umbrella song)? I then saw another giant palace, the Habsburg. A door was open and I ambled around inside for a while. Neat. I ended up at city hall, which could easily be mistaken for a large gothic church. I walked around inside there for a while too, both times keeping my door of plausible deniability open by only going through open doors and noting the German word for exit ("Ausgang") as to ask confusedly for it should the need arise.

In contrast to earlier cities, I saw few beggars, and in contrast to my previous stop of Rome, no middle-eastern immigrants running souvenir stands nor blacks selling counterfeit Prada bags nor rowdy youth all over the place. It was overall a very clean, and austere but friendly place. Cars were noticably deferent to pedestrians at crosswalks too. Another neat feature was a city-wide bike system - there were bike stations peppered throughout the city, and you could rent a bike from, and return it to, any station. The first hour was free; thus, if you used it right you could ride through the city entirely for free (well, sans a one-time 1 euro "registration fee" - still). I didn't end up using it, as I prefer to leisurely walk around and see everything; for this reason I didn't buy rollerblades in St. Petersburg last year as Kim had wanted to do, and it also obviously contributes to my massive amount of photography.

I made my way back to the Habsburg on the way to, well, elsewhere; someone was selling tickets to a concert there. (I had heard someone earlier in the day trying to sell tickets but figured I'd worry about it later - the best way to avoid doing things is to decide to "worry about them later" and by then, it's no longer an option, and thus: decision made). I looked at the program and wasn't terribly excited; tickets were 59 euros or 32 euros depending on which section you wanted to sit in. As I thought about it, as I did want to see a concert at some point during my stay, the man said that for students all seats were 25 euros. Sold. I went to dinner nearby, and the waitress was really friendly, which was another reinforcement of that aspect of the city.

I ended up with a nice 2nd row seat next to a couple from Ireland, with whom I chatted. The concert was good, and turned out to be surprisingly entertaining. Some of the songs had singing as well, and one of the singers was quite a jovial fellow - although I couldn't understand him on account of not speaking German, his facial expressions and gesturing made that minor point irrelevant, as it was clear that whatever it was, it was supposed to be funny. There were five singers altogether, each doing various songs before one including all of them. Among these singers were two young Asians, one male and one female. The male especially had a terrific voice; it was unbelievable to match this rich tenor's voice to its owner. The girl also sung well, although her accent was noticable even to me, but a hilarious moment ensued when she was paired with the first guy - they were dancing, and it was obviously some sort of romantic duet, and so at the end he lightly kissed her hands, but then abruptly pulled her in for a strong kiss on the lips, leaving her visibly surprised.

More amusement accompanied the polkas, which already evoked a smile as the musicians (particularly one of the clarinet players) showed their obvious enthusiasm. Except, that is, for one of the two bass players who couldn't have looked grumpier or less enthused throughout the concert if he tried, barely moving his hands when plucking the strings and moving his bow as little as possible, in particular contrast to his neighbor. Anyway, during most of the polkas, there would be some sort of skit by one of the percussionists, usually with the conductor. For example, during one, he played a two-tone whistle at regular intervals during which the music was paused: high, low; high, low; high low, and then: low, high! The music remained stopped as the conductor "glared" at him, and so he stood up, pointed to the sheet music, and shrugged. During another one, he used some kind of whistle, and then started to switch between it and a birdcall, and then during one of the the bird-whistle iterations, he held it for what seemed like minutes, standing up as he blew until his face was nearly purple, earning applause (and laughter) from the audience.

But one of the most entertaining was when they brought out what appeared to be an apparatus fashioned out of a log, and then he put two anvils which he hit with hammers that he took from a knapsack. Of course, as he and the conductor "reviewed" before starting the song, the percussionist would hit them as loud as possible and would try to hit the conductor's fingers as he pointed to which anvil to hit. During the song, the percussionist pulled out a bottle from the knapsack and took a swig, and then he sleighted a Playboy from the conductor's stand and opened it to the orchestra, with the aforementioned clarinet player gesturing to rotate it as to see the centerfold. The percussionist then to turned it to us to reveal - a puppy dressed in a sweater. Then he wagged his finger at us. It was a really delightful concert.

I returned to the hotel on foot - the hotel was really well-located - and the same man who checked me in the previous night greeted me, and remembering me, gave me my key, happily proclaiming, "Ah yes, Mr. Sowul, number 41!" which made me smile even more than I already was. So far I'd had a terrific success rate with friendly, helpful people.

The next day consisted mainly of walking around aimlessly; I walked through "Stadtpark" and then through a good deal of the city on the way to its iconic ferris wheel. I went up near sunset, and then made my way back home. The following day was a day-tour to Budapest.