Monday, June 3, 2013


We've now started our biking in Vienna, but before we get to that -- in our next blog entry, in fact -- we want to say something about what we saw here but more importantly about the transition we went through while here, from fairly stressed-out travelers on the move for 4 straight weeks to cyclists ready for the slow lane.

Getting to Vienna with our two suitcases, two backpacks and two large, heavy bike cases was a challenge.  The train has no baggage car, everything goes in the train car you sit in.  For a time we were in panic, we just didn't see how this was going to work, since we were not the only folks with bags that were too big to go in the overhead racks.    Passengers streamed in from both ends of the car, more than there were seats for for the first 2-hour leg to Dresden.  But somehow, it did work, and we were finally able to breathe normally and enjoy the scenery.  In Vienna, a friendly cab driver at the train station understood Jeff's high school German even though Jeff couldn't understand a word of his rapid-fire, heavily-accented Viennese German.  We and our luggage had made it to our friends Cordelia and Jazz in Vienna.  That's one big item we could now take off the Angst List.

Cordelia and Jazz gave us a big welcome, and their kids Konrad and Zosia were excited to have some new playmates.  Jeff was soon playing catch in the living room using a Nerf ball with sports-crazy 6-year-old Konrad, each toss of the ball accompanied by commentary:  "O'Malley really put some wood against that ball . . . Jasinski is going back, back back . . . Can he get it? . . . He's leaping . . . YES! . . . The crowd goes wild!"

Then it was time for artsy 4-year-old Zosia to show us her Gustav Klimt coloring book.  We had been forewarned of her interest in him, and had a Klimt sticker book ready for her that we picked up at the Toledo Art Museum 2 weeks earlier.  She was charmed.

Jazz and Cordelia are both on the faculty at UW Oshkosh, with the "W" obviously being Wisconsin, not Washington.  Cordelia teaches German and Jazz International Studies, and they are in Vienna this Spring because Jazz won a Fulbright scholarship to teach at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna plus do some research.  The "DA" was founded over 200 years ago by Empress Maria Theresia to train folks for the civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while today it is a graduate school focusing on International Relations. 

Our first full day in Vienna was a Sunday, so Jazz could join the rest of us on a trip into the heart of Vienna, only a kilometer from their apartment at the DA.  Konrad talked his folks into paying for the daily paper so he could read the soccer scores for the teams he has been following since they got to Europe 3 months ago.  Then, before getting into full sightseeing mode, we stopped at a playground for the kids to be kids.

Next it was into the narrow streets of the First Bezirk, the heart of Vienna.  We stopped at several churches, two where we could take in all their baroque splendor, two where Sunday mass was being said.  We paused at the second of these, trying to puzzle out what language the hymn was being sung in.  Not German, Polish, Russian.  Didn't sound Slavik, so probably not Slovak or Serbo-Croatian.  By elimination, we finally decided it must be Hungarian.

On we went past the Plague Monument, erected to thank God for ending the plague in 1679, and the copper-domed Hofburg, the emperor's home when he was in Vienna.  We passed two of the many places where Mozart or Beethoven once lived, as both made Vienna their home for many years, and passed many fellows dressed in the clothing of that era, trying to lure tourists to a nightly concert of Mozart and Johann Strauss music.


We wandered through one century-old "indoor shopping mall" then stopped, as all visitors to Vienna must do, at an ancient coffee house.  Our choice was the Cafe Central, and it did not disappoint either in decor or in its choices for coffee and desserts.  We completed our tour with a stroll past the Mozart statue, complete with a G-clef flower arrangement.

On day two it was time to tackle another stressor, reassembly of the bike.  We've owned the bike 6 years but only reasembled it twice before, most recently 4 years ago.  At our age, a lot of memory disappears in one year, let alone four, and it took five hours to accomplish the task thanks to two complications.

The first was the switch to larger tires so we wouldn't have to worry about unpaved bike trails, which we know we will have from time to time here.  Readjusting the front fender took only 5 minutes, but the back fender took a lot more until Jeff decided to just drill a new hole in the fender to create more clearance.  Bingo, that did the trick, at the cost of an extra half-hour.

The other problem was bigger.  We were missing a part.  When disassembling the bike, Jeff had mistakenly removed the front derailleur.  Bad move.  It's really hard to find the precise spot to reattach it to on the seat tube.  Adding to the challenge was a missing nut.  Jeff pulled a new bolt and nut from his spares collection, but it wasn't quite right so he cinched the derailleur up enough to make the bike rideable and checked the Internet for a nearby bike store.  Two days later we did ride it 2km to the shop, and Jeff made sure he knew the term for front derailleur, 'vorne Schaltwerk.'  They adjusted it perfectly.  Check off the last major item on the Angst List.

We'll, almost.  Jeff is 97% better from a slight cold he caught on the cruise ship that only slowed him a little, but Louise seemed for a day or two like she might have a worse time of it.  She rallied for our night at the opera -- more on that in a moment -- then felt worse for a day, then perked up by departure day.  OK, maybe don't have to stress out about that after all.

Monday night we went with Cordelia to the Vienna State Opera.  It's in a beautiful building on the Ring, the grand boulevard that indeed rings the inner city.  Inside was as ornate as outside.  We were in the next-to-last row but not too far off-center, and the acoustics were actually superb.

The performance was far beyond 'superb.'  We have each seen Carmen five or six times, and this was unquestionably the best yet.  Both the orchestra and the singers were absolutely top-notch, but besides that it was "grand opera" in the grandest possible way.  First, the setting was early 19th century Spain, not a bare stage like one production we went to at Seattle Opera.  Second and more importantly, it was peopled with huge numbers of performers who made the scenes come alive.
Most opera companies have choruses of 20-30 men and women who might be villagers in one scene, nobility at a ball in another, and so on.  Here there were at least 40.  Other opera companies might put 5-10 additional characters onstage in non-singing roles, called supernumeraries.  Here, there were dozens.  In the first act, there were 60-90 people onstage for almost every scene.  As Act Two opened in Lilias Pastia's tavern, there were the six principal singers, ten flamenco dancers, and 80-90 "customers," half of them from the chorus.  Then bullfighter Don Escamillo entered with about 20 more folks!  There wasn't an empty square meter onstage!  Sorry we can't share the spectacle with you visually, but we think you can see why we thoroughly enjoyed it, and understand why the Vienna Staatsoper is considered one of the top companies in the world.

Though Louise's cold trimmed our sightseeing a little, we still did get to quite a bit in our week in Vienna.  With Cordelia and Zosia we took the subway to Schönbrunn, the palace once considered to be out in the country from Vienna, that the Habsburgs built to rival Versailles.
Another day on our own, we went to the Belvedere, a palace turned art museum where Gustav Klimt's iconic "The Kiss" resides. Photos out the windows and in the garden were OK, but not of the art itself. As you can see in the shot to the left taken from the Belvedere, the Stefansdom, or St. Stephen's Cathedral, truly dominates the center of Vienna even today.


 And it has for centuries.  While the kids were in their half-day kindergarten we went to the Vienna Museum and saw a painting of Vienna in 1690 and a great model of the city about 1850, shortly before the walls of the city were demolished and reshaped into the great Ringstrasse.  They had served the city well in 1683, keeping out the Turks until a relief army led by the king of Poland ended the siege on September 12, 1683, as depicted in this famous painting also in the museum.


We also admired the museum's painting of Austria's most famous empress, Maria Theresia, flanked here by her husband and by a few of her 16 kids.  Her youngest, Maria Antonia, was not yet born when this was painted.  You might recognize that child more readily by the name the French gave her when she married Louis XVI: Marie Antoinette.


With all those views of the Stefansdom, we had to explore it in person.  Colored glass in the windows give it an odd look inside.  Not sure what the story is behind those figures carved into the pulpit.

We paid a few euros for a tour of the catacombs below the cathedral and adjoining square.  Until 1783, most everyone buried in Vienna was buried here, 11,000 in all.  When they ran out of room for coffins, prisoners were sent down to clean and stack the bones from old coffins -- tibias here, femurs there.  We saw it all, but out of respect for the deceased, no photos.  We next climbed the tower, for a few more euros, and did get photos of some gargoyles as we ascended, and of the city below when we reached the top, 343 steps above the city.

 Well, Thursday afternoon the FedEx guy dropped by and left with the empty cases that once held our bike.  They will be in Amsterdam where we will pick them up in August.  No turning back now!  Guess we need to start biking!  We'll tell you how it went in our next blog entry.


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