Mozart, violin concertos, soaring operas… Vienna is the capital of the classical music world. Classical music is everywhere in the old genteel city of Vienna which helps you to understand how I chose the title for this blog post! Vienna wears its romanticist architecture like it never went out of style and you half expected Mozart himself to walk around the corner and try to sell you tickets to his new piano concerto that evening.
It didn’t take us long to warm up to Vienna, especially after getting off our overnight train from Munich. It was hot in Vienna. Very hot. Vienna was in the middle of a heatwave that did not let up the entire time we were there. We had hoped to get into our apartment right away but the host was still cleaning the apartment so we could only drop off our luggage and continue exploring the city which was to be our home for the next nine days. We were pretty tired after not sleeping well on the night train but we girded our loins and headed out.
Finally getting into our apartment in the late afternoon, we realized that we didn’t have very much time before having to head back out again. We were going to a concert that very evening. Deanne had discovered that my favorite classical artist, violinist Hilary Hahn, was in town performing at the concert hall that night. What we hadn’t realized until we got to the concert hall was that it was actually a discussion with Hilary Hahn with moderators asking questions about her style of playing, etc. We were a little worried; not just for the kids but also for ourselves! What if they just spoke in German the entire time? Fortunately, while Hilary can speak German, she decided to answer in English and the moderators mostly spoke in English as well. She was quite interesting as she discussed her creative process and played throughout the evening to help illustrate what she was speaking about. She also played a number of Bach pieces and was absolutely brilliant. The children were not very interested at all but were very good. The interesting thing about the evening was that the discussion was in an old rehearsal room in the concert hall. There were multiple events going on in the same building all in different halls. We weren’t expecting that when we arrived so had some difficulty actually finding where we were to go. We were more used to one event happening in one building back in Canada. We got back to the apartment very tired but feeling good about Vienna.
Our apartment did not do much in the way of cooling us down. It did not have any airconditioning and it wasn’t much cooler in the room than outside. However, it was large. It was in a very old cavernous building at the top of many, many stairs. We had lots of room but, as with most of our rentals, this place had its full share of quirks. First of all, there were many things that didn’t work including the washing machine, the freezer and a few of the lights. The shower itself was quite the contraption. There was no shower curtain which turned out to be fine as you stood in this huge ornate bathtub so the water didn’t go too far. You also had to hold this old ornate showerhead shaped like one of those old phone heads you held to your ear. Every time you wanted to use the soap or shampoo, you had to put the showerhead down. It was a very strange system. Someone suggested to us that it was perhaps a way that Europeans conserved water usage. Most people would turn off the water in between soaping up. Not sure I go with that theory as it would seem to me to be a very frustrating experience but there you go…
Visiting Schonbrunn Palace and Zoo
Being Europe, Vienna had many fancy mansions and huge palaces decorating the city. The Schonbrunn Palace was the main summer residence of the Habsburg rulers and the 1,441-room Rococo palace is one of the most important architectural, cultural, and historic monuments in the country. Now, if you were one of our children, you would yawn right about now. Architectural masterpieces are just about as enjoyable to them as a bowl of turnips for supper. However, this palace had a whole wing devoted to children with a dress-up area and several rooms with interactive displays for the children discussing the time period. Liam’s favorite was a display showing the difference in life for poor people of the time compared to the wealthier class. We spent a lot of time there and the kids really enjoyed it. The Palace itself was nice with the same fancy rooms you usually see on a palace tour. As this one had an audio tour included, the kids were able to follow along and enjoy looking through the rooms a little more.
The Palace grounds actually encompasses a vast area in Vienna. Part of the estate includes the Zoo, which we visited the next day. The zoo, which includes the original zoo built by the Hapsburgs, is the oldest zoo in the world. It was another hot day wandering around Vienna but we managed to enjoy the zoo regardless. We were surprised to find that the zoo actually had a pair of pandas and we got quite close to them in the viewing area. There was also a sloth carrying a baby sloth, which we had never seen before.
Continuing on with our music theme, on another day we trooped over to the gorgeous Opera House and picked up some standing room tickets for that night’s opera, Tosca. You can pick up standing room tickets very cheaply but as the name suggests, you have to stand for the entire production. The view is not always great as well. Those in the know, or locals, line up early in order to get first access to the best standing areas. Tickets for the seated areas actually are not that expensive either. However, we knew that we didn’t want to stay for the entire production. We just wanted to give kids a sense of what it was like to see an opera in one of the world’s most glorious and famous opera houses. We knew that they probably wouldn’t last for the entire production particularly as we had had several late nights. Getting standing room tickets also allowed us to walk through the stunningly enchanting building. Having explored the building, we found our standing spot and proceeded to watch the first act with part of the stage regrettably obstructed which really frustrated Liam, who was, strangely enough, fairly interested in the story. The auditorium had screens for each spot which had English translations, so we could follow along with the storyline easily enough. All in all, it was well worth the small amount we paid to see a world-class opera company perform and wander the halls of the Opera House.
The Old Library and MusikHaus Museum
I love old libraries and Europe certainly has some beautiful ones. We had seen one of the most stunning libraries in St. Gallen, Switzerland and Vienna was also supposed to have a beautiful library built by the Hapsburgs. On our way to the MusikHaus Museum, we stopped in to take a look and it certainly lived up to the claim as being in the top ten of beautiful libraries. Stacks and stacks of books lined the walls encased in elegant dark wood. Amazingly preserved books owned by the Hapsburgs were on display throughout the library. Ornamentation twining through the walls and ceiling relived the glory days of the Hapsburgs. After spending a few moments gazing rapturously at the library (well, Deanne and I anyway. Siena and Liam were doing what you do in a library, reading some of the new books they had just bought.), we made our way over to the nearby museum of music or the MusikHaus.
From time to time, the Vienna Philharmonic could play without a conductor because they are so good.Bernard Arnault
The MusikHaus was actually a very well done museum focusing on classical music and specifically, composers, conductors, and orchestras that had made their home in Viena. There were many interactive things for the kids. Siena and Liam enjoyed creating their own pieces of music using dice to choose instruments to combine together to create a song and using their name to create their own unique piece of music. The part they loved the best though was getting a chance to conduct the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The digitized orchestra followed your baton and varied their speed according to the speed of the baton. If you don’t conduct with respect to the music….the orchestra will stop playing and berate you. This we learned when Liam took up the baton. He proceeded to conduct with a little too much gusto and was booed off the podium by the musicians. He didn’t mind in the least. Siena did very well on her turn to conduct. The museum had great exhibits on the famous composers including Beethoven and Mozart with lots of samples of music, information on their lives, items from the period they lived in and more. It was a great place to learn about and play with music in all its forms. There was also a great section on how music is created and sound in general.
Going to Church with an Orchestra
As it turned out, one of the best places we found to hear great music was to go to church! The church attached to the Hapsburg Palace has a beautiful Sunday service which includes a full choir and orchestra. The Sunday we attended, the choir and orchestra were performing a set of Mozart pieces. The sound of the orchestra and choir performing these amazing works in this acoustically exquisite building was mind-blowing. I sat there with my eyes closed and just let the sound wash over me. I wish we had services like this at home.
On one of our days in Vienna, we decided to take the train out to visit the nearby city of Bratislava in Slovakia. We had a good reason for doing this. It was Gay Pride day in Vienna and the streets around the city centre were supposed to be packed with revelers and parade-goers all day. We decided that a more sedate destination would be more to our liking for the day.
Bratislava has a beautiful core leftover from before the communist regimes took over. We spent a good part of the day wandering around the old streets, viewing the old buildings and some of the unique sculptures installed along the sidewalks. As we moved into the center of the old town, we noticed that there were crowds lining the sidewalk along one of the main roads. When we reached the road, a procession was moving along the road. Apparently, we had made it to Bratislava on the day that they were swearing in the new President of Slovakia. It was a fun experience to see the President walking along the road shaking hands. Once the procession had passed, we moved on and had some lunch along the shady avenue nearby.
Heading back to Vienna, we realized that we hadn’t quite missed the Gay Pride festivities. The subway stations were full of revelers, some more clothed than others and some completely topless, men and women alike. Luckily, the kids were mostly too busy talking to each other to really notice anything, though it was hard for them to miss the men standing next to them on the subway spread liberally with glitter and very short shorts. It made for an interesting last dash back to our apartment.
National Museum of Natural History and Art
The National Museum of Natural History and Art are both buildings that themselves would be declared national historical sites if they were located in any other country. They are beautiful buildings which house some of the most important collections of items in the world. We spent a lot of time wandering the halls and marveling at the beautiful art and incredible specimens collected since opening to the public in 1889. One of our favorite parts was seeing the art of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, including the original painting of the Tower of Babel. Pieter Brueghel is one of my favorite artists with his depictions of medieval life. There is so much happening in his paintings that you half expect to find a Waldo hiding in amongst the crowds. To help the children wrap their heads around all the magnificent art pieces, Deanne created a scavenger hunt through all the rooms. The kids really enjoyed learning more about the art pieces through this scavenger hunt and successfully found all the clues.
The Natural History museum had several incredible displays including one of the largest seals I have ever seen. It absolutely dwarfed the children. The museum also housed several rooms of precious jewels which were fun to wander through including the gemstone-and-diamond bouquet of flowers which Maria Theresia had made as a present for her husband. Unfortunately, this museum was a bit more tiresome. After one cabinet of dead creatures, you’ve pretty well seen them all.
On one of our last evenings in Vienna, we sat amongst the grapevines and enjoyed some local wines while the kids played on the playground. A couple of bus rides took us from our apartment to the suburbs where one of several wine gardens was located. There we relaxed as the sunset and enjoyed some homemade food – schnitzel and dumplings, of course! It was a wonderful way to end our time in Vienna
As we looked towards our stay in the Cotswolds, we reflected on our time in Vienna. Vienna is a beautiful city but we hardly had any time to appreciate it fully. The problem, I think, for us was that having been in so many different European cities, it was hard to get excited about just walking through the streets of Vienna.
I have the feeling that I was born in Vienna in order to live in Paris.Romy Schneider
Now, if someone were starting their travels in Vienna, it would have been an amazing start to a journey through Europe. It is undoubtedly, a graceful and elegant city. What made it special to us – and the reason we would come back again – was the music. It would be an amazing city to come to and just soak in all the concerts and musical events happening everywhere. Between seeing Hilary Hahn, going to the Opera and attending that breathtaking service at the church, Vienna kept us spellbound with its musical offerings and kept us asking for more. Now, if there is any better reason for wanting to come back to Vienna, I can’t think of any.