A Warm Welcome in Wien

I arrived in Wien (Vienna to us Americanos) a little after 9pm last night after being on a train from Zagreb for almost 7 hours. I had fully intended on sleeping on that train since I had woken up early to do the early bird bike tour of Zagreb. I could even stretch out across 3 seats because the train wasn’t full. The only thing that prevented me from sleeping was that at least once per hour an attendant would come by and check my ticket or my passport. Once, I tried pretending to be asleep to see if they’d leave me alone but the guy just yelled something in Dutch at me. So I wasn’t able to sleep because of these constant interruptions. Naturally, I was feeling a little frustrated and groggy by the time the train finally made it in to Vienna. To make things better, it was pouring down rain and thunder storming. As soon as I got out of the station, I quickly realized it was not Vienna’s main station. So I retreated back downstairs and figured out how to use the Vienna metro to get myself to the Westbanhof station. Once there, I attempted to follow the directions I’d copied down on how to get to my pension… And got completely lost and completely soaked. After about 10 minutes of not being able to find out the right street, I stopped into the Arcohotel (European chain kind of like Hilton) and asked for help. Not only did they give me accurate directions to a competitors hotel, they also gave me a free umbrella. I would like to stay in an Arcohotel.

I got to Pension Pharmador right before the reception desk closed at 10 and checked in to my room. It was love at first sight. I had my own bed with clean sheets and my own bathroom with clean towels and a hair dryer. I also had a huge window by which I could watch the thunderstorm rage outside. Which is exactly what I did after showering. I had decided to splurge a tiny bit for this night because to stay in an 8 bedroom hostel with no AC and a shared bath was like 25 Euros and I just refused to do that. I mean seriously people who own hostels must be rich! After my horrible hostel experience in Zagreb I thoroughly enjoyed having a clean room and bathroom and silence throughout the night. This morning, I woke up to one of the best breakfasts I have had in a while. I had a whole grain roll with ham and cheese, raspberry yogurt with granola, pineapples and grapes and a piece of tea cake to finish it off. All of this with fresh squeezed OJ and tea. I was starving because I hadn’t bothered to get any real food before leaving Zagreb since I thought I’d be able to on the international train. Since it turned out to be a ghetto train and I didn’t get into Vienna until late, I was stuck with fruit and nuts for lunch and dinner.

The first place I went after leaving the pension was to the metro and I took the metro to Stephenplatz, where Vienna’s famous Stephansdom or St. Stephen’s Cathedral is located. The Cathedral is most definitely one of the symbols of the city so it was a natural place to begin exploring from. I looked at the facade and entered the church to check out the interior. I sat down at a pew to read the info on my Nook about the interior features of the church. Next I decided to check out the view from one of the churches tower, so I choose to go up the elevator to the top of the North Tower. I hadn’t really noticed the colorful roof tiles from the ground, but up in the tower I could see them so much more clearly. I could also see out over the city. Labels on a map showed me where to look for all of the major Vienna attractions on the ground.

When I came down from the tower, I headed towards the Albertina Museum and stopped into the tourist information office along the way to gather more info about Vienna’s highlights. Then I went into the Albertina, which is one of Vienna’s best known and most respected art galleries. I absolutely loved 2 of the exhibits, but didn’t care too much for the others. As such I spent a lot of time in the 2 that I did like and very little time in the others.

The first exhibit which I found intriguing was Monet bis Picssso: the Batliner Collection. This collection held works from Monet and his contemporaries through to Picasso and his contemporaries. It was an interesting survey of recent art. I really enjoy impressionist paintings with their bright colors and happy themes. I do not enjoy Picasso all that much, but he did a Mediterranean landscape in bright colors which was on display which I did enjoy. In between the two, I really liked some other bright colored paintings that used simple brush strokes or simple shapes to compose a larger image. Overall, the art in this exhibit was brightly colored and fun.

The next exhibit that I really liked Joel Sternfeld: Color Photography since 1970. Before today I had never heard of Joel Sternfeld, but after today I would like to see more of his work and maybe even buy one of his books. Sternfeld is an innovative American photographer, certainly one of the best over the last 40 years. Sternfeld began producing colored photos at Nags Head, North Carolina. In the 1970s, artistic photography was strictly black and white but Sternfeld decided to challenge the norms and came out with his Nags Head photos in vivid colors. The series was criticized heavily but Sternfeld stuck with color photography, and thank goodness because he is really good at it. I image Sternfeld as being an activist, because the majority of his work was social and cultural implications. He has produced a variety of series over the years, having taken photos all across America. One of his series includes a faces on the street theme which features photos of people all across America during their natural day to day moments. A similar campaign was called Rush Hour, which captured a range of emotions of Americans in transit. Sternfeld also did a campaign illustrating some surprisingly gorgeous views in different American cities. His photos of the High Line in Manhattan (deserted railroad tracks being taken over by weeds and plants) resulted in the city government voting to create a public park in that space. Sternfeld’s photos were my favorite part of the museum, and within his gallery I particularly liked his series called Scene of the Crime and Alternative Living. Both of these series really force the observer to think and consider what they are seeing, but not just because of the photo but because of the commentary which Sternfeld artfully paired with each photo.

The Scene of the Crime series is not what you would expect; there is no blood and no murder weapons. I’ll give some examples. Sternfeld photographed the court room where health officials voted that HIV could not be transferred through blood infusions, leading to the contraction of AIDS by some 12,000 people who required blood transfusions through the next few years. He also photographed a school that was built on land that contained toxic waste. After several children were hospitalized, the school shut down. This was a Scene of the Crime because the people selling the land knew of the toxic waste beneath it. Houses were also built in the area. The government had to pay millions in damages after babies born into this area suffered from severe birth defects. They should have done their research. Sternfeld photographed an innocent looking oak tree. The tree was where an 18 year old was found dead after having last been seen only 2 hours before. Her boyfriend pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Sternfeld also photographed famous crime scenes like the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. I found each photo’s description made me look at the photo in a different way and consider the implications that each of the spaces had on American history.

The Alternative Living series was just as fascinating. For this one, Sternfeld photographed past and present alternative living groups and in his commentary explains their beliefs and how their experiment turned out. For example, he took a photo of the ruins of a socialist community in California that once had over 500 members working together to escape consumerism. The community failed due to fights over rights to water. In New York, Sternfeld photographed an old mansion that used to believe both in God and in sleeping around. The community thought that God did not approve of monogamy, and that they should all enjoy each others bodies. It was clear that this was a ploy by the founder to sleep with as many women as possible because those with a higher social standing in the community called the shots on procreation. The community fell apart when those of a lower social standing started to get fed up… Go figure. It’s amazing how strong leaders can convince people of almost anything, and alternative living communities are perfect examples of how hundreds or even thousands of people will put their trust in something if they believe it offers them something better than their current situation. I found Sternfeld’s photos and commentary to be thought provoking and intriguing which is why I enjoyed this exhibit so much.

Right around the corner from the Albertine Museum is the Hofburg Imperial Palace Complex and that’s where I headed next. This palace was the seat of the Hapsburg dynasty for more than 600 years, and now it contains several museums and official offices. I visited the Silver Collection, the Sisi Museum, and the Imperial Apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth.

The Silver Museum, while impressive, was not all that interesting. It contained the silver sets and the dining utensils, etc. used by the royalty of the palace. Of course it was all excessive and thoroughly over the top. Far more interesting was the Sisi Museum which was dedicated to the life of the Empress Elizabeth, or Sisi as she was known. Elizabeth was one of the most beautiful women of her time, and although elusive and shy as an Empress, several movies have been made about her and memorial statues have been constructed. The museum delves into the truths and the myths surrounding the historical figure of the Empress. I really didn’t know much about the Empress before touring the museum but I really enjoyed learning about her. At a time when physical activity was still frowned upon for women (late 1800s), Elizabeth had a complete at home exercise set which she utilized in addition to her outdoor pursuits such as horseback riding and hiking. She was very concerned about her looks, so she worked out to compensate for her sweet tooth. That I can understand! After learning about Sisi, I would like to read one of the many historical fiction works written about her.

The Imperial Apartments were exactly as you would expect. Very similar to any other royal place in Europe. Sumptuously decorated with a history of each room. By this time I was getting hungry, so I didn’t linger for too long. I bought a small book on Austrian Cooking from the palace bookshop before enjoying my first authentic wiener schnitzel just around the block. Wiener schnitzel is basically just breaded veal, served with parsley potatoes. I loved it! I enjoyed it with a strawberry wine spritzer, another instant favorite. Then I went around to the other side of the palace to get a look and a photo of the grand entrance (now another museum) before getting back on the metro to collect my bag from my hotel. Now I’m on a train headed to Budapest. I’ll be back in Vienna for one more day after Budapest, and I really can’t decide what to do – there’s just so many options! I wish I had more time!

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