Leave it to the Austrians to build something that is both fantastically functional and incredibly beautiful. That is the condition of Vienna. It's a truly incredible city. The infrastructure and incredible Art Nouveau and Baroque architecture was consistently surprising me as I traveled about the city to visit as many sights as I could in the limited time that I had.
Let me preface the description of the things that I did with this: the entire city looks like this: http://www.elkhazen.org/vienna/uploaded_images/vienna-02-748789.jpg . It's quite impressive. Then there are the palaces that dot the city. Not to mention the monumental churches and various other buildings of state. It's a sublime city. I've heard many people say that if they could make their life in one European city it would be Vienna and I have to echo the sentiment. It's both beautiful and functional and that's a combination that you don't just find anywhere.
So, let me begin with yesterday: I caught my train after running all over Krakow Glowny, the central train station. Krakow's train station is a mess. It's ridiculously hard to figure out where your train is departing from and there are so many ins and outs you can easily get lost for 30 minutes.
Plus it's ugly so that doesn't help it at all. Anyway, after I caught my train I was sweaty and hot but happy that I was on board. The trip went smoothly and I arrived in Katowice in plenty of time to catch my train to Vienna. I whittled away my time buying an authentic Polish sausage and some sort of very tasty pseudo croissant with strawberry filling. Twenty minutes before my train was due to depart the station I made my way to the platform that it was supposed to depart from and waited.
And waited. Waited some more. And waited some more. I asked a few people around me if there had, in the layers of Polish gobbletygook that was being constantly spouted out of the loudspeakers, heard anything about the train to Vienna being delayed or having a change of track. However, it turns out that everybody waiting for the same train as me either didn't speak any English or didn't speak any Polish. At any rate, the train finally pulled into the station nearly an hour late. By that point in time I was on the verge of a heart attack thinking that I'd somehow missed my train.
Thankfully, upon arrival in Vienna I found the transit to my hostel incredibly easy to use. I hopped one tram from Sudbahnhof - the train station I arrived at - to Westbanhof - the train station I will be leaving via tomorrow morning and the closest tram stop to my hostel. I walked a couple blocks to my hostel and found Wombat's "The Lounge". I booked "The Lounge" because it had literally the highest ranking of any hostel in the world. I was a little stunned by what greeted me when I walked through the door.
"The Lounge", which incidentally is where I'm sitting as I type this, is less hostel but more a combination of a hotel, a youth center and the officers houses at Fort Warden (for those of you who don't know, the officers houses at Fort Warden basically feel like your average hostel). It's positively massive, very clean and made to be about as user-friendly as possible. Unfortunately, that means that it's relatively anonymous to be a guest at "The Lounge" and I never made any short-term friends.
After an excruciatingly hot night's sleep I got up and set out to tour Vienna. I found the U-Bahn very easy to use and after one transfer arrived at the Schoenbrun palace. Like most palaces and tourist sights in Europe I was forbidden from taking photographs so you'll have to look it up for visuals of the interior. Anyway, the inside was gorgeous. I toured through 40 rooms featuring some spectacular furniture, paintings and decorations. Many of the rooms are the same familiar rooms used to shoot the film Amadeus, which I had watched just a couple months prior to leaving for Europe. I then climbed through the gardens at the back of the palace to the Gallery which featured a nice view of the city and the palace grounds (see photos).
Next I returned to Westbahnhof to purchase my train ticket to Belgrade. Unlike Krakow, I found the process incredibly straight forward and easy - thankfully. I was in and out in less than 10 minutes, ticket in hand. Once again confirming that Vienna is a very easy city to navigate and deal with.
Train ticket stowed carefully in my hostel room I took the underground again into the city center. My first stop was St. Stephen Cathedral, which has been under construction for nearly 1,000 years. It was totally ABC (Another Bloody Church) and not really worth the time. Thankfully, entrance was free. However, entrance to the tower was not and I chucked out my 4.50 Euro to see the thing. It was horrifically underwhelming. Tip: if you go to Vienna don't bother going to the top of St. Stephen Cathedral.
Around this time I was starting to get a little peckish so I waltzed down the strasse to the original birthplace of the Sacre Torte - a rich chocolate cake with a filling of what I think was apricot? It was good but the price meant that it was also somewhat underwhelming: with coffee my bill was 10 euro.
My trip to the center was feeling a little weaker than I was hoping prior to arriving. Pressing on I strolled to the east side of the Hofburg palace and was floored by the size and power of the architecture. The only sight in the Hofburg that I was interested in paying to see was the Austrian Royal Jewels. The jewels exhibit covers many different eras in Austria's imperial history - Habsburg, Holy Roman Empire, Austrian Empire, etc.... They're frequently compared to the British Royal Jewels in terms of pure value and while I think they lacked some of the glittery aspects of the British jewels (the Brits had an unparalleled collection of diamonds and other precious stones) the Austrian collection featured the most ridiculously ornate royal costumes I've ever witnessed. And a ton of them. I didn't really take any pictures because you really have to see them with your own eyes - the gold and other colors just didn't translate on film. The other thing that Austria beats Britain on is the massive collection of religious relics. They were the head of the Holy Roman Empire for 400 or so years, after all.
Leaving Hofburg I found my way to the Austrian parliament. I can't help but compare the capital to what was Europe's largest intercontinental empire, London, to the capital of Europe's largest continental empire, Vienna. The royal palaces of Vienna are prettier than their British counterparts but the Austrian parliament, while pretty, pales in comparison to Westminster. Inside I watched a 30-minute documentary on the history of the Austrian parliament (Wow! They didn't edit out the bits from 1933-1945! I expected those details to be glossed over....) and went on a guided tour. Of interest is that the rooms currently used for parliamentary debate were destroyed by Allied bombs in the Second World War. The reconstructed rooms are much less decorative than they had been. Oddly, the old House of Deputies, which wasn't destroyed by Allied bombs and was, in fact, completely untouched by WW2, is now almost never used. Surprising!
During the tour I also noticed that my knee was bleeding profusely. I still don't know why that was.... It stopped now!
After the parliamentary tour I returned to my hostel to do laundry in the knowledge that I wouldn't have another chance until after I get back to Nis, Serbia from my 7 or so day tour of former Yugoslavia. After I put my laundry in to wash I went down the street to a eatery that had been recommended to me by the name of "Mozart's Cafe" and ordered (what else?) Wienerschnitzel and a dunkel lager. Yum!
Now I'm waiting for my laundry to finish and I'm off to Beograd! Wish me luck! I might not be able to check in for a couple days. We'll see!!
PS - It was so freakin' hot all day today and within 10 minutes of me getting back to my hostel it was raining like it was Florida in hurricane season (which I guess it is hurricane season....). But unlike Florida the rain didn't let up for nearly 45 minutes. I guess that's why Austria's been experiencing record-breaking floods this year....