Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Vienna Vignettes – The Obligatory Palace


DUBLIN–JULY 21, 2015 13:22

Our final 48 hours in Austria were so exciting and exhausting, I couldn’t find the strength to sit and compose the last chapter of our Vienna Voyage. After a full day back in (much cooler) Dublin, I’m ready to give it a try.

We scheduled our cycling adventure on a Friday just so we could visit the Saturday-only flea market on the end of Naschmarkt – Vienna’s daily international food market and bazaar. We slept in, still a bit sore and dehydrated after cycling in the Wachau sun, and made our way to the market at about 10:00. The European obsession with Mediterranean foods was alive and well at the market; kebab stands, exotic spice merchants, and mounds of olives lined the narrow lanes of the busy market.


A Selection of Olives

We hadn’t missed the flea market, tables and stalls were packed with junk and trinkets at the southern end of the market – beyond the food stalls. Not having room for too many treasures, we kept our purchasing impulses under control and moved on.

Karlskirche – conveniently located in Karlsplatz – was an impressive sacred specimen indeed, but we didn’t go inside. Unlike other free churches (Peterskirche and Minoritenkirche) and free-to-preview churches (Stephanskirche), Karl’s Church put the paywall at the front door. We took a loop around the (still impressive) exterior and found our U3 train to the real goal of the day: Schonbrunn Palace.

Karlskirche Exterior Vienna

Karlskirche Exterior

This former imperial palace – yes, another royal facility for the same Hapsburg overlords – is away from the Ringstrasse and the center of town, probably out in the woods at the time it was built. The enormous interior is available by paid tour only, but the beautiful and expansive gardens are free to explore.

In the still-punishing sun, we walked across the vast courtyard and into the welcoming shade of the hedges on the palace level of the gardens. A broad avenue of flowers led from the palace building to a large, sculpture-packed fountain. Looking out from the cool shade of the trees, we saw other tourists sizzling and melting in the hazy heat of the sun, absorbed and radiated by the crushed gravel of the exposed path.

Behind the fountain, what looked like dying pilgrims marched up the switchback trail on the steep hill. A monument at the top, the Gloriana, was drawing the melting tourists up the hot hill like moths to a flame. We checked the garden map and found a shadier path to the top.

Schonbrunn Palace Gardens Vienna

Across the Burning Desert

View from the Gloriana Vienna

View from the Gloriana

Once there, we saw what the death march was all about. The monument itself was pretty bland, but turning back toward the palace and the city gave us a stunning view of the southern edge of Vienna. In the far distance, we could even see the TV tower and the tiny hilltop church we had visited on our hike in the Vienna Woods. We rested for awhile  – admiring the great view – at the top of the hill before trekking back to the burning desert of the palace courtyard and the one-euro ice cream stand near the train station.

Back inside the Ringstrasse for our last afternoon, we visited a brewpub, recommended to us for one last taste of Central Europe. The name of the place, 1516, was (I assume) a reference to the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law of 1516. It is known as the world’s first food safety regulation, and stated that beer must contain only water, barley, and hops – yeast hadn’t been discovered yet. This made beer in Germany more consistent and safer, but limited their experimentation with other grains and sugars and various spices now used in brewing.

After our beers (with sausages and a soft pretzel, of course), we spent the rest of the afternoon packing for our return to Dublin. As night fell, we had one more Vienna adventure on our list: the free outdoor film series at City Hall.

Free Films at City Hall Vienna

Free Films at City Hall

In the summertime, when its opera and orchestra go on summer break, the city screens a nightly series of operas and concert films on a huge screen in front of its civic offices. Local restaurants set up stalls nearby, and the whole square becomes one boisterous community picnic. We munched on one last serving of sausage and mustard and quaffed one more brew before night fell and the show began.

We watched most of the screening (a 1990 concert filmed in Rome featuring Domingo, Carreras, and Pavarotti, “The Three Tenors”) before heading back to our apartment to call it a night.


I was surprised at just how much I could do in Vienna for free or for very little. In preparation for the trip, I was looking at the travel books with growing concern. Museum after paid museum seemed to be the bulk of the daytime entertainment, and the surprisingly-cheap opera tickets were off the table as the opera stage is quiet in July and August. Would I be able to reasonably entertain myself for a full week, much of it without Sara to keep me motivated?

The answer, as I hope this last series reveals clearly, is a resounding “yes!” My long walk out to the Danube Island got me away from the noise and the tourists of the Ringstrasse and into a very unique land of tween-age scooter gangs, local runners, and business suits from the skyscrapers across the blue half (not the green half) of the Danube on lunch break.

Free organ concerts at 3 p.m. and every night at St. Peter’s gave me plenty of opportunities to enjoy some music in this very artistic city without paying through the nose to see orchestras in powdered wigs playing Mozart’s Greatest Hits for the seventeen-thousandth time. Sure, there were “real” concerts and theater playing during the week, but without any real concert attire (or the budget to drop a twenty or more for a show),  I was perfectly happy to drop a coin in the basket for each of the three concerts I attended in the overly-ornate church.

What can I say about the Wachau cycling trip? It was an incredible, unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I spent much of the week planning this trip, poring over awkwardly-translated websites to confirm and re-confirm the details of the train, the bike rental, and the route. The picturesque valley, with its castles, vineyards, fruit trees, and, of course, the Danube was inspiring. It was just our (slightly) bad luck that the weather was so hot and the wine bars and vineyards didn’t open early on the weekdays. Looking back, it was but a small matter; we both had an unforgettable experience there, impossible to really capture in words or photos.

Back in Dublin, the land of mild summers, I am only now able to fully appreciate my experiences in Vienna. For us, coming home from a trip, unpacking, and getting back into a comfortable, familiar routine while reflecting on the fond memories of the journey is really the best part. Nights in hostels and days spent at airports are fun and special in their own way, but memories and moments are what keep us going…until our next adventure!

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