Vienna, Austria - Part One

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Vienna Austria is one of Europe’s most interesting capital cities. The fact that it is also one of the least visited (compared to Paris, London, Rome, etc) makes it attractive to journey there any time of the year. There is so much to describe, we split this Vienna post into two parts. In this first part we will describe the major sights. In the second part, we will discuss cultural, dining, and wine items of interest.

Transportation. The airport is a short ride from the city and a system of underground trains makes getting around the compact urban area very easy. Underground stations are marked by a simple “U” and are very easy to spy from a distance. There are no turn-styles or gates to prevent boarding a train without a ticket. However, a ticket is required to ride the train in Vienna. This said, if you are caught riding the train without a ticket the fine is not cheap. The trust shown by the city to allow travelers to come and go “on their honor” is a first introduction to the gracious Viennese manner you’ll experience most everywhere you go.

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Sights. The photo above is of the Schönbrunn Palace which is a short train ride outside Vienna. Schönbrunn means “Beautiful Spring.” The Palace was the summer residence of the Habsburg dynasty that held the title of the “Holy Roman Empire” for around three hundred years until 1740.

Purchased by Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II in 1569, the structure was originally used as a hunting lodge. The family enjoyed hunting in the countryside so much they would ride out from Vienna to hunt and “slum it” in a small mansion that was built by the previous owner.

Over the years, the Schönbrunn was expanded and reached its current state in the mid-18th Century when the Palace was expanded by Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette (who was later guillotined during the French Revolution). Extensive gardens and fountains were installed and, in 1760, the Gloriette (above) was placed on top of the 200’ (60m) hill looking down across the gardens.

The synergies with Versailles are very close. Both palaces began as summer hunting lodges and were expanded over the years by royals who loved the countryside but wanted more elegance. Louis XIV expanded Versailles to its current size and Maria Theresa did the same for the Schönbrunn. (When you visit, you will see Marie Antoinette and the rest of her family depicted in pretty portraits spanning one whole hallway of the palace. Marie Theresa was a dutiful mother and birthed 16 children, 10 of whom lived to adulthood. She married off these children—mostly girls—to royals across the world, thus securing the Habsburg connection to many thrones.

With more than 1,400 rooms, the Schönbrunn Palace is worth exploring. The gardens and Gloriette make great places to wander around. Take a picnic and some fine Austrian wine with you and make a day of it!

The Habsburg’s needed somewhere closer to town to spend their winters, however, and the Hofburg Palace fit the bill. The Palace is in the center of Vienna, easy to find on foot. Hofburg means “Castle of the Court” and it’s easy to get confused between Hofburg and Habsburg. The Hofburg is now the residence and offices of the President of Austria.

It’s easy to spend a long morning or afternoon wandering the rooms and treasury in the Palace. The decor is beautiful and puts Austrian artistry on lovely display.

The third Palace in Vienna is The Belvedere, which is short taxi ride from the center of the city. Tip: if you look at a tourist guide of Vienna, the Belvedere will be depicted as close to the city center. But don’t be fooled—it’s quite a hike!

The Belvedere was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy who was the one of the most successful military commanders in the whole of Europe in the 17th Century. Prince Eugene led the armies that defended Vienna from the final attempt to conquer Vienna by the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Vienna.

The Palace is now an art museum and is the home of a lot of the work of Gustav Klimt from the early 20th Century. Again, the gardens are impressive. There is an upper Belvedere (shown above) and a lower Belvedere at the opposite end of the gardens. The gardens and the lower Belvedere is shown in the photo below, with central Vienna in the background.

If three Palaces haven’t quenched your thirst for history, one of the best museums in the world is also located in the center of Vienna. The Kunsthistorisches Museum is a marvelous museum that would take days to explore. The quality of the pieces rivals those of the Louvre in Paris or any museum in Rome or London. Kunsthistoriches means “Museum of Art History.”

The museum was opened 1891 by Emperor Franz Joseph I. The Emperor wanted to get the extensive treasures that belonged to the Habsburg’s on display for the public to enjoy. The art and artifacts are fascinating—definitely worth your time. The majestic architecture is worth wandering through.

Be sure to dine or stop for dessert in the delightful museum cafe. Here, you can get a cup of indescribably good Viennese coffee topped with the the most delicious whipped cream you will ever taste! The ornamental dome of this classic Viennese cafe is shown below.

Across the courtyard from the Kunsthistoriches is the Natural History museum. This museum was built at the same time as the art museum and the buildings are similarly styled.

If you’re looking for something more spiritual after exploring the power and glory of the Palaces and museums in Vienna, St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the center of the city is an enclave of calm. As you can see from the photo below, the roof is beautifully decorated in colored tiles that are reminiscent of the brightly colored roofs in Burgundy.

The Cathedral was begun in 1137 and completed in 1160 which is remarkably fast for most medieval museums around Europe. The Cathedral sits in an large open square surrounded by shops, hotels, and restaurants. This leads us on to Part Two of this Vienna post.

The Dordogne Valley

There’s a fertile, ancient enclave in Southern France brimming with medieval castles, pretty vineyards, and a prehistoric history that offers some of the first glimpses of man. It’s called the  Dordogne Valley. It lies in central France just east of Bordeaux at the western coast. The Dordogne River flows west toward the sea from Dordogne Valley. It’s carved a marvelous broad valley of rich farmland that produces some the best vegetables, fruits, nuts, seafood and goose-based products like foie gras and pâté on the planet. 

Early mankind found it a welcoming place to settle. They made their homes in cave complexes such as Lascaux and Pech Merle which you can still visit today. Living must have been somewhat easy as these early humans not only hunted and created farmland, but also had time to colorfully decorate the walls of their caves with a variety of animals and other images using primitive paint colors and spit. 

Since that time agriculture—and wine growing—has flourished in the area. During the centuries, the land was much prized and warring factions (British, French, Iberian, Ottoman, and more) criss-crossed the land erecting castles, squabbling over land rights, and lusting after the riches of the area.

Today, there’s still a moderate land grab. But these mainly involve hungry real estate buyers hoping to land a second home or retirement abode in this land of plenty. We love this almost hidden gem of France. While Brits love to commute to the Provence of Peter Mayle fame, we especially enjoy the lesser known Dordogne for its rustic charm, fantastic wine, picturesque attractions, and fantastic food. You’ll find walnuts, wine, ducks, geese, truffles, foie gras, rustic bread, hearty cuisine, and other goodies for your home (or your castle) all through this charming region. All are prominently for sale at stores and markets along the journey. 

The major towns of the Dordogne are Bergerac and Perigeux. Each of these is maybe worth a visit if you have plenty of time in the area, otherwise we suggest avoiding them because they are cosmopolitan business centers missing the charm of the countryside. 

Instead, we tend to stick to the most interesting towns of Sarlat-et-Canéda, Castelnaud, Domme, Beynac, and La Roque-Gageac. Sarlat is the largest of the these and sees itself as the foie gras capital of the area. It’s also the one of the best-preserved towns in France, often used as a set for historical movies and TV shows. 

Sarlat is worth at least one visit. Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays—and it’s worth visiting on a market day if you can get there early for the drama and excitement. You’ll see a wide range of products for sale and you’ll rub elbows with the local French who are shopping for groceries and home goods—an education in itself!  Sarlat on market day is very crowded, particularly in the summer where as many market visitors are tourists as locals. Plan on coming back to the town at dusk and stay for dinner. Better still, pick an accommodation in town and you won’t miss a minute of the action.

Castelnaud and Beynac are medieval villages nestled along the Dordogne River. Each features a medieval castle with a great view of the river—and a history worthy of a BBC drama. During the Hundred Years’ War, these two castles changed hands multiple times between combatants. Even if you abhor history (and the working trebuchets still on display), they are worth a visit for the view of the river with its canoers and boaters or beautiful hot-air balloons floating overhead.  

Along the same section of the river is the most ancient town of La Roque-Gageac, which is practically carved into the hillside. This village is often cited as one of the most beautiful in France. It’s a perfect place for lunch at a cafe that has a view of the river or for glimpsing unusual visitors like these German bikers (in their 60s!)

La Roque is also a great place to get a river cruise on a gabare(sailing boat). A gabare is a traditional Dordogne River vessel that were used in the old days to carry agricultural products and wine from the Dordogne area to Bordeaux for export. A cruise takes an hour or so and a commentary in English is available. If a gabare isn’t energetic enough for you, renting a kayak and sailing down the river is a favorite pasttime. The renter will pick you up down river and bring you back to La Roque. 

Last but not least, you can book a spectacular hot air balloon ride in Beynac (and elsewhere in the Dordogne). While this is one of the more expensive adventures in the area (approx. $150/ea) floating above the river as the sun comes up or goes down is one of our most memorable experiences. With museums, cave complexes, outdoor markets, fantastic food, and affordable local wine, the Dordogne has everything for a relaxing vacation of a few days or a week.