From Praha, it took $24 and more than four hours to arrive in Wien. I promptly took the U-bahn metro system to arrive at my hotel, although each fare cost €2.2. Wien is a super modern and clean city. Its orderliness reminded me of Singapore’s in that everyone spoke English, there were no feral animals, and homeless people were invisible. In other European cities, a minor annoyance for a tourist is not having enough maps in the stations or having to buy tickets at a tobacco shop. In Wien, maps are everywhere, and I purchased all my tickets at kiosks that accepted credit cards. Heaven.
I spent four nights in Wien, all within the historic center. My first two nights were at the Levante Parliament for only $31 per night, despite the prevailing $149 rate. My second pair of nights were at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, which caters to business travelers more than any lodging I have used so far on my world tour. Its location is so central that from my bed, I can hear the clopping of the horse-drawn carriages. I paid approximately $0 for these two nights, as they were one benefit from signing up for the Club Carlson Visa credit card in July. I shall detail more on this bonanza later, but this card has resulted in at least six free hotel nights. Almost all my lodging in Europe has been great, but I welcome the occasional corporate hotel for a few more creature comforts.
I am not sure if this is a Wien thing, but both my hotels house a sauna. I prefer steam rooms, and I would not normally think much of this amenity, but I have encountered freezing temperatures for the first time since early this year on the United States East Coast. One day in Wien featured a yellow wind warning, with gusts up to 70 kph! The effective temperature has been below freezing, as low as -10 °C. As a result, the sauna and its dry 80 °C temperature suddenly gained appeal. I will not complain much about the subzero temperatures, as I will only suffer eight total days of subzero temperatures in the 2014-2015 winter, a fraction of what I would experience if I had stayed on the East Coast. The coldness of the weather has dampened my normal zest for walking the city into the ground. In addition, there has been rain and hail.
Aside from the freezing temperature, I recently suffered from a virus (I think), probably some type of influenza. The origin can be traced to nearly two weeks ago, at the start of my weeklong trip to Istanbul. At first, I thought I had extremely mild symptoms of a cold, nothing worth blogging about. However, a few days in, I suffered from a frightening case of delirium that lasted six hours. Room temperature induced hypothermia, and I had to sleep in layers. The details of my delirium were quite bizarre, but they were certainly influenced by all the architecture that I had been reveling in, as I had imagined my body to be contorting itself into various structural elements, such as columns and balustrades. Then, it went away, and I hardly missed a beat. I can be quite stubborn when it comes to refusing to see a doctor, so I did not consult one in my situation. I did not feel excessive fatigue, so I was glad that I did not have to waste any valuable time.
The first two days in Wien, I started feeling terrible backaches when in a sleeping position, which is pretty awful when trying to sleep. Strangely, the pain did not affect standing, walking, or running. However, I suddenly lost flexibility. I frantically started Googling what this could be, and it dawned on me that this must be a symptom of the flu virus. I did not have any surface or bone pain. I am usually healthy so I immediately thought that this random pain would be how I would discover that I have cancer or some such terrible fate. The discomfort was bad enough that even two days of it made me feel like it would be permanent. I posed myself the question of whether I would be willing to suffer this ache (only when in a reclining position) for the rest of my life in exchange for a billion dollars. Anyway, the sauna feels good in light of the flu and subzero weather.
Wien is a terribly expensive city, even more so when arriving directly from Praha. I am going to Budapest next, which has prices closer to Praha. Wien’s food prices are more than twice those of Praha and in line with New York City’s. However, Manhattan offers so many fast food options that it is possible to eat lunch for less than $10. In the historic district, it is difficult to find convenience stores or fast food options. The cheapest choices are street stalls or the Christmas markets at this time of year, but these are more expensive than any street food in the world. An Austrian hot dog is €5. Many people were having small shots of local liquor or wine, and they ran more than €4 off the street! I had a wiener schnitzel at a mediocre cafe, and it cost me more than €17.
Other than walking around, my sightseeing was limited to three free churches (the way it should be), two palaces, and two art museums. The buildings and architecture are so grand and close to each other, even though the city does not appear to be as compact as Praha. The avenues and walkways can get quite wide. Christmas markets are everywhere, selling ornaments, alcohol, and local food offerings. It is so cold that ordering an item and having to wait more than five minutes for it can be unpleasant, although I suppose that is part of the charm of winter in Wien. Everyone was having a merry time.
I saw the Schönbrunn and Hofburg Palaces, which were used by Hapsburg families. These palaces are extremely structured audioguide tours. Like other historical buildings I have toured, the exterior is amazing, but the interiors have been so renovated that little of the original decor is left. In Italia, many paintings were heavily restored, to the point where little of the original brushstrokes remain, which begs a philosophical question. If you have a lamp, and you replace the lightbulb, no one will argue that your lamp is not original. Ten years later, you replace the dusty lampshade–do you still have the original lamp? Then, twenty years later, you replace the base. Now, you’ve replaced all the items that constitute the lamp, but you may still say, “This lamp has been in my family for decades. . .” That’s how some of the paintings and buildings are after they are damaged or renovated.
The Schönbrunn Palace is an 11-minute metro ride away from the city center. It bears a resemblance to the Palace of Versailles, especially with its surrounding gardens. I did not enjoy the gardens much because it was freezing, so my entire tour lasted only 90 minutes!
Hofburg Palace shares many of the same anecdotes as Schönbrunn Palace, which makes sense since they were used by the same family. However, Hofburg heavily features Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of Austria. While revered now, my impression of her or anyone in such a privileged position who complains is less than laudatory. She was incredibly narcissistic and neurotic. Bizarrely for someone in the 19th century, much less a woman and a member of royalty, she was obsessed with working out. The exhibit with her pull-up bar was quite telling.
Despite Sisi’s (nickname) general bitchiness about the burdens of being Empress, she does have a few points. Her general stance on the boredom of royalty was similar to that of Princess Ann (played by Audrey Hepburn) in Roman Holiday. Sisi was full of wanderlust, and she made the point that she would not want to visit Paradise, if she could not leave it. Her views were alarmingly progressive by decades. She was married off as a teenager, but she thought it ridiculous that women committed at such a young age, when they would be trapped in the arrangement for the rest of their lives.
The best sight in Wien is the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which is the Museum of Fine Arts. It is best known to me as having the largest collection of works by Bruegel.