Sunday, April 13, 2008

WIEN (Known Aliases: Vienna, Vienne, Bécs, Vídeň . . . )

We arrived after dark to Wien Suedbahnhof. After 3 days in Budapest and Bratislava, I was amazed at my sudden literacy. "Oh, I am going to be able to read everything! Yay!!" Of course, to say I can read everything in German is a gross exaggeration, but there's nothing like a few days in countries where the language is completely foreign to me to make me feel like I actually know some German.

We couldn't figure out which bus ticket to buy to get to our Pension, so we went to the info desk. A person who spoke English as a second language and no German was being helped ahead of us and having some difficulty. We soon discovered that their difficulty was no language problem - it was an unhelpful customer service problem. We got to the front and asked which ticket to get, in German. The info desk guy, slouched way back in his seat, barely cast us a glance, and said simply "ein zwanzig"* (one twenty) in some slightly confusing dialect. We asked him to repeat it, and got the same two words delivered the same way a second time. So, back to the ticket machine, where we supposed that "ein zwanzig" referred to the price of the appropriate ticket (thankfully, we were right). (*I do not remember the exact price of the ticket. It was one-something.)

Germans had warned us about the famed rudeness of Wien, but this experience actually turned out to be the worst we had. There were a few more encounters of indifferent annoyance, but none so unhelpful as the first!

Our Pension, Pension Hargita, was located just off of Mariahilfer Strasse, so that was the first we saw of Wien outside of the train station. It was horrible. The same hideous fashion stores found in any city, enormous lit-up ads (check out the first photo in the album!), ne'er-do-well-looking people running around, cars screeching their tires. So much for all those wedding-cake-perfection stories I'd heard about Wien. I was part disappointed at the flashy, packaged America-like atmosphere of the street, but also really glad that maybe Wien wasn't going to be grotesquely perfect.

The Pension was super-clean and friendly. The owners are Hungarian so it was filled with Hungarian decor - more so than even the place we stayed in Budapest. We'd gotten the "shower in room, shared toilet in hallway" option, and the shower really was right in the room! As in, there was just a shower stall in the corner. There were still two separate beds, though!

With just two days, our experience in Wien was much like Budapest - just a lot of walking around past sight after sight. The Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral) is the city's primary landmark, and was partly under scaffolding. The outside is mostly gothic with a cool patterned roof, but inside it was jam-packed with unattractive baroque altars. See the photo album for more details about what we saw!

Wien Mar 08

We also jammed much cake-eating into our schedule! In the end we'd hit Cafe Demel, Hotel Sacher, Cafe Central, and Cafe Prueckel. Summary:

Best Sacher Torte: It's true - Hotel Sacher. Second place to Cafe Demel. The others didn't come remotely close (including Sacher Torte from Aida, a chain Konditorei around Wien).
Most Touristy: Tie between Cafe Demel and Cafe Central. Central had more German-speaking tourists, while Demel had more American and Asian tourists. Central had a crowd waiting to be seated inside the door at all times; Demel had so many tourists circulating through that one knocked a full tray out of a waiter's hand.
Smokiest: Cafe Prueckel. There was a thick fog when we entered, and the smoking section was bigger than the non-smoking.
Cheapest: Cafe Prueckel. It's located further from the tourist center and has a more casual air.
Most Expensive: Sacher. We also could not take a seat there unless we checked our coats, and the coat check wasn't free.
Best Service: Sacher. Well, actually, they brought me the wrong tea, but the friendly waiter who bade us goodbye at the end totally made up for it.
Worst Service: Prueckel was close, but Central wins this one.
Most Amusing Experience: At Demel, a local couldn't find an empty table, so he sat himself down with an American mother and daughter, who could not conceal their horror. (Sharing tables with strangers at a crowded restaurant is normal in Germany, and it appears to be in Austria too.) They were unable to say anything about it and just sat there twitching.

One of the best perks in Wien is the opportunity to get ultra-cheap tickets to see the opera! (Or in our case, they were showing a ballet that day.) You don't even have to be a student - just able to line up around 5pm or so to get a shot at the standing room spots. Prices run from 2 to 3.50 EUR. That's not a typo! It's cheaper than coffee. We got to see Swan Lake at the Staatsoper for only 4 EUR between us! The spots are not great and we couldn't see part of the right hand of the stage, but for that price, who cares? You can always just leave if it doesn't suit you. I am always pessimistic about the ballet, but it wasn't bad (especially the guys, heh). Actually, it was quite enjoyable, even standing.

We also encountered in Wien a surprisingly large number of American female college students who had just recently been to Prague and possibly Budapest and were discussing their experiences loudly with their friends. Or maybe we just kept running into the same two girls over and over. In general, it seemed Prague was getting more rave reviews in these overheard conversations. "Prague was so colorful, but everything here I feel like is like white." "Prague was so great, but then we went to Budapest and we came out of the train station and it was sooo....eastern. It was sooo crazy." I'm sure my conversations sound this stupid out of context, too. I'll continue to hope they don't.


  1. Honestly, everybody's conversations always sound strange when taken out of context. However, I think you can be confident the college girl's conversation sound strange in context--I am hard pressed to imagine a scenario where the sentences you gave us could possibly be a part of a larger conversation that makes any sense.

    Maybe I need to take some drugs.

  2. Thanks for the rundown and the pictures. It looks like you had fun!

  3. Adam: So, I'm not losing it yet, eh? and I both are.

    Snooker: The whole trip was great!

  4. I am an American college aged girl, and I loved Vienna (seriously, most beautiful city I've ever been to. I don't think I saw a single ugly building the whole time I was there) and thought Prague was over-rated (way too touristy)

    Did you get accosted by the tourist-trap "show tonight?" costumed guys?

  5. Christine: Of course, they try everybody, don't they? ;) I really feel bad for people who get suckered in to buying expensive concert tickets from those guys, because you can get opera tickets so cheap, or just walk into a church and get a free concert. But, if their guide doesn't warn them about this, they might not know.


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