If only history was taught like this in our schools and historical centres. The thought hovered at the back of my mind as Sisi’s frustrations with boundaries, her passions and her need to be free unfolded in the mind’s eye during our tour of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna with a self-guided audio commentary.
A story was spun around the Hapsburgs with the narrator taking us through two centuries of imperial history without making it a chronology of war or rhapsody of cultural achievement. An accurate account of history was re-counted like a tale with Emperor Franz Joseph I, his mother Sophie and the neighbouring kingdoms as players.
Through it all Sisi stayed with me. Not surprisingly, as Sisi, or Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and her unorthodox ways have left a deep impact on the city of Vienna. Married to Emperor Franz Joseph I at the age of 16, she found the formal atmosphere of the Hapsburg court stifling. In the years to come, the need to break free would show in her conduct and actions.
I got my second chance at loving history at the Melk Abbey where a very well-informed young guide made the Middle Ages come alive. This Benedictine abbey, between Vienna and Salzburg, has been looking over the city of Melk since the 11th century. A Google search will tell you that Leopold II of Babenberg presented the palace at Melk to Benedictine monks, who turned it into a fortified abbey. It earned a reputation as an influential centre of learning and culture.
The young lady guide spun her story around the word “hear” as she walked us through the abbey and the life of the monks through the dark ages to the current day. The monks were told to “hear” or “hören” (or hoeren) in the native language if my memory serves me right, to remember their true purpose. Her deep knowledge and interest in the abbey was evident.
I am glad we chose Vienna as the second destination of our two-week vacation — between Greece and Salzburg. This dream vacation with two college besties was a culmination of a year of planning and organising, not to mention the guilt that crept up unannounced, unwanted like fog on a winter morning. Athens had given us our fill of archaeological excavations and Santorini had been idyllic sea-side break.
Vienna gave us the buzz, with coffee houses and parks, urban life, corporate hobnobbing and friendly citizens. People were happy to stop and give directions to the correct Metro line or the coffeehouse visited by Mozart. We could hear music as we walked around the Ringstrasse Boulevard, the heart of the town, dotted with elegant parks. Every night around 10,000 music lovers are treated to live classical music — something no other city in the world can rival.
Travelling was a breeze — no waiting for buses or haggling with cabs. We had a card that made travel on buses, trams, the subway, the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn seamless. On its way to becoming a Smart Tourism City by 2020, Vienna leverages technology wherever it can.
Our hotel booking, made online, was true to the specs provided — spacious, well-lit, well-appointed and less than a five-minute walk to the U-Bahn. Buying tickets for the U-Bahn that connects most places travellers want to visit, was a cake walk. A press of a button on the ticket machine, listing the type of ticket and cost, and we walked into the station which I must add did not have a barrier.
Despite the connectivity, we chose to walk a lot, maybe because all three of us loved to walk. We were surprised when it didn’t tire us out and then we discovered that evenly laid out, broad walking path without a brick out of place was only for pedestrians and the subways to cross over were thoughtfully laid out.
We could book an online ticket to the opera at the Opera House in Vienna two months before travel and the cruise ticket on the Danube to the Melk Abbey was bought on the spot. Both the purchases were effortless — the former thanks to technology and the latter due to the thought and attention to detail given by the Vienna Tourist Board.
All we had to do was to enquire at our hotel Spiess & Spiess and they made sure our pick-up for the Danube valley cruise was waiting for us at the crack of dawn next day! I learnt that such services are provided by most of the 439 hotels or B&Bs in Vienna. We could have easily skipped the ticket queue at the Schönbrunn Palace if we had taken the advice of the wise about peak season and long queues more seriously and booked in advance.
I couldn’t help the comparisons with experiences in our own country, where footpaths at tourist destinations are full of vendors and squatters. Our lovely palaces spanning centuries and sizes stand tall and majestic but there is no one to give an insight into the history of those who resided there.
Of course I can’t forget the shopping. Three women, an attractively laid our shopping district Innenstadt and host of souvenirs to buy. Mozart, Sisi, Klimt dominated our souvenirs. And clothes and accessories were our personal loots. Being a centre of business, the clothes suited our taste and style, giving us an insight as to why it has hogged the top spot in the Mercer quality of life survey for the ninth year in a row.
If I have one lament it is the lack of variety in vegetarian food. Of course we ate at Indian restaurants but would have liked to sample local flavours made for a vegetarian palate as well. We bid goodbye to Vienna and moved as the Sound of Music beckoned us, but it is a place which I would like to visit with my family as well as there is a lot which remains to be seen.
By Nina Mehta