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Back in the Land of Beer and Schnitzel

Our second time in Austria, but our first in Vienna

It had only been three days since we had returned from our stay in China, one that was extremely hectic for Anna, but now we were off again, this time to Austria. This wasn’t our first trip to Austria, we were last there when we went to Salzburg back in 2010, however, we never got to return while we were living in Germany so we had never been to Vienna before.
This particular journey was going to be a long one; the 2018 Euretina Congress was being held in Vienna and we were initially planning on taking a holiday in Poland after the conference, but when we later found out that we were required to fly with Turkish Airlines, we changed our plans. We would be spending four nights in Vienna and then six in Turkey; one night in Istanbul, two nights in Cappadocia, and two nights in Izmir before a final night again in Istanbul. It was an epic journey, one that is going to take a lot of time and multiple posts to cover, but let’s take it right back to the beginning.

Thursday, September 20, 2018
We flew out Wednesday night, beginning with a 12-hour flight to Turkey with a layover of about three hours in Istanbul Atatürk Airport. This airport is a good spot for a layover for several reasons; not only is it a really nice airport with an enormous lounge, but Turkey, and the city of Istanbul for that matter, is transcontinental with the bulk of the country located in Western Asia and a small area on the Balkan peninsula in Southeast Europe. Couple this with the country’s close proximity to both Africa and the Middle East and we had a couple of hours of prime people-watching ahead of us. There must’ve been some sporting event on at the time too, because we shared our flight with athletes from Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, all teams consisting of teenage boys in tracksuits of their country’s colours and the name of the country on the back. One of the Kazakh kids was even carrying championship belt for wrestling.
Soon it was time for Anna, myself, and the wrestling kids to board our two-hour flight to Vienna, but things didn’t go as planned when we landed. Anna was a guest on behalf of Bayer, who had organised the flights and our accommodation, as well as a hotel transfer to the Vienna Hilton, where we’d be staying the next few nights, however, Bayer had a strict policy of only taking the guest in the transfer, no friends or family members despite the bus being able to seat eight people. This all turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Anna had to go straight to the conference, meaning we’d first need to go to the convention centre so she could do her presentation and then drop me at the hotel, a drive that would total about 40 minutes from beginning to end and I was busting for the toilet at that point. The Bayer representative pointed me toward a train that would take me directly to the station immediately outside our hotel in about 15 minutes so we had also discovered the best way to get back to the airport for when we were leaving. I bought my ticket, took a seat and waited for the train to start moving and in a quarter of an hour I was in Vienna:

Vienna is the federal capital and largest city of Austria, and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria’s primate city, with a population of about 1.8 million (2.6 million within the metropolitan area, nearly one third of Austria’s population), and its cultural, economic, and political centre. It is the 7th-largest city by population within city limits in the European Union. Until the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest German-speaking city in the world, and before the splitting of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, the city had 2 million inhabitants. Today, it has the second largest number of German speakers after Berlin. Vienna is host to many major international organisations, including the United Nations and OPEC. The city is located in the eastern part of Austria and is close to the borders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. These regions work together in a European Centrope border region. Along with nearby Bratislava, Vienna forms a metropolitan region with 3 million inhabitants. In 2001, the city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In July 2017 it was moved to the list of World Heritage in Danger.

Another thing that is interesting about Vienna in hindsight is this little tidbit I just found out about:

Vienna is known for its high quality of life. In a 2005 study of 127 world cities, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the city first (in a tie with Vancouver and San Francisco) for the world’s most liveable cities. Between 2011 and 2015, Vienna was ranked second, behind Melbourne. In 2018, it replaced Melbourne as the number one spot. For eight consecutive years (2009–2016), the human-resource-consulting firm Mercer ranked Vienna first in its annual “Quality of Living” survey of hundreds of cities around the world, a title the city still held in 2016. Monocle’s 2015 “Quality of Life Survey” ranked Vienna second on a list of the top 25 cities in the world “to make a base within.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place and I can see how people would be more than content to live there, but that doesn’t explain the sheer amount of junkies and meth-heads I saw in the city. Sure, Melbourne has a drug problem too, but it’s mainly in the suburbs, you don’t run into as many junkies in the city centre on a daily basis as I did in Vienna. They don’t seem aggressive, threatening, or hassle you, there’s just quite a few of them around. Case in point — The train arrived at its destination and the station was in a shopping mall opposite our hotel. In a lot of cities around the world, the area surrounding a major train station is usually a little dodgy and this particular station was no exception. As I was exiting the mall with my suitcase, one of the first people I encountered was an addict who looked like he gets kicked in the head for a living, resplendent in his dirty, grey tracksuit and facial scabs, walking around looking closely at the ground. Suddenly he stumbled upon half of a cigarette, he gave a toothless smile and was like a kid at Christmas when he picked it up, excitedly running up to everyone with his extended ciggie-butt in hand asking everyone nearby, including me, for a light.

I crossed the road and went to check in to our hotel when it dawned on me that Anna had my passport, something I would require in order to do so. I messaged her to tell her this and she sent me pictures of her passport, because the room was under her name, as well as my own and I hoped for the best. When I entered the hotel there was a Bayer information desk to the left so I decided to speak to the lady there instead of the people at reception and to my surprise she knew who I was as soon as I mentioned Anna’s name, walked over to reception and sorted everything out for me straight away. I was checked in in no time at all so it was now time to go upstairs and make the most of that bathroom. I was relieved when I walked into our hotel room and saw that they had one full-size cover on the bed, as opposed to two single ones like they do in many parts of Europe, but it did have that mainstay that Europeans just can’t seem to let go of; a shower curtain. I absolutely hate shower curtains, they get stuck to you when you’re in the shower and you always end up soaking the bathroom floor when you have one, regardless of how careful you are. Anyway, I washed about 18 hours worth of transit stink off me while trying not to get tangled in the curtain, managed to saturate the entire bathroom, and then went out to have a bit of a look around. Our hotel was directly in front of the Stadtpark, but I figured we’d be seeing a lot of that during our visit so I crossed over the river and had a look around the college area, before heading into the main part of the city. Here’s a bit of what I encountered that afternoon:

I went back to the hotel after the shops closed and had a few drinks in the lobby bar while I waited to hear from Anna to find out what the plans were for dinner. Several of Anna’s old colleagues from New York were in town, including Jesse McCann, Rosa Dolz-Marco, and Fatimah Gilani, Fatimah staying in the room next to ours in the Hilton, so we ended up having dinner and few drinks together at a restaurant called LAV. It was a fun night and LAV was awesome, but everyone was tired from a combination of flying over and attending the actual conference so we didn’t have a particularly late night, Jesse, Anna, and I passing another restaurant, Loca, on the way back to the hotel that we’d have to try at some stage during our stay in Vienna.

Friday, September 21, 2018
The previous day, Anna had asked me to buy a powerbank because her phone battery has been running out rapidly lately, however, the shops were closed by the time I got the message so picking that up was the first item on the agenda for Friday… after the breakfast buffet, that is. Unlike the hotel lunch buffet we were offered just a few days earlier in Hangzhou, the food that was available for breakfast at the Vienna Hilton at what was supposed to be a cost of €30.00 (currently about US$34.50) for me and complimentary for Anna was all really good, but neither of us were charged for eating there. Along with the regular breakfast staples there were about a dozen different varieties of cheese, none of which had had the crumbs rolled into a ball for communal use, heaps of cold cuts, an omelet station, and even a section for Japanese dishes. Naturally, I went too far again, but it wasn’t a big deal because I was planning on doing a ton of walking anyway.
Now onto the powerbank purchase. When I had arrived by train the previous day, there was a sale on electronics right near the entrance to the mall where the station was located so that’s where I went. As soon as I entered the sale section, powerbanks were one of the first things I saw so I picked one up and got in line to pay. I was just about to put it on the counter when an addict and her meth-head boyfriend just cut straight in front of me. I could’ve made a big deal out of it, but I had a whole day to kill, whereas it looked like the clock was ticking for those two pieces of trash so I just let them go for it. The junky chick put her card in the machine and then turned around, got up really close to me and started yelling at me in German. My German is terrible so I asked her, “Sprechen sie Englisch?” (“Do you speak English?”). She then screamed, “Take two steps back! I don’t want you to see my code!” before covering the keypad of the card machine with her coat and entering her PIN with the kind of paranoia you’d expect from someone responsible for the delivery of the original, hand-written ingredients to Coca Cola. When her card was declined I kindly informed her that if I were to rob someone in a crowded, public space, it would be in order to make an actual profit. She didn’t appreciate this kind reasoning, said something quietly under her breath that managed to slip out where teeth should’ve been, and stormed off. I don’t think the guy that was with her knew where he even was the entire time.
After that little encounter, I made my way into the city centre again to take in a few more of the sights, as well as the smell of horse manure from all the buggies, while everything was still open. I love walking around these types of cities:

I’m a sucker for anywhere that sells secondhand stuff, I love flea markets and thrift stores, so I was pretty happy when I stumbled upon what looked like a rather nondescript church advertising a flea market. Only it wasn’t just some “nondescript church,” it was St. Michael’s Church:

St. Michael’s Church is one of the oldest churches in Vienna, Austria, and also one of its few remaining Romanesque buildings. Dedicated to the Archangel Michael, St. Michael’s Church is located at Michaelerplatz across from St. Michael’s Gate at the Hofburg Palace. St. Michael’s used to be the parish church of the Imperial Court, when it was called Zum heiligen Michael.

Over its long history, spanning more than eight centuries, the church has incorporated a medley of architectonic styles. The church is a late Romanesque, early Gothic building dating from about 1220–1240. There is a document giving 1221 as the foundation date of the church, but this is most probably a 14th-century forgery. Over time, there have been many alterations, resulting in its present-day aspect, unchanged since 1792.

St. Michael’s is famous for its Michaelergruft, a large crypt located underneath the church. Aristocrats were able to access their family crypts through marble slabs marked with their coats of arms in the church floor. The coffin of a deceased member of the family could then be lowered directly into the crypt via these marble slabs.

Due to the special climatic conditions and constant temperature in the crypt, more than 4000 corpses were kept well preserved. Hundreds of mummified corpses, some still in burial finery or with a wig, are on display, some in open coffins, adorned with flowers or skulls, others decorated with Baroque paintings or with vanitas symbols. The most famous among them is Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782), the most famous writer of opera librettos of the baroque era.

To think I was initially just going to go inside in order to browse through some secondhand books and records, but instead I was going to be looking at some incredible art while standing on an ancient crypt. The inside was absolutely stunning, I didn’t see any skulls or corpses on display as that is all a separate tour, but I’m certain quite a few of the people praying inside would’ve been happy to showcase mine after I smashed my shin into a piece of wooden furniture intended for people to kneel on in front of an alter, causing a large echo throughout the church and a rather audible involuntary outburst of swearing from me:

The day was still young so I went further into town, up to the Museum District. If you were looking through the first lot of photos, you would’ve seen that some of them were taken in an area called ‘Der Graben,’ which translates into ‘The Trench’ and is one of the most famous streets in Vienna, but how did it get its name? Well, apparently:

The Graben traces its origin back to the old Roman encampment of Vindobona. The south-western wall of the settlement extended along the length of the present-day Graben and Naglergasse; before the wall lay a trench (Graben). This trench still stood in front of the medieval city walls. At the end of the 12th century, the city was enlarged by the Babenberg Dukes, using the ransom money for Richard the Lionheart. At this time the trench was filled in and levelled. The Graben thereby became one of the first residential streets in the new section of the city. In this area of the city large unbuilt areas were still available, which probably contributed to the maintenance of the name “Graben” up until the present day.

So, contrary to my initial belief, it had nothing to do with the historical excavation sites dotted around the area. I continued to walk around, taking in the statues adorning Hofburg Palace, making my way through vintage stores that sold old video games and David Hasselhoff records, past another shop that sold exceptionally ostentatious canes and walking sticks, and then made my way back to the hotel. Some sights that caught my eye:

After walking around, Anna and myself met up with Jesse and went back to the restaurant we had walked past the previous night, Loca. We had to wait for a table so we went into the pub next door and were served by a fat guy who truly hated his job and, I think, us. I asked what beers they had and he rolled his eyes and told me. I asked what type of beers they were, wondering if they were ales, stouts, porters, etc. “It’s Austrian beer.” Don’t be fooled, there was no language barrier, this guy was fluent, he was just like many other Austrian service staff — Exceptionally rude. “But what kind of beer is it?” I continued. He replied, “It’s on draught” and just walked off, but instead of leaving we thought we’d stick around and have a few drinks because that would annoy him even more. When the beer came it was just Gösser, the standard Austrian beer that you encounter everywhere when you’re there. Thanks for the help, buddy, but we’re not leaving any time soon.
The time to stop baiting the waiter at the pub did eventually roll around and the three of us went to the restaurant where our table was waiting for us. The way this place worked was they just order a heap of stuff in and the chef makes a six-course surprise dinner, you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to be served. Obviously they ask about dietary restrictions, allergies, that type of thing, to which Anna replied “starfish” after my  deep-fried starfish on a stick in China just days earlier. The waiter laughed and then jokingly asked, “How about dolphin? Or whale?” But real food restrictions didn’t apply to any of us so we just sat back and had a fantastic dinner, I just wish I could remember what any of the courses were. Oh, and the staff there were really friendly and it also seemed like they weren’t big fans of the guys that worked in the pub next door either.

Saturday, September 22, 2018
Anna was back at the conference for the bulk of the day, leaving me to my own devices again. She told me about the flea market at Vienna’s Naschmarkt and I’m always a big fan of flea markets, especially the ones in Europe; if I don’t find something I want for myself, I can usually still find something that might get a few bucks on eBay. Probably should start the day off right so I went down and loaded up at the breakfast buffet before I hit the road. To get to the flea market I had to walk through the regular Naschmarkt, which was essentially just food, a lot of it quite appetising, but I had no room for anything else after breakfast. When I finally reached the flea market it soon became abundantly apparent that this was a legit flea market — There was a genuine possibility that I could get robbed and catch fleas while I was there. I put my wallet in my front pocket and began perusing the rows upon rows of secondhand goods, most of it utter crap, but some of it pure gold. Some people were selling old crockery, others had tattered old clothes. Some of the store-holders clearly weren’t entirely sure of their demographic either, as there was one stall that had toys for sale next to porno DVDs, the one on the top of the pile entitled Inzest (it doesn’t take a genius to translate that one). I would’ve taken some photos around the market, however, there were a few sketchy people around and more than a couple of stalls selling secondhand iPhones. Probably best to let my words describe it, but I picked up some great bargains while I was there.
Once I was done with the market I took a walk around a different part of the city and it had become clear over the past couple of days of looking around town that Vienna is not as digital as many other cities and, to be honest, it was a welcome relief. I’m sure they still have Netflix and Spotify and people certainly use them, but there are also a lot of DVD and CD stores around and they all have a ton of customers buying movies and music. Yes, people still purchasing music on CD. Add to this the amount of bookstores, the people reading in cafes instead of texting, pedestrians watching where they’re walking instead of looking at their phones and you have a perfectly idyllic setting.

The rest of the day was the usual — Meet up with Anna and her colleagues for some drinks, have dinner, then a few more drinks, but something else had popped up over the course of our stay. Beau Edwards, a guy I grew up with, went to high school with for a brief period, and played basketball with years ago, was visiting Vienna and had seen on Facebook that I was in town too so he and his girlfriend, Kim, wanted to meet up with us. Anna’s friends weren’t up for a big night and Beau told us where they were having a few beers so we walked down and had a great night catching up with someone I hadn’t seen in a quarter of a century. Anna especially enjoyed the night because Kim had told her all about an area full of wineries just out of town that we could visit. Looks like that’s tomorrow planned.

Sunday, September 23, 2018
We decided to forgo the buffet and grab breakfast at Clementine im Glashaus, a restaurant in the atrium of Palais Coburg, but first we’d be stopping off at another flea market, this one a slightly classier affair inside a shopping mall where the shops were closed on a Sunday. Anna bought a bracelet there, I stumbled upon some stuff for myself too, then it was time to eat:

We had a full free day ahead of us and Anna had decided to take Kim’s advice. We’d be spending the day hiking around vineyards and dropping into wineries and breweries along the way before having dinner with a professor Anna has worked with on several occasions, Prof. Leo Schmetterer, and his family, as well as some other colleagues that night. We caught a cab out to Grinzing, a suburb in the Döbling district and just spent the day walking around, over the hills, through the woods, up some deceptively steep paths, taking in the scenery and stopping off for what was initially intended to be the occasional drink, but what evolved into a pub crawl of sorts. It was our last full day in Vienna and the weather was perfect for just wandering around in the beautiful countryside, not hot, but also not too cool to be enjoyable, combined with some day-drinking. When the time came we joined Prof. Schmetterer, his wife, Karin, their children and a couple of other friends and doctors, it was a great night of food and drink that capped off a nice couple of days in Vienna. The initial intention was to not go too hard because some had to work the following day, while others had some traveling to do, but we only get to catch up like this occasionally so it ended up being a bigger night than expected.
A few scenes from a lovely, if not a little messy, Sunday:

Monday consisted mainly of packing and flying back to Istanbul for our journey around Turkey, but that story is for next time.
In reading back over what I’ve written, it may seem like I don’t really like Vienna, but nothing could be further from the truth. I absolutely love it there and would happily return in a heartbeat. We never had anything even remotely resembling a negative experience there, there might’ve been a few unsavoury characters around, just like in any city, but at least the ones in Vienna leave you alone.

Lastly, a special shoutout to Leo and Karin Schmetterer for taking us to dinner and a great night out, we both truly appreciate it.

Now, on to Turkey!

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