Sunday 10 January 2016

Vienna on a very short visit - the Arrival

Christmas at City hall Vienna Austria
Vienna in Christmas

Traveling to Vienna 

I have been always attracted to the charm of celebrating Christmas in Austria. It has been building through the years with my imagination vivaciously painting on the photographs I had seen from around Austria. In my dreams I imagined a traditional Christmas fair under starry skies, a cold and crisp air, the kind that makes the tip of your nose go numb, a fir tree decked up with lights and baubles taking centre stage with children and families in heavy woollens enjoying their holidays around it, as the the air becomes heavy with the festive fragrance of smouldering pine wood, roasted chestnuts, sizzling sausages and spiced hot wine while the world remains covered under a blanket of thick white snow. Well, for some reason it was always a white Christmas in my dreams, like the one where you can almost imagine Santa's sleigh cruising past you, steam gushing out of Rudolph's nose. Perhaps all this extravaganza was to make up for my dashed dreams of experiencing a white Christmas in Edinburgh, where after hoping for years you eventually give in to the inevitable - a very wet Christmas, almost always without fail. It is still beautiful, in spirit, but as you struggle to keep your hood in place in the biting, blustery wind and try to stop having your mulled wine from being dripped on. White Christmas - you realise it is probably something to be cherished only once in a while.

So, with high hopes and a long itinerary to cover over my Christmas holidays, I set out on an early morning flight on Christmas eve to Vienna. My injured knee from a month back felt stable and I was happy for the holidays to start. I had to tell all my friends on Facebook how lucky I was, well sort of, so checked-in and updated my status as I boarded the flight to Amsterdam. Changeover in Schipol and I would be in Vienna by eleven, check in at hotel and have more than half a day for my first feel of the city. The next day I would be picking out which places I would like to visit in more detail and probably look into some museums, then being in the land of Mozart and Beethoven, definitely not miss out on a concert in the evening. The day after I would visit Bratislava, but would be back in Vienna for another day depending when I wanted to leave for Prague. So, almost two and a half days in Vienna, which probably could be stretched to three.

I was replaying this plan in my head when the pilot's voice crackled over the PAS - the flight was delayed due to a computer glitch. She did not sound very happy. The delay went on for about an hour leaving me with about fifteen minutes to dash for my connection. More wobbling than running through the maze of what is Schipol airport, followed by a trundle through passport check, my efforts were not enough. Missed the connection. Apologies from the ground staff and I was given a seat on the next flight - a wait of five hours. I asked around but the airport Rijksmuseum was closed for maintenance and was suggested to better not take the risk for a wander round the city. So all I could do was wait with a book as I watched airport life. For some reason seemed to mostly notice the late arrivals running frantically for their connections apart from being impressed with the airport police moving around stylishly on segways. I had the airport wi-fi to idle away and vent my frustration on social media. I realised I was rubbing and stretching my knee a lot. I had probably strained it again in my futile attempt to get the flight. The day went past as I waited in the airport building, frustrated.

It was already dark when I reached Vienna. My hotel was close to the historic centre, near the Ringstrasse. Though the hotel provided directions on their website, it turned out to be more complicated than it actually was. Glad I decided to stand in the queue and ask at the OBB (Austrian national railway) travel shop just outside the airport. It is possible to get to the city using the CAT Airport city link train (their shop is adjacent to the OBB and was practically empty) or alternatively use the S7 subarban line. CAT takes 16mins and costs 12 Euros for a single journey. S7 takes about 20mins and costs 4.40 Euros. The S7 ticket price also covers the remaining journey on the Underground to the destination. S7 tickets can be bought at the shop, or at ticket machines inside the train station using both cash and card. The tickets are to be validated in the blue boxes before getting on the platform. This needs to be done only once for a ticket, by push it in to get the date and time stamped.

It was difficult to comprehend why anyone would take the much more expensive CAT service for a bit of extra comfort for such a short duration. CAT ticket machines are placed throughout the airport advertising the short ride and some confused visitors were already queuing up. It is better to follow the signs for S7 and pick up the Underground map from the travel shop.

S-bahn - Suburban line symbol 

As I came out of Schottentor metro station, still trying to make sense of the confusing direction from the hotel website, was greeted by the sight of the beautifully lit up Votive church. The Hotel Regina where I was staying, stood behind it.

Votive church Vienna Austria
Votive church and Hotel Regina
Checked-in, and found my room to be actually in the attic of this classic hotel, accessible by two different elevators. It was quite amusing and interesting to see how the attic space was being used. It is a beautiful place to stay, quite posh, especially considering what I paid. Probably had got a very good deal on Once settled down came the second hassle - finding food. The well reviewed Roth restaurant of the hotel was having a gala night and was fully booked. Asked at the reception, but being Christmas eve, every restaurant in the area was either closed or fully booked. Even the last resort McDonald's had closed. I could only think of getting some food at the Christmas market and asked for one and indeed there was one within ten minutes walk by the City hall. However, it was due to close soon at 7pm on Christmas eve. So I trotted along. On my way out met a confused looking couple from London who were almost on the verge of a fight over food. I interrupted them with my plan and they looked relieved. Probably they followed me.

It wasn't difficult to find at all. As I headed back to the Underground, spotted light a few metres away to my right. After that it was all about following the lit up butterflies, which led all the way to the Christmas market. A grand sign was welcoming visitors and a variety of Christmas shops sprawled the plaza with a warm aroma of hand made candles floating in the air, probably from one of the shops. However, what got me gaping was the unique background to the market - the majestic City hall with its lit up towers soaring spectacularly into the clear night sky. It is a sight to behold, the best location for a Christmas market I reckon. The Christmas tree was right there in the middle, all lit up and the place was thronging with visitors. It was perfect - the only missing component was the snow. But it was still nose numbing freezing.

Christmas at City hall Vienna Austria
Follow the butterflies to the Christmas market
Christmas at City hall Vienna Austria
More butterflies at the City hall Christmas market
Christmas at City hall Vienna Austria
City hall Christmas market
I had to resist myself from getting too absorbed into the looking around and taking photographs. Food was high on my list, so first stop was for some strudel which came as both sweet and savoury. I decided to try a cabbage strudel, but a bite and realised it tasted different - Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage with a longer shelf life which I found to be used throughout Vienna and also in Prague. I think it might be an acquired taste and figured out I was not ready for it yet, still finished it off rather than starve. Dug into some mini doughnuts dunked in chocolate to clear the taste. As the market was closing, I hovered around for some photographs.

Christmas at City hall Vienna Austria
More photographs from Christmas market
Christmas at City hall Vienna Austria
Christmas lights
Probably it was the cold, but I was starting to feel hungry again. On the way back decided to head down to the Underground station where a 'kebab' shop was still open and doing brisk business. Ordered a chicken skewer wrap which I got after a little wait, the place was busy. This I thought was worth a mention as with those amazing spices on the chicken, it tasted awesome. Can vouch, it wasn't just the hunger.

Christmas at City hall Vienna Austria
Vienna at night
On the way back to the hotel I took a short detour to the Votive church to see if they were having a Midnight mass. The church doors were closed and the timings on the door did not mention anything till the next morning. A few others came around, probably looking for the same and left disappointed.

Back at the hotel, I asked at the reception, and they did not think anything happening at the church either and suggested going to St Stephen's instead. Though, just about a thirty minutes walk to the centre, I was not so sure as I was still unfamiliar with the city and did not want to explore it at night on my own however safe it might be. Add to that my inherent inclination of always losing my way and the involuntary urge to take an obvious wrong turn. I could not take the risk, so decided to call it a night.

My first day of the holiday had almost disappeared, almost nothing going to plan. On top of that my knee was starting to feel a bit tender. The best idea seemed to go to bed. So popped an Ibuprofen, and ducked under the covers - it will be a new day tomorrow.

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