Vienna is stuffed with grand and imposing buildings, most hailing from the time of the Habsburgs and most owned by that family. The principal palace, the Hofburg – their home for generations – is stunning, a huge dome atop it surrounded by white figures, all on a perfectly symmetrical (and huge) building. Even without going inside (and we’ve learned that lesson – when the crowds outside are huge they will be more so within) I can appreciate the grandeur and wonder at how one family could need so much space.
Their summer palace, der Schloss Schönbrunn, is slightly out of the city centre (probably a day’s travel in a carriage though) and surrounded by acres of gardens with fountains and sculptures dotted around. There’s the requisite queue for taking a selfie in front of a waterfall through which the palace can be seen. I have to admire Neil’s chutzpah as he calmly steps in, taking his picture, self-less, with an actual camera, whilst a change of phone-toting personnel takes place.
We enter the Weltmuseum in search of toilets and a kind lady lets us use them even though the museum is closed today. We pass through an interior atrium four stories high, light filled and neck-achingly impressive. Marble pillars stretch its height, archways on each level leading to corridors that presumably lead to glorious rooms.
Feeling lucky, I then blag my way into the Naturhistorisches Museum, feigning ignorance when asked to show my ticket, pleading to be allowed in ‘just to look at the ceiling.’ I am grudgingly admitted and, in the middle of a group in a large tiled foyer, am the only one gazing up at the inside of a dome painted with detailed frescoes. Even merely looking is slightly vertigo inducing – I can only imagine what effort it took to paint it. As my eyes are on this, so the bloke on the door is eying me. I smile gratefully at him and, reluctant, leave – the Willendorf Venus is in this museum but I’m disinclined to spend the entrance fee to shuffle along with the chattering hordes only to find they’ve added disco music and have her dancing with a cave bear.
There is clearly a deal on scaffolding in Austria at the moment, many places framed by the stuff and shrouded in plastic, including the huge cathedral in Stephansdom that towers over us as we exit the U-bahn. We have a quick peek inside but it rivals Maria Taferl in the gilt stakes and there’s a mass about to start so I scuttle outside quickly. I always have a feeling of imposter syndrome when I’m in a religious place, as if I’m an intruder. I’m careful not to offend others’ religious beliefs and if I stay around whilst a holy service takes place I may as well have a flashing neon sign over my head.
Everywhere I look there’s another impressive building, usually topped with statues, some with an army of the things. If you feel you’re being watched in Vienna you probably are, and if you’re a Dr Who fan and the least bit of a believer, I suggest you stay away – it’s impossible not to turn your back on a statue in this city. There are a couple that astound us, clearly of a time when the arrogance of European empires cared nothing for how inappropriately they represented native peoples.
My toilet adventures continue. Descending stairs I hear harsh words in German, turning the corner to see two tiny young Asian women cowering in front of an older woman whose arm is the circumference of one of their waists. She looks like she could easily take on a grizzly bear. I presume she is explaining the fee structure to them and that they have possibly tried to enter without paying. She snatches their money, still yelling, then leads each into a cubicle, reaching in and pulling the chain before they enter. With a disgusted look she pulls out a huge key and locks them in! Seems you pay a high price for transgression in toilets in Vienna. I hand over my fee meekly, relieved to note I can unlock the door from the inside.
We’ve had enough of crowds and grand buildings and head in search of a different type of architecture, having discovered that Vienna is the birthplace of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. (He’s well known in New Zealand, having designed the public toilets in Kawakawa as a repayment for the kindness shown to him by local people when he was ill whilst visiting the town.) It’s not difficult to find a Hundertwasser building in a city street; his signature bulbous, colourful columns and haphazard tiles are easy to identify in a sea of plain brick and glass – he described the straight line as Godless and immoral. The Kunst Haus is an engineering marvel, not a straight line in sight, rolling floors and sloping pillars, asymmetrical and amazing. He was a prolific artist and we spend a very enjoyable couple of hours wandering through the permanent exhibition of some of his paintings and models of buildings he designed, some built, some merely ideas that never came to fruition. I wish more had and that I had the chance to live in one.
He even designed flags, including for a united Israel (he was clearly an optimist) and one each for Australia and New Zealand – all are perfect and should be in use, his being much better than any of the designs rejected in the waste of $25 million that was the recent ego trip of a former Prime Minister. Sorry, I mean flag referendum. Hundertwasser loved New Zealand, returning many times in his life, and is buried under a tree there.
That evening we avoid the city, finding a tiny wine bar in the suburbs. As we enjoy some excellent wines and a delicious charcuterie platter we chat to the waitress. A voice behind me exclaims how nice it is to have the neighbours visit – an Aussie working in the Australian High Commission. We share a few Down Under Traveller stories and she’s complimentary about the ‘very good team’ from New Zealand that share their offices. I suspect she’ll be refused entry back into Oz for that one.
One final question: can anyone walk around Vienna without the music of Ultravox in their ears? Or is it just me? Not helped by anytime we mention it to any of our friends they respond: it means nothing to me. Oh, Vienna…