Our 2014 European adventure started with a flight from Phoenix to Chicago from where we flew nine hours to Vienna, Austria. Austrian Airlines’ mission statement, “We fly to make you smile,” kept us happy with reasonable food and individual interactive entertainment screens. The chess game module, however, needs help. It didn’t recognize en passant and even more egregious, when I tried to play with the black pieces, the kings and queens of both colors were reversed.

Although we arrived at the Altwienerhof Hotel about 10 a.m., we were able to check in our room. After a refreshing shower we went for an exploratory walk. We hiked several blocks on Gumpendorfer Strasse before finding an ATM and putting some Euros in our pocket. On Mariahilfer Strasse we experienced Vienna’s largest shopping street with a wide pedestrian boulevard. We passed several cafes with patrons enjoying a beer and usually smoking. Our search for a restaurant led us to the Saturday flea market and food market area. The fresh fruits were gorgeous, especially the black cherries and strawberries. Food booths exhibited an amazing display of dried fruits, colorful varieties of olives, an array of cheeses, and a wide selection of fresh meats. We found a busy restaurant where we drank a local beer and I sampled Wiener Schnitzel with a delicious potato salad side dish. Interestingly, most of the restaurants we came across were Chinese which frequently had Asian grocery stores nearby. One other observation after our initial foray: graffiti scrawls mar the lower level of too many buildings. It was fascinating to enjoy the architecture of the old buildings. For dinner we enjoyed salads at a restaurant on Mariahilfer Strasse not far from our hotel.

After a delightful breakfast, we readied ourselves for the main event of this trip: a river cruise on the Danube, Main, and Rhine. After checking out of the hotel, we waited for our prearranged ride. A driver came in shortly before 11:30 a.m., but thought he was picking up someone else and taking them either to the airport or an embassy. Eventually, we discovered that he was our driver!? We learned that he is a Ph.D. student who has lived here only six months. He drove a circuitous route and dropped us off near our intended dock. The River Princess crew warmly greeted us. After a delicious lunch, we were able to check into our cabin and explore this small riverboat. Later, I walked up and down the dock area and circled the nearby St. Francis of Assisi church. After the safety drill and introduction of some crew members, we enjoyed a gourmet dinner. A fine start!

Tabard of the Herald of the Austrian Empire

Tabard of the Herald of the Austrian Empire

A guided tour of Vienna introduced us to many distinctive landmarks. Just outside the central city, at the entrance of the Prater amusement park, the Wiener Riesenrad or Riesenrad is a 212 foot tall Ferris wheel which was constructed in 1897. Originally thirty gondolas were attached. Now there are fifteen including one that can be reserved as a restaurant for up to 15 guests. Another unusual sight while crossing the DanubeCanal was the Badeschiff, a boat restaurant with swimming pool. The Hofburg area of Vienna has been the documented seat of government since 1279 for various empires and republics. We spent most of our time in the HofburgPalace boundaries looking at the artifacts within the Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer). The Habsburg dynasty ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for some 650 years. Several bejeweled crowns are on display. A ceremonial mantle, under layers, gloves, and shoes showed the elaborate clothing used for a coronation. Many ceremonial robes are displayed as well as a cloak with the tabard of the herald of the Austrian Empire. We saw a ewer and basin used for imperial baptisms, too. Both a large agate bowl, which was thought to be the Holy Grail that caught the blood of Christ, and a long unicorn horn (actually a narwhal tusk) carried special symbolism for the imperial family. Later, we visited St. Michael’s Catholic Church for an organ concert. As we listened to the music, we gazed at a monumental alabaster Rococo sculpture representing a cloudburst of angels and cherubs, falling from the ceiling towards the high altar. One interesting monument in the middle of a street was erected in gratitude for surviving the plague. Not too distant from St. Michael’s is the Romanesque St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its distinctive 445 foot spire. This is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. A full morning!

Schőnbrunn Palace

Schőnbrunn Palace

In the afternoon we visited the SchőnbrunnPalace, the Habsburg’s preferred summer residence and now recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally a hunting lodge, starting in 1740 the 23-year-old Empress Maria Theresa transformed it into a stunning palace rivaling Versailles. The palace is said to have 1,441 rooms. Our 45 minute tour focused on the imperial rooms from the era of Franz Joseph and Empress Sissi. The ballroom, covered with gold leaf and originally lit with candles, featured three colorful ceiling frescoes, two original and one restored after World War II bombing damage. Guests, we were told, would know the party was ending when burned out candles were not replaced. According to our guide, in the period before indoor plumbing buckets were placed in corners for use by the guests. We passed through rooms with ornate wall coverings and complicated inlaid wooden floors. Even the bed covering might use threads of gold and silver. In more recent times (1961), John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev deliberated in one of the rooms. After the palace tour we explored the garden. Preparations were underway for an important upcoming concert. We walked on an eastern diagonal tree-lined carriage path to an obelisk fountain, to spire rises on the backs of four turtles symbolizing stability. On our return loop we passed an interesting re-creation of Roman ruins. Some 32 statues featuring classical figures line the formal French-style gardens. Visiting the Habsburg palaces reminded us of our recent exploration in Beijing, China of the Forbidden City and Summer Palace and in Istanbul, Turkey the Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces. There are many reasons to return to Vienna.

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