Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Gold Leaf, Composers' homes, and Standing Room tickets: A Week in Vienna

Living in Europe is a bit of an odd thing. It's easy to picture the two of us running off every weekend to Paris, or some romantic getaway, but that's not actually how it goes. Owen works pretty hard, and I work pretty hard too, despite not having what people typically define as "work." So it's been a little embarrassing for people to ask, "you've been here for nine months now, where have you visited?" and to respond, "well... we went to England for Christmas, but we totally want to visit lots of places, sometime..." and have that be the lame end to the conversation. However, Owen had an opportunity through work to go to Austria to work with a colleague on a paper and it meant that we got to spend a week in Vienna.

Good Decisions
We drenched this trip in good decisions. We heard from a friend about AirBnB, a website on which people rent out their apartments or houses to travelers, which meant that Owen and I had a whole apartment (complete with a kitchen and laundry) for less than the prices of a reasonable hotel. Being able to cook for ourselves made traveling that much cheaper, and having a true home base enabled us to relax better in our downtime than otherwise. Taking only our backpacks (mine is quite small) meant that we were not burdened down with stuff, and we thanked our past-selves every day for packing light. I bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Vienna, and a German Phasebook before we left and both proved extremely helpful, both in planning the days events and in figuring out what to do when our plans went awry. We visited the museum on the history of the city at the beginning of the week to give us context for everything we would see, and went up the South Tower of the giant Stephanskirche at the end of the week to see views of everywhere we'd been. Other good life choices: procuring food for myself when I was hungry and using public transportation. When I was eighteen and traveling alone in Europe I thought I could subsist on gifted Nutragrain bars and Lipton's cup-a-soup while traveling everywhere in large cities on foot. I was young and poor, and while I find it difficult even now to argue with my reasoning, "Why spend money on food/transport when you could spend it on museums?" I am glad I now have more options.

Haydn's House
Composers' homes
Vienna's musical history is truly astounding. Haydn, Mozart, Salieri, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, the Strauss family, Brahms, Mahler, all spent incredibly important parts of their careers in music in this city. I visited the music museum and houses of Mozart and Haydn during the week, even though people laughed at me a bit for it. "What can you see at a composer's house?" I was asked a couple times. I think one of the reasons I love it so much is because we don't get to do this sort of thing so much in the US. Sure, we have some battlefields, and Boston has lots of "history" not much younger than Vienna, but it's not the same as the wealth of history in Europe. Maybe it doesn't matter if you go to the house where a composer lived. He lived in the whole city, right? so visiting any part of Vienna is like visiting his home, and while that's true, the best house-museums play on your imagination. They show you the personality of the composer, show you the letter Haydn wrote about his new piano and then show you the piano. They tell you he did his composing in the morning looking out at his garden, and there you are, on a May morning looking out at his reconstructed garden. If it's done right, you feel a little like you know the composer, like if the timing worked out right you might bump into him as he bustled upstairs to teach his newest student. It's a pretty special thing.

The atrium ceiling at the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Art Museums
The Upper Belvedere Palace is the museum
We went to one art museum together, the mammoth Kunsthistorisches Museum, which has an impressive collection of paintings from The Netherlands, many of which were painted in Leiden. How did they all get to Vienna? One by one, on boats and in carriages? It's kind of amazing to think about. The walls were just covered with paintings all the way up to the heavily decorated ceilings, not a single row at eye level like in most American museums. It's a little overwhelming, but also a lot of fun. Taking a course in Early Modern costume design (or, essentially Renaissance fashion) has given me a lot more to love in looking at old stuffy portraits. Later in the week I went to the Belvedere Museum, a startlingly excellent collection of artwork, much of it by Austrian artists I'd never heard of but loved. I also gained a new appreciation for gold leaf. The whole medieval gallery in this museum was full of gold leaf--you could even see into a corner room where someone was doing highly technical restoration work on a piece with gold leaf! The most famous painting in the museum is Klimt's work, The Kiss, which also has tons of gold leaf in it. There's something really exceptional about the way the gold leaf changes as you walk around it. It's a little like the dustjackets or covers of books where some of the cover is mat-finish but other parts, (maybe the text?) are glossy. You can't tell it from photographs, but in person it begs your eyes to keep looking at it. From all different directions. It also is unmistakably flat, right? All the detailed brushwork to give you an impression of depth to a painting but stick on some goldleaf and it breaks all illusion. It's a little jarring in Klimt's work sometimes, his careful, beautiful realistic body parts (faces, hands) emerging from flat quilts of patterns or flatter shining gold. I'm not usually much of a fan of glitzy shiny stuff, but Klimt's paintings are staggeringly beautiful.

Standing room tickets
If you visit Vienna, you will have no shortage of concert options. While we were there we got to see a free outdoor performance of the Wien Symphoniker, (not to be confused with the Vienna Philharmonic) celebrating the anniversary of the end of the Nazi regime. At every tourist-y area you will be accosted by the Mozart Men, people dressed as Mozart hassling tourists to come and see a mediocre concert performed in costume, usually of the Mozart's Greatest Hits variety, often with some Strauss maybe with ballroom dancers dancing to the Blue Danue Waltz! These concerts are entirely attended by tourists, and mostly American ones who don't know how to find the real concerts. I was determined to find an excellent performance for our free night, so after doing some careful research I got us tickets to a performance at the Vienna Volksopera, and although the nature of the performance was a little fuzzy, I had heard very good things about the "People's opera" and ballet so I figured it was a safe bet, even if I wasn't sure what it was. The title was "Dance Variations" and the performers included a string quartet so I thought it might be a ballet of sorts? Or possibly a short opera? When we arrived we discovered that our 3 euro tickets were for the standing room, a disappointment at the end of a long day walking and working. We still had no idea what the nature of the performance was going to be, there was no set, but there were three chairs with glasses of water, so perhaps some singing? None of the above. What we actually found ourselves attending was a staged reading of a series of letters interspersed with chamber music. The chamber music was magnificent, but the acting unfortunately was all in German. Owen caught enough to determine the plot of the story and a joke here or there, but I just sat it out and waited for the music. And I felt very foolish. I was so determined to make like a local, I got myself more than I could handle. But as much as I felt foolish, I was also grateful, because the usher kindly let us sit for the whole performance in some of the empty seats. I'm happy to laugh at myself, and eager to learn more to avoid future confusions.

To Sum Up
We had a wonderful time, saw lots of exciting things, and are full of recommendations if you ever feel like going to Vienna yourself. If you'd like to read my reviews of different places I wrote up a bunch on Trip Advisor. We are really glad to have this amazing opportunity, learned a lot, gained a lot of experience and had a wonderful time. Please tell us where else you think we should visit!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for telling us about what you saw, did, and learned. It sounds like a great week! I think that visiting the home someone significant to you lived in is extremely valuable. It makes me feel very connected. I'm glad you did!


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