I remember riding up a steep, winding road on my Vespa, going at about 20 miles per hour, ‘vrim-vrimming’ towards a perched village in the South of France in the winter sunshine, my friend Caitlin bravely holding onto my waist. When we made it to the top, and paused to overlook the sprawling landscape, I said, ‘This is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever done.’
Saturday in Vienna was like that, and I laughed about it with Megan, but we also acknowledged that (and forgive me for a hugely sexist comment,) maybe it is easier for us to share these sublime moments with our girlfriends, because frequently the men in our lives just don’t experience it the same way (thus far, I can think of exactly one exception).
So, cruising the Danube River in the sunshine, passing vineyards and ruined castles, was one of the most romantic things I’ve ever done in my life with a girl friend.
But first, we took the train to Melk Abbey. It is a sprawling complex perched atop a rocky outcrop, overlooking the charming, tiny town of Melk. The abbey is painted a similar rich yellow to Schonbrunn Palace, and all I could say as we approached, was, ‘well, it gives you an idea of the wealth of the church, doesn’t it?’ We were blessed with a gorgeous, sunny day, so we took a walk around the gardens first, admiring a cafe/orangerie gazebo that surely must be used for weddings. It is like a cake itself, painted with pastel murals inside; baroque, beautiful, and over-the-top.
The gardens are dotted with a surprising variety of what we could only conclude was ‘modern art,’ including mirrors with words you could read by looking into the opposite mirror, metal grates for vine flowers which also employed the use of phrases and words, and a mirrored gazebo with a mirror in the ceiling so you could read more sayings and phrases. There were quite a few mirrors, come to think of it. It was a great chance for Megan to stretch her German vocabulary, and she did an admirable job, but as far as we could conclude, the words and phrases ‘friendship, life, death,’ etc didn’t amount to any deep philosophy. The gardens were beautiful, though, and we especially admired the herb garden perched on the south-facing side of the hill overlooking the village.
Finally, we gave up the sunshine to go through the Abbey. I do admire the organisation of these tours – again, like Schonbrunn, you aren’t pelted with information, but enough is there to get a very good idea of the history of the place, without feeling like your brain has been drained of all ability to think. I also got a distinct flavour of how carefully constructed these stories are; a definite bias or possibly even propaganda element: but then, surely that is true of how any place (palace, museum, monastery,) presents itself, and I’m perhaps being sensitive to being in Eastern Europe (ish).
Megan and I were particularly taken with the famous library, and here I’m going to go into a painfully American reference. Most girls, growing up, will have seen the Disney film version of Beauty and the Beast, and most girls who are like me will remember that they cared little for the Beast and his castle, but would have given their right arm for the library, into which Belle is absorbed. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the impossibly huge room, and, crucially, the ladders which reach from floor-to-ceiling, giving access to any book. Melk Abbey’s library is a real version of this dream-library.
We gawped. We pined. We gazed. And we were desperately curious as to whether the monks (who presumably reside in much of the complex that tourists aren’t allowed into,) still make use of the books here. God I hope so. If these books are chained away for tourist eyes (and we can’t take photos!) – and I saw sugar ants running a path through one of the windows, making my guts constrict – oh, no, the books, the books…(Swoon.)
The church within the abbey is a riot of baroque gold, in-your-face theatrical drama. We later learned (from Mildred, whom you’ll meet in the next blog post,) that it was in fact designed by someone who designed theatre sets, which explains a lot. I had a great discussion with Megan about how this sort of ostentation does not befit what I would think of as a concept of ‘god’ if I believed in ‘god’ – and to be fair, the nearest, most comfortable religion, or spirituality, I’ve come to in recent years is Quakerism, so that is the other end of the spectrum.
Megan made an excellent point that at the time, this church needed to draw people in, or back in, and creating high drama and theatre drew people to church. The spectacle for the rich, was something that impressed the poor, and seemed unreachable but worth worshipping, aspiring to, even if that would only be reached in heaven. As we looked at the gold decor and considered this, some startlingly modern music began to play – and a wedding party began to process out! So we stayed to watch the bride (I, all the while, amazed that this spectacle had become a living spectacle, and that these people having the wedding must be aware of and ok with the fact that they too were on display,) and we admired her dress, and Megan cried a little bit because ‘I always cry at weddings,’ and then we went back out into the sunshine.
A rather important part of our day excursion to Melk was the round-trip nature of our transport. We’d bought a ‘package deal’ that included rail fare to Melk, entrance to the Abbey, a river boat cruise to another village (name escapes me at the moment,) and rail fare from there back to Vienna. We were aware that there were only four boats per day, so M kept careful track of the time in order for us to be on time for our boat. Upon arriving in Melk, we’d seen the well-marked sign, pointing across a footbridge to where the boats were.
So we gave ourselves a bit of time – plenty, so we thought – to walk there. Except, upon crossing the bridge, all sign-posting broke down, and we found ourselves in a car park, not beside a river with boats as we’d anticipated. We were slightly nervous, but still convinced we had enough time, and M asked the car park attendants about the boats; they waved us in a direction, and we followed it. There were signs for about four different docks, pointing in four different directions.
Nothing on our tickets, or in our guidebook, or on the signs, indicated which dock we needed to go to. It was then that the ‘hero’ of our day appeared: a battered-looking taxi driven by an equally battered-looking cab driver, asking if we were looking for the tour boat (we were,) and of course, instead of telling us where to go, attempting to usher us into his cab because he would take us. We declined and hurried to the nearest dock, following a short path along the river, only to be told by the man at the dock that we were meant to go to the dock over there, (far enough that it would take too long to walk, at that point,) and we were probably going to miss the boat.
At which point, our cab driver pulls up, grinning, and says (it doesn’t matter that it was in German; it translates into any language,) ‘I told you so.’
So we climb into the cab, and he break necks it to the dock, in a huge fluster of worked-up excitement, scrambling out and saying ‘you must get the tickets!’ and the lady at the ticket booth shouting, ‘no, just go to the boat!’ and the true hero of our day, the man at the correct dock (young, blonde, and handsome,) smiling and saying ‘calm down, the Captain has seen you, you will make it on board.’
And then our cab driver charging €10 (TEN EUROS) for this favour he did us. We didn’t have the time to argue. I concluded that we would not have made the boat if it weren’t for him, and he probably made a killing on this whole procedure, ‘panic-inducing’ included, and he must be in cahoots with whomever put up the poorly marked signs. Once we settled aboard, I had a beer.
Laughing and sweating, Megan and I felt like silly tourists indeed, but once we were off, the cruise unwound into an unreally beautiful stretch of lazy blue sky, John Constable-esque clouds, ruined castles, and terraced vineyards. It was here I acknowledged the romance of the day, and felt that despite being dependant on the weather (as any outdoor trip is,) this would make a brilliant honeymoon. Just try to give yourself time to find the right boat dock.
On the train back to Vienna, I watched lightning cut through the sky as Megan had a nap; we were tired from walking and from sunshine, and we realised that we hadn’t even had lunch (an no cake! But we made up for it the next day…) so we shared some cheese, crackers, and nuts on the train. A heavy storm lashed across the train as we sped through the flat, green landscape back to the city. By the time we arrived, the storm had passed (or we’d passed through the storm,) and we decided to press on with our original plan of visiting a classic tavern for supper.
Heurigen, or wine taverns, are classic locals’ places, found on the outskirts of the city. They sell their own wine, and have a buffet from which you can choose your own salads, sides, and roasted meat. The plate of food is weighed up and you are charged by the weight; this amounts to a much cheaper meal than ordering from the menu, and you also are able to get just the right amount of food. Megan and I weren’t terribly hungry after our picnic of cheese and nuts, but we wanted to try the real Heurigen experience, so we popped into a few taverns before settling on one with a bustling atmosphere that was more full of locals than tour groups (choose carefully).
There was an accordion player, and too much cigarette smoke for my liking (the only complaint I have about Vienna,) but we enjoyed modest plates of potato salad, bean salad, and a perfect piece of roast pork each, and a glass of absolutely awful, sour white wine. I was intrigued that the wine was so terrible.
We took our time over supper, and then wandered towards the tram, before peeling off and deciding to poke our heads into a different Heurigen, unsure whether we’d be able to try another glass of wine (I was still hopeful,) or whether we’d be expected to have another buffet. We were welcomed into a bustling tavern, more busy than the last and equally full of locals, and were served glasses of red wine just as the accordion player and violin player struck up a song accompanied by a young lady singing bawdily.
For the next hour, we were somehow caught up in a whirlwind of music, in which the accordion player, who had patted Megan’s behind upon entry, took it in turns to sit beside us and make us seriously consider leaving (if it weren’t for being trapped and also deafened by the accordion – not my favourite instrument!) and also conversation with the sweet young woman singing – it was her first night there, ‘you could tell those two were Spanish,’ (she said, referring to the harmless but leering musicians,) she was training as a singer…she and Megan had a good chat about music (shouting a bit over the noise). Then the tables around us struck up some local songs, and everyone was singing, and the red wine was just as vinegary and terrible as the white wine, but it didn’t matter.
We escaped when the musicians moved to the far end of the room to serenade other customers, and caught the tram home to Schwester Christine’s apartment.