Inner city Vienna can get monotonously monumental after a couple of days. The
perfect antidote to that is a trip out to Schonbrunn Palace, followed by a tour of
Viennese night life.
The Imperial Palace of Schonbrunn began life as a hunting lodge in the 1600s
which Empress Maria Theresa converted into her residential palace a century
later. It now grandly stands, one of the most important Baroque structures in Europe, a short subway ride from downtown Vienna.
Schonbrunn's grounds offer much to explore but begin with the magnificent Palace itself. Two tours of it are available, the Imperial and the Grand. For the additional 18 rooms you get to see on the Grand Tour, some of the most lavish in the Palace, the extra 30 Schillings (about $2.50) are well spent.
Whichever tour you choose, you will be given a free audio guide that does an excellent job of telling the history of the Palace. You'll see the magisterial extravagance of Maria Theresa which she clearly passed on to her daughter, Marie Antoinette. You'll go through the Great Gallery with its beautiful ceiling frescoes, and the Hall of Mirrors where Mozart, six years old, performed for the Empress.
You'll observe the relatively austere living and working quarters of the more serious Emperor Franz Joseph, and hear of his son's suicide at Mayerling where he killed his mistress and then himself. In more modern times, the Palace has hosted meetings between Kennedy and Khrushchev among other world leaders.
There are opulent rooms decorated in fine porcelain decor, in black lacquer and gilt decor, and with inlaid Indian miniature paintings. And just for a little fun, the Habsburg game room holds a billiard table, as popular many generations ago as it is now.
Upon leaving the Palace, you have many options for things to do. Stroll through the exquisite formal gardens and imagine what the aristocrats would do along one of the pathways lined by towering bushes. As you promenade, notice such embellishments as the Star Pool and the Round Pool, the Rose Garden, the artificial Roman Ruins (currently being restored), the Dovecote (in need of restoration) and, capping the main walkway, the Neptune Fountain with the God of the Sea atop a grotto overlooking four merman and their excited horses.
Head west on the walkways to the Palmenhaus (Palm House), filled with exotic plants, and the Schmetterlinghaus (Butterfly House), which contains not only butterflies but little birds, floral displays and inch thick, seven inch long caterpillars that turn into giant moths with ten-inch wing spans. At one point I looked down and saw a snake slithering along the ground. I pointed it out to a teenage boy who, afraid of the seemingly harmless critter, started crying out "Ein schlange! Ein schlange!" ("A snake! A snake!") in the most nellie way. I suspect he won't always be scared of "shlongs."
A bit beyond the Palmenhaus lies the entrance to the Tiergarten, the world's oldest zoo, established in 1752. This had been the emperor's zoological garden and, while now nicely modernized, still features many Baroque elements including the Emperor's Breakfast Pavilion. Individual tickets can be purchased for the Palmenhaus, the Schmetterlinghaus and the Tiergarten, but a combination ticket will save you some schillings.
Just behind the Neptune Fountain, a steep, broadly zigzagging path leads to the Gloriette. (Have a bite to eat at the zoo to fortify yourself before starting up.) It's quite a climb but well worth it for spectacular views of the grounds and the faraway rooftops of Vienna. The Gloriette, once a dining and relaxation center for the Imperial family and their guests, has been scrupulously restored to its former colonnaded Baroque splendor. It has reopened within the last year or so as a small, elegant restaurant. ("Tourists," a guide remarked, "seem to like to pay $3 for a cup of coffee.")
The Performing Arts
Vienna has been long renowned as one of Europe's cultural capitals. Though
that may have been even more true in years past, much is still offered. And
while the Vienna Philharmonic was on vacation when I was there, I never wanted for things to do.
The Vienna Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) stands towards the southeast end of the Ringstrasse, the wide boulevard planned by Emperor Franz Josef bordered by nearly all of Vienna's most important buildings. One hundred years ago, Gustav Mahler began his ten year run as director of the Staatsoper; it continues its international reputation to this day. Though the building sustained much damage during World War II, the imposing front facade survived, the interior was rebuilt and portraits of famous opera singers hang in the grand hallways where ritzy munchables are sold during intermission.
I saw Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischutz, an opera drawing on folk legends that features a love triangle, a shooting contest and a devil who casts magic bullets. The Staatsoper production, directed by Leopold Hager, achieved just the right balance between naturalism and fantasticality as seen in a first act finale seemingly inspired by Hieronymus Bosch paintings.
The cast was uniformly excellent. As the heroine Agathe, Soile Isokoski sang with a touching, pliant soprano. Thomas Moser, as Max, and Monte Pederson, his rival Kaspar, displayed strong, emotionally charged voices. Moser effectively portrayed Max as a confused yet ultimately redeemed hero, while Pederson's Kaspar was a villain you were glad to see die at the end.
(Towards the end of the second act, something occurred that demonstrated why there is no match for live performances. As the Hermit, Walter Fink emerged from his cave singing in his powerful bass voice. Only after a few bars of music did he realize he had left his eyeglasses on and discreetly tucked them into a pocket. Gotta love it, especially at the august Wiener Staatsoper.)
The Staatsoper has over fifty operas in its annual repertory, more than twice as many as the Metropolitan in New York. Current productions include Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, Verdi's Jerusalem and Carmen with Agnes Baltsa. Ticket prices range from $10-$190, but standing room is available for $2.50. The program provides a synopsis in English as well as much fascinating background material about the opera, but for that you need to read German.
The Volksoper is a brief tram ride away from the Ringstrasse and features both lighter operas than the Staatsoper and more experimental ones as well. I opted for the latter and saw Der Konig Kandaules (King Kandaules). Written by Alexander Zemlinsky based on a play by Andre Gide, it was left unfinished at the composer's death in 1942 and just had its world premiere a year ago in Hamburg.
It tells a strange tale of love, jealousy, happiness, murder, guilt-the usual for Gide-among a king, his queen and a fisherman. The music was very modern. The staging was very modern. The program book was very modern, including a photo of a penis tattooed with flames coming out of a devil's skull. I'm happy I saw Kandaules because I doubt I'll ever have a chance to see it again. But next time I think I'd pick a Perichole, Fledermaus or Cenerentola.
Like the Staatsoper, the Burgtheater (National Theater) was part of Franz Josef's urban redevelopment plan and faces the Rathaus (City Hall) across the Ringstrasse. Its commanding Renaissance Revival facade only hints at the sumptuous indoor design with allegorical paintings, many by Klimt, adorning the walls and ceilings.
The Burgtheater presents a mostly classical (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pirandello) repertory in German. The Romeo and Juliet that I saw was tres au courant with designer fashions, house music for the ball and the requisite nude scene. Other theaters serve up a varied menu from contemporary German and British drama to Neil Simon.
If you don't speak German, head to Vienna's English Theater (Josefsgasse 12). For over thirty years, this theater has offered American and English plays in their original language. Shaw, Williams and Wilde turn up regularly along with more recent works like Agnes of God and The Gin Game.
A British touring production of Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt was playing when I was there, and the operative, word was "touring." With four actors playing a multitude of characters, I would have hoped for sharper performances. Had only I been in Vienna in 1991 when the English Theater gave Edward Albee's Three Tall Women its world premiere!
One type of evening's entertainment will lead you back to Schonbrunn Palace. At almost every tourist site in Vienna you'll notice young people in eighteenth century outfits. No, they're not a religious cult, merely trying to sell you tickets to a concert of Mozart and Johann Strauss music held nightly in Schonbrunn's recently renovated Orangerie.
Three days in a row Francois, a music student from France (see photo), happened to be hawking the tickets where I was sightseeing. The last day, at Schonbrunn, he took me in to the Orangerie, at 600 plus feet the longest building of its kind in the world. I never made it back for the concert but wish I had been in attendance the night a contest took place there with Mozart playing at one end and Salieri performing at the other. Now those were the days when Vienna was a cultural capital!
The week of my visit, Vienna's gay world was abuzz with talk of the following
Saturday's Rainbow Parade, only their second Pride Day. Wish I could've
stayed for it but it was fine seeing the city under normal conditions, kinda like New Orleans the week before Mardi Gras. (Not that anything is ever really normal here.) And while, like the Czechs, the Viennese deserve their reputation for being reserved, Vienna provides a far wider gay scene than Prague.
For starters, plan to stay at Pension Wild (Langegasse 10) where owner Peter and his lover Thomas make charming hosts. Wild is perfectly located-a pleasant ten minute walk brings you to the city's center, two minutes and you're at the subway stop. The simple, cozy rooms each have their own sink with hot/cold water and there are public shower-rooms. Rates begin at about $45 for a single, making it one of the best values in town.
A nice breakfast is included and, because Wild attracts a varied clientele, the morning scene can be an eclectic mix of German travel queens and Asian backpackers. Situated in an old world apartment house, I also enjoyed Pension Wild being just two blocks away from the English Theater and around the corner from where Beethoven lived in the winter of 1819/20 when he wrote his Missa Solemnis. For reservations call (43 1 406-5174) or fax (43 1 402-2168).
At Pension Wild, pick up a "Vienna's Gay-City-Map" which gives you the lay of the land in English and German. Or go to the Rosa Lila Villa (Linke Wienzeile 102), Vienna's gay and lesbian center, for up-to-date information on what's going on.
When you're at Rosa Lila Villa, you'll discover Willendorf, a restaurant in the same building. I had a delicious, reasonably priced meal there and found myself chatting with a violist from New York who now performs in Europe.
More upscale is Motto (Schonbrunner Strasse 30) where crowds include gays and straights, club kids and Harvard trained lawyers. Maitre d' Peter provides warmth amidst the chic environment. I had the traditional Tafelspitz, tender boiled beef with a yummy side mixture of horse radish and applesauce. Perfect for after the opera.
For turn of the century charm, try the Cafe Savoy (Linke Wienzeile 36). Overlooking the Naschmarkt, Vienna's French Market, Savoy's sidewalk tables get quickly filled on Saturday afternoons by gays, lesbians and gay-friendly others. Their apple strudel is the best I had in Vienna, possibly ever.
At Cafe Berg (Berggasse 8), down the block from the Freud Museum, good food and a fun atmosphere prevail all day long. One evening an art auction was held there to raise funds for next year's Rainbow Parade. Lucy McEvil and Mrs. Creamcheese wielded the gavel over the packed assemblage. Out of drag, the two hold forth as genial hosts and waitstaff for cute boys, cute girls and artsy types planning their next avante-garde extravaganza.
Vienna has many gay bars but by far the friendliest is the Cafe X Bar. It's a little tricky to find in the Raimundhofpassage, off Mariahilfer Strasse 45, but worth the effort. I just happened in there to discover adorable Alfred, the bartender, and his pals, lovely Gina and outrageous Andi. They kinda adopted me and introduced me to a steady stream of their friends. I felt like I was in Der Big Easy. Go by and say "Hi" for me.
[Vienna update: "The Rainbow Parade was really marvelous," Alfred e-mailed. "40,000 people, beautiful weather and relaxed feelings all over the Ringstrasse."]
Heaven Gay Night, Thursdays at U4 (Schonbrunner Strasse 222), is supposedly a big deal dance club, but frankly it wasn't worth the cab ride to get there (except for the handsome young cabdriver). With the usual music and the usual cha-cha boys, you're likely to find just other tourists wondering what all the fuss is about.
Far more fun is the Kinky Disco in the Volksgarten near the Hofburg (and five minutes from Pension Wild). Kinky transforms a drab daytime restaurant into a punk/funk happening club on Saturday nights. With Alfred, Gina and friends, I had a blast dancing to rockin' music and, in the garden outdoors, watching the full moon of Midsummer Eve rise over Vienna's skyline followed later by the sun coming up. The waltz may be nice but this was kicks!