Vienna Once More

by Bill Monson

When we left Vienna on October 1st, it was in the first flush of autumn. The linden trees were just beginning to fleck with gold. When we returned on October 5 on the Franz Lizst Express from Budapest, the city was at the height of the season.

We wasted no time getting into our adventures. Swiftly unpacking, we caught the subway to the Prater, the huge amusement park. It's famous for its 60-meter-tall Risenrad -- a copy of G. W. G. Ferris's wheel for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. I wanted to ride on it because of that and because it's featured in ''The Third Man'' movie -- where the stars Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles (as Harry Lime) play a critical scene in one of its passenger cabins. Each cabin can hold about a dozen people; and it's a dandy ride, though a little scary as the people walk from side to side to admire the views of the city it provides. There was also a pretty good wind rising -- so we got our money's worth. The view is somewhat obstructed by the girders except near the top of the ride. The London Eye -- a modern Ferris Wheel -- has better viewing and moves about the same speed; but it doesn't rock like the Risenrad.

We had a bratwurst and beer for a late lunch and watched people shoot up on a bungee ride which catapults you off the ground into the air instead of jumping off a high platform. We looked at other rides, too -- but that rising wind and clouds piling up in the northwest suggested a retreat to our hotel -- so we did.

Our hotel was the K & K Maria Theresa, across the street from the Museum Quarter and within an easy walk of the Hofburg -- the mammoth winter palace of the Austrian monarchs -- and the Stephansplatz, where stands St. Stephan's Cathedral, the finest Gothic church in Austria. It's at the center of the old town and its 450-foot steeple is a major city landmark. The nearby Graben is a street with some of the most fashionable (read: ''expensive'') shops. It also has a Plague Pillar -- bedecked with almost invisible netting to keep off the pigeons -- which commemorates the city's escape from the plague in 1679. Further on is St. Peter's Church -- the second oldest church in the city and a lavishly decorated Baroque building.

Being across from the Museum Quarter turned out not to be such a good idea as Saturday, October 5th was Late Night -- when all the museums in Vienna are open until 1am in the morning. Add to that the crowded trams which ground their way up and down the street outside our second-floor window; and sleep was hard to come by.

The last of the party animals did not stop howling until 5am Sunday morning after breakfast, we moved into an inner room.

A light rain fell much of the day, but we walked the Museum Quarter, visited some churches, then had a Szechuan dinner at one of the many nearby restaurants. On a cool Monday morning, wife Polly went sheet music shopping near the Graben and had an eight-Euro demitasse of coffee and piece of cake at Demel's, the famous coffee shop. I walked up the Mariahilfterstrasse -- another Vienna shopping street -- to find some presents for family. A sharp breeze was blowing, sending the linden leaves down in a golden shower. The only negative was finding three MacDonald's restaurants within two miles.

We went one last time at sunset (about 5pm) to the Hofburg, where we watched the play of light on the statues and magnificent buildings and saw the huge chandeliers lighted inside the palace. Along the famous Ring Road, the linden trees were almost bare. Autumn had come and gone in one week!

Back at the hotel we had ragout and a bottle of Wachau wine for dinner, followed by ice cream with schlagobers (whipped cream) for dessert. What a glorious end to a glorious day!

The next morning was wet and wintry as we began our homeward journey at 140kph in a 35 Euro taxi. At the Vienna airport, we endured strict security and a waiting area with 13 seats for six gates! From Wien (hence wiener for bratwurst), we flew to Heathrow outside London to catch a Virgin Atlantic 747-400 to San Francisco.

Traveling at eight miles a minute at 37,000 feet, I had time to muse on the vagaries of travel in the post-9-11 era. Most airlines were stringent in security. Ironically, we found the toughest inspections at Peoria! The railroads (except for the Channel Tunnel train) were lax. Some stations -- like Paris -- had none at all!

Europe was very concerned in September and October about President Bush's threats against Iraq. They even played a factor in the German elections. The media also gave more attention to the meeting of the European Union which would decide which new countries could start the process of joining. They largely downplayed the Washington D.C. sniper stories. CNN International was the only network giving the sniper much coverage.

As far as Europe was concerned, American baseball did not exist; and I only learned who was in the league championship games when I got home.

The invasion of American franchises like MacDonald's is Europe-wide. The ultimate insult is the upcoming opening of a Starbuck's coffee shop in Vienna.

My next trip to Europe, I plan to bring a suitcase just for souvenirs -- filling it as I travel. It will have wheels and be made of durable plastic to survive airplanes and trains. To our joy, none of our luggage was lost or misplaced. Battered, yes. A plastic CD cover was the only casualty.

Languages become a greater problem the farther east you go in Europe. If German is an asthma attack, Hungarian and Magyar are impossible. There is no way you can carry on a conversation in them with just a guidebook; and not many people in Hungary or Slovakia have bothered to study English.

The conversion to one money system -- the Euro -- will grealy improve condiitions for tourists. I came home with three sets of leftover money jangling in my jeans.

To sum up -- our six-week trip was a mixed success. We did get to see most of what we wanted to see; but we didn't get our Danube River cruise. Traveling by bus and packing and unpacking constantly is a real downer -- not to mention a genuine pain in the posterior. Would I do it again? Possibly -- but a month-long trip would be long enough.

My favorite city still is London, followed by Vienna, Paris and Budapest. My favorite adventure was touring the Melk Abbey -- a Baroque masterpiece and a reminder that the past can live on.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website December 4, 2002

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