Friday, 26 December 2003
Travel Notes: Vienna, Venice, Bolzano
We’ve lived in California for more than four years now, and Anitra grew up in Melbourne, with the result that she first saw snow falling from the sky when she was 25. When we had an opportunity to take a week’s holiday right before Christmas, we decided against somewhere sunny; why more of the same?
Instead, we booked some tickets to Washington (so as to drop off the kid), then to Munich, and spent some serious time researching our advent travel opportunities, with the help of the Die Bahn Travel Planner, a couple of DK guides, and Google.
Here are my notes from planning the trip, as well as my thoughts on what’s good if you go.
After a long plane ride (with a change in Schiphol) to Munich and a snow-filled train journey, our first stop was Vienna.
Hotel Altstadt is a private hotel, run by modern art collector Otto Wiesenthal. We were a bit concerned when we entered the building; the hotel shares it with a number of other businesses, so the downstairs lobby is a bit shabby. However, once you get past reception, it’s lovely; every room is different, with art from Mr. Wiesenthal’s collection in each. We had the Owner’s suite, with a separate bedroom and sitting room.
The Altstadt is in a small neighbourhood called Spittleburg, right behind the Museum Quarter, which is nice because it’s residential, unlike the areas where the other popular hotels (e.g., Sacher) are. There are a number of good restaurants and bars in the area, and the Altstadt produces a small booklet of suggestions that we found spot on, both nearby the hotel and in greater Vienna.
Vienna is lovely during Christmas; it was cold, but not as bad as we expected, and the wide availability of punch (warm and alcoholic) and mulled wine (ditto) helped considerably. At just about every turn we saw groups of wood shacks installed into public areas as Christmas markets; although the largest was around town hall, there were several others, including a sizeable one meandering through the alleys of Spittleburg.
The Austrians are very serious about Christmas preparations, while avoiding the commercialism seen elsewhere. It’s also a refreshingly monocultural celebration; none of this wishy-washy “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” for them; it’s Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. As a result, there’s a very strong sense of community; wandering through Christmas markets intoxicated by punch seems to be some sort of tribal bonding festival for them. We were envious, and happy to participate for the duration.
The bulk of the rest of our time was spent in Vienna’s numerous museums; because it was low season, we often had a room in the Belvedere to ourselves, and were able to contemplate Klimpt’s Beethoven frieze in the Secession building in silence.
The best museum by far, however, was the MAK, the Applied Arts museum. They had a fantastic exhibition about the Vienna Workshop on in their new exhibition hall, and the collections were just as dazzling, with the rococo Porcelain Room and a wonderful collection of Viennese posters. Anitra corrected many of the deficiencies in my art history education in the process, which was a bonus.
We also got to sample the delights of a torte at Demel as well as a few coffee shops. Two days wasn’t enough to see Vienna, but we got a good taste. Overall, our impression was of a big, sprawling city that nevertheless managed to have a human-sized feel, even in the presence of things like the Hapsburg palace.
We had a sleeper car an overnight train from Vienna to Venice, which was cool, but we didn’t get very much sleep, because it was stopping and starting so much; Anitra compared it to having a newborn again.
One of our fears about Venice was that it’s basically a big, watery tourist trap; we hoped that going in the week before Christmas would counteract that somewhat, and by most measures, it did. We were upgraded to a studio room in Ca Pisani (in Dorsoduro) easily and cheaply, and finding a table in restaurants wasn’t much of a problem (the food wasn’t nearly as good as in Rome, though). At some points, we had entire churches to ourselves — literally.
On the other hand, we didn’t anticipate a Vaporatto strike, which meant that we had to walk a lot more. That’s OK; it’s a beautiful city to walk around, and you can get pretty much everywhere by foot if you have enough time and your bags aren’t too big (although getting them over some of the bridges is a challenge).
Venice doesn’t do Christmas like Vienna; there was one anaemic Christmas Market, and it closed early in the evening. The real attraction was the shopping; Venice has thousands of little shops specialising in paper, glass, masks and lots besides. Much of it was tourist dross, but there were a few gems that caught our eye, including some nice prints.
We had intended to take a cooking class in when we were there (Jonathan M. mentioned that he’d done this in Thailand, which seemed like a great idea), but with so little time and a fair amount of money already spent, we passed. We did take a spin through the Rialto market, though.
Venice was wonderful; I especially remember the colour of the water and the light reflected from it, as well as the countless bridges. Anitra remarked that she didn’t have to think about taking photographs; if you simply point and press the button, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good shot. All that said, I don’t think we’ll be in a hurry to return; it is essentially an expensive tourist trap, and I wouldn’t want to see how bad it gets in summer.
At Bala’s suggestion, we planned one night’s stay in Bolzano/Bozen, a regional capitol in northern Italy’s Dolomites. Getting off the train, we were a big concerned; it looked pretty dreary, and we considered calling Bala and telling him that he needed to spend more time in the countries that he busily adds to his list (IIRC he’s above 50 now). We need not have worried; Bolzano was easily the high point of our trip, and we quickly arranged to stay an extra day (dropping Innsbruck).
Bolzano/Bozen is named like that because it’s in the region of Italy where Italian and German/Austrian cultures meet; you can get a bratwurst right alongside your pasta if you really want, and children are known to speak German to their mothers, Italian to their fathers (or vice versa). This is an interesting mix, and I think you see the best of both; the architecture is very Alpine and Germanic, but the culture is very Italian (this seems to reverse as you go up the mountain to the smaller villages, though). As a result, every town has two names, shops’ signs are in both languages, and menus have two sides.
We stayed at the Hotel Greif, which has been in the same family for almost 200 years, and been a public lodging since the middle ages; it’s even mentioned in an Ezra Pound canto. Luckily, it underwent a complete refit in 1999, and it shows; rooms are furnished in almost Scandinavian style, each with prints from a different artist on the wall, and electronic controls for all lighting, doors and windows next to the bed. It’s also well-placed; our room’s window looked directly over Walther Square, Bolzano’s main gathering place. Breakfast was fantastic, although we only had a chance to sample it once.
Bolzano is reputed to have the largest Christmas market in Italy, and I believe it; it sprawled throughout Walther Square into the back pedestrian streets of Bolzano. The wares were also better and more reasonably priced than either Vienna or Venice; we found some fantastic Christmas ornaments, truly memorable stollen (we brought three home), hand-made wool scarves and plenty besides.
On the second day, we took the St. Magdalena cable car to Ober Bozen and then a narrow-gauge railway to Klobenstein, where the views of the Dolomites were fantastic. A 30-minute walk brought us to the Earth Pyramids, with stations of the cross along the way. This area is called Ritten, and it’s quite remarkable; there’s obviously a lot of money up there, and the atmosphere is correspondingly rarified; seeing people with $20,000 watches and ensemble to match on public transport (the cable car and the train) was amusing.
I’m adding Bolzano to my list of places I’d move to if I could; the other contender is Stockholm, but I think Bolzano edges ahead. It’s a truly exceptional place that isn’t inundated with tourists, but does have a surfeit of lovely people, breathtaking views and great shopping.