24…No 48 hours in Vienna

[Sujata interrupting here to say: you guys, this is an epic Fretz blog 2 part crossover EVENT! Eric wrote the first half of our time in Vienna, and I wrote the second. Check it out here: fretzesontheloose.com]

We all have colds and Sujata and I hardly slept our last night in Bratislava, so we woke up cranky and sniffly, but we packed up our things and started the journey to Vienna.

To drive on the highways in Europe you need to buy a vignette, so we stopped at a Shell station near the Austrian border where a kind stranger helped us figure out which vignette we needed. I almost missed the exit to Vienna partly because I wasn’t paying attention and partly because I didn’t realize that the road to Vienna is marked “Wein,” not “Vienna.” That makes sense, though: wein = weiner = vienna = hot dog.  You are welcome for that sophisticated linguistic lesson, but it’s World Series time, so you should know the etymology of the hot dog.

It rained for most of the 60 km drive, but when we approached Vienna, the sky turned blue. We opened the car windows and watched the city appear in the distance.

Our first stop was Schoenbrunn Palace–the imperial estate of the Hapsburg dynasty. Maximilian II purchased the land here at the end of the sixteenth century and used the vast grounds mostly to hunt. As I was walking the grounds behind the palace, I thought of Maximillian racing his horse through these woods.



A small palace (relative to the 1000+ palace that’s on the grounds currently) was built in the middle of the seventeenth century and then Maria Theresa, perhaps the most famous Hapsburg empress, renovated and significantly expanded the place in the 1750s.  From that time until the dissolution of the Hapsburg empire in 1916 all of the Hapsburg rulers lived and worked  and entertained heads of state as well as friends here.

The palace is a rambling, art deco affair full of gilded and ornate wainscoting that reaches from floor to ceiling and intricate parquet floors. I found Schoenbrunn to be cold and imperious, devoid of a strong artistic touch and more show than heart. In my opinion, Peles Castle, the work of the Romanian King, Carol I, is more visually and artistically interesting than Schoenbrunn.

We left the palace and headed to a series of hedgerow mazes that have been constructed for kids (and some adults). I do not like mazes, so the kids and Sujata (who does like mazes) ran around for a bit while I became increasingly frustrated that we were playing in a maze when when should have been at the Albertina or Belvedere museums. [Sujata interrupting again. The maze was incredible, and next to it was a labryinth with games and a mirror maze and puzzles to work through.]  We all got into a bit of a tiff on the way back to the car (probably from hunger as much as anything else).


Schoenbrunn is about 4 km from the center of Vienna so we piled back in the car and headed to the center to find our hotel, the Starlight Suite on Salgerizes Street. I generally don’t make the hotel reservations because 1) Sujata is so good at it (you should see her navigate Tripadvisor–she’s magic) and 2) I make uncommonly stupid mistakes (like reserving a room for 2017 rather than 2016). I’m also kind of lazy, truthfully, when it comes to that kind of planning. Anyway, I’m not much better with the navigation: when we were in Bratislava, Sujata asked me to “figure out where we are going in Vienna,” but all I really did was take useless screen shots of the route to our hotel. We don’t have a sim card, so Sujata had to perform a remarkable feat of Magellan-like navigational wizardry to get us from the Schoenbrunn to to the hotel. At least I drove the car and, I have to say, it’s not that easy navigating the streets of Vienna, so I felt semi-useful.

Starlight Suites is a great place to stay–the rooms are large and the staff is super nice. As we were driving to the hotel, we realized that 24 hours was simply not enough time to spend in Vienna, so we made got an extra night at the hotel, extended the car rental and voila!, 24 became 48 hours in Vienna.

We were starving when we got to the hotel and, happily, there is a vegan restaurant across the street that serves delicious veggie burgers. I wish I could say I planned this, but, alas, it was just good fortune.

Hey! We found a vending machine! a BOOK vending machine!

After dinner, we took a stroll through the old city. Sujata found a yarn store and bought yarn for a hat for me and socks for Eleanor.


As we walked out of the yarn store, we heard church bells chiming. We walked down the street, turned the corner and there was St. Stephen’s Cathedral, one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Walking inside the cathedral, hearing the pipe organ, a choir singing and watching the candlelight fall on the ancient walls almost made me want to pray.


Maximilian’s Grafitti

I’ve been reading about the history of the Habsburg Empire, and I expect that will excuse most of my readers to quickly move on from this post, but, please stay with me for just a moment!

Maximilian I (1459-1511) was kind of a big deal.


He was Holy Roman Emperor, which involved managing and defending large swaths of Europe—from Spain to France to Hungary and as far south as Italy. (As an aside, Voltaire said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.)

Maximilian was also the first of a 600-year line of the House of Habsburg, emperors, kings and queens who basically oversaw the development of modern Europe. The Habsburg’s (generally speaking) weren’t as colorful as some of the English and French monarchs, which is one of the reasons I think we don’t know much about them. And, the Habsburg coat of arms, war-like twin eagles, is impressive:


I you like classical music, you should feel some warmth toward the Habsburg’s: Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Strauss and Bruckner and Brahms, to name a few, all did their work, for at least a time, within the Habsburg realm, although Haydn had to shuffle up to England to be fully appreciated. The Habsburg’s also turned Vienna into a brilliant European city, and the thing didn’t fall apart until after WWI, when the Austria-Hungary empire was pulled apart (because they lost the war).

So, here’s what I wanted to say about Maximilian. He was pretty busy fighting territorial wars, but when he could, he’d take off to his Tyrolese and Styrian castles and ride about in the woods, hunting stag and wild boar with nothing but a horse and a long bow. During one of his stays, he wandered down to the cellar and scribbled this four-line poem the cellar wall:

Live, don’t know how long;

And die, don’t know when;

Must go, don’t know where;

I am astonished I am so cheerful.

There’s lots, of course, to say about this. The first two lines, one could say, are existential questions that we all wonder about–perhaps as we are trotting down the basement stairs! And I don’t think anyone would be surprised if they were penned by a Holy Roman Emperor or 16-year old in Des Moines. The third line, though, coming on the heels of the first two, feels more desperate: “I’ve got to move on, but I don’t have a map” Maximilian seems to be saying, either because he is pursued by work, armies, or perhaps internal demons. This sentiment, of course, seems like it would precede more confusion as in, “I am really lost and I don’t know what to do with myself.” But, it takes another emotional turn, into a place of joy in the face of imminent (and undefined) threats—astonishment at a state of happiness.

I read this poem—or is it graffiti?– this morning as I was taking my first sips of coffee and before the children trundled down the stairs (who knows what they were thinking!).

And I’ve been repeating it to myself over and over since then.