A Second Year In Photos: Cake and Kremlin Adventures

Some people like to go to the Costa Brava or Corfu for their holidays. They lie on the beach – book in one hand, pint in the other – and slowly turn themselves the colour of a lobster. I did this once (except the lobster part, I have an aversion to skin cancer) and found myself so incredibly bored that even my favourite books couldn’t keep me still for more than 20 minutes at a time. I like to go on an adventure when I go on holiday. I like to appease my (not-so) inner ten-year-old and go to interesting places and see interesting things – lying roasting away like a blow torch over a crème brûlée is not part of the deal.

In the past I’ve been lucky enough to see penguins in South Africa, go on a 4×4 safari in Antigua, stuff my face in New York’s Chinatown, get lost in the alleyways of Stone Town, Zanzibar, in the mid-day sun during Ramadan, climb the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, be within a metre of a wild lion, and amongst the other things on that list I can now add seeing a near-priceless selection of Fabergé eggs and watching the Viennese State Opera. Yes, in case you weren’t bored of hearing about it yet, I went on holiday this year to Moscow, Vienna and Bratislava. Day 5 of A Second Year In Photos breaks the ‘two photo’ rule I set for this series, but it was too difficult to decide which city to cut.

Not in the order I visited, we start with Vienna – one of my favourite cities in the world. Part I and Part II detail my trip to Vienna, but here we get to revel at the beauty of the Schönbrunn Palace (and the fact that I was feeling a little worse for wear on the day I took this).front of the Schönbrunn Palace, ViennaBratislava was the surprise for my trip. I only really went there because it was easier to fly home from there than it was from Vienna (they’re an hour apart by train), but I found a really intriguing little city and it’s definitely somewhere I’d go again; you know, just the very next time I’m ‘passing through’ Slovakia.Bratislava at sunset
I would have no qualms about saying that Moscow is the most bizarre city I’ve ever been too, but it’s also one of the most fascinating. Again the details are spread over a Part I and a Part II, but one day when I have plenty of money to splash about I’d like to go back and see how the other half live. Although the next time I go to Russia, I think it’ll be to St Petersburg; when that’s going to be, however, still remains more of a mystery than the Russian language.The Kremlin from a bridge over the Moscow RiverTravelling is one of life’s greatest pleasures and something I will choose any day over doing nothing on a beach. Whilst next year’s adventure(s) is/are still very much at the idea stage, here’s hoping they’re every bit as exciting and enjoyable – if maybe a little less bizarre – than this year’s adventures.

Tomorrow for the penultimate day of photos we return to my favourite kind of photography – the simplicity of black and white.



A Tale of Three Cities: Vienna (II)

Yesterday’s post – the first part of my trip to Vienna – mainly featured the Ringstraße and all the buildings associated with it. Today is much more relaxed, much like the majority of my time in Vienna. If Moscow was all about exploring at speed, then Vienna was a much more sedate affair, the relaxing part of my holiday.Schönbrunn Palace gardens and the Gloriette, Vienna

Vienna may be famed for its history, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this means it’s dull and boring once the sun goes down. With beer, beer, more beer and the ‘seems a good idea at the time’ expression “let’s have Jäger shots!” – I was pleasantly surprised that we were up and ready to go by half eleven the following morning, having only staggered back at half four. We decided to walk off our hangovers on a more relaxed day front of the Schönbrunn Palace, Viennaof sightseeing out at the Schönbrunn Palace, the summer home of later Hapsburgs. This enormous rococo palace is quite unusual in that it’s not necessarily obvious which side is the front and which is the rear, the main building is almost identical on both sides. On one side the gigantic courtyard leads down to road, flanked by several (pretty grand) outbuildings, but the other also has a flowing grand staircase and an elaborate facing all looking out over the formal gardens. The centre of the garden is planted to be seen from above, which ordinarily might seem odd, but here all paths lead towards the steeply rising slope behind the grand fountain where you can look down on the shaped beds and planted flags. Perched at the top of this hill is the Gloriette – where the palace was originally going to be built, but now just stands this rather grand, albeit superfluous, structure.The Gloriette, Vienna

The next day, suitably recovered and somewhat tanned we embarked on our biggest adventure: out to district 19 and up into the hills surrounding the city. Aloft the hills of this district you get the best views of the city and can enjoy a slow wander down through the Vineyards down to the Danube, ViennaKahlenberg area. These hills, which lead down to the Danube below, are home to the vineyards of Vienna and consist of fields after fields of grape vines – this makes Vienna the largest wine-producing city in the world (not that, I imagine, there’s a huge level of competition). Throughout these vineyards are scattered little ‘resting stops’ where you can sit out in the sunshine with a large glass of local wine, however, it appears that by September you can only do this Thursday through to Sunday, so we had to settle with having a bottle over dinner the following evening. I’d never really come across Austrian wine before, but I’m pleased to report that it’s rather tasty. Our bottle of white (I can’t be more specific, the evening got hazy quite quickly) was fruity, smooth and far too drinkable, and although slightly sweeter than I prefer, it wasn’t quite as sweet as I was expecting.

When we’d finished our ‘trek’ down the hill (we took it quite casually) we made our way to the little suburban village of Grinzing (where we were getting the tram back into town from). It was here that I was introduced to one of Vienna’s best secrets – Sturm. Very seasonal, this drink is available only in September and early October; it’s best described as an alcoholic form of grape juice – but it’s not wine. In fact it is fermenting right up until you drink it (leaving a delightful deposit at the bottom of every glass). This incredible beverage is both delectable and deadly in equal measure, and I can tell you from experience that it is quite easy to sit back and have a few glasses without realising the consequences until you stand up.

After our late afternoon casual sturm-drinking session we headed back into town for dinner. Continuing the theme of local nourishment I opted for the house speciality, Wiener Schnitzel. This traditional dish (which my inner ten-year-old still finds entertaining) is a Viennese speciality made with pork hammered down a little and made into a sort of escalope, coated in breadcrumbs and fried (or baked); in this case, however, it was made with a cider-like batter. It was utterly delicious, but sadly too large for me to finish (when combined with a few glasses of the pub’s home-brewed beer). In case it’s not already apparent, beer played a fairly large part in my Viennese adventure and I was lucky to have a friend who knew several bars around district 4, all of which brewed their own light and dark beers (or the mix, which combines the two). Is there anything better than kicking back at the end of the day with fantastic beer to make a truly relaxing holiday?

The only thing that comes close is, of course, the other delicacy that Vienna is famous for – CAKE! Lots and lots and lots of cake. All rounded off with some strong coffee, and a bit more cake for good measure. There was not a single day I was in Vienna that we didn’t have stop mid-afternoon for some cake-shaped nourishment. The most famous of which is the scrumptious sachertorte – a dense chocolate cake made up of two sponge layers with apricot jam in the middle (and on the top in one case) which are then covered on the top and sides with a rich dark chocolate icing. It is of no wonder what-so-ever that this one of Vienna’s favourite treats, it is utterly lip-licking-ly delicious. So much so that it was only sitting back after finishing off a slice that I realised I’d forgotten to take a picture of it…Café Sperl, Vienna

Alongside these cakes there is a big ‘cafe culture’ in Vienna. The famous streets are Café Royal, Viennascattered with cafes in every shape and size; some are new and some that celebrated their centenary several decades ago. Our out-of-date guidebook made a lot out of these cafes, although for the Cafe Spiel – one of the city’s most famous – it more of the fact it was one of a certain Austrian cum Nazi dictator’s favourites, something which completely misses the point that it has a beautiful sachertorte and a wonderful old-world interior. However, its inside is not a patch on the hugely elegant Café Royal, which boasts many columns under its vaulted ceiling, surrounded by mirrored walls, taking those inside back to the golden age of the 20s. It also boasts the most mesmerising cake cabinets I have ever seen – it took me a long time to actually decide which cake I wanted the most.

And that is Vienna in a sturm glass. If I was quite taken with Moscow, then I completely fell for Vienna. Its mix of history and contemporary culture easily makes it one of the most fun places I’ve ever been and the amount of life that is given over to delicious food and drink makes me want to move there right now. Apart from the large groups of tourists, I don’t think I found anything that annoyed me about this city (quite a feat); the pace of life is both sedate and bustling, you can run for a tram or stand around listening to a cellist busking the evening away in a square, there really does not seem to be a right and wrong. I would visit again even if they had awful food, but since their cake stands can’t eat themselves nor can the beer drink itself I feel I’m obliged to return someday. I think it’s safe to say that Vienna and I have not seen the last of each other, but in the meantime I’ll just have to try creating my very own sachertorte at home.


A Tale of Three Cities: Vienna (I)

Walking across the tarmac was like entering another world. The sun was beating down, the people were friendly and there was that fabled gate at the border: ‘EU Passports’. No inquisitions as to my intentions, just hold the photo page up to the glass and wait for the nod. Through in about two minutes. Welcome back to the EU, you’re now in Wien.

Wien is, as I’m sure one or two smartarses will know, the German for Vienna. A city famed for its buildings, history, cake and beer, and my home for a week.

The easiest way to show me the city’s sights, my friend (and one-time flat mate, who now lives and teaches in Vienna) decided, was to go on a walking tour – not with one of those annoyingly large groups of tourists that seem to dominate the city centre, but by ourselves (with the occasional soundbite from an out of date Lonely Planet guide book). Vienna is not a big city, in fact it’s hard to believe it’s home to over one and a half million people. The basic layout is simple: 23 districts over three zones: The historic centre is district and zone 1; districts 2-9 make up second zone, ringed around the first; and the others populate the outer zone. The only other defining things are the ring of hills from east round the south to the west of the city (or west to east, if you so prefer) and the Danube – it isn’t at all blue, no matter with Strauss says – which cuts through the north east.Stephansdom during the day

Stephansplatz seemed as good as anywhere to start out tour, so we emerged from the metro (and a very nice metro it is too) into the sunshine and then straight away into the shadow of Stephansdom, one of the tallest churches in the world. After surprising a few people dressed as Mozart to sell concert tickets by replying in German (‘No thank you’ I can stretch to) we ditched some of the tourists to amble through the side streets and look at the beautiful buildings that line almost every street of the first district.

Opera House - Staatsoper - Vienna, by night.The first major stop on our tour was the Vienna Opera House. As opera houses go, this one is up there; famed for its connections with classical music Vienna draws in classical music fans from around the globe and the opera house is a pilgrimage site for many. Impressive in the daytime this building really comes alive at night when it is illuminated against the early-setting sun, its arches and cloisters are a familiar site to many who pass it every day on the Ringstraße[Ring Street]. More famous than the building they perform in is the company that share this building’s famous name: Wienner Staatsoper, or Vienna State Opera. The company originated as the Vienna Court Opera, but changed its name to what we know it as today when the Hapsburg monarchy ended in 1920. Today they perform seasons of operas and concerts, both in Vienna and around the world. As if that weren’t enough, the members of the world famous Vienna Philharmonic come exclusively from the company. Continuing the illusion of being a cultured sort of person (having been to the ballet in Moscow) I decided to partake in a little opera. Arabella (by Richard Strauss) was on my third night there, so I opted for that. My bank will probably be glad to hear that during the summer performances are screened live outside for you to watch at your leisure and for free. The only slight drawback, of course, is that it is an Austrian opera and thus in German. I’m sure my linguistic limitations are fairly obvious by now (I did French at school, not so handy here, nor my Spanish), but I got the gist – sort of – and enjoyed the music.Outdoor opera at the Wiener Staatsoper

The next stop on the Ringstraße was the garden flanked on either side by the enormous and identical Kunsthistorisches Museum and Naturhistorisches Museum – the art history The staircase of the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna(or fine art) and natural history museums. Opened in the 1890s these two mirror images were built on order of the emperor in order to hold the vast collections of the Hapsburg dynasty, in order for them to be on show to the public. I can’t say anything for the Kunsthistorisches as I didn’t step foot in it; however, I can tell you that the Naturhistorisches is spectacular. With an enormous marble entrance hall with some of sciences most notable figures immortalised in marble and enormous frescos depicting science in all its glory it’s hard to remember that there’s enormous numbers of specimens to look at. Remarkably there are also several halls that have been translated so us non-German speakers can enjoy them. The other halls, however, I had to go by the binomial Latin – who said that biology degree would never come in handy?

With its flowing Greek columns and Greco-Roman-esque adornments the shimmering white building of the Austrian parliament is slightly further along the ring. With it’s entrance  above street level, a lofty semi-circular ramp leads up and through the columns. When we passed it was covered with a long red carpet, apparently for the parade of classic cars that were going up it to be shown off. And no, I’ve absolutely no idea what was going on beyond that.Austrian parliament building, Vienna

Rathaus - Viennese Town hall, ViennaThe political theme doesn’t end here, as the next stop on the ring is the two buildings that face each other across the road. On the inside of the ring is the green-domed Volkstheatre, or the People’s Theatre – originally built on request of the people of Vienna to bring drama and literature to the masses. To this day it follows the founding principals that it is to perform lots of new works alongside the classics. Set behind a park on the outer side of the ring is the Rathaus, the Viennese town hall. Built to resemble the government buildings of Flanders, Belgium, its many gothic towers pointing up towards the sky. I’m also reliably informed that it plays host to “Vienna’s most kitschy Christmas market”, although unsurprisingly it wasn’t there in September.Volkstheatre - People's Theatre - Vienna

Hofburg, ViennaIt’ll be obvious to anyone that knows Vienna that I have missed out the Hofburg on this trip round the Ringstraße. This would be like describing London and ignoring the Thames. Home to the 600 years of the Hapsburg Dynasty the Hofburg has been the seat of governance of several countries, empires and republics dating back to the early 13th century. It’s a bit of a hotch-potch really, as successive generations of Hapsburgs tried to make their mark on this vast section of central Vienna, resulting in a melting pot of architectural styles, each trying to out-compete one another in terms of grandness. It was also playing host to a harvest festival the first few days I was in Vienna – as far as I could tell, they appeared to be incredibly grateful for beer and … to have forgotten about the rest in a hop-induced haze. We might have stayed here a while…

And somehow I have yet got to the end of the Vienna post and only got halfway through! Only one palace and the most fleeting of references to beer will just not do. Tomorrow there will be more palaces, much more beer, Schnitzel, cake and wine. Let’s be honest, the last four are clearly the most important!