‘Each stranger arriving at Vienna will be asked by a police officer, as soon as the train reaches the terminus, for his travelling pass, for which a certificate will be handed him, which binds him to enquire after the pass at the Police Office (Spenglergasse No. 264) within the twenty-four hours’ (George Bradshaw 1853)
Times have changed since Bradshaw’s day; nobody demanded travelling passes, or issued any certificates.
Our time in Vienna was a little blurry; too much information in too short a time, I thought. Really, to get to know a city properly, you have to spend at least a few days there. As it was, we just had about 24 hours, into which they tried to squeeze as much as possible. The Naschmarkt followed by a rather confusing medley of ornate and stately buildings, most of them designed, inhabited or at least associated with the great and the good of Austria.
At the Hofburg Palace, we got a little peep into the stables of the Spanish Riding School, and had quick snapshots of St Stephen’s Cathedral and the Schönbrunn Palace. The pace did slow a bit when we attended a concert of Viennese music at the Palais Eschenbach, performed by ‘Vienna Supreme Concerts’, a seven piece orchestra, who played music by the Strausses, Mozart, Schubert … all composers associated with Vienna.
And, of course, we tried the famed Sachertorte. Really, it’s just chocolate sponge cake, coated with chocolate and with an apricot jam filling; very nice, but I just don’t see what all the hype was about.
Things became much more relaxed and laid back when our ship left Vienna on its cruise up the River Danube. It might be thought of as a hop from town to town, which makes it sound a bit like a river-borne coach tour. But, it’s the ‘bits in between’ that make the river cruise much more than that, and the first of the ‘bits in between’ was the Wachau Valley, in which lie the village of Dürnstein and Melk Abbey.
It’s an area noted for its spectacular scenery, and its extensive vineyards. It’s rather reminiscent of the Mosel Valley, where every surface that isn’t occupied by a building, or absolutely vertical is covered in grape vines … almost.
Dürnstein is a village of only 900 souls, most of whom work in the vineyards which surround it. Many of the vines are ‘adopted’ by local children, most of whom do work experience in the vineyards. And, eventually, a lot of them work full-time there.
Dominating all is the ruined castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192. His brother, John, was at home, trying to raise the ransom money … as told in many a film, TV series and pantomime featuring the legendary Robin Hood.
Melk, a short way up the river, is famed for its Abbey, atop a hill. It was once a palace, but was given to the Benedictine order in 1089. Maybe, in those days, giving a palace away was the equivalent of going on a Crusade, or something? The present abbey was built in the baroque style between 1702 and 1736.
Of course, time didn’t permit seeing all of it, but we did see a fair bit. But, we didn’t see any monks. They are there, we were told, but not many any more. However, it is home to a well-regarded school, which caters for about 900 pupils. So, the greater part of the rest of the Abbey is open to the public.
And, since the abbey is built on the top of a hill, the view of the river and the surrounding countryside is one of its outstanding features.
Later, we sailed further up the river, and eventually came to a lock, where the Austrian flag on the mast came down, and the German one went up. We were leaving Austria, and the impression we gained on this short visit was that it was not all mountains, dirndls and lederhosen.
Probably time to turn once more to Bradshaw, for a few parting words:
‘If about to leave the Austrian dominions, calculate how much money you will require up to the last moment and change your gold into a sufficient quantity of paper florins’
These days, though, euros are used in both Austria and Germany … but it does nicely illustrate a point I often make. Guide books are just that … guides … not set-in-concrete gospel.