Monday, June 06, 2005

Vienna: cool, cool, and a little creepy.

Vienna, Budapest and Brno were our destinations. Four days in Vienna for the culture, two in Budapest for exoticness, and five in the Czech Republic for, well, just out of curiosity. We booked hotels for the first two cities, and one day for Brno, and after that we were going to wing it. Winging it is a little scary, but we felt up to the challenge, and if it turned out horrible, we figured we could always run back to the more civilized Austria.

Pension Baronesse (99 eur for two, includes breakfast) is about a mile from the old city center, on a noisy street called Lange Gasse. Huge rooms, beautifully furnished, a little past its prime, old-fashioned elevator with a padded bench. Like nearly everywhere else we went, it smells like old cigarettes, provides bath and hand towels but no face towels, and has hideously coarse toilet paper. (Even at the best hotels, toilet paper has a texture similar to paper towels.) Pillows were a bit too downy for my taste. They spoke pretty good English – about one in five Viennese do, it seems – and were very kind. On our last day, we had to leave early to catch the hydrofoil, but they opened the kitchen specially for us, sending us off with a decent breakfast. That morning the desk clerk was a hefty guy in a black vest, who had a bandage wrapped around his knuckles and muttered to himself wearily, giving us the impression his other job was being a bouncer.

We spent a lot of time in Vienna's old city, of course. By lucky chance, one of the museums had a special exhibit of Rene Magritte, my favorite surrealist artist. Art in person is nothing like art in books – you can see the light reflecting off brushstrokes and other subtleties that just don't come through in a shrunken version. I don't care that much for Magritte's "this is not a pipe" paintings, but rather his more puzzling works like "The Voice of Blood," and this exhibit showed me those as well as quite a few works I'd never seen before.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum has a great, concentrated selection of some of the most well-known Western paintings. When I was a kid, I saw a lot of these in a book my parents owned, of the collections of several national galleries. Naturally, at the time, I was looking for paintings of naked bodies and creepy things like human bones being dug up. Now I got to see everything of Vienna's, in full color and full size. I had no idea that Rubens' "Miracles of St Ignatius" is at least 14 feet tall and 9 wide.

One of the neat things I wish I'd photographed at Kunsthistorisches was in their Egyptian collection. However, the camera battery decided to die at that moment, but I found it online at It's a statue of a pharaoh and Horus seated side by side. They both have a dignified calm and a subtle happiness to their features. What I found so charming was that Horus has his arm slightly around the pharaoh, just at the latter's lower back, like Horus is ushering a dear old friend into a warm and cozy club called the Afterlife. There's something baldly honest about this, like the depiction will make it real, I had to smile.

Viennese pastry is as good as they claim. Sugar is used as a seasoning, not a flavor in itself. Light, delicate and overall wonderful. Budapest was middling and Czech the worst of the three for pastry.

After lots of churches, museums, and coffee and pastry shops, we checked out the Prater on our last day. It's open year-round, and it was pretty empty that day. This collection of kitschy rides, games, and mazes must number in the low hundreds. The carnies clap to get your attention so you'll come and play. I believe they're all independent, and they'll run a ride just for you if that's all who shows up. The emptiness and disco-era style put the creepiness level just below that of mechanical fortune telling gypsies and sailors.

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