VIENNA, Austria — We arrived in Vienna to rain and an unseasonable (so we were told) chill in the air. After the heat in Budapest, I was more than a little pleased to have an excuse to wear my new raincoat without fear of sweating through the waterproofing. Train travel in Europe is markedly superior to regional rail transport in America, chiefly because the trains tend to run on time, with the occasional delay measured in single minutes. I begin to sense a theme developing for this travelogue. Take heed, Amtrak.
We passed the train ride in comfort and tackled the Viennese Metro handily, arriving at our hotel in the Praterstern area just across the river from the central district of the city. Our hotel, the Austria Classic Hotel Wien, was more modest than the Boscolo Budapest, but the staff were just as attentive and helpful. They also offered the best complimentary breakfast service I’ve ever had at a hotel: meat, eggs, cheese, bread, pastries, espresso; I’ll never be able to look at a continental breakfast in the United States the same way.
The rain continued for the first two days we were there. We didn’t let this stop us from enjoying the city, although we weren’t exactly drenched in enthusiasm for touring around. We had previously elected to do only one or two things each day rather than try to pack in as much as we possibly could, and with the weather the true wisdom of that choice was revealed.
World and War History
On the first day, we visited the Military History Museum. This is a fascinating stop for anyone who appreciates history, as Austria has been the scene of a number of consequential world events. The museum begins in the late Medieval-early Renaissance period, starting with the introduction of firearms and running through to the current era. The artifacts on display include early hand cannons (monstrous, heavy, inaccurate things that seemed apt to explode in the face of the poor soldaten using them), swords, armor, and uniforms, right up to biplanes, machine guns, and a garden overgrown with tanks. If you go, be sure to check out the intricately detailed paintings of scenes from the Thirty Years War by Flemish artist Pieter Snayers.
The museum also houses the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated. This was of particular interest to me, as 2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Beside the car, you can see the pistols the group of assassins used—dinky little things for starting such a horrific war. Most fascinating, the bloodstained uniform the archduke wore is also on display. You can see where the doctors attempted to cut it away before realizing that would do no good.
The history in Vienna is everywhere you look. We were fortunate enough to meet a resident of the city, a friend of a friend. He gave us a quick tour while we attempted to stay dry. In the central district grand palaces rise above the street, adorned with statuary and gilded architectural elements. It was somewhat difficult to appreciate in the rain, so we resolved to visit again later and instead made our way to a Viennese coffee house.
Don’t Miss the Coffee, Pastries, and Wine
Coffee in Vienna is a leisurely practice, an art rather than a utilitarian caffeine injection. There are several ways it can be served, and we were happy to have a friendly guide to explain exactly what we were getting into. Here, a word about the pastries in Vienna: do endeavor to try them. All of them. Topfenstrudel was a favorite of mine, but I would be remiss if I did not suggest you try kaiserschmarrn as well. Imagine a giant, shredded pancake topped with plum sauce. Your visit to Vienna won’t be complete unless you at least try an apfelstrudel.
When the weather finally cleared, we decamped to the Wachau valley with a tour group to explore the wineries of Austria. Wine tends to the young and dry here, and I made sure to taste as many as I could in order to properly form my opinion of them. There are some very good grapes here, and you should try a Grüner Vertliner if you have a chance. During the tour, I also managed to acquire the liquor I had been hunting (more on that in just a moment).
On our final full (sunny!) day in Vienna, we visited the Hofburg and took in the morning exercises of the famed Lipizzaner Stallions at the Spanish Riding School. The training of these beasts is almost as impressive to watch as their actual performances. We also visited the treasury, which houses the crown jewels and coronation vestments of the Austrian and Holy Roman empires. The emperors were a bit flashy for my taste, but I suppose there are certain expectations one must meet. I was captivated by the Holy Lance (also known as the “Spear of Destiny” to fans of the old Castle Wolfenstein computer games), somewhat dubiously said to contain pieces of the nails used at Christ’s crucifixion, and at other times said to actually be the spear used to pierce His side. I was impressed by the many items crafted from “unicorn horn,” a supposedly magical substance apothecaries sold as a powder throughout the medieval period. It is in reality narwhal tusk and, to my great disappointment, possesses no magical or medicinal properties whatsoever.
We enjoyed Vienna very much, although in comparison to Budapest it feels much more like a “working” city to me. What we saw of it seemed more reserved than Budapest, and certainly more expensive. Yet it is lively in the way a city that thrives on coffee must be. There’s an engaged and refined sensibility about the place I will miss.
The other thing I’ll miss about Vienna? The schnapps.
Apricot Schnapps and Arolla Pine Schnapps
When I asked what sort of liquor was typical of Vienna, the kind strangers in the village of Dürnstein responded with a brisk, “Schnapps.”
Of course! Dummkopf!
The German Schnaps really refers to any strong alcoholic drink. For our purposes here, we’ll focus on the distilled spirit that is made by fermenting fruit with a base liquor (sorry, Goldschlager fans). They are usually clear, and have a discernible scent and flavor of the fruit. They are wonderfully fortifying. In the German-speaking world, the most common fruit flavors are apple, plum, pear, and cherry.
The Wachau valley in Austria produces a popular apricot variety, Marillenschnaps. I found a reasonable quantity in an attractive, long-necked bottle that I fear will not do well on the flight home. The apricot schnapps have a great nose on them, very full and fruity. You can sip schnapps, but I enjoy it far better as a shot. After tossing back a swallow, the fruit flavor stays with you through a very pleasant burn. There is generally no added sugar, so it is clean and sharply defined. It’s almost like a flavored vodka, only with more depth, as the base liquor is often a brandy. It packs quite a wallop, typically in the 40 percent alcohol by volume range.Our friend at the coffee house had also mentioned schnapps to us, and told us about an Austrian specialty, zirbenschnaps or zirbengeist: schnapps flavored with pine cones. I was intrigued, as that flavor is a bit off the beaten path. And by off the beaten path, I mean that the ingredients only grow 5,000 feet above sea level. Enterprising Austrians collect pine cones of the Arolla, or Swiss stone pine, and many make their own pine schnapps at home according to family recipes.
Happily, I came across a shop selling zirbengeist, and procured a small sample for my research. It is…different. Not unpleasant, but distinctly, truly piney. It’s like running full speed into a Christmas tree, mouth first. Definitely something to hold on to for special occasions, or if you ever happen to be tempted to drink Pine-Sol. That’s not a negative criticism—I actually enjoy it. It’s delightfully weird and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.
If you ever have the opportunity, take your schnapps game beyond the peppermint variety. Here, Austria has done the world a service.