Vienna: The Sachertorte

Tonight, I end my series on Vienna.  There are many things I have yet to write about but if I were to write about everything, then you’ll be reading about Vienna for a couple more years.  Entire books can be written about this remarkable city.  This city of art, history, love, culinary delight and wars.  So with much heardache but a growling stomach I leave you tonight with a Viennese favorite since 1832: the Sachertorte.

As you probably know, I have a particular fondness for all things chocolate. Dark chocolate. The Sachertorte is a chocolate cake unlike chocolate elsewhere.  First of all, its not spongey, soft or fluffy.  It’s a rich dark heavy chocolatey cake that is best served with a dollop of freshly beaten fresh cream.   Best suited for those who like things with a bite.  I do.   I wish I had one right now but helas no one I know is returning from Vienna.   I’m tempted to order online but there is a high risk that by the time it arrives, it’d have melted in Thailand’s blazing hot sun.  I’d have to wait.

Sachertorte remains in my mind not only because of how good it is, but because of the good times I’ve had eating it.   Sitting at the Sacher Hotel’s coffee shop not far from the Opera house, you can relax in an ambiance that brings you back hundreds of years.   Red is a colour that I see often in Vienna for it gives us a sense of warmth from the cold wintry air, and thus red are the carpets and seatings at the Sacher Hotel coffee shop.  The marble tables and wooden chairs give it an original kaffeehaus atmosphere.  (Old Thai coffee shops too had marble tables.  I wonder where they got their influence.)  Crystal chandeliers, paintings and pictures line the walls.  This must have been where many of the upper class Viennese had coffee before or after seeing the opera.  I suppose it’d make a great date place for those who want something a little more luxurious than the usual kaffeehaus.  Here, you’d feel weird going in shorts and a t-shirt.

I remember being there when the piano was being played.  It was wonderfully relaxing and especially so amidst good friends.  In summer there is an outdoor area that is more relaxing and service here is nothing less than 5 stars. After all it is the Hotel Sacher.  If you want the most beautifully decorated period rooms, stay here.  I am told that their restaurant also serves the most exquisite Tafelspitz.  Something I’ve not been fortunate enough to have tried.

Anyhow, if you want to buy some back as gifts, on the corner that is Karntnerstrasse (if I remember correctly) they have opened up a shop specifically selling these Sachertortes.  They come in various sizes and all in wooden boxes.  They make wonderful gifts.  Other shops too have tried to have their own ‘sachertorte’ but believe me, nothing quite beats the original one.  Those in charge of making it are sworn to secrecy and to this day, the recipe remains in the hands of a chosen few.

Here’s their website: http://www.sacher.com/en-index.htm

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Vienna: Herren or Damen?

Here’s a light story to start off the week and welcome March!  February is just saying farewell after a mere 28 days.  Don’t you love it?  For those who look forward to getting their salary, this is a great month 🙂 It comes early 🙂  The story I want to tell today is a true story that you should all take note when you visit Vienna or any other German speaking country.  It’s about two very simple yet very important words:  Herren, Damen.

I remember this like it was yesterday.  I was sitting at Central cafe with a group of friends I had just taken for a walk around the Stephansdom and the Hofburg.  We were tired and what better place to rest than at Central cafe.  We ordered hot chocolate, coffee, and apple strudel. While waiting one of my friends had to go for natured called.  I waved her towards the bathroom and didn’t think much about it.  It was just behind the painting and easy to find.  The rest of us sat and talked with not a worry in the world.  We were on vacation and Vienna was a safe place to be.

Then suddenly our friend returns flushed in the face and sounds like she had just been on an adventure.  She tells us her story.  She walks towards the bathrooms and sees two words:  Herren, Damen.  One on each door.  Now if you’ve never been to a German speaking country and have no clue about their language, these two words can look like Greek or Chinese.  It makes no sense.   

The big question was, “Which one is the women’s bathroom, which one is the men’s?”  She had no clue and there was no one walking in and out.  No help.  So being the logical person she is she reasoned that since in English, “her” was used when referring to females, “Herren” which has a “her” must undoubtedly be the women’s bathroom.   That makes sense right?  English and German are both Germanic languages.

She walks in. 

Now what do you think happened?  Did she get the right door?

For those who answered “No”, kudos to you.   For those who answered “Yes” please remember this!  In German, “Herren” means “Men” and Damen means “Women”!!!  So if you’re a female, go into the room marked with Damen!   If this helps,  in old english women were sometimes referred to as “dames” though now it is considered slightly derogatory.

Old Vienna: Art Nouveau and The Naschmarkt

I love food, I love markets, I love going grocery shopping.  The variety of produces that now abound in our supermarkets (as a result of trade) is heaven.  There is everything you could possibly want but nothing beats going to an open air market.  Europe has a culture of these markets and if you love markets, in Vienna you must surely go to the Naschmarkt.  Naschmarkt is one of the most popular market and stretches out roughly 1.5km along the Wienzeile.  It’s a long walk, but you won’t feel a thing being absorbed with all the produces that buildings that surround the area. 

If you are an art nouveau fan like I am, you can combine the trip to the market with a visit to the Secession Building and the Wagner Apartments.  The Secession building was designed in the “Jugendstil style” and has a motto on the facade which translated says “To every Age its Art, to Art its Freedom.” I am drawn to this windowless white building trimmed with gold owls and a globe of entwined laurel. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Inside, there is an amazing Frieze by Gustav Klimt (who painted “The Kiss”) measuring 34 meters long and fills up an entire room.  This is believed to be a comment on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Beautiful. Not sure what he is trying to say with it, but I like it anyways.

Then just a few minutes walk is the Wagner Apartments.  This overlooks the Naschmarkt and was designed by Otto Wagner in 1899 in the ultimate Jugendstil (art nouveau) style.  The facades of these apartments are not merely square plain colored apartments as is usually the case, instead, they are decorated with gilt oranament and tiles of flower pattersns adorn the walls.  Flowers in pink and green creep up the walls. Even the blaconies are molded.  I love it.  I wonder what the insides look like.  It must be so beautiful.  I suppose it must be like the art nouveau furniture at the museum.  I wish my house could be in art-nouveau.

Architecture aside, the Naschmarkt itself is a an enjoyable experience. I could spend hours walking around looking at the stalls of fresh produce, fruits, vegetables…anything you fancy.  The stalls at the beginning of the road are orderly and in their own little stalls but as you walk further down, it becomes a myraid of producers selling wine, cheese, meats and fresh breads.  The hundreds of cheese on sale there grab my attention.  I love cheese.  Fresh mozarella with grape vine tomato sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil and a dash of balsimic vinegar topped with some fresh basil sounds divine.  That would be my lunch.  You can buy all the ingredients you need for a fancy meal here.

There are flowers for sale and shops of oriental spices.  I even spot Thai spices on sale there as well as middle eastern food.  Even if you don’t cook, you can go there to eat.  There are stalls selling sandwiches, oysters and fish and chips.  If you want something more exotic, there are also Kebabs.  I love it and its only a couple of euros. I think it was around 3-4 euros when I was there a few years ago.

On the weekends, the end of Naschmarkt turns into a flea market selling all sorts of antiques and other goods.  It’s a great place to stroll around for antique lovers.  It ranges from old clocks, radios, silverware, photos and household goods to second hand clothes.   There is something for everyone there.   I miss these flea markets.  I want to go look at antiques.  Now I am getting nostalgic so I’d better stop here…

Old Vienna: Karlskirche and Karlsplatz

There’s a church in Vienna that is often not on the list of sights to visit for tourists who have limited time in the capital, but one I’m glad I visited.  Karlskirche.  I passed by it often on the way here and there around Vienna and one day I said, I must go.  It looks like a place worth visiting and it was.

This church dates from the time of the bubonic plague that devasted most of europe.  It’s name Karlskirche because Emperor Karl VI vowed he would build a church to St. Charles Borromeo (who is apparently patron saint of the plague) when the plague ended.   The architect, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach won the design competition and the church was built in a rich Baroque architecture.  Its no wonder.  He was also the architect of Schoenbrunn and that too was Baroque.

Going offtrack for a moment, I love the fact that the Austrians had design competitions hundreds of years ago.  The result is they now have a city full of beautiful buildings, buildings which have lasted for generations and have become landmarks.  If only we had that in Bangkok, how beautiful will our City of Angels be?

Anyways, Karlskirche is impressive.  There’s something about it that I like but I can’t quite pin.  Perhaps it’s the immense size of the church which makes you feel humble and insignificant next to it.  Or perhaps its the gigantic dome of green that tops the church. and adds colour to its otherwise white walls.  Two enormous columns stand by the front entrance with reliefs and reminds me of minarets in Egypt.  It’s baroque, yet there is some strangely asian, arabic influence.  Vienna is where the Turks were defeated.  Imagine if they had won, Christian Europe and Austria as we know it, would not be.  What a fascinating world that would be.

Inside, the altar is a stucco relief that is a must see.  In baroque style, the heaven is a golden triangle with rays of light shining all around.  Looking back on it now, I am reminded of the Da Vinci Code and the masons….I wonder if there is an eye, but I don’t remember.  Anyhow its beautiful.   Beneath the gigantic dome, there is a fresco that according to my guidebook depicts the Apothesis of St. Charles Borromeo.

Outside, there is a large fountain that makes it so breezy on a summer’s day that people just come to hang out.  You can also walk around to Karlsplatz and see the marvelous art nouveau subway station that has been converted to a coffee shop (if I remember correctly.)  Its a nice setting overlooking the Musikverein (music hall) where famous concerts are held.  The great thing is that its not so crowded (when I was there anyways) and there aren’t many tourists.

My favourite architecture style at the moment is art nouveau so I am just all grins and smiles in Vienna.  This was where art nouveau flourished and you can find it almost anywhere… but that’s a whole different discussion so I shall have to stop here before it gets too long.  🙂

Old Vienna: Schonbrunn Palace

If you want to see a palace that looks like those in fairy tales where princesses and princes roam about in beautiful buildings and halls, then walk around in their fancy dress in a majestically beautiful garden, I say go to Schonbrunn Palace.  This is one of my favorite sites in Vienna. 

Schonbrunn was the summer residence of the imperial family and dates back to 1695.  The palace itself was commissioned since then, but it wasn’t completed until 1730.  It has lived through wars and seen deaths.  It was Napoleon’s headquarters from 1805 to 1809 and it was here that Emperor Franz Josef died.  It was also here that Emperor Karl I abdicated from the throne in 1918.

History came and passed by here.  In the olden days, this must have been considered far for the Viennese and outside of the city.  I imagine carriage trips through fields and hills, but now the city has grown and it is easily accessible by bus and underground.  A summer palace within the city itself.

When you first walk into the grounds, you are greeted by the Baroque building that is so wide you would find it hard to fit into your camera view finder if you went too close.  There are hardly any trees and all you see is a large expanse up towards the grand staircase.  I imagine trotting up towards the palace on my horse.  How much fun it must be with all that space to ride.  Of course everyone in the palace would also be aware of my entrance.  I guess the design is also for security.  I read also that Schonbrunn was inspired by Versailles in France.

Inside, the palace’s rooms are so beautiful I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like living amongst all this grandeur.  The wood paneled walls and themed wall paper give each room a distinct character.  There’s the Blue Chinese Salon, the Vieux Lacque Room and even a Great Gallery that was the site of imperial banquets.  This is where the aristocracy waltzed their nights away in beautiful dresses.  I wish I could see this place alive with people. How magical it must be.  There is the Round Chinese Cabinet room which shows you how far China came centuries ago. Vases and lacquered panels give it an oriental flair but in a baroque setting.  China was strong then , now it is once again becoming a world superpower.

Once you’re done with the palace, do not miss the garden.  The garden here is one of the highlights and I wish I had spent more time there.  I had spent afternoons writing away in my little notebook amidst the fountains and hedges that shaded you from the sun, but I still yearn for more.  The garden is a beautiful design and reminiscent of French gardens, but you just have to love it. Hedges, framed alleyways and openings give it a magical feel.  There is a maze where you can get lost in, a zoo with an octagonal pavilion, a palm house, japanese gardens and even a public swimming pool.  So large is this garden.  

But that is not all though.  The crowning jewel of the garden is the Gloriette which is a neo-classical arcade that stands atop the hill at the end of the garden. It towers above the garden and gives you a view of not only the palace, but also of Vienna.  By the time I climb up there, I’m usually ready to have a seat at the coffee shop in the Gloriette.  It’s a wonderful place to just really have “me” time.

No matter how many times I go, I still like Schonbrunn.  Even if its only to sit in its gardens and enjoy listening to the birds chirp.  Its a garden that’s open to all, but oh what a magical one it is.  I wish I could spend a summer there…but I guess that’s only in my dreams.  www.schoenbrunn.at

Old Vienna: The Hofburg

Imperial Vienna is a city that is rich, very rich in both history and culture.  Just visit the Hofburg or the Imperial Palace and you will understand what I mean.  The palace is a complex comprising 10 or more buildings and is reflective of the six centuries of Austrian rule.  Now, most of it has been converted into museums whilst part of it has been turned into the President’s office.  Lucky him to be working in such a beautiful building.

I don’t know where to start, there’s the Albertina Museum which houses one end of the complex and is home to one of the world’s finest collections of watercolours, prints and drawings.  There, I saw breathtaking peices by Durer, Rubens, and Michelangelo to name a few.  I was also lucky enough to be there during the Munch exhibition an got to see some of the most famous works, “The Scream.”  If you are bored of the prints or they aren’t really your taste, you can also walk around some of the newly renovated rooms.  This used to be the residence of Maria Theresa’s daughther, Maria Christina and her husband Duke Albert.  The rooms have beautifully inlayed floors and silk panel coverings.  Exquisite.


If you are a book lover, stop by the Austrian National Library (Prunksaal) and be mystified by it’s wood paneling and flamboyant gold coverings.  Walls and walls of books await whilst the painted ceiling overhead just takes your breath away.

There’s a statue of Prince Eugene in front of the Neue Burg which is a great place to take photos because of its curved architecture added in 1881-1913.  It’s beautiful and grand. It’s no wonder this is where Hitler chose to proclaim “the Anchluss” in 1938.  The Neue Burg was also the latest addition to the Hofburg as Imperial power faded.  A mere 5 years after it’s completion, the Habsburg empire ended.

To see all the glory of the Habsburg empire, do not miss the State Apartments, Silberkammer and Schatzkammer (Treasuries).  In this part of the Hofburg, you will walk through rooms and rooms of ornate interior.  This was the home of Emperor Franz Joseph, the famous Empress Sissi, and even those of Tsar Alexander I.  There is an incredible 10th century crown dating from the time of the Holy Roman Empire and the cradle of Napoleon’s son with Maria Louisa.  There are golden crowns and chairs from the order of the Golden Fleece.  There are so many treasures here you get dizzy.  Museums in other countries seem to have but a fraction.  These are things you read about in history books and see in movies.  These objects from history are behind stories of knights in armour and wars.  Stories of love and marriages and hidden childs.  All this you must not miss.  You could spend a good part of the day roaming around the quarters and delving into the treasures.

My favorite part of the complex, aside from the treasuries, has to do with horses. The Winter Riding School.   By now you probably know I love horses.  This is the Spanish Riding School (horses from Spain bred with Arab and Berber horses) believed to have been founded in 1572 to train riders in horsemanship.  Here, they have shows showing you horses dancing to music as if they were part of a ballet.  The horses leap into the air completely in control of their legs with such grace, you wonder if its really a horse.  And all this, happens amidst a hall filled with carvings, intricate plasterwork and crystal chandeliers.  If you changed the flooring to wood, it could very well be a beautiful ballroom.  That’s how beautiful the building is.  I saw the morning training session, even then it was so beautiful. 

Yes, the Hofburg is large. You could get lost roaming around the place, but its definitely a site not to be missed.  At least see all the treasures.  It is amazing.  You’ll see how rich Imperial Vienna was and still is.

 

Old Vienna: Coffee at Demel and Central

Amidst the boxes I’m happy I finally found my box of photo CDs.  I’m delighted the DVD reader reads them well and the photographs are still there after almost a decade.  I shall have to back them up.  With digital cameras, I take more pictures but print less and then end up losing some when my harddisk crashes. Technology.  Looking through my Vienna photos, I am reminded of the coffee culture there.  There are cafes or “Kaffeehaus”  on almost every road.  Each with their own atmosphere and their own unique style.  Stories abound as to how it all started.  Some say when the Turks were defeated in 1683 they left bags of coffee,  hence started the coffee culture in Vienna.  Fascinating.  Now coffee is known worldwide.

I have two favorites in Vienna.  Cafe Demel and Cafe Central.  Demel is wonderfully beautiful and dates from 1786.  The Hofburg towers above the small road from Demel at Karntnerstrasse and the selection of cakes and candies are in such intricate little boxes I want to keep the packaging.  They not only look good, they taste good.  Empress Sissi of Vienna is said to have ordered candies and other goods from this coffee shop. 

When you enter, you immediately see a long counter of candies and snacks.  There used to be seating in the front room, but now they have converted the entire area to a little shop.  Luckily, I had the opportunity to enjoy the ambiance of the old room that dates back over 200 years.  It’s a small coffee shop and there are crowds of people but the atmosphere is just wonderful. Inside you can watch them making chocolate and there is even a little museum.  (http://www.demel.at/) There is also plenty of seating in the back.

However, if you want to go to a more spacious coffee house and enjoy coffee with live classical music, go to Central cafe. Housed in the Palais Ferstal which was originally built for the Stock Exchange, it is in a beautiful architectural style of late romantic historism. (According to their website: http://www.palaisevents.at/en/cafecentral.html not exactly sure what that term means, but I like the architectural style anyways)

Central Kaffeehaus is a place for philosphers, thinkers and writers. Even Sigmund Freud and Trotsky used to come here.  I like it.  There are newspapers in various languages for you to read free of charge.  If you go there in the afternoon around 3pm there will be live music of either Strauss or Mozart or other famous classical music  performed by a Violinist, Cellist and Pianist.  I forget if they play everyday or not, but I suppose you could call and ask.   Nevertheless, the music sounds magical.  
 
Especially so when its cold outside and you need somewhere warm to just sit and relax.  I remember going there amidst the snow fall.  It was cold and getting dark, but the warmt that greets you inside clears all that away.  The high archs, painted ceilings and lighting that take you back in time makes you feel warm and fuzzy.  All this whilst taking it in all with one sip at a time. This is the soul of Vienna.  This is what I love.  
 
Even if you don’t drink coffee, like me, you can just go there for tea or cup of hot chocolate.  Their chocolate there is good, more than good.  It’s rich and chocholaty. Just the way I like it…yeah.  Their Apfelstrudel is also so good. I like Apfelstrudel.  Somehow the ones in Bangkok just don’t taste the same.