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Vibrant Vienna, Austria

The horse-drawn carriages of Vienna are just as much a part of Austria’s capital, as the curving shores of the Danube River. The historical coaches are a permanent feature of Vienna’s cityscape and the background rhythm of clip-clopping hooves is as integral to the city’s soundtrack as the music of Mozart and Beethoven, who were residents here in the mid to late 1700’s. Vienna has become known as the City of Music, although because the world’s first psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud also lived here, the city is sometimes referred to as the City of Dreams

Our friends, Athene and Gary were living in Vienna and we were excited to take them up on the offer to visit them and their beautiful city. To give us a perspective over the whole city, Athene took us up to the Kahlenberg, which is located in the Vienna Woods and is a popular weekend excursion for the city’s residents. The views from here are incredible and we could see the entire city, as well as the snaking Danube. We could even see the Schneeberg, from where Vienna’s lovely spring water is sourced.

The most important square in the city centre of Vienna is Stephansplatz. We loved the vibrance of the cafes, the international stores housing most of the world’s luxury brands, as well as the contrast of the old and modern buildings and is a perfect place to enjoy an Aperol Spritz! 

Erected after the Great Plague epidemic in 1679, the Baroque memorial (pictured right) is one of the most well-known and prominent sculptural pieces of art in the city. Christine M. Boeckl, author of Images of Plague and Pestilence, calls it “one of the most ambitious and innovative sculptural ensembles created anywhere in Europe…”

One of the main reasons people want to visit Stephansplatz, is see the iconic landmark of St Stephan’s Cathedral. 
For more than 700 years, this magnificent church has stood watch over the city. The building of the original church commenced around 1137, however this original construction was entirely destroyed by a large fire, leaving very little remaining besides the stone foundations on which it stood. Towards the end of WWII, the cathedral was once again torn apart by flames due to aerial bombings, which caused the original Gothic timbered-style roof to be completely ravaged, along with much of the building. It was fully restored to its former splendour by 1952, with help from Austrian citizens, who donated large sums to recover their beloved monument.
The exterior of the cathedral is made up of limestone walls, adorned with intricately detailed statues and is an amalgamation of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. Its most striking feature is the decorative, coloured tile roof.
St. Stephan’s Cathedral is  the seat of the Catholic church in Vienna. Mozart was married here in 1782.

Schönbrunn Palace
This UNESCO world heritage site, was the centre of Viennese court life in the 18th century, and is one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Vienna. It was witness to a number of historical events, and was where a six year old Mozart had his first major concert. With over 1,400 rooms, it is enormous and there are hundreds of acres of exquisitely manicured parks and gardens to explore.

This palace used to be the main summer residence of the Habsberg rulers. We spent a full morning wandering through the parks, admiring the sculptures, the abundant statues, the Neptune fountain and the arboretums.

Friedensreich Hundertwasserwas an Austrian artist and architect, known for his vibrant use of colour. His work encompasses some unique sculptures, unusual but vibrant paintings and dramatic architecture. 
The incineration plant that dominates Vienna’s skyline could have been a rather hideous structure. Hundertwasser turned this into something that looks more like a modern art gallery.
The idea was to combine the notions of waste, energy and art in an appealing way. The system is environmentally friendly.

The Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, also known as the ‘Nameless Library’ stands in Judenplatz in the first district of Vienna. It is the central memorial for the Austrian victims of the Holocaust and was designed by British artist Rachel Whiteread. The spines of the books are facing inwards and are not visible, therefore the titles of the volumes are unknown and the content of the books remains unrevealed. The shelves of the memorial appear to hold endless copies of the same edition, which stand for the vast number of the victims.

Viennese cuisine bears the unique distinction of being the only type of cooking named after a city. On our very first night Athene treated us to delicious Wiener schnitzels. They were so tasty and enormous! Of course the bakeries were mouth-watering too. Yummy, strudels packed with sticky, oozing fruit and, my personal favourite, perfect Sachertorte, rich cake, coated in dark chocolate layers.

One of Vienna’s most famous symbols is the Riesenrad or giant Ferris wheel located at the start of the Prater amusement park. It is visible pretty much right across the city. Impressive in its own right, it acquired global fame by featuring in movies like James Bond’s The Living Daylights. The grounds were once forest and meadow land which used to be an imperial hunting ground that was ultimately opened to the public by Emperor Joseph II. 
Today, the Green Prater is a paradise for walkers, runners, bicyclists and horseback riders, and is highly appreciated as a large leisure area within the city limits.

The Karmelitermarkt, which has existed since 1671, is a market of long tradition and seems to be about much more than just shopping. There are many markets in Vienna, but this one seems to be frequented by locals rather than tourists. Surounded by beautiful old buildings, the farmers set up their stalls every Saturday with seasonal goodies. There seems to be hardly anything that you cannot buy here, from freshly baked bread, specialty salamis and organic herbs; fruit and vegetables; bountiful flowers and luxuries such as caviar, sushi and seafood. The butchers sell both kosher and halal meats, testament to the diversity of the residents. 

Its a lively and vibrant place to explore and people watch.

Hansen is a lovely restaurant situated in the basement of the Stock Exchange. Athene and Gary took us here for a wonderful breakfast. We loved the quiet cool environment with its  spacious high ceilings. What was particularly delightful, was sharing the space with a flower and garden shop, which adds to the casual, courtyard feeling. And the food was delicious!

Wörthersee, Carinthia
Our next adventure required us to go a little further afield. Gary and Athene had booked a country weekend so that we could experience more than just the city.

A three and a half hour drive southwest of Vienna and close to the border of Slovenia, lies a pristine blue-green lake, popular with the more affluent particularly during summer. With a length of 10 miles, the Wörthersee is the largest Alpine lake in Europe. The waters are warmed to a comfortable swimming temperature by thermal springs and can reach 25 degrees in the summer. The number of private boats is limited to retain the lake’s fine water quality. This is the closest Austria gets to having a beach 🏖

Famous amongst the LGBTQ community, each August the colorful Pink Lake Festival is held here.
Known too for health care and detoxing programmes, the area is teeming with well-being centres and health spas.
The village of Maria Wörth is also known for its two historic churches. The original St Mary’s church was constructed in 875 during the ‘christianisation’ of Carinthia. The relics of Saints Primus and Felician, who had suffered martyrdom under the pagan emperors Diocletian and Maximian in the years 286 and 287, were brought from Rome to Maria Wörth and buried in the crypt. In 1399 the collegiate and parish churches on the island were destroyed by fire. Both churches were rebuilt and today the St Primus and Felician church stands at the highest point with the Rosary or Winter church below.

Special times with amazing people and wonderful to simply relax, eat and read.

Photo credit: Athene van Mazijk

Our next adventure was a day trip to the spectacular valleys and vineyards of the region. Nestled between the towns of Krems and Melk, Austria’s Wachau Valley is a 30-kilometer stretch alongside the Danube River. It is known for its incredible wines. We took a hour’s train ride from Vienna and hired our bikes upon arrival. 

Photo credit: Athene van Mazijk

Cycling in this area is something special.  We cruised past medieval castles, grand monasteries and breathtaking landscapes. We headed through the small town of Krems and could see the ruins of Dürnstein castle on the hillside,where King Richard The First of England (rather aptly referred to as Richard the Lionheart due to his bravery and military prowess) was imprisoned. We then continued to the village of Spitz on the Danube river.

Stift monastery Dürnstein
Dürnstein castle

Cyclists own the road in this part of the world. The best part is, you can ride on both sides of the river. The north bank seemed more populated, and we passed through interesting but touristy villages. Cycling through the endless vineyards was just idyllic.
Characterised by the vineyards, forested slopes, wine-producing villages, mysterious castles and imposing fortresses, Wachau’s harmonious blend of natural and cultural beauty won the area a UNESCO World Heritage title.
We enjoyed the freedom and fresh air and of course sampling the outstanding Austrian wines at the many small, family-run wineries. 

Photo credit: Athene van Mazijk

Central Vienna is incredibly walkable, with the majority of the attractions located inside the “ring road”, which runs around the central city and follows the route of the old city walls. Vienna’s elegance and tradition are centrally located in the Inner City, or more formally, the first district. In its 3 square kilometres you’ll find stunning architecture made up of palaces, museums, theatres and churches. On our last evening Gary and Athene took us for a long stroll around the ring road. Every building is architectually awesome and a photographer’s dream. We admired the bountiful gardens bursting with colourful tulips and posed amongst the heady blooms of wisteria.

Vienna is a special city that is elegant, classic and inspiring. Thanks so much Athene and Gary for showing us such a great time and for your warm and caring generosity. We miss you guys already!

Natural history museum

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