As my alarm went off at 3.45am I nearly made the mistake of turning it off and sleeping for just ‘a few more seconds’. Fortunately instead after a few more seconds had passed I sat bolt upright as I remembered why I had set my alarm for such a cruel hour. Eventually I left the house just as the sun was beginning to rise because whilst it was dark all around there was light in the east. I made my way through the town and saw a small cat, perhaps a kitten that had torn open a black bag and was devouring the contents. It must have been startled to see a human because as it turned to look at me it had a ‘hand caught in the cookie jar’ face.
Marc was last to arrive for the taxi and whilst this initially led to the popular sport ‘Marc Goading’ the journey itself was uneventful. At the airport Chas had to collect the money he’d ordered which took a lifetime. Marc realised he had to phone the bank and saying he was with Halifax I gave him the number. He called and then having failed to correctly provide his account details got put through to the help desk where it was politely pointed out to him that he didn’t bank with Halifax. My moment of tiredness kicked in at airport security where I forgot to take out my hand gel and small bottle of aftershave causing my bag to receive a thorough search. As we waited Marc mocked me for my pacman t shirt, the floral patterned aftershave travel bottle (which I’ve kept because it was free and practical) and perhaps correctly my hip patch which has been decommissioned as a result. I was also the only person with a suitcase and ‘he’ quickly got the name Axial (pronounced Axl) Rolls as “he” was made by Axial.
I tried to sleep on the plane but when ever I was close to nodding off Hamish used a ‘nose prod’ to wake me up. At one stage I caught the culprit red handed as I randomly swiped the air when I had my jumper over my head to block at the light. Arriving in Vienna we made our way outside, boarded the bus and found the hostel with little difficulty thanks to Chas’s logistical planning. We checked in to the hostel and dumped our bags in the room before heading back out to explore the city.
Whilst I had spent some time putting some general ideas together there was no set plan as to how we would spend our first half day. As it was we stumbled across the Hofburg Imperial Palace as we meandered up some of the famous narrow lanes towards St Stephens Church. The Hofburg Imperial Palace, one of the old Habsburg palaces was pretty spectacular and there were some Roman ruins in front. We passed some nice statues and buildings though admittedly probably didn’t appreciate their significance before we eventually arrived at the church.
The knave was free so we went in and I admit I was impressed at how spectacular it was. Next Chas, Hamish and I decided to climb one of the towers whilst Marc opted to stay downstairs in a ‘designated area’ (play pen). Every time I climb a tower it sounds a great idea at the bottom and by the time I’m half way up I start to question if the effort will be worth it and accept I’m that little bit more unfit than the time before. On this occasion I got to what I thought was the top before realising I had further to go. With a heavy heart and heavier legs I climbed the final part of the tower. It had seemed a good way to get a sense of the size of Vienna and as it was a clear beautiful day the views were pretty good.
Leaving the church we stumbled upon a café at a goulash museum. Obviously the obvious choice was the goulash but I saw the Austrian veal schnitzel and my heart was set. Washed down with a beer it was the perfect tonic to re-energise the batteries and we then made our way to the Kaiser-gruft (imperial vault) the final resting place of the Habsburg emperors and close relatives. Some of the coffins were quite elaborate and I wondered whether that symbolised the wealth of the nation at the time, the emperors popularity or whether they had requested it at the expense of the population. I was surprised that Franz Ferdinand wasn’t among them considering the unfortunate role he played in world history when his assassination was ultimately the powder keg in a chain of events that culminated in the first world war. It wasn’t what I expected and as the displays were in only in German I had no idea what the information boards said other than the names. I don’t think the others had been overly impressed either and my self designated role as tour leader was in jeopardy as a result.
Vienna is to me arguably one of the historical cultural capitals of Europe due to its fine art collections and the famous composers that lived and died there. Our first real taste of the arts was at the Fine Arts Museum where Chas and I were led around by Hamish. Hamish explained why some of the paintings such as Rembrant’s self portrait, Hunters in the Snow by and David and Goliath by Caravaggio were historically significant and why their styles were adopted and adapted.
In one of the rooms I saw a big comfy looking chair and as my legs were weary I sat down to appreciate the fine paintings. As Chas and I relaxed a bit to much on a comfy chair Hamish took out his pad and began sketching. By the time he’d finished it was impossible to deny I’d nodded of. We left the art gallery and caught the tram with the intention of doing a full loop of the historical old town however realised we were on the wrong route so got off and proceeded to walk to the Rathaus (Town Hall).
Not far from there one of the others spotted a wine bar and so we wondered in to break the journey up. It felt like we were slightly off the tourist trail so it wasn’t that busy and the waitress was quite friendly. We ended up spending about an hour before we left and finished our walk to the Rathaus. Some kind of festival appeared taking place and it looked quite busy so we made a decision to carry on to St Charles Church where Chas, Hamish and I were seeing the Opera Ava Maria.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect about how the venue seating would work as it was unallocated, how professional the show would be or how strict the time on the ticket would be. As it was we were able to have a quick beer before taking our seats. The church itself was spectacular however our seats were about as far from the front as we could have got though had been a fraction of the premium price.
I admit I’m not as familiar with classical music, especially Opera as perhaps I should or rather would like to be however the beautiful baroque cathedral surroundings and acoustics meant it felt a particularly powerful performance. Canon by Pachelbel is my favourite as it reminds of my childhood and as far as I’m aware it was probably the first piece I heard. I didn’t recognise any of the music before Cannon and as soon as the first note was played I recognised it, daring not to believe I was going to hear my favourite piece live in Vienna. Everyone else probably favoured the two Ava Maria pieces by Bach/Gounod and Schubert respectively. All in all I think Hamish and Chas enjoyed it as much as me.
We met up with Marc who had waited for us in the beer garden outside the church. As it was still only 9.30 we then began a quest to find some food. There is some debate as to who was responsible for the unacceptable failure of the mission. Marc maintains that he was cleared of any responsibility because we walked up a parallel street. This is however a conflicting account to that remembered by the editor as he had claimed to have scouted the area and had announced there were “loads of places” on a busy road at the end of a seedy feeling narrow street. The busy road never materialised and we ended up getting a kebab before catching the underground home. It is worth noting Chas and Hamish were partly responsible for us walking in a complete loop for an hour however as they had a clean history having successfully completed the Suffolk Coastal Path with me a year earlier both were cleared of any potential charges of idiocy.
Eventually we arrived back at the hostel where we had a nightcap and I made my worst decision of the day by having a schnapps We then played a few games of S-Head before heading upstairs where having been up 20 hours and overcome with tiredness Marcs snoring, which resembled the hum of a ships engine room, sent us all off to sleep.
Friday 31st July
We all got going slightly later than planned after we had woken up and we weren’t helped by the fact there was only two showers on the floor. Eventually however Hamish, Chas and I went down for breakfast and Marc followed a couple of minutes later. We then spent quite a few minutes with the very patient and helpful hostel receptionist who planned our routes so we could do the activities we wanted and crucially get to the main station in time for our train to Brno.
Due to time constraints it wasn’t possible for us to swim in the Danube and to go to the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery). Whilst it was a hot day and it sounded a unique opportunity to swim in the Danube I opted for the cemetery. I was already questioning my judgement when I realised there had been a crash with a tram up ahead and after using Google translate understood ‘Fahrt deaktiviert’ meant “drive disabled”. Google maps suggested a bus and following my gps signal on the map all was going well until after passing the cemetery we kept going. Eventually we reached a bus stop and I was let off and it felt like I was as far away as I’d been before boarding but the opposite direction.
I trudged back and finally reached gate 4 where I was told off for trying to enter. The cemetery is free so I knew that payment wasn’t the issue however whilst I didn’t understand all the german as the gate keeper was wearing a Kippah and he pointed at it I assume that it was a private Jewish cemetery. I carried on and finally reached gate 3 where I worked out I had around 30 minutes to find The Dr. Karl Lueger-Gedächtniskirche Church as well as a couple of the famous composers memorials. In all the bus journey had added one hour to my journey time and as my pedometer buzzed I realised I’d also already achieved my 12000 step target.
I walked along like a man on a mission aiming for the spot Google maps claimed to be the church. All the paths looked the same and I wondered whether once I’d found the church how I’d find my way out. Despite it being a large structure it didn’t seem much higher than the trees so I didn’t at any stage have any indication whether I was close or even heading in the right direction. I was questioning my judgement and perhaps for the first time in recent years feared I’d feel the effort wouldn’t be worth it.
As it turned out, all the delays and effort had the opposite causing me to feel slightly overwhelmed once I’d found the church and allowed myself to take in the scale of the cemetery. I’d given up hope of paying my respects to Beethoven Mozart and Schubert however as I wondered around aimlessly trying to find my way out I had some luck and spotted a few pockets of people looking at one of the graces. I edged over more in hope than expectation and realised all 3 of the above were buried together. I raced back to West Bahn Hof and arrived back at exactly the same time as the others.
This is the account of the Danube as told by Hamish: Siz man was immovable, no, he would not come to swim in the Danube as the grave museum of Wien beckoned. With a resolute shuffle, off Siz went to get the tram (which later crashed).
Us three boys went north on the hyper efficient metro system, during which we became the bawdiest and loudest occupants of the carriage whilst Marc regaled us with his impressions of Patrick Stewarts ridiculous quadruple take. Wien whizzed past through the metro window, and soon the mighty expanse of the Danube slid beneath us, to our collective gasps and whoops of the anticipated swim.
Alighting on a deserted platform we tumbled down to the banks of the Danube, little time was wasted and quicker than you can say ‘belts off trousers down’ we were paddling in the cool waters. Fearing he might drown, Marc remained on shore guarding our stuff but took his shirt off to show solidarity. Myself and Chas began a proper swim, frolicking like seal pups. After a few close calls with swans, we headed back to the shore and began searching for an ‘OJ’ bar. (Ed: coffee bar)
We secured OJ’s, ice creams and mineral wasser in a tin rectangle dispensery and began to chill on some park benches, we wondered how Sizzler’s grave tour was going and wished he’d decided to join us!
Heading back we were briefly accosted by a shirt-less Wienien who wanted some cigarettes, sidestepping this we hopped onto the next metro back. The metro was now pretty full and we made a real effort to tone down our bawdiness. Despite this, Chas’s comedically enormous back pack succeeded in cuffing an old man in the jaw a few times, but this is the price the Weiniens must pay for our touristing!
With military precision, we met Sizzler at the station. We exchanged activity brief-downs and commiserated Siz on his grave museum trip (Ed: pun intended I’m sure). The town of Biro beckoned and we still had to make a detour to collect Axial Rolls from the hostel.
Reunited, a decision was made to find some lunch and we came across a small cafe with seating on the pavement a few minutes from the hostel. With a few hours before the train we then made our way towards the Schloss (Castle). We decided to walk rather than get the tram however within minutes got overtaken by one which would have halved the journey time. As a result by the time we arrived we were already looking at watches to calculate when we had to leave to ensure we got back in time for me to collect Axial Rolls from the hostel.
The ‘Castle’ itself would be better described as a palace so whilst it looked quite grand it wasn’t what I had expected. It obviously has a lot of history associated with it as it was the Summer residence of the Austrian monarchy and seeing it was still worth the visit. We spent a few minutes wondering around the square and around the gardens before making our way to the tram stop.
The others grabbed some train supplies whilst I collected Axial. Whilst we were nervously looking at out watches the journey to the main train station was actually uneventful and not quite the mad dash across Moscow I once experienced. As it was we arrived about 20 minutes before the departure which is what I had aimed for. Eventually the train arrived, we found our seats and once the guard and checked the tickets and not kicked us off I could relax knowing stage one of our journey was complete with no disasters.