Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Busting Travel Myths in Vienna

Winters in Europe can be gorgeous and romantic, with a view of elegant white slopes peppered with conifers as you sip your hot chocolate with a dash of liquor in hand sitting by a crackling old bonfire in a cosy wooden cottage. Classic picture that is of a winter in Europe.

Na, that was just my imagination taking me on a trip again; I dint experience any of that.

Instead I arrived to a gloomy Vienna, with sleet covered roads and sodden bare trees. For a few moments my heart sank and thought – may be all the guide books were right, maybe it was not a good idea to visit Vienna in January.

“We could have gone to any part of Europe, we have five days on our hands. No planning, no research... I don't like to travel this way,” says Yuktie, my sister and co-traveller. That's exactly the myth I wanted to test.

Tell me, has the weather at a destination ever stopped you from exploring? Say you want to travel to Australia and have vacations in January (for the uninitiated, it is the peak of summer in Australia in the month of January with temperatures going as high as 42°C) What would you do? Just cancel plans due to inconvenient weather? No you wont!

For me the pleasure is in exploring a city, a destination in every season, not just the best and maybe come up with fresh, new experiences. So after depositing my bags at my homestay, in a chilly -3°C I set out to explore the city, little did I know what awaited me on the other side. For want of boredom, Yuktie followed along.  
“We are in Vienna in January, I know its not the best season to visit, but what do you recommend we do?” I hear my sister ask a co-passenger in the tram as we headed to the central station.  He laughs and says there’s nothing much to do, but maybe you can go to the tourist office and see where that takes you from there.  
Sometimes I wonder why locals underestimate the magic of their home country, city. They have lived there all their life and cease to see magic in the mundane; but its different for a new set of eyes exploring a destination for the very first time. A good reason not to take a local’s suggestions too seriously.

On our way to the city centre Karlplatz, we walk toward the exit of the station and my feet take me a Starbucks cafe near the exit. "Where can I get a city map?" I ask at the counter. The barista is not of much help but a lady overhearing us invits us for a cuppa and we get chatting. Meet Kamini, the lady solely responsible for the fondest moments of serendipity I have experienced on my travels. An Indian by birth, Kamini has spent the past 20 years of her life in Vienna and was enjoying her evening post work cuppa with a friend when we her way. Half way through our heart-to-heart she says, “Come I’ll give you a quick orientation to the city." Could we have asked for a better welcome?

So even though the weather continued to be chilly and the wind chill made it even more so, the warmth from this new found friendship and the now uplifted spirits made it quite a bright and happy scene.

Vienna's Winter Wonders:

Rathaus (City Hall) ice skating rink: An absolute must, it will bring out the child in anyone.

Naschmarkt over the Wien river: An eclectic mix of flowers, spices, textiles and more from across the globe.   
Ballet at Vox Opera: When in Vienna, take a piece of its musical soul back with you.

UN Head Quarters: Take the train across the city over the Denube for a tour around the head quarters, just being there and absorbing in all the work they do is overwhelming.

St Stephens Cathedral: The soulful music from the church quire at the Sunday mass will stay with me forever.

Shopping at Karlsplatz city centre: For trinkets, chocolates, liquor and souvenirs and gawking at the magical show windows.

Sample a slice of Sacher-Torte at Hotel Sacher Cafe: Well you are in Europe, let the desert debauchery continue.

Mozarthaus: Let history tell you this great maestro's story, let his music and his tragedy enthrall your senses.

Go see Gustavv Klimt's painting The Kiss, I was mesmerised.

And if that was not enough Kamini's friend introduced us to Lalit Tikku, the owner of Kohinoor, an Indian restaurant, who we hit of off quit well with. When we dropped in at his restaurant the next day (I have yet to taste food as delicious in India as at his restaurant) he offered to drive us all the way to see Kharlenberg, which is Vienna's mountain top affluent paradise. Over a cup of Viennese coffee we enjoyed the view of Vienna city from a mountain top cafe. I never cease to be amazed by the happenstance of such moments and the quality of conversations that follow thereafter.

Kahlenberg panaroma terrace http://www.wien.info/en/sightseeing/green-vienna/Kahlenberg

- Tram no 1 takes you around the city, you need not hop on to a tourist bus if you don't like to be chaperoned around.
- Vox Theatre and Vox Opera are two different places. We made the mistake of going to the former when we had tickets booked for a ballet at the latter. Also if possible don’t buy opera tickets from the tourist centre, they charge double the actual price  
- If on a quick day or two trip to Vienna you can leave your bags at the Westbahnhof station lockers, they are a boon for travellers. 
- Open Wifi in public spaces: Rathhause, Nash Market, Hardrock Cafe, among others

One of my last interactions with a local in Vienna was on the train ride to the UN centre. its amazing how two people can understand eachover sometimes even without speaking the same language. While seeking directions to the UN, a lady showed us the right route and the right stop. We exchanged notes about our countries and just before we left to get off, in a way to bid us good bye she said, "Ram Ram!" Isn't that something!
I put my hands together in a traditional Indian pose and bid her goodbye with a Namaste.
Isn't this what gorgeous travel memories are made of?   

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