Wednesday, December 24, 2008

One Last Vienna Tidbit

I couldn't finish this travel log without mentioning the most unusual building I've probably ever seen: Hundertwasserhaus, undoubtedly one of Vienna's most visited sites. It's in the same District as my daughter's apartment, so we see it often. It's hard to take a picture of, but here is one view looking up.

Hundertwasserhaus is the creation of artist Friedenscreich Hundertwasser, a most unusual artist - a painter, sculptor, and architect. He was famous for his bold, unusual paintings, but he is best known for his revolutionary architectural designs. They imaginatively incorporate elements of the landscape and make use of irregular forms. He hardly ever uses straight lines, saying they are "the devil's tools". Just imagine a building with no straight lines!

The first building he designed was Hundertwasserhaus, which is basically public housing and remains so today - so you can only see it from the outside. He charged no fee for its design. It was built between 1983 and 1986, and features undulating floors ("an uneven floor is a divine melody to the feet"), a roof covered with earth and grass, and large trees growing from inside the rooms, with limbs extending from windows. You almost have to see it to believe it - but go to the link that shows Pictures - some are of the inside.

Go to History for other examples of his architectural creations. They are truly amazing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in Vienna

Although I did not spend Christmas in Vienna this visit, I did get to participate in one Christmas tradition - Christkindlmarkt - the Christmas Market.

In December, there are Christmas Markets all over Vienna - a tradition that goes back to the early 17th century. It's a outdoor market with lots of booths selling all manner of things: roasted chestnuts, wursts (sausages), gingerbread, pastries galore, candies, toys of all sorts, and other gift items. There is also entertainment, craft and other activities for kids, ponies to ride, christmas decorations.

Viennese visit these markets all during December, trying to visit them all. We went one evening, and it was jammed with people. The whole family comes - and they come in the evenings. We saw the "Christmas angel" who was accompanied by musicians and dancing throughout the crowd. Children loved her - I think she brings toys to Austrian children during the Christmas season. Not to be confused with ChristKindl, who is similar to Santa Claus and comes on Christmas Eve. There were also horses that look like our Clydesdales, full of bells, dancing through the crowds and amazingly not crushing any children. Maple made a candle at a crafts booth and was quite proud of herself. It was a wonderful, festive experience - and to think these people do it every night for a month! Sure beats going to the mall or WalMart.

Every market has hot alcoholic drinks of two varieties - spiced punch and mulled wine. You will hardly ever see a paper cup in Vienna. When you buy a drink at a market, it comes in a commemorative ceramic cup, included in the price. If you bring it back, they refund your deposit. The Christmas drinks are legendary - and most necessary. All this activity takes place outside - and it is VERY cold! This little Natchez girl was freezing her buns off - in spite of all manner of cold weather gear. But when I was drinking that punch, it warmed me all over - and it was delicious - full of spices and flavoring with berries at the bottom. YUM! Unfortunately, I could only drink one - because they are very powerful. The Viennese stay out there for hours, so I figure they must be able to hold their liquor a lot better than I can.

Here we are - Halane, Maple, and I - all bundled up, strolling down the street. Scott took the picture and is pushing Adele's stroller, where she can be zipped into fur.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gustav Klimt: Vienna's Most Prominent Painter

Gustav Klimt is almost a member of our family. Read on to see why.

Klimt (1862-1918) is Vienna's most famous artist. Like many artists of the time, he had a classical art education, and his early work was rather traditional. He started with interior murals and ceilings in public buildings. In 1892, both his father and his brother (with whom he painted) died, and he had to assume responsibilities for their families. This was said to have a strong impact on his painting - and he veered into a personal style of his own. He was a founder and the most prominent member of the Vienna Secession, which supported unconventional young artists.

Around this time, he was commissioned to paint three murals for the University of Vienna. These erotic and overtly sexual paintings caused a major public outcry and were never displayed - and were eventually destroyed by the Nazis. As a consequence, Klimt never took another public commission. However, he continued to be successful by painting for private sources and enjoyed positive critical acclaim.

One of the most famous of his paintings was The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer completed in 1907. The wealthy industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned this portrait of his wife Adele. Like many of his other paintings during this period, it features generous use of gold leaf - which makes for a stunning effect - and intricate mosaic patterns. The incredible details make it understandable why it took three years to complete.

This painting has an interesting history. In her will, Adele Bloch-Bauer indicated that she wished the painting to be donated to the Austrian State Gallery. She died in 1925, but her widowed husband had to flee Austria later when the Nazis took over, and all of his art - including this painting - was confiscated. The painting remained in Austria after the war, as Austria thought it was rightfully theirs because of the will. However, in 2006, after a lengthy court case, the painting was awarded to one of Ferninand Bloch-Bauer's nieces, living in California. It was sold at auction for $135 million (the highest price ever paid for an individual painting at the time) by Ronald Lauder for the Neue Galerie in New York.

Losing this painting was considered a national tragedy in Vienna. (Sort of like a court telling us we had to give the Statue of Liberty back to France.) Before the painting left Austria, everyone was invited to come say goodbye. The entire city was plastered with posters that said "Caio Adele". It was at this time that my daughter and her family moved to Vienna and immediately noticed these posters everywhere. They were very impressed with the story - and that a city was so in love with a painting. They decided if they ever had another girl, she would have to be named Adele.

In September 2007, they had a little girl born in Vienna - and her name is Adele.

While I was in Vienna, The Belvedere, which is a huge 18th Century palace that is now a museum of Austrian art, had a special exhibit in honor of Klimt and the 100th anniversary of the Secessionist 1908 Kunstschau (art exhibit). They attempted to replicate the exhibit as it was in 1908, borrowing originals whenever possible.

For this exhibit, our whole family went so we could pay homage to Adele's namesake. Unfortunately, the Neue Gallery would not loan that painting to the Belvedere, so there was only a replica. Adele did not seem to be bothered, but her older sister Maple was incensed. There were many other original Klimt paintings - as well as work by other artists. We purchased prints of the Adele painting in the museum shop, and Maple was appeased by getting a bookmark with the Adele painting - which she used religiously until I left.

So you see why we consider Adele and Klimt part of our family.

Vienna: A City of Culture II

Vienna's love of music extends to the visual arts. There are so many quality museums that I doubt I will ever visit them all.

On this visit, I started with the Albertina, a grand Viennese palace built in 1744 and named after the collections' founder, Duke Albert, a son in law of Empress Maria Theresa, who received the palace as a gift from the Emperor in 1794 - nice gift! It stayed in the family until 1919, when the newly formed Republic of Austria "expropriated" the palace and the art collection. Like much of Vienna, it suffered serious bomb damage during World War II, but it has been meticulously restored.

My reason for visiting at this time was to see the Van Gogh Exhibit, which included fifty of his paintings and a hundred of his watercolors and drawings. I have always been a Van Gogh fan and seeing his actual work was inspiring. It was the last day of the exhibit and a national holiday, and the place was jammed! Just another example of how Viennese love art. The crowds made it difficult to view the art, but it was worth it.

While at the Albertina, I noticed a permanent exhibit entitled Monet to Picasso. Well, I was in heaven! There were over 500 paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Signac, Chagall, Rothko, Munch, and others. Plus this section had recently been reopened after renovations - and there were no crowds. I guess this exhibit was old hat to the Viennese.

I also visited another art museum, but that one requires its own article.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vienna: A City of Culture I

Vienna is known for its cultural attractions - especially music. December is the beginning of opera season, when people come from all over Europe. Last time I was here during the opera season, we were unable to get tickets, but this year we were lucky. We saw Verdi's Don Carlos, performed in Italian. I don't know what was more impressive - the performance or the opera house.

You must check out the Vienna Opera House, which was built in the mid 1800s. (For a special treat, check out the panoramic views available here.) It suffered bomb damage during World War II but was meticulously restored, with some modern safety and acoustical modifications. We had fantastic seats on the front row of the middle row of box seats toward the center. One really neat modern convenience was a small screen in front of each seat that translates the lyrics into the language of your choice - but can only be viewed from directly in front, so it is not a distraction.

Opera tickets are very expensive, but there are a large number of standing room only seats that are very reasonable. They become available the day before the performance, and people stand in line for hours to buy them. Although the opera audience is exceeding formal and polite, those in the standing sections are known to be more rowdy - showing enthusiastic appreciation of good performances and displeasure with poor performances. Since the most popular standing section was below us, I checked them out periodically, and they seemed to approve.

The opera lasted almost four hours with one long intermission, during which the opulent public rooms offered food and beverage for sale. We settled for a bottle of water and spent our time admiring the rooms and their occupants.

The opera orchestra is composed of members of the Vienna State Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the best in the world, and is as impressive as the singers themselves.

Music is to Vienna as football is to America. The streets of Vienna are full of street performers, but not the kind we are used to. You can see opera singers and violinists performing for tips - trying to earn a living until they can make it to the big time.

To be continued.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Around and About Vienna

We did eventually make it outside to see Vienna, even though the granddaughters had passed their colds to their grandmother. We started with a stroll around the neighborhood, which is right downtown.

Vienna is a very interesting city. The first thing you notice is how clean it is - and it's virtually crime free. The only crime that is prevalent is pickpocketing, so if you protect yourself against that, you'll have no problems. The streets tend to be narrow, so the cars are small. Another reason for small cars is the price of gas, which is highly taxed to discourage use. And parking is expensive and very hard to come by. However, you really don't need a car in Vienna - you can get anywhere on very affordable and convenient public transportation.

Viennese are Germanic in language and culture - and they always obey the rules. For example, on escalators a sign says to stay to the right. If you forget, someone is sure to remind you. And you never cross the street until the traffic light says to walk. Viennese are not friendly - in fact, I think they are rude. This is quite shocking to someone from the overly friendly town of Natchez.
As we wandered around downtown, we saw lots of small stores. Chain stores and large stores are virtually nonexistent. (I did see a McDonalds and a Starbucks.) Bakeries are everywhere - and they are awesome. Not only do they have breads and incredible pastries, but they have sandwiches and beverages. They sort of serve as the fast food of Vienna.

We also saw many outdoor food vendors - mostly bratwurst. And they were many open air markets with fresh fruits and vegetables, along with other goodies. However, you get very confused in looking at prices, because their commas and periods are backwards. For example (using $ instead of euros since that sign is not on my computer), if something costs $1,598.75, they would show it as $1.598,75.

There are no bargains here. Almost everything is more expensive than in the States. One reason is that the taxes are built into the prices, and their taxes are higher. But the Austrians get a lot for their taxes - like an excellent health care system which covers everyone.

All in all, I could easily live here, but my daughter just moved into an apartment without an extra bedroom, so I guess I'll have to come home.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I'm in Vienna - Sort of

The trip was loooong, but I made it. On the Memphis to Amsterdam leg, I was seated next to a woman on her way to Kenya. She lives in Memphis now but was originally from Kenya, and she was on her way home for a visit. She knew the Obama relatives there, and talked about how excited the country was that he was elected. A meal was served shortly after takeoff, and following that meal she went to sleep and I was reading.

Europe is 7 hours ahead of us, so I was having a time dilemma. To my body, it was about 8 pm, but it was really 3 am where I was headed. I was hoping the reading would eventually put me to sleep. Since airplanes are noisy places - loud talking, snoring, babies cyring - I put in the earphones and played soothing classical music. Around midnight my time, I was getting sleepy, so I turned off the light and started to drift off.

Through the haze of my sleepiness and the music in my ears, I became aware that my seatmate was talking - but I couldn't understand her. I took out the earphones and realized she wasn't talking to me - but talking to herself. She had seemed perfectly rational before, so I tried to listen to what she was saying. About all I could understand was that she didn't feel good, so I called for the flight attendant. She talked to her for a while, and then asked over the PA system for a medical doctor. In the meantime, I had to move so the woman could stretch out across the two seats. The doctor spent quite a long time with her, and finally the flight attendant told me she thought she would be okay. She was sleeping with oxygen.

Needless to say, there was no sleeping for me after that. As I left the plane I talked to the Kenyan woman, who said she was much better, but was going to the medical facilities at the airport for a check up. My flight from Amsterdam to Vienna was fairly short, and I had no opportunity for sleep.

People always wish you a safe trip, and they're thinking of the planes. However, I knew I was about to enter the most dangerous part of my trip - the taxi ride in Vienna - but I survived.

I went to bed early (around 9:30 pm) and slept like a dead person. For the past two days, we have not left the house. My two granddaughters are sick with coughs and cold, and the weather outside is very cold. We stayed inside and played and had a great time - but it doesn't make for a very interesting travel log. Today (Tuesday) we vow we are going to go outside for at least a brief visit - since we're getting cabin fever. So maybe my next post will be able to describe Vienna!