Day Five: Vienna, forget the coffee

Gray skies and raindrops greeted our shore excursion into Vienna, Austria. The good news— the rain wasn’t coming down in buckets, and the temperature was tolerable.

True to form, our tour guides took control on the ride into the city pointing out landmarks, and prepping us for our walking tour.

My first impression about Vienna is its size. Sources indicate a population close to two million people. Some round that out to 2.9 million in the metropolitan area.

But despite its size, Vienna has all the visual nuggets and history an old North Carolina raised boy could appreciate.

Our first landmark was the Hofburg Palace. The building’s construction started in the 13th century with multiple additions and renovations along the way. Today, the building is the residence and office for the President of Austria.

One section of the Hofburg Palace (photo by Bill Pike)

The exterior architecture is impressive. But, what caught my eye was a domed ceiling in one of the archways.

Domed ceiling in archway at the Hofburg Palace
(Photo by Bill Pike)

Later we returned to the Hofburg to the Imperial Treasury to view the crowned jewels. I can only begin to imagine the craftsmanship and the tedious work that went into these creations.

Our guide directed us to St. Stephen’s Cathedral with a word of caution—pickpockets. So before entering the packed church, we all completed a quick assessment of our essential valuables.

The towers of the cathedral have long been a cherished part of the Vienna skyline, and yes, it is ancient—1137 was its groundbreaking. And with lots of old things, there has been lots of wear and tear over the centuries, but even if you aren’t a big fan of church buildings, you must take a gander at the interior.

Interior St. Stephen’s Cathedral
(Photo by Bill Pike)

From the cathedral we walked back into the Stephansplatz square intent on finding one of the many highly recommended coffee cafes that the Viking staff and tour guides had suggested. We found a couple of them, but they were packed and the lines were long.

So, we walked back into the square and found a place who had covered seating outside its entrance.

Now, I’m not a coffee aficionado. When I was a kid, I’d fix a cup of coffee, and add what seemed like a pint of whole milk and at least a pound of sugar, and it tasted pretty good. The aroma of coffee is very tempting, but I’m still a coffee abstainer.

But, at this cafe, my wife and I found something better—Italian hot chocolate with fresh cream. I would go back to Vienna for another slurp of this divine creation. Add to it a perfect piece of apple strudel, and I would die a happy man.

Cardiologist delight (Photo by Betsy Pike)

After that nourishment, we did some more exploring, and then we had a meeting of the minds, and we each went in separate directions.

Our daughter, Elizabeth, in college had taken multiple classes in art history, and she wanted to visit the Belvedere. This is where an artist she admires, Gustav Klimt, has his most famous work, The Kiss, on display.

Luckily, Elizabeth had good navigational skills, and we made the long walk to the Belvedere. As you might have guessed, the Belvedere is no dumpy place. In fact, it is a palace, the Upper and the Lower along with the Orangery and the Palace Stables.

Belvedere (Photo Bill Pike)

Lots and lots of people were at the Belvedere, but it was worth the long walk. The grounds are immense, the buildings, and the art showcased are as Gomer would say, “a sight to behold.”

Interior ceiling in the Belvedere (Photo by Bill Pike)

From the Belvedere, we walked back toward the center of Vienna, and at some point our feet and legs told us to find a taxi ride back to the ship. Luckily, our driver was a native of Vienna, and knew exactly where to take us.

Once back at the ship, I decided to take a short walk along the banks of the Danube. Both sides of the river had nice wide paved paths. I had thought about bringing my running gear, but reasoned that I didn’t have room in my suitcase.

From the ship, I walked up to the next bridge that crossed the river. Along the way, I saw a few swans along the edge of the bank. Fall was changing the color of tree leaves, and a few people were out for a stroll.

Back at the ship, our evening schedule was different. We had our port talk about the plans for Sunday, but there were two excursions taking place tonight: a Mozart and Strauss concert and a Heurigen event. A heurigen takes place at a tavern that showcases wines of Austria. Here the focus is on sampling new wines of the local winemakers.

From our family group of eight, four were going to the concert, and four of us were opting for the normal dinner on the ship. To accommodate these excursions, guests were asked to eat in shifts. Those going on the excursions ate dinner earlier with a 6 p.m. start. Our time for dinner was 7:30.

Since we were traveling with family, we ate all of our meals with family.

But this evening, that template would change.

My wife, our daughter, and my wife’s brother found a table. The four of us sat down, and we had a couple of extra seats.

As we and other guests were getting settled in, a couple walked by our table. In passing, I heard the woman say to herself, I can’t believe there isn’t another table for two set up. She seemed frustrated, and as the couple turned to pass our table again, I stood up, and gently asked if they would like to join our table.

I have no idea what nudged me out of my comfort zone, but the couple graciously accepted the invitation to join us.

Over dinner, we learned about Nikki and John, and they learned about us. Humor cushioned the initial awkward jitters, stories were shared, and for the remainder of the trip we always checked in with each other.

There was an extra bonus as a late night snack on this evening. The chef had prepared a Goulash Soup. Since my biological clock was out of sync, I managed to stay awake for a sample, and I’m glad I did. The soup had a deep paprika color, and its rich broth with bits of beef and potato was yummy.

One thing that has been tucked in the back of mind with this trip has been World War II. In Stephen Ambrose’s book, The Wild Blue, the author wrote about bombing missions that were flown by Army Air Corp pilots and their crews in B-24 bombers.

Vienna because of its refineries and marshaling yards was often a target. Before taking off, crews received very detailed briefings about the weather conditions, the specific target, and what to expect from enemy resistance. For Vienna, the pilots and their navigators were told “to stay well away from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera House, the palace, and other historic buildings, and schools.” (Page 229, Ambrose Blue Yonder)

I can only imagine the tension, pressure, and fear the crews on those B-24 bombers felt during those missions. And, I have no comprehension what the tension, pressure, and fear felt like to a citizen in Vienna on the ground with bombs falling out of the sky.

Scars from a war are never erased.

But, I’m thankful that evil was confronted, and that Vienna endured.

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