Sunday, September 18, 2011

Austria, home of Almdudler!!

Schengen. The first hint J and I got that we had left Slovenia and entered Austria was a change of phone network. After a few hours of rolling through excruciatingly quaint Austrian countryside, interspersed with sips of Almdudler, the national soft drink, we arrived at Vienna Meidling Hauptbahnhoff. We were greeted warmly by one of my oldest friends R (I tend to sprinkle them around the world), and took the embarrassingly efficient u-bahn to their new flat in Leopoldstadt.

R has always lived in places much too nice for a university student, and this place was no exception. From artistic light fittings to high tech windows, and a shower that requires regular consultation of an instruction manual to use, J and I immediately came to terms with the prospect of a few days of comfort and compulsory gourmet indulgence.

In the afternoon we went to the old Danube channel for a swim. J, R, and I amused ourselves watching slackliners falling in, while C indulged in a 50 minute swim in the frigid green waters.

That evening J went for a wander through the Viennese streets while R, C, R's friend L and I went to the city hall to see what had been described as 'acrobatics and vivaldi'.

What it was slightly exceeded that description. In celebration of 40 years of diplomatic relations between Austria and China, a show was prepared. All the dignitaries were present, including the Chinese ambassador, a Chinese vice-premier, an Austrian minister of parliament and a city representative. The stage was decorated with lights and a giant projector screen. The show consisted of an Austrian ballerina dancing a movement of Vivaldi's four seasons, followed by Chinese acrobatics to slightly more varied music. While the ballet was excellent, the acro was astonishing.

I have previously seen a Chinese acro show in Beijing, roughly Nov 28, 2006, sections of which I filmed and put on YouTube. This show was just as mind-blowing.

The usual routine consisted of some props etc used in the most obvious way, and then more and more crazy until it was at least two orders of magnitude beyond the impossible. Highlights included a choreographed routine on giant unicycles with bowls being balanced in heads and thrown back and forth by foot, a human pretzel pyramid, hand stands on hand stands, balance poles on balance poles, people balancing en pointe on someone's head, and an inverted flipping drums routine that culminated in people being flipped from foot to foot.

Next day J and I hit the city and saw most of the famous buildings in a two hour jaunt across the city, including the interior of the Votivkirche, which I had never seen before. Next on the agenda was meeting C and R for lunch at the Vienna University. I learnt most of my physics in the Vienna University in 2005, so I made sure to check in on the old lab. Together with half a dozen colleagues we dined at a popular nearby Italian place. I had penne alla napolitano (I think), and it was one of the nerdiest lunches I've had in quite a while!

That evening we took a tram to the northern part of Vienna, another UNESCO listed village that specializes in wines. At this time of year, however, you can get sturm, which is newly fermenting grape juice. Translucent, bubbling, sweet, and mildly alcoholic, it is a seasonal treat only. I opted for most, which is unfermented grape juice, otherwise known as diabetes in a glass!

Next day J, R and I went present shopping. We found a cool shop near stefansplatz that sold bottles of everything. After the compulsory Viennese wurst, we visited an interesting market to buy more sturm, and rounded out the trip with a quick jaunt up the dome at Karlskirche.

Now on my fourth visit, the extraordinary architecture of Karlskirche is augmented by a scaffold that permits visitors to climb into the highest part of the dome, and to appreciate the ceiling art at close quarters. I also noticed access paths next to the windows, so presumably a more organic view is also possible. For me, the highlight of this church is the way skylights above the chapels mesh geometrically with windows on the second gallery level.

We put J on a train to the airport, and, despite a very rare service disruption, he made it! C and I headed to the Votivkirche (site of an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the emperor Franz Josef in the mid 19th century) for an organ concert, which sadly was cancelled. Instead we worked on the style of his thesis until R turned up, at which point I ditched him for a walk around the city to catch up on news! That evening I made some Gula Melaka, but the result was not as successful as the attempt in Philadelphia.

Next day C and I celebrated his posted draft thesis by going for a run. As C is a competitive triathlete, I rode his bike as we clocked 21km in 90 minutes along the charming though skinny Danube island. We saw a floating highschool, and to the end C talked easily while explaining the philosophy that sweat is just muscles crying.

That afternoon we drove with S and a different R to Kematen an der Krems, C's home town in the north of Austria, for a wedding. We made a side trip to C's cousin's nursery, which had a herb garden with hundreds of varieties! One of C's dozen or so cousins is a piano builder by trade, and he showed us his self-restored Bosendorfer, which was terrific! Back at C's house his mother fed us ad exploseum, after which poppy seed cake for dessert treated us all to extraordinary lucid dreams.

Next day after a similarly enormous breakfast, C and R dropped me at the Wels railway station, where I took a train to Salzburg to catch up with R's family.

I had previously spent a few days (20-22 Dec 2006) with them just before Christmas. It had been an oasis of order and calories between 3 weeks in Siberia and 2 penniless weeks in Italy on my first major trip overseas, so I had very fond memories. This time, only R's mother C and younger sister S (now all grown up) were present. I spent the day talking, playing music, including a terrific duet of Phantom of the Opera with S, and enjoying the wonders of Salzburg. S and I went to check on her horse C, who is now old but happy, and I also took 5 minutes to reacquaint myself with the Salzburgdom. It is one of my favourite cathedrals as it has four separate pipe organs on each of the four pillars of the central dome. Apparently they are sometimes played in concert, even with improvisation. S left for a party, so C and I walked into the town once more and talked about the intervening five years. At length it was time to board a train back to Vienna, but not before I was gifted with a packed though comprehensive dinner. The hospitality was so lovely I was confused whether they wanted me to come back, or to be so embarrassed I should never return!!

There is nothing quite like flying along rails at 200km/h in silence and eerily still comfort. I have no idea how the tracks are kept so level. Three hours of cruising beneath the rising yellow moon and I was back in Vienna. I packed, laundered, and before long, C and R arrived, having survived a north Austrian wedding!

Next day I woke, ate, chatted, and all too soon it was time to say goodbye. The train pulled out from Praterstern and I was already on my way to Spain.

UPDATE: Photos.

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