Food / Travel in Europe

Vienna Takes the Torte

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Vienna: a city of museums, cafes, and unforgettable torte. Molly and I arrived by train on Christmas Eve. From the U-Bahn, my new favorite metro system, we emerged into the sunshine, which glinted on the pastel-colored buildings bordering the Naschmarkt, a sprawling food market. Dropping our bags at our hostel, we ducked into the market to stock up on snacks. The Naschmarkt boasted cafes and bars, rows of produce, piles of cheeses, and all sorts of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean mezze. I bought eight falafel balls for a steal at €1, olive hummus, mixed olives, sun-dried tomatoes drenched in olive oil, and cherry tomatoes stuffed with a creamy cheese. How I’d missed hummus, which is tough to find in Alcalá. I free-sampled my way through the whole market. As the sun set we took a turn around the neighborhood; everything was closed early, except for the many Chinese grocers. Back at the hostel we cooked dinner then explored the MuseumsQuartier and checked out the Christmas lights, which draped in golden waterfalls and clusters above our heads. Then, to a quiet cafe for hot chocolate and baklava.

Street art in Vienna

Street art in Vienna

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Vienna was love at first sight. The city has this air of wealth and quiet dignity, the classical and traditional reigning supreme. Though I wouldn’t live there, it was lovely to step inside that world for a few days. On Christmas Day we struggled to find a breakfast spot that was open, finally settling on an overpriced cafe across from Belvedere Palace, our next stop. Belvedere Palace was built in the 18th century as the “recreational” summer palace for Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Upper and Lower Belvedere palaces and their gardens are world-renowned Baroque landmarks. We only bought tickets to the Upper Belvedere, which houses a variety of Austrian art stretching from the Middle Ages to the present, works by French Impressionists, and the world’s largest Gustav Klimt collection. I’m a big Klimt fan, which is how I justified the cliché of hanging a poster of The Kiss in my college dorm room. Klimt infuses many of his paintings with gold leaf, gentle pops of color, and delicate, intricate patterns. Seeing his paintings up close was a treat. To me, The Kiss is the most heartbreakingly romantic painting in the world. But, then again, I’m a hopeless romantic.

The Upper Belvedere

The Upper Belvedere

The Orangerie

The Orangerie

The Lower Belvedere

The Lower Belvedere

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After working our way through the collection we walked through the perfectly groomed palace gardens before making our way back to the hostel. Thanks to the lack of restaurants open on Christmas, we saved some euros by making lunch at the hostel. Despite a Skype session with my family, it didn’t truly feel like Christmas. Vienna was overflowing with Christmas cheer and decorations. But to me, Christmas means going to my church’s Christmas pageant, baking cookies, opening presents with my family, and seeing the current blockbuster at the Uptown Theatre in DC. Being removed from Christmas at home meant I could enjoy Christmas in Vienna without succumbing to homesickness.

Our next stop was Rathausplatz Christmas market, which turned out to be closed, but the town hall was striking against the deep blue evening sky and the park shone with lights.

The Rathaus (Town Hall)

The Rathaus (Town Hall)

The Rathaus (Town Hall)

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Vienna is known for its cafe culture and top notch pastries. So many of my suggested spots were closed that I was jubilant when we stumbled upon Café Central, a traditional Viennese cafe and favorite haunt of Freud, Trotsky, and Lenin (the latter two played chess there). It opened in 1876 and features the original fin-de-siècle (“end of the century”) design. With its high, vaulted ceilings, painted archways, and richly covered seating, it was quite possibly the classiest place to have coffee. Jacketed waiters spun through the café supporting silver trays of mouthwatering pastries while a piano player serenaded the patrons. I had a hot chocolate in a tall glass and a piece of Sachertorte, a dense chocolate cake with thin layers of apricot jam, coated in dark chocolate icing. Vienna is famous for its torte (rich layer cake), and Sachertorte is its specialty. In fact, December 5th is National Sachertorte Day. Our elegant foray into Viennese cafe culture reminded us how absurdly lucky we were to be able to experience all this.

Afterward, we meandered to the Hofburg Palace, surveying it from the outside. Horses pawed at the ground while their owners sat stiffly in carriages. In the busier shopping area near the palace, shimmering, gold Christmas lights in different designs adorned the streets. Someone played an outdoor piano to a cheery crowd. We happened upon Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which was holding its Christmas mass in German. It was a glorious cathedral and fit our mood perfectly. I often get tired of visiting so many cathedrals, but sometimes they still inspire awe and appreciation. They’re tranquil, heartening places, especially at Christmastime. After walking through the illuminated streets, we returned to the hostel and crashed. It wasn’t a bad Christmas at all.

Vienna's Christmas lights

Vienna, wrapped up like a Christmas present

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On my last day in Vienna, we set off for breakfast at Café Frauenhuber (say that ten times fast!), the oldest cafe in Vienna. I had a hefty portion of scrambled eggs with bacon mixed in, plus toast and a side salad of coleslaw (an Austrian thing I guess?). In keeping with my goal to eat as much cake as possible in Vienna, we immediately followed breakfast with dessert at Demel Café, a highly recommended pastry shop. It was a charming little spot with chandeliers and rows of lovely cakes arrayed under glass like jewelry. I ordered Demel’s specialty, the Senegaltorte: a heavy, sugary, almond-chocolate layer cake. We reveled in the decadence of it all. After all, dessert in the morning is just the thing to do on vacation.

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Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace

Demel Café

Demel Café

After walking a bit more, we hopped on the U-Bahn to Schloss Schöbrunn, another palace. The Christmas market outside had over 60 kiosks and plenty of food vendors selling fried food. There were delicate, hand-painted Christmas ornaments, giant pretzels, jams and honeys, little glass bottles of dessert wine and liquor, and other handmade goods. We bypassed the interior of the palace and walked up the great hill. After we glutted ourselves on the fantastic view of Vienna, we trekked down the hill and returned to the Christmas market near Hofburg palace. There I bought a completely unnecessary Belgian waffle with chocolate and banana. This is how I eat on vacation. I know these Christmas markets are expensive and mainly for tourists, but they’re still delightful and not at all tacky (ahem, Madrid).

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Schloss Schönbrunn

Me in front of Schloss Schönbrunn

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Christmas Market

Christmas Market

On the top of my list was the Hofbibliothek, or Nationalbibliothek, Vienna’s Baroque library. Only the great hall was open that late. It was grand and impressive, with high ceilings, ornate white walls, and grand staircases. (“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges.) Molly and I sat on a couch for a long time, completely exhausted. Constant walking and eating will do that to you. Finally we roused ourselves to pop into the nearby Michaelerkirche, St. Mark’s Church, then walk to a bakery. We ordered cake and coffee at Gerstner Baker (another recommendation, of course) and wrote in our journals until it closed. The all-cake diet, while delicious, was starting to wear me down. I needed a vegetable. Back at the hostel I waited with my bags before my overnight train to Krakow. Onward!

Stay classy, Vienna.

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Nationalbibliothek

Hofbibliothek

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