If you missed Part 1, you can catch up HERE
Welcome back to my “book pilgrimage” in honour of Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground! – combined with my 20th wedding anniversary special trip!
After a wonderful time in Salzburg and a magical stay at a 12th century castle hotel in the Austrian Alps – just like the one in Mary Stewart’s book! (you can read about these in Part 1) – we set off to drive across the country to Vienna. It isn’t a great distance (you can drive from Salzburg, at the northern edge of the Austrian Alps, to Vienna in about 4 hours) – but we enjoyed a leisurely pace, stopping off at interesting places along the way.
In particular, we made a stop at a tiny little village called Hallstatt, perched on the edge of an alpine lake, in the middle of the beautiful Salzkammergut region… like something straight out of a postcard!
The area is famous for its ancient salt mines and Hallstatt was once the home of the salt miners and their families. Its isolation (there is only one way in or out: through a tunnel cut into the side of the mountains) means the village has remained “preserved” in all its quaintness and historic beauty…
It was picture perfect, like something in a children’s storybook, with traditional, pastel-coloured houses built into the side of the mountains and picturesque little shops and cafes lining the winding streets. And of course, a spectacular alpine lake on its doorstep…
The village was a bit overrun with tourists – I felt quite sorry for the residents who had to deal with huge tour groups and clicking cameras daily – but I suppose that’s what happens when you live in a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Hallstatt wasn’t really part of my “book pilgrimage” since it isn’t featured in Mary Stewart’s novel – and I couldn’t figure out a way to include it in Gemma’s and the Old Biddies’ adventures either! – but I’m really glad we made the detour to visit it. I think it would be a fantastic setting for a suspenseful mystery, especially with its isolation and atmospheric location… Imagine being snowed in there, with a murderer on the loose… Oooh! Maybe a book idea for the future! 🙂
Something that WAS on my book pilgrimage bucket list was staying at a gasthof – a traditional Austrian guesthouse.
In fact, I wanted to find one exactly like the guesthouse described in Airs Above the Ground, with a window overlooking a meadow, cows lowing in the distance and a charming little room filled with pine furniture (my husband drew the line at re-enacting the climbing-in-through-the-balcony scene, though! 😉 ).
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a similar-enough gasthof to stay in – but I did see one as we were en route to Vienna! So we decided to stop there for lunch instead; hey – if you can’t stay there, eating there is the next best thing! 😉
I was very impressed with the menu – it was a work of art, with beautiful illustrations of the dishes on each page (just as well, since the menu was all in German!)
Before we knew it, we were driving into the outskirts of Vienna and navigating the streets of Austria’s capital.
It was strange, after driving through the mountains and open countryside for so long, to suddenly be back in an urban environment… well, Vienna is probably as romantically beautiful as an “urban environment” can ever get! 😉
Every street corner seemed to reveal yet another stunning historic building – and since we arrived late at night, everything was beautifully lit up…
Of course, the first thing we had to do on our first night in Vienna was go for “champagne cocktails at the Blue Bar” in the iconic Sacher Hotel – just like in Mary Stewart’s book!
I can’t tell you how excited I was! It was like meeting a celebrity idol face-to-face at last. The place was just as grand and opulent as Mary Stewart had described in her novel…
… and the Blue Bar was just as she had described too: an intimate cave-like space, with brocade blue walls, velvet seats, gold gilt and sumptuous chandeliers…
To be honest, I’m not much of a drinker and I don’t think I really enjoyed the taste of the champagne cocktail that much (it was VERY strong too!) but I think I was more drunk on the excitement of being in the Blue Bar at last, than anything else! 😉
In spite of that heady champagne cocktail, I was up bright and early the next morning, ready to tackle the sights of Vienna!
We were staying in the Innere Stadt – the historic heart of the city, encircled by the Ringstrasse (the Ring Road) – and so all the main sights of Vienna were within easy walking distance, from the Gothic splendours of St Stephen’s Cathedral to the Baroque majesty of the Hofburg Palace…
Although it is also filled with historic buildings and romantic architecture, Vienna felt very different to Salzburg. It is on a “grander” scale and there is much more of the energy and pace of a bustling capital city.
Having said that, there were so many times when I looked up at the centuries-old Baroque palaces and museums around me, and felt like I had stepped right back in time or perhaps fallen into the pages of a storybook…
One of the huge statues of Hercules guarding the main palace gates at Michaelerplatz
I loved the way you could turn a corner and find a cosy cafe beside a tranquil fountain, hidden in a beautiful vaulted arcade…
All that walking around sure works up an appetite! So it’s lucky that there are so many wonderful coffeehouses in Vienna. One of the most famous – and a must-visit for anyone with a sweet tooth – is Demel , which has the most gorgeous displays in its windows. Even if you weren’t hungry, you’d be tempted inside!
And the interior lives up to the promise: an opulent 18th century salon filled with shelves of cakes, pastries and sweets, and where you can even observe the pastry chefs working on their creations…
A little canine resident of Vienna… the original “Wiener Dog”! 😉
It was amazing for me to see how dog-friendly Vienna was – I saw dogs accompanying their owners into restaurants and cafes, shops, department stores… even the bank! Nobody batted an eyelid and the dogs were all so well-behaved (probably BECAUSE they get taken everywhere all the time)
Here are some dogs I saw in a big department store (yes, all of them, in the same store at the same time!) –
It was so weird to be up on the 4th floor, browsing the displays, and then to turn around and see a little pug waddling past the cashmere sweaters – and everybody else just walking around, completely unconcerned…!
I just can’t imagine that happening here in Australia – or in any of the other countries I’ve lived in. I love how dog-friendly Europe is and I wish more countries could be like that.
Of course, Vienna might have a lot of doggie residents but it’s really a “city of horses”. Especially in the Innere Stadt – everywhere you went, you could hear the rhythmic clop-clop-clop of hooves, as horse-drawn carriages circled the streets.
And yes, I confess to being a complete tourist and eagerly getting into one of those beautiful carriages for a tour of the Old Town…!
But the real equine stars of the city are, of course, the majestic Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School. They are housed in the Imperial Stables, which is a beautiful arcaded courtyard that is part of the Hofburg Palace complex.
And we had a lovely surprise one morning – we just happened to be walking past the stable courtyard when we met the stallions returning from their morning exercise! It was such a thrill seeing them. Even without their gold bridles, red velvet saddles and other show finery, they were magnificent.
Oh, they’re not large horses but they have such a majestic presence – that combination of powerful muscular body with the finely sculpted heads and beautiful dark eyes. And of course, that snowy white coat and silken mane (although we saw quite a few younger stallions who were still dappled grey). They look just like the horses you see in classical paintings of mythology and war.
And it was also very impressive to see so many entire stallions all walking docilely in a line together.
It wasn’t as if they lacked spirit – the photos don’t capture it but there was quite a bit of snorting & stamping and little bursts of playfulness – but they just had such lovely temperaments.
They were also very inquisitive and interested in us – the adoring tourists; you could see that Lipizzaners are real “people horses” – which is probably one reason why they’re so good to work with and why they were chosen as the horses to train in advanced “haute ecole” dressage.
I had booked tickets for the Lipizzaner performance months in advance and I can’t tell you how excited I was when we finally arrived at the Spanish Riding School for the show.
Oh my goodness, even before we saw the stallions, we were stunned by the beauty of the Winter Riding School, where the performance was to be held.
It looked like a magnificent ballroom, complete with chandeliers, ornate stucco and Grecian columns… except with soft sand instead of a dance floor!
There are two galleries (levels) where spectators can watch the horses and they were all packed, even though tickets sell out months in advance. It was amazing.
Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph or video the horses while they were performing – and they had quite strict ushers going around enforcing that rule! – so I couldn’t get any photos to show you.
But I did find a wonderful video from the Vienna tourism board which features Hannah Zeitlhofer, the first female rider at the Spanish Riding School, and shows some behind-the-scenes footage of the School, the stables (including a glimpse of the stable cat! And also one of the rare dark Lipizzaners who is kept at the school as a lucky omen).
It also includes a short montage of the Lipizzaners performing, as well as a little of Vienna… Enjoy! 🙂
(If you can’t see the video, view on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHvd36v2CAA )
After the performance, we eagerly joined the official tour of the Spanish Riding School, where we were taken into the stables and even got to meet the stallions in their stalls! (Sadly, again, we weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the stables, although I did get a few of the stallions looking out into the courtyard…)
My goodness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such pampered horses. They each have a stall the size of a small apartment, filled with straw, with two sets of doors – one opening out into the courtyard so they could look out and enjoy the view; each horse has its own diet sheet on its stall, with its personalised mix of organic grain, and they each take turns in the solarium for heat therapy for their muscles.
Of course, they do work hard as well – training every morning and performing once a week in the Winter Riding School. But they get a holiday (vacation) each summer when there are no performances at the School and they can spend several weeks relaxing in the countryside in Lower Austria.
Here are some pictures from the “Tack Room”, where we were allowed to take photos. I don’t know which was more impressive – the beautiful craftmanship of the saddles and bridles or the perfect efficiency with which they were organised!
Well, after all that excitement, there was only one way to finish the day: with some cakes & pastries at one of Vienna’s most famous traditional coffee houses: Cafe Central
As you can probably tell from the line in front of the door (yes, that was there every day we passed the cafe!) – this Vienna institution is one of the most popular tourist attractions. And it’s easy to see why! Aside from the gorgeous location – all high vaulted ceilings, Art Deco chandeliers and marble columns – the range of pastries and cakes on offer is mouthwatering!!
The way it works is, you go up to the circular display unit in the centre of the room and oggle to your heart’s content 😉 – each type of cake or pastry has a number and when you’ve made your selection(s), you go back to your table and tell the numbers to your waiter – who then brings you each cake on a little plate.
My husband very sensibly ordered just one slice (a salted caramel, creme brulee cake with peanut brittle, that he still dreams about!) but for me… well, OK, my eyes might have been bigger than my stomach…! 😉
I felt slightly ill afterwards but it was worth every delicious mouthful!
With so much bread, cake and pastries consumed during the day, by the time it got to dinner, I usually only wanted a light meal. But one night, we made an exception and headed to Placutta, a restaurant renowned for its Tafelspitz – a traditional Viennese dish of boiled beef I know it doesn’t sound very exciting but trust me, it actually tasted very good!
What was fascinating was that it wasn’t just a dish – there was a whole ritual to the way you eat it and the friendly waiters happily took us through the steps. First, you had a bowl of the flavoursome beef broth (accompanied by traditional soup fillings, such as noodles, dumplings or slivers of crepe).
Then you scoop out some of the rich marrow from the beef bones and spread it on toasted black bread, seasoned with salt and pepper (I have to admit – I skipped this step!!).
Finally, the tender beef was lifted out of the broth and served with fried potato rosti, vegetables, chive sauce and horse radish with apple. This part was delicious! 😉
As you can probably imagine, I gained a lot of weight during our trip in Austria – haha! But the only good thing is – despite eating so much cake, pastry and other sweet treats at every meal – I did walk a lot of it off everday while out sightseeing.
That’s one of the nicest things about European cities – which I really miss since moving out Down Under: you can walk everywhere so easily! When we lived in Oxford, we didn’t have a car for the 8yrs we were there and we never missed it. I had a bike for longer distances or I took the train to London – but otherwise, I just walked everywhere.
Australia is much more like the U.S. with vast distances and inadequate public transport networks outside the centre of big cities, so you really need a car and most of the time you drive. (The weather is also unbearably hot during the summer months so you wouldn’t want to walk anyway!) So you don’t get to incorporate exercise so easily as part of your daily routine – you have to make time to go for walks or go to the gym, etc.
Anyway, so we walked TONS in Vienna. Even if we set out to visit one museum for the day, we’d end up walking for hours around the galleries.
One of the best art galleries to visit is the famous Belvedere Palace, which was originally the summer residence of an European prince and now houses a wonderful selection of Austrian art dating from the Middle Ages, including the world’s largest collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings.
The museum had cleverly placed a reproduction of Klimt’s “The Kiss” in its foyer, with a sign inviting tourists to take a selfie with it… and my husband and I couldn’t resist attempting a silly re-enactment. What do you think? Are we close? 😉
Built for the Austrian royal family to enjoy, it is one of the most beautiful Art Nouveau Palm Houses in the world and it houses hundreds of free-flying tropical butterflies in a re-creation of their natural environment. The temperature is kept at a constant 27°C and 80% humidity (you really feel it when you step in!)
It was amazing – and a bit surreal – to walk into a tropical greenhouse in the middle of an European city and see all these gorgeous butterflies just flitting past you, feeding from flowers nearby or even landing on your finger…!
And finally – I’m sure you’re all thinking: “How can you go to Vienna and not taste a Sacher-Torte?”
Don’t worry, before we left, we made sure to visit the Sacher Cafe to sample this famous Viennese creation. I have to confess, I was greedy again and I ordered the “Sacher Tower” which included not just the Sacher-Torte but also three other levels of delectable sweet treats (yes, once again, Gemma’s experience in APPLE STRUDEL ALIBI was inspired by my own! 😉 ) – and it looked like a work of art itself when it arrived.
But I’m afraid I didn’t do it justice. Even with my husband helping me, I couldn’t finish it (and I’d ordered a hot chocolate too… what on earth was I thinking??!!)
There were so many other wonderful sights (like the spectacular Schönbrunn Palace) and so many more photos (I took over 6,000 photos during our trip in Austria – not kidding!! 😉 ) – but I’d better stop before this blog post turns into a novel – haha!
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed coming along on my “book pilgrimage” in Austria and sharing in my 20th wedding anniversary trip! For those of you who have read APPLE STRUDEL ALIBI (Book 8 in my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries), I hope you enjoyed seeing some of the places that inspired the story.
And if you haven’t been yet, perhaps one day you might like to make your own trip to the land of Lipizzaner stallions, fairy-tale castles and apple strudel! 🙂
I’ll leave you with a cute sign that I saw in one of the cafés we visited… isn’t this a great philosophy? 😉