How to Sneak into the Vienna State Opera

Vienna, Austria • July 2016 • Length of Read: 10 Minutes

The following extract has been adapted from my self-published paperback travel book, We Ordered A Panda: Tales of City-Hopping Around Europe. If you enjoy this post, then please visit my online bookshop for more details.

Shaking off two large hangovers, the result of a night spent adhering to Vienna’s absurd drinking traditions, Lara and I met Lukas for a leisurely Saturday brunch at the Zweitbester Café in the Austrian capital’s 4th District. My old flat-mate had offered to act as a local tour guide for the weekend, and taking his self-appointed role very seriously, came strolling round the corner with a guidebook in hand; a proposed agenda for the day already mapped out in his head.

As I tucked into a lovely dish of eggs benedict, Lukas suggested that we first take a stroll into the Innere Stadt of Vienna, where the majority of sites and attractions are situated. Enclosed by a ring-road, one could briskly walk across the diameter of this 1st District in about 20 minutes, but the number of fascinating buildings and places within this map-dot means that it will more likely take you in the region of 4 hours to complete the trip. Between getting purposefully lost in the maze of back-alley cobbles; to the premium pedestrianised fashion avenues; to the museums, monuments, and cafes, this area is a cultural hub that showcases a well-preserved timeline of the city’s development and influences over the centuries.

The Habsburg Monarchy has been the most consistently influential power in the region since the signing of the Treaty of Vienna in 1515. Through marriage, this dynasty ruled a vast portion of Europe within the Holy Roman Empire, with the head of the Austrian branch of the House of Habsburg acting as Emperor. Vienna was their capital from 1526-1806, aside from a brief 28 year ousting to Prague, and their Swiss origins, at the turn of the 17th Century. Knowingly over-simplifying proceedings, and at the risk of deploring my own ignorance, there appears to be three prominent figures from this long line of descendants who have shaped the landscape more than any others, both politically and physically: Franz Joseph I; his wife, Empress Elizabeth (i.e. Sissi); and Rudolph IV. Okay, enough of the history lesson.

Think of Franz Joseph as the star of the show for our little journey, with Sissi as his leading lady. Both are buried in the Imperial Crypt, along with 145 members of their ancestry, and for €5.50 you can wander between the exorbitant sarcophagi and pay tribute to the deceased. As we would find out, this unusual price seemed to be the going rate of entry for nearly every tourist attraction in the city. The pair have been placed side-by-side in death, and the numerous fresh bouquets of flowers and token gestures littered around their headstone plaques signified how adored they still are, a whole century after their passing. Rudolph IV on the other hand, who lived a full 500 years before this power couple, is buried in a different crypt under St Stephen’s Cathedral. Now we have some background, let the tour truly commence…

Of Vienna’s top-5 architectural behemoths, the Cathedral stands out like a dagger in the heart of the city. The construction of this was initiated by Rudolph IV, but will sadly never be completed. One of the Cathedral’s two towers stands stump-like in contrast to its grandiose sibling, but that takes nothing away from the beauty and scale of this medieval place of worship.

After wandering through the catacombs of this structure, a well-to-do tour guide spitting facts at us for €5.50, we decided it might be a good idea to get some sunlight. Meandering around the tourist precinct we stumbled across a philosophy-centric book shop, before Lukas navigated us in the direction of his favourite hang-out, Klein’s Café. My other ex-flatmate Steffi joined us, having taken her 92 year-old grandmother out for a birthday lunch, and re-fueling with some Austrian sausage we caught up on the prior evening’s escapades. 'Now this is acting like locals', I thought to myself.

“Have you guys thought about going to the Vienna State Opera this weekend?” she asked, still giggling from my admission that the Dutch girl from the night before might have been more interested in her than myself.

“We were thinking about it, but it seems rather expensive for something we probably wouldn’t enjoy.”

“It’s only expensive for those who don’t know a few local tricks,” she grinned in response. “Let’s go and see if we can sneak in the back door.”

We headed down the street and past Hotel Sacher, the residence where the world famous Sacher Torte chocolate cake was born. Seffi explained that when tours of the Opera hall are in progress, or a concert is taking place, the outside doors to the building are all unlocked so that the staff members can move freely throughout. This means that you just have to time your entrance as being directly after one of these instances has gotten underway, and you are free to wander around the entire place. Sure, you’re not going to get front row seats for a five hour Mozart symphony, but you will be able to take in the atmosphere without spending the €50 entrance fee.

Unfortunately for us, Steffi’s timing was slightly awry, and when we eventually arrived the final tours had finished for the day. Unperturbed by this, or the rain which had started to beat down, she decided instead to take us to the Hofburg Palace. This would have been Franz and Sissi’s winter home, with their summer home being the enormous Schönbrunn Palace to the West of the city. Schönbrunn has over 1,400 rooms, and was where Franz Joseph was both brought into the world, and taken from it. Lara and I explored the mesmerising grounds of this estate the following day, the vastness of them allowing for ample peace and quiet, despite the thousands of tourists filtering through the grand entrance way that makes it the most visited attraction in the whole of Vienna.

As with the Opera, Steffi was convinced that if she tried enough of Hofburg Palace’s external door handles we would be able to get access to the Marble Hall and gold-tinted corridors. Alas, this was to no avail. Then it was the turn of the library enclosed within the University of Vienna to have its doors rattled, an establishment also founded under the guidance of Rudolph IV, followed by the storm gate of a house where Mozart once resided. The initial professionalism of Lukas’ tour guiding abilities was being shunned by this girl’s desire to break-and-enter into every building of prominence in her hometown. The only advice I can offer from our efforts however, is that cat burglars should consider pulling off jobs elsewhere. Apparently the Viennese people like to keep their properties rather tightly secure.

Hofburg has two primary gardens, and re-tracing our steps towards Café Landtmann, where we planned to get an early evening coffee and rest our weary legs, Steffi gave us the option of walking though one or the other.

Volksgarten is the larger of the two, and is the one used by the more common people,” she half-joked. “Burggarten has a lovely little lake, and is where the more middle/upper class people tend to hang out. Each weekday morning, the horses from the Palace’s Spanish Riding School parade around this garden in a public display. Which one would you prefer?”

“The commoners' plot of dirt would be better suited to us," I acknowledged, glancing at Lukas who nodded in agreement.

We strode past a gallery, where a model of a naked man hunched over in a stranded rowing boat left us bewildered and confused. Contemporary art has always been a mysterious beast to me. I remember vising the Tate Modern in London once upon a time, and struggling to figure out whether the mop and bucket lying in the corner of one of the rooms was some form of creative statement, or simply the cleaner having failed to tidy up.

After some delicious cakes, served by waistcoat and bow-tied waiters, Lara and I bid farewell with a massive thanks to Steffi and Lukas. The pair had been the best aides we could have hoped for, and although orthodox in their actions could definitely have pulled off the guise of proper tour guides. Lukas was able to regurgitate facts and dates like he’d been studying for an exam, and Steffi added some personal flair to the proceedings that only someone who'd spent their whole life in the city could have. I just had one small peeve...

As we headed back towards the apartment, Lara noticed a tacky souvenir shop with a postcard reel outside. Twirling it round whilst looking for something suitable to send to our Russian friend Ksenia, she noticed one that had a close-up image of a bustling Klein’s Café. Our lunchtime pit stop, which Lukas had ensured was known only to the locals, appeared to be one of the trademark eateries in the whole city. I guess we'd been no more than typical tourists after all.

Vienna's Absurd Drinking Traditions

Vienna, Austria • July 2016 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

The following extract has been adapted from my self-published paperback travel book, We Ordered A Panda: Tales of City-Hopping Around Europe. If you enjoy this post, then please visit my online bookshop for more details.

A 16 minute journey from Vienna International Airport on the City Airport Train (CAT) takes you directly to Wein Mitte Station, and the Landstraße U-Bahn. Here, one can hop on either the U3 line, which runs across the Austrian capital’s 1st District from the North-West to the South-East, or the U4, which comes down from the North before curving to the South-West and in the direction of Schönbrunn Palace. The Viennese public transport system of subways, trams, and trains, primarily operates on an honesty system. This means that it’s not only one of the most convenient and easy-to-navigate commuter service in Europe, but also one of the cheapest (i.e. it is free).

Fours stops along the orange coloured U3 line, I exited at Erdberg Station to find Lara waiting for me in a lonesome little café outside the Vienna International Bus Terminal (VIB). One of the stars of my book, we’d shared previous adventures in both Riga and London, however this was the first time we’d be exploring a brand new destination together. There’s nothing like that feeling of warmth that rises up through you when meeting an old friend. It really does tickle the heart. Upon seeing one another, you invariably end up bursting into coat-hanger wide smiles, before trying to squeeze a year’s worth of happiness into one almighty bear hug.  We only had one hour to get the keys for our apartment however, before a scheduled 9:30pm drinks session with a couple of very special local guides, so I grabbed her suitcase and we immediately hopped back onto the U-Bahn.

Serbian happens to be one of a mere eight languages that Lara speaks, my monolingual upbringing a pure embarrassment in comparison, and this was very handy considering our landlord for the long-weekend went by the name of Stonka. As the women ran through the rules and regulations attached to our visit, I tried my best to entertain the apartment owner’s young child, who was obediently heeling beside her mother’s leg like a puppy. Upon merely smiling at the little girl however, she burst into tears, like some monster had jumped out from being the front door and tried to eat her.

Stonka finished the tour of our abode and left us to unpack our stuff, the kid still looking shocked from the ordeal. After a quick change, we followed her right back out the door towards the Kettenbrückengasse U-Bahn Station. Here, four years after living together in Maastricht, The Netherlands, I was reunited with my Erasmus buddies Steffi and Lukas.

“You’ve not changed a bit Crobs,” beamed Steffi, as she rounded the corner. “Well… perhaps you’re a little bit skinner than before. Have you stopped going to the gym?”

“With no Julia around anymore, the motivation has kind of dwindled,” I laughed. Whilst in Maastricht, I’d developed such a severe crush on the German abs instructor that it led to me attending five classes per week just so I had an excuse to chat to her. Nothing ever came from these flirtatious gym sessions however, and after four months of chasing all I had to show for my vein efforts was a well-defined six-pack.

Lukas arrived, and we took a trip down memory lane whilst clinking glasses atop the skyline bar of the 25hr Hotel; a lit-up panorama of the cultured cityscape the backdrop to our nostalgic musings. He explained that we were currently in the city’s 7th District, of which there are 23 in total. The 1st District is the nucleus, and is where everything touristic is situated: from the Hofburg Imperial Palace and its spacious gardens; to the Opera; to the University, the City Hall, the Parliament Building, and the Sacher Hotel. A ring-road signifies the boundaries to this Old Town, with Districts 2-9 lining its circumference. Steffi joked that the gay scene was situated in the 5th District, which just so happened to be the same area in which Lara and myself were staying.

Wanting to make the most of my friends’ local knowledge, Lara and I asked Lukas and Steffi to take us to a ‘traditional’ Viennese bar. Twenty minutes later, we therefore found ourselves hunched around an antique table in a smoky haze; 70’s classics blaring out from the jukebox tucked in the corner. The décor of Café Bendl could be kindly described as ‘vintage’, and appeared to have not been updated since its doors first opened in 1884. As Lukas came back from the bar carrying a tray of shots, I felt like I’d not only gone back in time to my University days, but back to a place that time forgot. The type of place you would pop in to have ‘one more drink for the road’; the type of place you could get into a heated but amicable philosophical discussion; the type of place where you are admired for being unashamedly yourself, and ridiculed for trying to ‘fit in’. It was all we could ask for, and more.

“What on Earth have you got us?” I asked Lukas as he placed a glass in front of each of us, followed by a tray of sugar cubes and coffee beans.

“Ah, cocaine,” exclaimed Steffi. “Well, it’s not actually cocaine,” she continued, seeing the expressions of disbelief on our faces, “but that’s what these drinks roughly translate into English as, from the German word: koks. First, you take a sugar cube and dip it into the shot of red rum. Then you chew and swallow the sugar cube, followed by a handful of coffee beans. When you’re almost done, knock back the shot, and finish the remainder of what’s left in your mouth.”

“Sounds delightful,” I said, raising my glass for a toast. “Prost.”

“Prost,” chimed everyone at once, and we took the shots with grimaced faces.

Gulping at my pint like a goldfish in an attempt to chase away the taste, a beer mat then hit me square on the forehead. Looking to my right, I saw two guys and a girl giggling away in a corner booth. As I was distracted by this, another beer mat then hit me on the back of the head. I glanced in the opposite direction and a group of lads at the other side of the room were trying to hide their smirks at the bottom of their drinks. Had I become the subject of some local joke?

“We probably should have explained,” said Lukas, seeing the puzzled look on my face. “It’s tradition in Vienna to throw beer mats at other tables when in a bar or pub. A way of striking up a conversation if you will.”

I was about to call ‘bullshit’ on this when, in comedic timing, the octogenarian barmaid started to join in. I don’t know if I was more shocked by this act, or the fact that she’d abandoned her position behind the beer taps to sip tequila with some of her patrons. Apparently she’d been manning the bar for decades, and was quite a straight laced individual, but in this instance that façade was completely broken.

“Well, I wouldn’t be trying it in any other dive bar apart from here,” chipped in the German guy to my right, “unless you wish to be on the receiving end of a punch.” Ironically, he was in the midst of an Erasmus exchange program to Vienna with the Dutch girl and German guy who accompanied him. “It’s more a tradition set solely in this bar.”

Finding this the funniest thing in the world, Lara and I immediately joined in. Enrolling the help of the Erasmus lot, we entered into a full-blown battle with the lads at the other side of the room. Ducking and diving between sips of our drinks, like it were a game of dodgeball being played with ninja throwing stars, time ticked into the early hours of the morning. And for all my hours spent in the watering holes of the world, a better way of striking up conversations with strangers I’ve yet to come across.

Entering into the spirit of our surroundings, I soon found myself in a deep deliberation with Flora, the Dutch girl, over the meaning of travel and human beings' over-arching desire to explore the unknown. Like most other bar conversations of such nature and magnitude though, our concise and coherent points were soon crushed like the sugar cubes before us into a slur of sounds. The topic naturally progressed to more intimate affairs, and upon finding out details of Flora's liberal nature I couldn't help but blush.

As the shadows of drunkards slid past the window, heading home from the haunts they had been occupying that Friday night, the drinks kept flowing in Café Bendl until sunlight started to crack through the black sky. Operating under a ‘last orders is when the last person wishes to leave’ rule, it wasn’t until we’d then tried some of the kitchen’s fluffy Kaiserschmarr'n pancakes, and realised that we may have had one-too-many koks, did Lara and I bid a fond farewell to Lukas and Steffi.

Agreeing to meet them for a hungover brunch, we strolled back towards the apartment, passing a shop called Men for Men as we turned onto our street. Steffi clearly hadn’t been joking about it being situated in the gay district after all.

"I can't believe you spent half the night trying to chat up a lesbian," scoffed Lara. "Quite fitting, I suppose."