Chinese New Year Celebrations – Paris-style

Chinese New Year Celebrations – Paris-style

While several European cities have been famous for centuries for livening up the dark winter months with grand Carnival parades (Venice, Cologne and Nice come to mind), Paris was never one of them. However, since the late 1970’s, the Chinese community has stepped into the breach with exuberant New Year celebrations.

The Largest Chinatown in Europe

France - Paris CNY Dragon Dance.

The Chinese New Year dragon dance.

 

Over the past century, Paris has gradually developed a thriving Franco-Chinese community whose cultural influence is centered on three areas of the city: the historic right bank Marais district, the northeast Belleville neighborhood, and on the southeast side of the left bank ‘s thirteenth arrondissement, the original Quartier Asiatique (Chinatown).

 

France - Paris CNY banners.

Ornate banners dominate the parade.

Although it didn’t acquire its current character until the 1970-1980’s, it is by now considered the largest Chinatown in Europe. And it has become home to a massive New Year’s parade that brings together  some 2,000 participants representing 40 social, artistic and business groups.

France - Paris CNY marchers.

Marchers follow the traditional furry dragons.

Over 200,000 onlookers line the broad streets of the neighborhood decorated with crimson banners and lantern, to cheer the procession of grinning dragon and lions, shimmering fish and endless serpents. Ornately attired dancing groups and martial arts teams march to the rhythm drums and cymbals. The omnipresent pop of small firecrackers leaves a faint scent of smoke in the air. This is Asian street exotism on a grand scale.

After three hours of elbowing to maintain a good viewing space in this boisterous and a tad chaotic affair, I am ready to work my way to the southern edge of the district to Tricotin for a dim sum fix.

A Rainy Day Alternative

France - Paris Guimet

The Musee Guimet and its nineteenth century cupola dominate the Place d’Iéna.

Alas not every parade day is blessed with propitious weather. This year not being one of them, an indoor alternative is in order. I head for one of my favorite Paris museum, Le Musée des Arts Asiatiques (Museum of Asian Arts). All the artistically rich cultures of Asia are represented here. Better known as Musée Guimet, after his nineteenth founder Emile Etienne Guimet, it is home to one of the largest collection of Asian art outside Asia.

 

France - Paris CNY Guimet

Traditional dragons welcome visitors during the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Its Chinese section alone includes some 20 000 objects spanning seven millennia, from the earliest times to the eighteenth century. Additionally today, in honor of Chinese New Year, the instructors and pupils of the local LWS Pak Mei Kung Fu School are performing traditional dragon dances and martial arts demonstrations.

 

 

 

The Treasures of the Musee Guimet

France - Paris Guimet Neolithic Unr.

This large Neolithic funeral urn is the oldest ceramic vessel in the collection.

In deference to the millennia of human evolution that brought us these mythical dancing beasts, I head for the Chinese archeology area. It begins with jades and ceramics from the Neolithic period before continuing on with bronze works for the Shang and Zhou dynasties (thirteenth to eighth centuries B.C.).

 

 

 

France - Paris Guimet Mingqi

Seventh century Tang Dynasty polychrome terra cotta mingqi.

In the statuary section, I lose myself in an extraordinarily varied collection of exquisite mingqi (tomb figures) from the Han (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) and Tang (618 to 907 A.D.) dynasties. These are statuettes of fashionably dressed ladies, fine horses and camels that were buried with the defunct in the tombs of the highborn to ease their passage into the next world. Today, they bear witness to the luxury and sophistication of the lifestyle of their age.

 

France - Paris Guimet cloisonne.

Silver and gold-incrusted bronze vessel from the third century B.C.

There are also rich collections of harness equipment, bronze mirrors, coinage, and bronze vessels incrusted with gold and silver. The decorative arts section outlines a comprehensive history of Chinese ceramics covering the major centers of production and the evolution of taste. The furniture collection includes major lacquer works and rosewood pieces. Painting is represented by hundreds of works spanning well over a millennium from the Tang to Qing dynasties.

 

Like any major museum, the Guimet is best savored in measured bites. Mercifully, it is opened year-round and seldom crowded. It is always a wonderful place to revisit. Or for any tourist with a bit of time on their hands, it is a unique treasure trove to discover.

Good to Know

  • When? Unlike its Western counterpart which always falls on the same day, the Chinese New year changes each year, following the lunisolar calendar. The first day of the new year always falls on the new moon, between January 21 and February 20. The date of the Thirteenth Arrondissement parade varies accordingly. It is published several months ahead on the various Paris tourism information websites. It is usually held on a Sunday.
  • Where? The parade traditionally starts at 44 Avenue d’Ivry, at the métro station Les Gobelins (Line 7). From there it meanders along the Avenue de Choisy to Place d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac and Boulevard Massena before returning to Avenue d’Ivry. One day earlier, on Saturday, the Marais and Belleville also hold their own neighborhood parades and celebrations.
  • Foodie Alert – After the parade or any time, my favorite drop-in for Dim Sum is Tricotin, 15 Avenue de Choisy, Paris 75013. Tel: 01-45-84-74-44. This is canteen-like, high decibel place but the service is quick, the prices friendly and the freshly made dim sum varied and delicious. Service is non-stop from 9:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. A few steps up the street the Impérial Choisy, 32, Avenue de Choisy. Tel: 01-45-86-42-40, is a local institution with an endless menu of traditional Cantonese dishes. It is open from 12:00 noon to 11:00 P.M. Make a reservation or expect to stand in line. For a bit more decorum and delectable offerings seldom found on  menus in western cities, head for the other end of Chinatown to La Mer de Chine, 159, Rue du Château-des-Rentiers. Tel: 01-45-84-22-49 between the métro stations Place d’Italie and Nationale (Line 4). Open every day for lunch from 12:00 noon to 2:30 P.M. and dinner from 7:00 to 11:00 P.M. Reservations recommended.
  • Meanwhile back the Guimet – Founded and constructed by nineteenth century industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet, the museum was inaugurated in 1889. Starting in 1996 it went through an extensive five-year renovation to reopen in 2001 with 5,500 square meters (60,000 square feet) of permanent exhibit space. The flow of the space now enables visitors to better appreciate the relationships and differences between the various artistic Asian traditions.
  • Getting there and getting in – The Musée Guimet is located at 6, Avenue d’Iéna, Paris 75016. http://www.guimet.fr/en/. Tel: +33 1 56 52 53 00. Metro station Iéna (Line 9). It is opened daily from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. except Tuesday, May 1, December 25 and January 1.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Paris Chinatown

Carnival – Cologne’s Fifth Season

Carnival – Cologne’s Fifth Season

Köln to the Germanic world, Cologne to the rest of us, the ancient city on the Rhine and contemporary Germany’s fourth largest traces back its origins to the first century A.D. as the Roman Colonia. Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the history of the city itself.

Germany - Cologne Gürzenich

Originally built in the fifteenth century, the Gürzenich remains to this day a prestige location for Carnival events.

The ancient Germanic tribes celebrated the winter solstice as homage to the Gods and to ward off evil winter spirits. The Christians later adopted this heathen custom and by the Middle Ages it had evolved into rowdy masked street celebrations. The first written records of the Cologne carnival date back from the year 1341. By the eighteenth century the patrician class introduced elegant masked and fancy-dressed balls in the Venetian style. The organized carnival celebrated today only dates back to 1823.

Making Fun of the Prussians

Germany - Cologne Rosenmontag Band

The tradition of dressing up in mock Prussian uniforms dates back to the early nineteenth century.

In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, Cologne, which had been under French rule for two decades, was allocated to Prussia along with all of the Rhineland. During Carnival, people of the region began dressing up in satirical Prussian uniforms as a protest of against their occupier. Thus began the tradition of Carnival societies with their own “regiment”, complete with marching bands, military banners and powered wigs that we still see today.

 

Germany - Cologne Rote Funken

The Rote Funken  became the first Carnival society in 1823.

Then in 1823, the Festordnende Komitee (Committee of Guidelines) was founded. The former city militia, the Rote Funken (Red Sparks) reinvented itself as a Carnival society. The first Rosenmontag parade, which by the way has nothing to do with roses but rather is a distortion of the original name Rasen Montag (rush, or anything-goes Monday) was held to enthrone the “Carnival Hero”, today’s Prince Carnival, along with his entourage, the Peasant (der Bauer) and the Virgin (die Jungfrau), traditional medieval characters. This was a nod to the days when Cologne was a Free Imperial City-state within the Holly Roman Empire. Then as now, the Virgin was a man attired as a woman.

Carnival Societies

Germany - Cologne Blaue Funken

The Blaue Funken trace back to 1870.

After the creation of the Committee of Guidelines, there was no stopping the people of Cologne. The Carnival societies multiplied. The Ehrengarde (Honor Guard) was added in 1902 to complement the Virgin and the Peasant. Then in 1906 the Prince was given his personal Prinzengarde (Prince’s Guard). Today, there are over 150 Carnival societies and neighborhood groups in Cologne. All take an active part the celebrations, which have grown into a hometown festival with that encompasses close to 500 Sitzungen (shows), balls and parades.

Germany - Cologne Prinz Karneval

Always accompanied by the Virgin and the Peasant, Prince Carnival visits his faithful subjects.

After the creation of the Committee of Guidelines, there was no stopping the people of Cologne. The Carnival societies multiplied. The Ehrengarde (Honor Guard) was added in 1902 to complement the Virgin and the Peasant. Then in 1906 the Prince was given his personal Prinzengarde (Prince’s Guard). Today, there are over 150 Carnival societies and neighborhood groups in Cologne. All take an active part the celebrations, which have grown into a hometown festival with that encompasses close to 500 Sitzungen (shows), balls and parades.

Crazy Days

Germany - Cologne Weiberfastnacht.

On Thursday before Carnival, women in costumes rule the city.

Women may have been excluded from official carnival celebrations in the nineteenth century, and the Carnival Jungfrau still be a man in drags, but they get even on Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival). Starting early morning, women take over the city in their most colorful costumes and face paint. Everywhere they happen to be as they go about their daily business, they can cut off the tie of any man who crosses their path or pucker up and give him a Butzie (Carnival kiss), or both. The day also marks the beginning of the five Crazy Days of street Carnival, with dozens of parades and parties in the surrounding suburbs. On Sunday, school groups and neighborhood associations from all around the city gather in the center of town for the colorful Kinderzug (Children Parade).

Rosenmontag Revelries

Germany - Cologne Funkemariechen

The dance groups of the various Carnival societies are a most popular part of the parade.

It’s finally Rosenmontag! Starting early morning on Monday, well over one million people in outlandish costumes of all kinds converge onto the 6.5 kilometer (4 mile) long parade route that meanders through the center of Cologne. The parade begins at 11:00 A.M. With over 10,000 participants, including 117 bands, 125 floats and 500 horses, it stretches over 6 kilometers (3.70 miles).

 

 

Germany - Cologne Prinzengarde.

The Prince’s guard heralds the arrival of Prince Carnival, who closes the parade.

It has a pass-by time of three hours, during which 140 metric tons (310,000 pounds) of sweets and 300,000 bunches of flowers will be thrown at the cheering, singing crowd. After the mammoth float of Prince Carnival closes the festivities, everyone repairs the nearest pub for a final evening of partying.

 

I have it on good authority that the Fifth Season doesn’t officially end until Tuesday night when the “Nubbel”, a symbolic straw figure, is set ablaze and the sins committed during Carnival go up in smoke. But by Tuesday, I have never had enough energy to check it out!

Good to Know

  • Greeting – Throughout the Fifth Season, the official greeting at all Carnival events is ALAAF!, usually shouted at the top of your lungs while vigorously waving your right arm. It is short for “Cöllen al aff”, which in the ancient Kölsch language means “Cologne above all.”
  • Drinking – Cologne hold the record for the highest number of pubs per capita in Germany. Predictably, its Carnival is fueled by the local Kölsch beer, served in Stangen (small, 0.2 liter or 7 ounce glasses). Waiters are quick to bring you a fresh one before the previous is even finished. They keep track by marking your coaster with pencil marks. To stop the beer from coming, just put your coaster on top of your empty glass.
  • Viewing – There are many places along the parade route that can provide good viewing spots. However, most of the sidewalk space through the center of town is closed to bystanders by rows of reviewing stands with reserved access, put up by the Festkomitee Kölnerer Karneval (Festival Committee) as well as the major hotels along the route. These tribunes offer various level of comfort such as sheltered or non-sheltered seating and self or full catering, and they are priced accordingly. Seats must be secured well in advance from the individual providers. Order via e-mail from the ticket service of  the Festkomitee kartenservice@koelnerkarneval.de. My local friend’s and my favorite perch is the tribune of the Hotel Pullman, Helenenstrasse 14, 50667 Köln, pullmanhotels.com/de/hotel-5366-pullman-cologne, for its excellent central location, high open bleachers that offer an excellent perspective of the approaching parade as well as an eyelevel view of the passing floats and refreshments. It also includes entrance to the hotel for warm-up breaks, and a hearty after-Parade dinner, which allows time for the streets to clear up before we start on our way home. Tel: (+49)221/2752200. e-mail: h5366@accor.com.
  • Dressing – For men planning to be in Cologne on Thursday during the Women’s Carnival, I recommend wearing one of the giant, garish Carnival ties available for a couple of Euros from any costume shop. To play the game to the fullest, get a couple of spares. For the Rosenmontag Parade, dress warmly and use your imagination. Hint, the official colors of the city of Cologne are red and white. Can’t go wrong with those.
  • Getting there – Cologne Bonn Airport handles non-stop flights to most European capitals. It is located 15 minutes away by S-Bahn (local train) from the centre of the city. There are  several Thalys highs speed trains daily from Paris (3:15 h), Brussels (2:00 h) and Amsterdam (2:30 h) to Köln Hauptbahnhof (Cologne central train station). Additionally there is a direct ICE Train connection with Frankfurt airport (1:00 h).
  • Getting around – There is a good bus and hybrid subway/tram network to get around the city, with vending machines or ticket-offices at all main stations. Beware that on Rosenmontag, the entire center of town as well as the parade route area are closed to all traffic from the wee-hours until early evening. Public transports take you to the edge of the designated area. It’s on foot from there on.
  • Where to stay – If you chose to stay at the center of the action, there is a large variety of housing options ranging from budget to multi-starred hotels throughout the city. However, all tend to fill to capacity months ahead of the Crazy Days. Advance planning is key.

Location, location, location!

Cologne

Salzburg – Austria’s Baroque Jewel

Salzburg – Austria’s Baroque Jewel

After several visits to Austria over the past decades, I’ve finally made it to Salzburg! It’s not that I was deliberately avoiding the fabled Baroque city in the northern foothills of the Alps, but the mere mention of it conjured up visions of Julie Andrews twirling on perfectly manicured high meadows and Hollywood-airbrushed views of a fairytale central European stage set. The destination, somehow always got shrugged off to “one of these days.”

Austria - Salzburg Mozart

Mozart’s birthplace.

Then a long-time friend who had lived there as a student, and therefore was not encumbered with such prejudices, moved to Salzburg one year ago. “Come for Mozart Week,” she beckoned. And so it is that on a recent January afternoon, I step off one of the many daily trains from Vienna into the city that on January 27, 1754, gave Wolfgang Amadeus to the world.

The City of Music

Austria - Salzburg Cathedral.

The Salzburg Cathedral still echoes with Baroque music.

Salzburg’s rich musical tradition reaches back two centuries before the birth of the legendary musical prodigy. The city was then a powerful independent ecclesiastic state of the Holly Roman Empire. Starting in the sixteenth century, the Prince-Archbishop rulers became enthusiastic patrons of music. The court began to attract prominent composers not only for liturgical music in the cathedral and other religious establishments around the city but also as court musicians for secular musical entertainment.

Austria -Salzburg Festival Hall

The stage of the Great Festival Hall is readied for a performance.

Fast-forward through several centuries of convoluted political history to the present. Salzburg owes most of its contemporary fame to the performing arts. It is home to the internationally acclaimed Salzburger Festspiele (Salzburg Festival) for music and drama established in 1920 and held each summer for five weeks starting in late July. Additionally, since 1973 the Salzburger Pfingstenbestspiele (Salzburg Whitsun Festival) is an extension of the former, performing operas along with works from the Baroque orchestral repertoire during the extended Whitsun (a.k.a. Pentecost) weekend.

Austria - Salzburg Steeple

Every chuch is a venue for music.

Two other annual landmark events are Mozart Woche (Mozart Week), held in late January since 1956, now a highlight on the international calendar of classical concerts for eighteenth century music lovers. And the Osterfestspiele Salzburg (Salzburg Easter Festival) started in 1967 by the great Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan attracts opera lovers to the city from the Palm Sunday weekend until Easter Monday.

A Thousand Years of History

Austria - Salzburg Fortress

The city’s skyline is dominated by the medieval Fortress.

Nestled in a scenic alpine valley bisected by the Salzbach river, the city is shaped by the surrounding hills. Its picturesque, exceptionally well-preserved Medieval and Baroque center is a reminder of the seventeenth-century glory days of Salzburg, when salt and gold mining made the city-state one of the richest in Europe.

Rich decorative elements were added to the private apartments in the sixteenth century.

Rich private apartments were added in the sixteenth century.

The skyline is dominated by the Festung Hohensalzburg (commonly die Festung or The Fortress). Perched at an altitude of 506 meters (1660 feet) it covers the crest of Festungberg (Fortress Hill), and at 250 meters (820 feet) by 150 meters (490 feet), is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. The core of the castle dates back to the eleventh century. It was continuously expended until the fortification walls encircled most of the hilltop. By the sixteenth century, the fortress shifted from a purely strategic military function to a representative one. The extensive renovations and decorative elements added to the public rooms and private apartments can still be seen.

Baroque Urban Planning

With their coffers overflowing, the seventeenth century Prince-Archbishops were eager to emulate Rome. They brought in prominent Italian architects to reshape the center of town into the Baroque treasure (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) that we know today.

The nave of the Cathedral seen from the Organ Gallery.

The nave of the Cathedral seen from the Organ Gallery.

Salzburg Cathedral Square – Severely damaged by fire in 1598, the Romanesque cathedral was demolished and reconstructed in 1614-1628 in the Baroque style, along with the adjacent Residentz (Palace of the Archbishops). The nearby St. Peter’s Abbey was also renovated to include a long art gallery and the “cathedral arches” were added. These three arches link the cathedral, palace and abbey to form a vast enclosed square (the Domplatz).

Austria - Salzburg DomQuartier

The overall DomQuartier itinerary viewed from the fortress.

The DomQuartier – In 2014, the private upper-level corridors that allowed the Prince-Bishops to circulate around their seat of power was reopened for the first time in two centuries. A single entry ticket takes me from the sumptuous Residenz state rooms and art gallery to the terrace of the archway that links the palace to the cathedral. The terrace offers unique close up views of the buildings as well as the square and the old town beyond.

From there, I enter the Cathedral Organ Gallery where I can experience the breathtaking Early Baroque basilica in all its glory and wander along the upper oratories. Formerly used as chapels they now house 1300 years of Salzburg church history. The mainstay of the museum is the Cathedral Treasure with its jewel-encrusted bishops’ crosiers, liturgical vestments, chalices and ostentories. I then continue on to Saint Peter’s Abbey, the oldest Benedictine monastery in the German-speaking world, with its 70 meter (230 foot) Long Gallery and its rich private art collection.

Mirabell Castle

Austria - Salzburg Mirabell view.

Mirabell Castle view of the Festung.

Built along a north-south axis across the Salzach River from the old town the Mirabell Castle, in addition to its lovely Baroque gardens, offers a unique view of the Festung and the Cathedral. Commissioned in 1608 by Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich Raitenau for his mistress Salome Alt and their family of 16 children, it was originally known at Castle Altenau.

Austria - Salzburg Mirabell

Mirabell Castle Neo-classical facade.

However, other than this spicy detail, little remains of the original building. Mirabell was rebuilt into a flamboyant Baroque castle in the late 1700’s, when it acquired its grand Marble Hall and Donnerstiege (Staircase of Thunder). The current gracious Neoclassical façade dates from 1818, when the palace was restored once more after a devastating fire swept through the city.

Coffee and Beer Culture

Austria - Salzburg Tomaselli.

The Tomaselli Coffee House.

Although Salzburg cannot compete with Vienna for Coffee House Culture, cafés are nonetheless an institution here. The oldest, Tomasseli, dates back to the early eighteenth century. It is usually packed with tourists but still worth a visit for its waitresses dressed in the traditional trachten deftly weaving their way around the tables with huge trays of multi-layered cakes so tempting I wish I could order a sampler.

An upstart by local standards, Bazar didn’t open until the 1880’s. It’s one of my favorites for its relaxed blend of old and new, homey wood-paneled walls and marble-top tables inside, and a modern terrace that opens along the river during the warm weather months.

Austria - Salzburg Stiegl Keller.

Stiegl Brewery dates back to 1492.

Beer has been brewed in Salzburg for over 600 years. In 1492, while Christopher Columbus was busy discovering America, here in Salzburg the Stieglbrauerei (Stiegl Brewery) was documented for the first time in the city records. And it’s still here at its old town location, a good place to rest my feet after exploring the Festung on the hilltop above.

The monastery of Mülln didn’t get into beer-making until 1621 but it has been hanging on to the brewing secrets of its famous Augustiner beer ever since. The monastery’s pub, the “Braustübl” is a crowded, rowdy place where servers still pour beer directly from wooden barrels into half or full liter steins. Patrons can bring their own food or purchase a variety of local snacks from a number of small market stalls in the vast vaulted corridor leading to a maze of pub rooms.

Good to Know

Getting there

  • There are frequent direct, fast and reasonably priced inter-city trains from Vienna and Munich, Germany. The ride takes less than two hours from Munich and three hours from Vienna to the Salzburg Hauptbahnhof (main train station) located in the new town on the north side of the river.
  • Some cars on the Salzburg to Vienna trains go on to Vienna International Airport. I make sure to book my seat ahead to ensure that I am sitting in the correct car.
  • Salzburg W.A. Mozart International Airport, located a twenty minute bus ride from the city center, has scheduled flight to most major European cities with connections around the world.

Getting around

  • The best way to get around Salzburg is on foot. There is also a convenient network of frequent and reliable city buses and trolleys. Tickets may be purchased at most tobacconists around the city. They work on the honor system. You validate your ticket as you hop on. There are occasional controls.

Visiting

  • Entrance to the DomQuartier is located at 1 Residenz Platz, next to the Cathedral. Tickets can be purchased on-site or via e-mail. http://www.domquartier.at/en/
  • Mirabell Castle – Only the Marble Hall and the Thunder Staircase can be visited, and only on weekdays. The remainder of the palace houses the municipal council offices and is not open to the public. The gardens are open daily from 6:00 A.M. to dusk. Admission is free.
  • The Festung is opened daily throughout the year. It can be reached either via a steep footpath or a funicular (however, at the time of my visit the funicular was temporarily closed for maintenance). Once on the grounds of the castle, the fortress cannot accommodate motion impaired visitors.

Coffee and Beer

  • Tomaselli is at Alter Markt 9, a small square on the south side of the river close to the Staatbrücke Bridge. tomaselli.at/en/café-tomaselli-en
  • Bazar is at Schwarzstraße 3, on the north bank of the river a few minutes’ walk upstream from the Staatbrücke Bridge. cafe-bazar.at/en/cafe-salzburg/
  • Stieglkeller is at Festungsgasse 10. In addition to Stiegl beers, it offers a limited menu of local dishes. restaurant-stieglkeller.at/
  • Augustiner Bräu – Kloster Mülln is at Lindofstrasse 7, a 15 minute walk from the center of the old town on the Mönchsberg, or bus stop Landeskrankenhaus. augustinerbier.at

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Salzburg, Austria

A Vienna Winter Weekend

A Vienna Winter Weekend

Home to the court of the Habsburg dynasty from the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, Vienna developed over half a millennium into one of the fabled capitals of Europe.

Austria - Vienna Hofburg Palace St. Micheal's Gate.

St. Michael’s Gate at the Hofburg Palace.

My first encounter with the city dates back to the early 1980’s. The once brilliant city, dulled by the aftermath of two world wars, was showing signs of renaissance. Palaces were being restored to their imperial grandeur, and in the center of town, new constructions were thoughtfully integrated into their historic surroundings. Through it all, Vienna had managed to retain enough of its past luster and courtly traditions to charm me at first sight.

 

Austria - Austria, St. Stephen reflection.

A contemporary building showcases the nearby St. Stephen Cathedral and Baroque buildings.

Every few years, I find an opportunity to return and I enjoy seeing Vienna continue its gracious evolution. Today, with a population of 1.75 million (20 percent of the country’s total population) it remains Austria’s political, cultural and economic center. And it is once again a sparkling jewel in the center of Europe, the twenty-first century version of the sumptuous romantic capital of its imperial days.

The Belvedere

Austria - Vienna Upper Belvedere

A snowy day in the Belvedere terraced gardens.

The main reason for my recent winter weekend visit is a temporary exhibit at my favorite among Vienna’s many notable museums, the Belvedere. Built in the early eighteenth century as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, it consists of two Baroque palaces separated by gently graded grounds with tiered fountains and cascades, reminiscent of France’s Palais de Versailles. Now a museum complex, it is home to a collection of Austrian art from the Middle Ages to the present.

 

Austria - Vienna, Belvedere Klimt

Gustave Klimt’s Portrait of Fritza Riedler is included in the Lower Belvedere exhibition.

Its main attraction is an extensive collection of works by Gustav Klimt (including two of his illustrious golden masterpieces, The Kiss and Judith I) in the Upper Belvedere. But today, I give the Upper palace a miss to enjoy a walk down the snowy terraced gardens all the way to the Lower Belvedere where temporary exhibits are staged.

This latest one, a landmark exhibition of “The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka,” on view until February 28, 2016, comprises close to 150 portraits of women, including some rarely seen loans from collections from all over the world. It explores how these three giants of Viennese Modernism and frequent portraitists of women viewed evolving gender norms at the onset of the twentieth century. After this exceptional afternoon in the company of these most revered of Austrian artists and their women, it is time to repair to another of Vienna’s cultural mainstay, the Kaffeehaus.

Coffee House Culture

Austria - Vienna Café Griensteidl Cafe.

Café Griensteidl offers a great view of the Hofburg Palace.

Although the Viennese Coffee House tradition dates back over three centuries, it is in the 1800’s that it became an institution of the city’s artistic and intellectual life. People gathered in their favorite “public living room” where, for the price of a cup of coffee and an occasional pastry, they could spend hours reading, writing, catching up on the latest news in local and international newspapers or socializing. And they still do, although smart phones and laptops are now discretely encroaching on newspapers fastened to wooden holders. While their number have declined in the post World War II era, many notable establishments remain, and have retained the atmosphere, social practices and rituals associated with the Coffee House Culture.

Austria - Vienna coffee break.

Coffee is traditionally served on a silver tray with a small glass of water on the side (delicious home-baked pastries optional).

The array of coffee drinks on offer is baffling, from Schwartzer (strong black coffee) to elaborate concoctions involving milk and whipped cream, always served on an individual silver tray with a small glass of water on the side. I usually play it safe and order a Mélange (the Viennese version of the Italian Cappuccino). In spite of a general uniformity of décor, padded banquettes lined along the walls and wooden chairs around small marble top tables, bentwood coat racks and newspaper tables, each of these venerable local institutions has retained its individual character.

My favorite is Café Griensteidl, on Michaelerplatz in the center of the town. Founded in 1847, it was by the early 1900’s a gathering spot for a number of artists, musicians and writers including Arnold Schoenberg and Stephan Zweig. I enjoy its warm, intimate atmosphere and its superb view of the Hofburg Palace St. Michael’s Gate right across the street. And the proximity to the palace is an invitation to wander through the interior courtyards and around the grounds.

Hofburg Palace

Austria - Vienna Hofburg Neue Burg.

The Neue Burg wing of the Hofburg Palace.

The principal imperial winter residence, the Hofburg Palace grew over the centuries to the size of a city neighborhood. Today, in addition to being the residence of Austria’s president, it houses a number of museums, among them the Imperial Apartments, including the Sisi Museum dedicated to the legendary Empress Elizabeth and the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) with its priceless collection of secular and ecclesiastical treasures and jewels going back a millennium. At the edge of the grounds, in the Baroque arena of the Winter Riding School, the Spanish Riding School offers frequent gala performances of the world-famous white Lipizzaner horses.

Museums

Austria - Vienna MUMOK.

The former imperial stables, now a museum complex,Indude the new 1990’s Museum of Modern Art (a.k.a. MUMOK).

Directly across from the Hofburg are the sprawling Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art Museum) filled with old masters paintings and ancient and classical artifacts, and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History). Then, just across the Ringstrasse (or simply the Ring), the wide boulevard that circles the city center, the former imperial stables were converted in the 1990’s into a museum complex that house among others the Museum Moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art) and the Leopold Museum. The latter is a treasure trove of Austrian Modernist masterpieces, including the world’s largest collection of the works of early twentieth century Expressionist Egon Schiele. In addition to his works on permanent display, a number of paintings by Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and others are found there, as well as an extensive collection of Art Nouveau jewelry and crafts.

Music

Austria - Vienna State Opera.

The rear entrance of the Vienna State Opera.

It is impossible not to mention music when speaking of Vienna, arguably the classical music capital of the world. Not only did many of the great European composers live here, but also it is to this day home to several opera houses and a number of famed concert halls. Programs for these celebrated venues are advertized throughout the music world. They are immensely popular with Viennese as well as tourists, so that it is imperative to plan well ahead in order to secure tickets. However, in Vienna, quality music is not limited to prestigious institutions. From small neighborhood venues to local churches and even some coffee houses, in Vienna music is in the air.

Good to Know

  • Getting around – The best way to get around Vienna is on foot and via pubic transportation. With five metro lines (U-Bahn), numerous trams (Strassenbahn), buses and local trains (S-Bahn) the transportation network is frequent, reliable and inexpensive . Tickets can be purchased at machines located at most metro stations and tobacconists around the city. They work on the honor system. You validate your ticket and hop on and off. There are occasional random controls.
  • Where to stay – The historic center of Vienna (innere Stadt) is surrounded by the Ringstrasse, a broad boulevard built in the nineteenth century on the place where the city walls once stood. The entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site dense with ancient buildings, picturesque cobblestone streets and stately palaces. It is known at the First District and an ideal location for visitors who prefer to stay “in the center of everything.” There is a vast choice of housing options ranging from renowned multi-starred hotels to cozy bed-and-breakfasts to accommodate all tastes and budgets. My favorite is The Ring Hotel, a casual luxury property with a welcoming modern interior behind its classic nineteenth-century facade, attentive personalized service and an ideal location on the south side of the Ring. It is just a five-minute walk from the Vienna State Opera, and 10 minutes from the Hofburg Palace as well as the Belvedere.
  • The Ring Hotel is at Kärtner Ring 8, A-1010.Vienna, Austria. theringhotel.com/en/ . email: info@theringhotel.com, or call +43 (0)1 51580-761.
  • Spanish Riding School Exercise Sessions – In addition to its frequent gala performances, the Spanish Riding School holds daily morning exercise sessions open to the public (entrance fee €15). The horses are brought in five at a lime and put through mainly relaxing and muscle building exercises. Sessions do not include the spectacular jumps and dressage exercises, such as courbette, cabriole and levade, for which the school is renowned.
  • Not worth the lines – Just a few steps away from St. Michael’s Gate, the iconic Café Demel established in 1786 and “Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court” is decidedly off my list. Granted, their rich multi-layered tortes are still unarguably delicious but, to my eyes at least, not worth having to elbow my way through the retail area, then enduring endless lines before being granted admittance to the tiny neo-Baroque coffee shop at the rear. Or most likely being shoed upstairs to a large space with all the appeal of a train-station cafeteria by one of the white-apronned waitresses who seem to have developed making patrons feel unwelcomed into an art form.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Vienna, Austria.