Friday, July 31, 2009

Bratislava - old & new, controlled & free

Standing at the Novỳ Most (New Bridge) near the city wall and the Castle, and looking back towards Austria, you look down the bridge at the UFO Tower. Michael makes the comment that it could easily be one of the Martians out of War of the Worlds, standing tall above everything around it and ready to annihilate the local community. Interesting parallel really, given the City’s past history!

There is a real dichotomy between old and recent and new here. Bratislava must have once been a beautiful city – there is plenty of evidence from the days of the Hapsburgs and the earlier Moravian empire in the grand old buildings. The main civic buildings including the Hlavné námestie (Old Town Hall and square), Academia Istropolitana (University), Michalska Brána (Michael’s Gate) and RedutaPalace that houses the State symphony are wonderful examples of baroque and rococo architecture set in wide avenues that do them justice. And the back streets are filled with beautiful examples of architecture where beauty was a given. Facades are grand with stunning entrance doorways, balconies and window treatments.

And there is even a dignified presence to the architecture of the 20th century with the Slovenské Národné Múzeum (Slovak National Museum) occupying a number of art deco styled buildings complete with majestic foyers. But much of this is tired and battling to retain its dignity. Balconies are corroded with the reinforcing steel exposed as though it is a new piece of street art. Graffiti is found on the lower reaches of many buildings, and much of the inner city is covered with grime. Inside the museum, the carpet is water stained and very threadbare, the walls are grimy, but the exhibits in the Natural histories building we went in to are as good as you would expect in any museum of its nature. The dioramas, complete with stuffed animals must have been truly awe-inspiring when they were first installed. Oh, but the toilet paper is definitely something left over from the Socialist times – it is thin, scratchy and a very drab grey – not something to encourage one to sit and ponder!

And then there are the structures of the Socialist period – built for form and purpose but missing any sense of beauty. These are boxy modular and boring and accentuated by a drabness that only reinforces that they were not designed to be anything other than functional. At the time of their construction, they must have been a real blight on the dignified splendour of the City. And there is evidence that these too have not been maintained. As we pass under the bridges over the Danube on a cruise this afternoon, the level of rust in the structure is quite alarming. As are the timber walkways that form the pedestrian and cycle crossings!

But all along the riverfront there are massive construction projects – aimed no doubt at the upper-end tourist market in the way of hotels and apartments. Funny though, that the monument and its wide plaza are complete way before any of the buildings – perhaps one little piece of beauty and connection with the past are needed to encourage acceptance by the locals!

The Danube River cuts the City in two. At this point it is almost a kilometre wide and fast flowing. The commercial craft reflects much of the tiredness of the City, but the sleek cruise craft are a different story. The Danube is one of the major waterways in Europe and there are a multitude of companies that carry their trade of wealthy foreigners in and out of the City. And as Bratislava is a compact city, moorings are in scarce supply close to the centre, so the boats are tethered to each other – 3 across! And it is on the riverbanks that we find a new class of accommodation – the Botel – floating hotels housed in former river cruisers, holding fast against the very strong current. There are five bridges across the Danube connecting the split halves of the City. Only one, the most recent, has any style about it. The others are all about function!

References to the people’s struggles are found in the monuments erected throughout the city. Slovakia sits in the centre of Europe, with the great Cyrillic races to the east and the empires of Rome and later France to the west. But the Slavic peoples have called this part of the wrld home since the early days AD. In the 9th Century the great empire of Moravia was founded but only lasted a few hundred years when the Maygars overtook and it became part of the greater Polish empire. From then, fuedal landlords built castles and 'influenced' the surrounding areas. But Slovakia still nominally belonged to Poland. Agh - bugger it - suffice to say, the people of Slovakia have come under the rule of many influences . If you want to read more (it is fascinating, just too convoluted to explain here) then click this link! And so we can start to understand their pride in their relatively recent independence - in fact one of the important statues can be found in SNP námestie (Slovak National Uprising Square) where even today, locals gather in times of celebration and protest.

Now as well as being a very proud people, the Slovakians are very artistic. They have a well developed and respected musical industry and during the summer, as in many European cities, there are concerts in the streets. Michael lucked upon these two opera singers practicing! We have video, but it is too large to load here, so you will just have to wait to see it!! The authorities are re-invigorating the city centre – with fountains, extended pedestrianised area and lots of street art - both whimsical and modern abstract. And the people respond, using these areas with vigour. There are those eating at cafes, playing in the square, performers in the street and others just people watching - like the Japanese tourists who were delighted when passing Franciscan monks acknowledged them!

Statues hold a special place in Bratislava and there are four in particular that have become some of the most photographed sights of the City! The are Paparazzi, Men at work and The Watcher and Man tipping his hat.
And then there is the lonely figure of a flower seller - sitting patiently and waiting for people to buy her posies.

And so we take our leave of Bratislava, a little disappointed that a lot of buildings are not open due to major restoration works underway. This includes Bratislavský hrad high above the City and for which it is famous, and the Clare Church and Abbey.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wien continues and through to Slovakia

We decide that we’d leave the car at the Youth Hostel this morning while we went back in to Vienna city for some more exploring. Now that we have decided to come back for a few more days, the pressure is off and we don’t feel like we have to rush around at a frenetic pace to see things. We need to leave here before 3 pm to reach Bratislava in time to check in to the apartment.

So we ride the tram in. Michael is sure that we got the 31 tram yesterday, but I feel that it was the no.2. The 31 comes first and once underway, it only takes a few stops to realise that it was not the one we got yesterday. No harm done, we got off at the next stop with the intention of changing to the no.2, and too late realised that at this stop, only the 31 called! So back on the next one about 15 minutes later. Its uncomfortable waiting – the day is really heating up. All’s not lost – we soon work out that we can pick up the tourist Ring Tram at the 31 terminus!

There are two places we really want to see today – the Karlskirche and the Votivkirche. Getting on to the tram where we did, we reach the stop at Schottenringplatz which is only five blocks from Karlsplatz and the church. The architecture all around here is very grand and all the streets, not just the Ring Road are wide. But the tram system is as busy as, with tracks and their corresponding lines criss-crossing all over the roads and especially the intersections. And there is little shade as we walk around to Karlsplatz – boy the summer is really getting hot!

Karlskirche, with its impressive domed roof, looks amazing in the bright morning sun. This church presents visually very differently from a lot of those we have seen recently. To start, there are two detached pillars that look very much like minaret towers in front of the dome-topped body of the church. And whereas we have not had to pay to go in to any of the other churches and Cathedrals here, this one costs us a discounted €5 each – on the receipt it says ‘maintenance contribution’ – yeah right, whatever! We walk down the corridor from the ticket seller and into the body of the church and WOW.

Now, there is a story to the building of this church (official name is St Charles of Borromaeus Church of Vienna). In 1713, the plague hit Vienna for the second time in two decades and more than 10,000 people died. Emperor Charles VI vowed to construct a magnificent church in honour of the saint – his name saint and patron of the plague! And this is the result. Famous architect Bernhard Fischer worked to achieve a symbiosis between Roman, Greek and oriental classical architecture with ideas from the baroque. The two towers are 47 metres high. Carvings on the towers reflect the life and achievements of the Emperor and the Saint.

And back to the inside. You walk into an elliptical nave with the most stunning dome 45 metres above you. It is covered in frescoes with the main message being the Saint petitioning the Holy Trinity to save the city from the plague. At the moment there is some major restoration work being undertaken and so, using the lift installed to get the workers up to the dome, we too can get up close and very personal with this amazing artwork that covers a total of 1,150 sq. metres! Up here in the heavens, the colours are greener than what they appear from the body of the church, and the figures are more squat and bigger than life. This allows people in the church to see the saints, angels, cherubim and putti in true perspective way above them. Michael continues his journey into the heavenly realm by climbing a further 121 steps into the lantern housing where supposedly the views are stunning. Trouble was that the thick glass was filthy and encased in a heavy metal mesh – too bad for a photo and almost too bad for him to even see out. Pity.

And the architectural triumph is fascinating. There are domes atop open domes so that it is only when you stand underneath that you can see the full glory of the frescoes. All the side altars have artworks by major artists as their features, and there is a stucco medallion to the side of the Marian altar that shows the feast day of my birth – the Annunciation (where angels told the Virgin Mary that she was to bear the Son of God).

The main altar is a work of art that truly venerates the Holy Trinity. The focal point (thanks to the very clever placement of windows) is the gilt symbol of the Trinity containing in Hebrew the name of God surrounded by an elaborate stucco nimbus of angels and putti. Below this, Saint Charles floats towards Heaven and his glorification. This statuary is known throughout the world as one of the masterpieces of the baroque age. And it is breath-taking (yes, yes, I know – I am holding my breath a lot at the moment!)

We could spend hours and hours here with all this special art, but the day is flying. A quick visit to the attached museum for Michael while I head outside in search of some cooler air! And outside there is a Mozart character dressed in full costume (I pity him in the heat) selling tickets for two different performances – Mozart’s Requiem tonight in the Karlskirche, and the Vienna Mozart Concerts. So after some quick discussion, we decide to book for the latter for Monday night. It will mean that we re-arrange our last two days here, but boy, we have to do this – it is in the Concert Hall where they stage the famous Vienna New Year Concert and we have dead centre, front row balcony seats. Cool, very very cool.

Oh, a postscript from here – the artist who painted the dome fresco, Johann Michael Rottmayr, also painted the frescoes at the Melk Abbey – all the more reason for us to make the time to go and have a look!

So, happy as larks, we leave Karlskirche to go back to get our last trip on the Ring Tram and go around to the Votive Church in Vienna. Too late, we will never make it, so instead we just jump on the U-Bahn (underground) for a trip of a four stops. Public transport here is excellent and we have found every tram and train we have travelled on to be immaculate.

The Votive Church has a more traditional façade for a church. And there is a story to this one as well. Following the failed assassination of Emperor Francis Joseph I, his brother Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian appealed for funds to build a church to be dedicated as a memorial for the Emperor’s deliverance. And so the church earned the name Votive as this is the term for an offering (mainly a religious term.) A competition was called for architects to provide designs for the new church. The young 26 year old Heinrich Ferstel was chosen as the successful architect. The terms of the competition were that the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages was to be used as a guide – consequently many people think that the Church is much older than it really is, as a Neo-Gothic edifice built much later.

Now the church was designed as a memorial and not as a parish church so it was designed originally without seats – to be a vast open space reflecting space and harmony in the design. The plan was that it would house a hall of fame for great Austrians, but in a time when there was great conflict between the church and the state, this was fraught with danger. By imperial decree (1862) it was designated a garrison church and there are plaques dedicated to imperial riflemen, imperial regiments and even individual soldiers – especially those killed in the World Wars. Today however, its main function is as a parish church.

The building is beautifully proportioned and while dark, gives a sense of lightness and balance. The chandeliers hanging on long brass rods and beautiful, the stained glass windows vibrant in their upper arches and quite modern below. There are exquisite old frescoes painted in the side walls to the side altars and right across the back wall of the church. And as it was never designed to be filled with seating, special attention was paid in laying the floor of glazed clay tiles – the first time they had been used in Vienna.

The main altar sits under an elaborate canopy. Made of Laas marble, it is supported by columns of Egyptian alabaster between which there is glass mosaic inlays. The altar sits on a base made of the same marble and is made of gilded bronze with colourful enamel scenes. It is so beautiful. And it is surrounded by life-size statues of the twelve apostles. The arcades contain scenes from the story of Noah. Behind the altar are seven five-sided chapels. As I said, it is a beautifully balanced building.

It’s now time for some lunch and we either need to find something close to here, or get back into the centre of the City and battle the throngs. A short walk puts us at the Café Stein with its streetside al-fresco area shaded by mature trees and umbrellas. There are lots of locals having lunch – a good sign! Our waiter quickly brings us an English Menu, but it doesn’t have the daily specials on it, so he ends up translating anyway! We have:
Cous-cous mit feinem Ratatouille und geriebenem Parmesan (Couscous with Ratatouille and grated parmesan) Michael
Gebratened Hühnerfilet mit Erdnusscreme und Basmatireis (Chicken breast filet with peanut sauce and basmati rice) Maria
A coffee to finish and some timely advice from our waiter puts us quickly on a tram back to our starting point where we transfer for a No.2 tram back to the car.

But not before we got a gelato at this incredibly busy gelataria near the tram stop – Michael has a Moonlight (chocolate, coffee and syrup) while I had a Nougat one (a ball of green marzipan surround by chocolate and then rolled in crushed nuts) – lovely on a hot (32°C) day!

We leave Vienna passing ‘Gasometer town’ – gotta hand it to them – fancy giving the area where all the refinery and oil storage facilities reside such a catchy name! And once we are out of the city, the landscape changes – not subtly, but almost instantly – to one of a large flat basin with gently sloping hills around the perimeter. There are lots of grass and grain crops here and wind turbines all lined up in military fashion – very straight row after row. They could be waiting for the commanding officer to walk the ranks on inspection!

The road systems here in Europe are amazing. We have all seen photos of the big clover leaf interchanges in the USA, well think clover leafs over clover leafs, or adjoining each other and you can start to picture some of the big ones here. And then there are the double roundabouts – boy it was daunting the first time we came upon one (but we are old hands now ¦:-> ).

And every time we cross a border at the moment, we have to stop – not for passport checks or anything, no, to buy motorway vignettes (stickers) for the windscreen. The on-the-spot fines for not having them are large enough that only the really foolhardy (and maybe Mick!) would chance not getting one.

And so we reach Bratislava, past ugly concrete flats that are a reminder of the fairly recent communist rule here. And as we pass over the Danube river under the modern UFO tower (pronounced Eu-fo) the four turrets of the castle are in the same vista. There can’t be too many places where the ancient and the modern reside beside one another, both as striking as the other! I love Kate, she delivers us to the apartment we have for the next two days without a hitch. And while the outside of the building really does need some TLC, the one bedroom apartment is lovely and modern. AND only 300 m from the Old City. Tell you more about it tomorrow!

Michael finds Tesco and gets a load of veges to stir fry for dinner – whoo hoo, we truly miss them in this carb capital and protein province area of the world! And then there is this cute little pat of butter - I am holding the milk only so you can see the real size of the butter!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wien the wondrous

Vienna is another jewel in the crown of Austria. It is amazing that such a small country holds such a wealth of scenic beauty, architectural richness and gastronomic delights!

After hearing Antony and Amanda’s news we have been trying to get them on their mobiles, without any luck. We know that they still haven’t reached home in Darwin, so all we can do is keep trying. We finally get on to them about 9 am this morning as they are pulling in to Mataranka. Turns out that they were half way between Mount Isa and Camooweal early yesterday morning when out of the left came a kangaroo, a BIG roo – straight into the front left panel of their car. Its OK, they are all fine. Luckily they could get a mobile phone signal – but only with Antony standing on the roof of the car! They were lucky – a few kilometres either way and they would not have been able to pick up a signal at all. They wait almost 5 hours for a tow back in to Mount Isa. I asked Amanda if Izabella was OK during the long wait and she just laughed – “Sure”, she said, “she had all the kangaroos to watch!” The car is not drivable and needs about $4,000 worth of repairs (first estimate!). Being Mount Isa, spares are not easy to come by – they need a new bumper, front passenger door and maybe a new front left panel as well as work on the electrics. So they end up having to hire a car to drive back to Darwin. Oh, and by the way, the kangaroo just hopped away for anyone who is interested.

We both slept really well despite the bunk beds – I slept on the top of course. NOT! Breakfast is a now familiar affair of bread rolls with processed sliced meats and cheese and a cup of weak coffee. Oh yay, for an extra €3 we can get a glass of fresh orange juice – not watered down! After breakfast we upload the blog and then buy a Vienna Pass – good for 72 hours. That will cover us for all travel on the public transport and a whole lot of good discounts on attractions, the hop on- hop off Ring Tram as well as shopping discounts. Pretty good value! So after we study the guide and earmark pages of all the things we would like to see, we set out, catching the tram just across the road from the youth hostel.

We are about 12 stops and 15 minutes from where we want to go. We travel through suburbs, seeing the daily life of the Viennesse. Hanging out their washing, taking children to the park, doing the shopping. Like people in any suburb in any large town in any country. We are basically all the same.

We travel in to the Schwedenplatz stop which is very close to Stephensdom – one of the wonders of Vienna. I want Michael’s first view to be from a distance and so we back track a little, coming across the oldest church in Vienna, St Ruperts, that dates back to the 8th century. But it is not open today, so we turn towards Stephenplatz and the Cathedral, winding down back streets and marvelling at the architecture as we go. And then all of a sudden, there is the Cathedral – not the view I had wanted for Michael, but he is impressed just the same! So I’ll let him tell you about it for a while.

"Wow!" - that's all I could say upon the instant of me seeing the Cathedral. So, what you ask is so appealing about religious structures to a...Heathen? I can assure you it has nothing at all to do with religion. Is it the architecture, the engineers who brilliantly designed and constructed these edifices; the logistics of the time when these marvels were created or the people. Whether you admire a pyramid, a temple, a henge, a cairn or a solitary 16' standing stone they all have to do with people - gods may be the reason, its people who are the purpose. Likened to a cemetery as historical timeline, so is architecture in any form. Believe me folks when I suggest that churchs, abbey's and cathedrals are a major drawcard in the tourism machine.

Today was no exception, as I recovered from my initial reaction to the monument I was taken aback by the volume of humanity surrounding it. I suppose the most impressive feature, (apart from its towers and spires,) is the roof with its tessellated patterns - it appeared to be similar to a Roman mosaic! However, entering the building was something else... Looking beyond the guilding and trappings...the architure and sculpture was mesmerising: from the ribbed vaulting, the stone lacework and to the cavenous interior. Ignoring the throng around me, I am just captivated by this 12th century marvel.

Entry into the cathedrals' western tower is permitted and, wait for it, access is via an elevator! Yes, Sir! No spiral staircases and hundreds of stairs today. At a cost of €4.50 each, Maria and I travel upon the vertical path towards the apex. The view over Wien is just awesome, as is the cathedral's amazing roof which also contains the pattern of Vienna's standard - an eagle, well in this case two! Not only can we admire the view, but also have the opportunity to amaze at the intricate detail of the stonework which cannot be discerned from ground level! However,across the panorama we can see a myriad of towers and domes of the various historical buildings. There is a higher viewing platform, and as I climb towards it there is an excellent view of the bell in its belfry.

And then there was the meeting of another Aussie couple at the top of the Stephensdom platform who instantly recognised us as Australians thanks to Michael’s Akubra. The bloke is just gobsmacked at the age of the Cathedral, which he blurts out: "How in the hell did they do it; its a 12th century building?!" In total we spend about 2 hours at the Cathedral.

Lunch afterwards was taken at the Café de l’Europe sitting on the Graben Straβe, watching the world walk by. There are many many Arabs holidaying in Vienna right now – and all toting bags and bags from the designer stores. So glad that our petrol money is helping Europe to recover from the economic downturn twice over!! Lunch was okay, but not up to that of yesterday. Michael ordered Tortellini mit freshum Blattspinat und Ricotta (Tortellini with fresh leaf spinach and ricotta) while I had the Crostini mit Kirschtomaten, Knoblauch und Basilikum (Crostini with tomato, garlic and basil). Mine was very light on the garlic and basil, but Michael said his was delicious.

The café seems to specialise in desserts and so we order Nutella Spaghetti! That is, ‘noodles’ of ice cream with nutella sauce and hazelnuts – mmmm, that was worth the wait! While we eat lunch there is one of street artists just outside the arcade opposite where we are sitting. She is doing it easier than most of them – she is sitting down. Maybe this is why most people just walk passed her, not even seeing her – there are some though that are mesmerized – especially the little children and the Japanese ladies!

After lunch we continue walk up the Graben Straβe marvelling at the statues with every second one lavishly gilded. And as in the other large European cities, there are roadworks and restoration works happening everywhere. We turn down back streets until we reach Kohlmarkt and turn right for the Opera House where we again pick up the Ring Tram, this time to Museumplatz. There are two impressive buildings that flank Maria Theresia Platz which itself is home to a memorial statue dedicated to Maria Theresia, perhaps the most powerful empress of the Hapsburg dynasty – she ruled Austria in the 18th Century, along with a myriad of other statues and fountains.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum (these were once the stables for the imperial family) boasts one of the finest collections of Egyptian, Greek, Roman artifacts and works by famous artists in Europe. Its interior is as impressive as the exterior; each of the exhibition halls are decorated in the artwork of the displayed period. If the foyer is any indication I can't wait to see the rest.

I start with the Egyptian exhibition and walking through the doors is likened to entering a temple. Sarcophagi, mummies, papyri and other artifacts are displayed in muted light for conservation. An army of wardens continually patrol the corridors not only to ensure nothing untowards occurs but curb those visitors who insist on ignoring signs advising - NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY. There are many museums throughout Europe who are generous by permitting photography, so long as a flash is not employed.

The following exhibitions are just as impressive, displaying an array of examples depicting what life was like in those past cultures. Notably, the Roman section had an enviable collection of busts of emperors and of the common person. Watching me carefully were the eyes of Marcus Auraleus, Octavian, Hadrian and Vespasian - just to name a few.

I then moved onto The Masters. As you walk through the doors of the gallery, there is an impressive list of those artists whose works are represented - including two of my favourites: Hieronymus Bosch and
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I could prattle on, but like today I don't have the time!

After the museum, Maria and I sit the park for a while and enjoy the sunshine. Maria decides to return to the Hostel, and I remain in the city to explore further. Saying farewell to my Maria, and leaving her at the tram stop I proceed towards the Rathaus. Well, as I walked along Burg Ring (no, it's not a joke) I saw the Burgtor Gate which leads in to the Heldenplatz. The Heldenplatz is the precinct which comprises of the Hofburg Imperial Palace. It was here in 1938 after the annexation by the National Socialist German Workers' Party, that Adolf Hitler infamously spoke to the Austrian people. Ironically, across from the Hofberg is Heroe's Square (Heldenplatz) and a statue of the Archduke Charles of Austria, commerating those lost to conflicts.

I continue my promenade through the carriageway that once led out of it, but now is an open thoroughfare for pedestrians, taxis and horsedrawn vehicles. What, you may ask? Well the carriageway was originally part of the Imperial Apartments aqnd allowed the monarchs and their guests to alight out of the weather. Now this is a precinct you have to see. And when I get back to the youth hostel, Maria tells me that this is almost the exact same path she trod with Michael, Mum and Donna in 2006.

It seems that all of Europe is a concert at the moment and Vienna is no different. Apart from the usual Mozart concerts and the Operas that are offered here daily, there are huge open air summer concerts etc. Vienna's is in the plaza of the Rathaus so the view of this impressive building is obscured slightly by the large screen that is presently sitting in front of it. Oh well, at least the photo shows the time and moment!

The amount of impressive architecture on show is amazing - and it is not only the civic buildings. Some of the top hotels too are in majestic structures - many of them once large public buildings. And the inner city apartment blocks too are amazing both in architectural style and attention to building ornamentation. All put together, it paints a picture of wealth and affluence and a history of architecture through the ages. But this is a bit of an incorrect picture. Firstly, there was a swathe of buildings and most of the City Wall that was demolished in old Vienna in the mid 19th Century to make way for the construction of what is today the Ring Road. This wide one-way avenue circuits the city just outside the old town and provides space for the tram system, cars, bikes and pedestrians. Then Vienna suffered substantially in the bombings of WWII and many of the civic buildings (in particular) were re-built. So what is old is new again and sometimes a little bit of a misnomer!

Still so much to see, so we will sign off now. Back out into it tomorrow for half a day or so before we head to Bratislava in Slovakia. We have decided though that once we spend a few days in Slovakia we will come back to Vienna (to a hotel) for another day, and then a day in Melk - we are determined to see that Abbey!