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!

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