Saturday, November 28, 2015

Vienna: Belevedere Palace, noble residence now houses fine art

A short tram ride brought us to the Belvedere Palace, on what used to be the outskirts of Vienna. It was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy as his summer residence, and actually consists of two palaces, Upper and Lower Belvedere, with a stunning baroque garden in between. Today it houses Austrian art from the Middle Ages to the present day, along with the world's largest collection of Klimt paintings.

Inside was very busy, mostly on account of a large group of Italian students. Their diminutive teachers herded them around with lots of calls of, "Ragazzi, ragazzi." We started in a huge room with a domed ceiling where there was some modern art. My favourite was a video installation featuring a psychedelic frog who would move a little and wink at you. We had to leave Klimt until the students moved on. Much of the palace contains Imperial collections gathered over the years. I found a lot of the paintings difficult to view as there was so much light coming through the massive windows.

One of my favourite rooms had a collection of busts arranged in a large circle. Each bust showed a grotesque grimace. It is thought that the artist perhaps had a tick condition.

Finally we saw the Klimt collection with the golden paintings "The Kiss" and "Judith" as the highlights of the 24 works – portraits, landscapes, and allegorical scenes. Klimt contributed considerably to the international avant-garde’s breakthrough in Vienna. The collection was quite lovely.

We walked down through the baroque Palace gardens filled with sculptures and fountains to the Lower Belvedere where we saw Austrian art from the 1960s.

Our tour complete, we jumped on a tram but after a few stops began to wonder if we were going in the right direction. We got out at the next step, which happened to be near a metro station, and we were soon back at St. Stephen's square enjoying lunch in a very nice Italian restaurant. I had spinach with a  special poached "Tuscan" egg. At first I was a bit sceptical, but the egg was really nicely done with some egg foam as well. I was just happy to sit down; wearing new shoes while exploring a new city can be a bit painful.

Revived once again, we window-shopped along the pedestrian shopping area. There are lots of really interesting, different shops in Vienna. If truth be told we were really too tired to try anything on.

After another relaxing afternoon tea and another small plate dinner we enjoyed going to the movies and seeing Spectre, the new James Bond movie, in English. This was a perfect way to finish our time in Vienna, a place we would like to return to.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Vienna: a night at the opera

Of course we made it back to the hotel for our afternoon tea and slice of bundt cake. We had too short a time before we had to leave for this evening's entertainment, Richard Strauss' Electra at the Vienna Opera. Since we had bought tickets at the last minute we were up in the ‘gods’. Perhaps that was a good thing. In front of us on a small screen we could read in English what was being sung. So much of the dialogue was really nonsensical. After an hour things came to a little lull and I thought there might be an intermission but my hopes were dashed as things picked up again for another hour.

The Greek story was performed in modern dress on a dark stage. Although it had excellent reviews it really wasn't my cup of tea. Electra, a nasty sort of person, has disassociated herself from society vowing to avenge her father's death by her mother and lover. When she finds out that her brother, Orestes is dead she vows to avenge the death and tries to win the support of her sister. A stranger arrives who turns out to be the brother, Orestes. He kills the mother and her lover. Electra is ecstatic. Everyone is happy. The audience loved the performance. I continue to have a ‘love and like not so much’ relationship with opera.

On the other hand, we were happy to be back at Ulrich's having another small plate for dinner. This time it was an artichoke in a vegetable broth with thin strips of peppers. Once again it was a delicious meal and a fitting end to a very busy day.

Vienna: outside Schonbrunn a beautiful park and world class zoo

After our pick-me-up it was time to explore the gardens and outbuildings around the Schonbrunn Palace. The spectacular park covers an area of 500 acres and was laid out in the 18th century Baroque style. The flowers and leaves were gone but the gardens were still impressive with wide pathways and perfectly groomed trees and bushes. We wandered along the paths finally reaching Neptune's Fountain, a sculpture based on themes from Greek mythology, including the story of Thetis and her son Achilles. Unfortunately the fountains had been turned off in preparation for the cold weather to come. It was a balmy 18 degrees today but the forecast was for overnight temperatures of minus seven in a couple of days.

The park's most impressive structure was the Palm House. Built in 1883, it was, at the time, the largest greenhouse in Europe and contains three sections in which numerous exotic plants are kept, along with hundreds of species of butterflies. It was massive, and opposite was a similar building, the Desert House. We decided to visit the zoo first and see if we were up to visiting the Palm House after that. We weren't.

In the summer of 1752, Emperor Franz I, Maria Therese's husband, took his royal guests to the newly constructed menagerie in the park at Schönbrunn Palace for the first time. Ever since then, the world's oldest zoo has been operating in Vienna, and is today considered one of the world’s best.

Soon we were watching the pandas munching massive amounts of bamboo and going for rambles in their outdoor enclosure. Both the inside and outside enclosures had a natural design, with lots of greenery and specially designed things for the animals to play with. We were to find this everywhere. The zoo has an excellent record of breeding animals and has produced three panda cubs.

We spent some time watching the giant hippos. I really liked being able to get so close to the animals. One hippo outside wanted to join his mates in the hippo house. He kept banging the outside glass door with his head. In fact it was a bit scary but it finally it opened for him. He promptly ambled into the water where he swam around a bit and persistently kept blowing and surfacing. I think he was showing off for the females.

It was lunchtime so we headed for the old breakfast pavilion. It was at the centre of the zoo’s original 13 buildings, some of which still remain. Inside the pavilion was quite grand with high ceilings, giant ornate mirrors all around the walls and huge chandeliers. I was feeling adventuresome and had semolina pancakes for lunch. When they came they had a light dusting of icing sugar. Even though they were in the entrees section of the menu, I think they were really a dessert; however they were quite tasty.

One of the highlights of the giant Rainforest House was the bat area. We entered the darkened room and could just make out hundreds of bats hanging out while others swooped around. the swooping didn't bother me but the smell was truly disgusting. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

We watched polar bears, leopards, kangaroos, penguins, seals and lots of other animals on our visit. It was amazing how the zoo's historic charm was preserved while creating modern, interesting enclosures.

At the end of our visit we went to the Orangutang House where we spent ages being entertained. We watched them play with their straw or shavings, climbing, sitting watching a little boy blow bubbles, swinging on the ropes and spinning on a rope until dizzy and playing with giant Lego blocks. Of course the youngest orangutang was a master at annoying the older ones.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vienna: Schönbrunn Palace, spectacular summer residence for Habsburg rulers

Today we took the Metro a few kilometres west of Vienna's city centre to the spectacular Schönbrunn Palace, which was built in the early 18th century in a beautiful park-like setting and remains one of Austria's leading attractions. The palace's history, however, goes back further, to 1569 when Emperor Maximilian II acquired a small summer palace in a converted mill on this site. After the glorious victory over the Turks in 1683, Emperor Leopold I commissioned an Imperial palace on the site of what was then known as the Palace of Klatterburg that he hoped would rival the Palace of Versailles. Instead, the more modest Schönbrunn Palace with its 1,441 rooms and apartments was built and soon after converted into a residence for Maria Theresa, the only female Habsburg ruler.

While only 40 of the Schönbrunn Palace's 1,441 rooms are open to the public, they were enough to provide us with a sense of just how magnificent a place it really was. We visited the Palace's West Wing, home to the sumptuous Apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth (or Sisi). Richly furnished in 19th-century style, the rooms include the Emperor's Audience Chamber and the Walnut Room, named after its rich walnut paneling from 1766, a highlight of which is the candelabra carved out of wood and covered in gold. Another highlight is Franz Joseph's Bedroom with the simple soldier's bed in which the Emperor died on November 21st, 1916, after a reign of 68 years. Also of note here is Empress Elisabeth's Salon with its pastel portraits of her children.

Maria Theresa’s rooms were richly furnished. There were pictures of her eleven girls including Marie Antoinette. Highlights included Marie Antoinette's Room where Napoleon stayed and the Breakfast Room with its fine floral paintings thought be the work of the Empress' daughters. The Great Gallery was once home to glittering Imperial banquets under ornate ceiling paintings. The long table was laden with gold as if a banquet was about to take place. Etiquette required that you only spoke to your neighbour's on either side. Sometimes you could hardly see across the table with all the centre pieces and candelabra. The Million Room, Maria Theresa's private salon was  panelled with precious rosewood, ornamented with gilt carvings, and home to some 260 Indian and Persian miniatures. Finally, the Hall of Mirrors with its crystal mirrors in gilded Rococo frames was very impressive.

This was a long tour and we were quite relieved to visit the adjacent cafe for a much needed coffee. It was quite warm and we sat outside watching the sparrows. I sprinkled some sugar crumbs but one sparrow swooped in and scooped the whole sugar cube and flew off with it. Perhaps the surroundings weren't as sumptuous as inside the palace but it was a lovely place to stop.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Vienna: imperial grandeur on display in Hofburg Palace apartments

It was time for us to move deeper into the Hofburg palace complex to see the main attractions — the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Imperial Silver Collection. We started out with the silver collection, with its more than 7,000 items including ceremonial and everyday tableware from the Imperial Court. At one time the royal family ate off silver plates all the time. They must have had any army of people cleaning all the silver.

Porcelain was used for desserts and soup.  Among the many treasures in this spectacular collection are fine 18th-century East Asian porcelain, the formal dinner services of Franz Joseph, a silver traveling service belonging to Empress Elisabeth Christine that went everywhere she went, and the ten-meter-long Milanese centrepiece made of gilded bronze. Other highlights include the Meissen service from 1775, the 19th-century Viennese Empire service and, perhaps the most important part of the collection, the Ruby service used for Imperial grand occasions with its settings for 140 guests. Everything was in beautiful condition. My favourites were the flowered plates that almost resembled Portmerion with the same flowers but these were definitely nicer. The black plates with flowers painted on them were stunning. The porcelain covered in gold was very interesting. The gold dishes had to be melted down for coins so porcelain dishes were covered in thin gold for important occasions. Very impressive.

We popped into the Court Kitchen for a look behind the scenes of the Imperial banquets. On display were original copper vessels, pans, and molds, along with old kettles and the warming dishes needed to feed the court's 5,000 members.

The next part of the tour was the Sisi Museum dedicated to Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi. This offered a fascinating insight into the aristocracy of the 19th century. She was an intriguing woman who married at sixteen. Her hair reached to her ankles and it was brushed for two hours a day while she read and learned foreign languages including Ancient Greek. It took a day to wash her hair in eggs and cognac. She kept a fairly strict beauty regime using natural products, things we would use today such as rose petals but she also used cooked animal blood on her face. Her waist was twenty inches and to maintain her figure she would skip meals and workout in her rooms, where she had a set of rings hanging from her door, steps and other apparatus. She was a keen horsewoman and swimmer. It didn't seem to be a problem for her filling her time as her husband worked 16 hours a day until his death at the age of 86.

In the Hofburg's Stephan Apartments, highlights include more than 300 personal artefacts such as gloves, parasols, notes regarding her strict beauty regime, and the death mask made after her assassination. Other fascinating artefacts include a copy of the dress she wore when moving to Austria from her native Munich as a 16-year-old in 1854, a copy of her coronation gown, and a replica of part of her imperial railway carriage.

Next we entered the Imperial Apartments, specifically the Franz Joseph Apartments, most of which remain unaltered. Highlights include the Dining Room, famous for its rich décor and Flemish artwork representing the heroic deeds of Hercules, and the Circle Room with its exquisite tapestries. A fascinating model of the Hofburg and its many buildings is in the Guard Room, while in the Large Audience Chamber - the waiting room for the Emperor's weekly audiences - the Bohemian crystal candelabrum was worth seeing. In the Study is a bust of Field-Marshal Radetzky, one of a select group permitted to appear unannounced before the Emperor (his sword is also on display).

Empress Elisabeth's Apartments include her sumptuous Living Room, widely regarded as the prettiest of the Hofburg's many rooms and serving both as a living room and bedroom. This was quite unusual as the bed was right in the centre of the room. Another highlight was the Large Salon, home to a fine collection of Louis XIV furniture and a number of Sèvres porcelain vases, a collection of Romantic landscape paintings, and a marble statue of Napoleon's sister.

We made our way to the Ring Road where we found lunch then continued on to buy opera tickets for tomorrow night before walking to another huge, wide pedestrian walkway lined with some lovely shops. After many, many steps we returned to the hotel for our afternoon tea and slice of cake.

We liked Ulrich's so much that we returned for dinner. After sharing a salad I had a couple of small plates. One was shredded cabbage served with quince and a balsamic vinaigrette and the other was a fish and chips with little shoestring potatoes and a couple of thin, thin slices of carp done in a really light batter. Delicious and no greasy aftertaste. I wish all restaurants would cook like this.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Vienna: we admire prancing stallions on our way to Hofburg Palace

Our hotel was quite centrally located, and only a ten-minute walk from the Hofburg Palace.  The Hofburg is perhaps the most historically significant of Vienna's palaces. For more than six centuries it was the seat of the Habsburg emperors - and the official residence of every Austrian ruler since 1275. The official seat of the Austrian President, this sprawling complex consists of numerous buildings reflecting various periods, including architectural flourishes from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo movements. Sprawled across 59 acres are 18 groups of buildings with 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms.

On our way to the palace we spotted the Spanish Riding School, home to the famous Lippizaner horses. Since it was somewhere we wanted to go we adjusted our plans and went inside. Dating back to the time of Emperor Maximilian II, the Spanish Riding School was established after the ruler had the famous Lipizzaner horses introduced to his courtesans in 1562. Today, it's one of Vienna's leading attractions, thrilling audiences with fabulous displays of equestrian skills in the Baroque Winter Riding School in the grounds of the Hofburg Palace, where it has been located since 1735. Since there were no actual performances while we were in Vienna we opted to see one of the morning training sessions held in the same place as the performances. The place was full of people sitting in the balconies overlooking the performance area. There were five horses practicing their moves with their riders in full uniform. The horses rode around then suddenly they would prance, take sideways steps, move backwards or ride diagonally across the ring. There was no end to the moves these horses could make under the elegant chandeliers. Most of the stallions were white but in the second session there was one brown horse. In fact these white stallions looked very similar to our Camargue horses. Sadly, we had to move on as we had a busy day ahead of us.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Vienna: Museums, Mozart and Sachertorte

We flew into Bratislava from Girona, which is closer to home than Barcelona. This, however, meant taking a bus from Bratislava to Vienna, which took almost two hours. It was an interesting ride through the countryside. We could tell immediately when we arrived in Austria, as everything seemed just a little more neat and orderly. Soon we were installed in our hotel in an old Viennese house. Best of all it was time for afternoon tea and some cake in some of the lovely old rooms.

Now revived, it was time to go exploring. Vienna is the capital of Austria, the cradle of classical music, the home of the rich Habsburg heritage, and one of Europe's most liveable cities. We headed towards the pedestrian only  part of the city passing some lovely shops. There were many small independent clothing stores, mostly with a retro 70s vibe. I think I owned one of the Pucci dresses I saw in a shop window, back in the day, but in different colours. We walked up and down the wide street looking in some shops and taking in the atmosphere. Vienna certainly didn't have that hurried pace that many cities have. We even found an English speaking cinema.

We followed one of the hotel's recommendations for dinner. Ulrich's was only a few blocks away and best of all it was casual, very busy and had a great menu of small and large plates. We started with an appetizer of flat bread and little dipping bowls of avocado, hummus and a beetroot dip. Thus the name dip, dip, dip. This was followed by a wild boar schnitzel in pumpkin seed breadcrumbs. Oh my this was very good. I had been a little apprehensive that the food in Vienna might be huge lashings of meat and potatoes. What a great find this restaurant was. I finished off my meal with a tea infusion made with sage leaves, rosemary and thyme with a little honey on the side. This was refreshing and really tasty. In fact I am going to have some as soon as I finish this. If you have these herbs in your garden I highly recommend you try it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

High tech submersible one of summer's highlights

Back in the village the weather has been beautiful, with one day hitting 25 degrees. We even managed a few half-hour swims but the water was pretty cold. Because of the fine weather lots of people are still making day trips to the Port.

Unfortunately, our little yellow submarine submersible has been taken away. It was connected to the university's archeological boat that has examined a sunken Roman ship in the area. We had enjoyed watching guests going for a ride around the bay in the submersible.

Life is back to a routine where we either swim or walk. Just the other day we had a lovely walk going from Cadaques towards Port Lligat. The highlight of the trip was watching an octopus swim around and then eventually struggling as it moved a rock that was much bigger than he was. I didn't realize just how strong they were.

We are off on our travels for a few days tomorrow and as soon as we return the beautiful warm weather will end and we will have a tramontana, cold winds from the Pyrenees that bring lovely blue skies, cold weather and very high winds.

Friday, November 13, 2015

One more stroll and a coffee before saying goodby to Venice

Our day started very early, having breakfast with our friends. Most of the passengers had left the yacht by the time we disembarked. We placed our luggage in the left luggage and headed towards St. Mark's Square. This time it was much easier as everything had dried up from the day before. We passed all the high-end shops as we neared the square. It was coffee time. Where should we go?

We opted for Caffe Florian, the oldest coffee house in the world, which has been in operation since 1720. The lovely espresso was served in beautiful cups along with a very tasty croissant. We had been in Florians before but it was a treat even if very expensive. As a Donna Leon fan it was a place I wanted to visit since her Inspector Brunetti likes to go there for coffee or meals.

The Caffè was patronised in its early days by notable people including Goethe and Casanova, who was no doubt attracted by the fact that Caffè Florian was the only coffee house that allowed women. Later Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens were frequent visitors. It was one of the few places where Gasparo Gozzi's early newspaper, Gazzetta Veneta, could be bought in the mid-18th century, and became a meeting place for people from different social classes. In 1750 the Florian expanded to four rooms.

Unfortunately, it was time for us to retrace our steps to the pier and our left luggage. It was sad to say goodbye to Venice, but what wonderful memories.

In sun or cloud Venice always amazes

Cloudy, damp weather didn't dampen our spirits as we approached Venice. After passing lots of small outer islands, we spotted St. Mark's Basin through the mist. We passed hotels in historic buildings, the Arsenal and St. Mark's Square before we sailed in amongst the busy water traffic, to our dock. Soon we disembarked with our Australian friends Michelle and Tom.

Since all of us had been to Venice before and done all the touristy things, we decided that today we were going to walk and explore. Immediately, we ran into a minor problem. Venice was flooded with the tide and the rain so instead of walking down the promenade by the Guideca we had to go inland. This wasn't easy as many streets and little alleys were flooded. We would walk down, discover a flood, and have to retrace our steps. It didn't take too long before we were well and truly lost in Venice's winding streets. We crossed a couple of small arched bridges over canals only to be thwarted again.

Finally we made our way to the Accademia Bridge. Of course we had to stop for a while and enjoy all the gondolas, vaporettos (public water buses) and all the small craft carrying goods for restaurants and stores. We still had to make detours. By the time we reached Campo Francesco Morisini the water was too deep and narrow walking platforms were everywhere. It took us a while to reach St. Mark's Square, the heart and soul of Venice, which was completely flooded. Entrepreneurs were selling plastic Wellington boots in a variety of colours. I opted for turquoise and set off for the deep water. I considered myself lucky because I had always wanted to see Venice flooded and today was the day.

We admired the Campanile, the Clock Tower from the fifteenth century, and St. Mark's Cathedral with its domes, pinnacles and bronze horses. By now the walking platforms were really crowded and a carabinieri  with full leg waders kept us moving. We passed the Doge's Palace, the seat of the Venetian government from the 9th century until 1797 and the home to the Duke of Venice.

Some of the shops and money exchangers around the square were closed because of the flooding. After more wandering around we spotted the Bridge of Sighs, where prisoners crossed on the way to the prison.

It was lunchtime and we found the restaurant we were looking for after negotiating many narrow, narrow laneways and getting lost in a lovely enclosed square. We were well off the tourist track now. I had beautiful pasta nero or pasta made with black squid ink. It was delicious.

We continued our walk ending up on the Rialto Bridge with its many jewellery shops. Many of them were selling items made of beautiful shades of Murano glass. By now the sun was out and things were drying up quite quickly. We walked down Fondamenta del Vin parallel to the Grand Canal. It is such a lovely walk with all the majestic old palazzos lining the canal. It was time to sit down for a glass of wine and to do more people watching. Besides our legs needed a rest.

We tried to walk further along the Grand Canal but the laneways kept ending in canals. Finally we had to retrace our steps over the Rialto Bridge wending our way to the Accademia Bridge. This was no small feat as there are no straight roads in Venice. Finally we found the promenade to the ship, which was quite dry now. What an easy walk this time.

Tonight was our last dinner with our friends so we made it a celebratory dinner vowing to meet up in Europe or Australia in the next year or so. I hope we do.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hvar: Abandoned villages and mountaintop views make for memorable visit

Once again we had an early start as we had to take the tender to the Croatian island of Hvar. We had a brief glimpse of the town as we walked to our off-road vehicle and the beginning of our day's adventure. After climbing a short way up the mountain we found ourselves bumping along a sandy track. Most of the vegetation was very familiar to us: subtropical, olives, vines, pines, lavender, rosemary  and rocky outcrops.

Our first stop was at an abandoned Dalmatian village, Malo Grablje. All the houses were made of local stone that can be found everywhere in the mountains. In the middle of the town was what looked like a cement skateboard park but it was really for water catchment. The village had slowly emptied as people sought better opportunities in town or on the mainland. This is a familiar story all over the Mediterranean where there are many abandoned houses in villages. Blackberries swamp the vines because no one looks after them and olive trees lie untended.

We continued on to a lookout over another old village, Velo Grabjle, with apparently only seven full-time residents. Although families had abandoned this village, they still came back to work their land. We saw some of them drive up in their new cars and then drive their ancient cars from another time out to their land.

The views were magnificent as we drove through the mountains. We looked down on a famous award-winning vineyard from Nikola Hill. The growing conditions, namely the heat and soil, are huge factors here in making wines that are 15% alcohol and higher. Where it wasn't quite as hot and nearer the sea the wines had a lower alcohol content. While we were admiring this view we discovered some wild saffron just at the side of the road. The flowers resemble crocuses.

It was good to be back in Hvar. This is a celebrity go-to place but at this time of year it was very quiet. The streets were so easy to navigate that they are unnamed. The main commercial street was a wide promenade that runs along the harbour. On the northern slope above the town square were the remains of some palaces, which belonged to the Hvar aristocracy. The town is quite tranquil as it is closed to traffic. There were several little shops open, many of them selling local lavender products.

It was definitely lunchtime. We looked at a few restaurants in the main square but they seemed a bit touristy. Finally, we settled for lunch at a restaurant on the pier right next to where we picked up our tender. It was a lovely lunch of the best mussels I have ever had in a sauce of garlic, tomato and white wine. This accompanied by lovely frites and a local white wine was a perfect way to spend our last hour on Hvar.