After a drunken night, awaking at 6:45 was pathetically difficult. We’re twenty years old for crying out loud, we don’t know what hangovers are yet (I’m told anyway).
A few months ago, while I was gazing at Budapest on Google Maps, I made the groundbreaking discovery that Budapest and Vienna are not that far away from one another. I turned to Jennie,
“We could go to Vienna, it’s not too far away”
“Yeah we could…”
I knew she didn’t really believe we could go, but I was entranced by the idea. I had read on numerous occasions about how Vienna is the best city in the world. I’d also read it’s excessively extortionate. Still, I looked into the idea and it actually seemed surprisingly doable. Tickets were £10 each way, and the journey would only take two hours.
In a bit of a spur of the moment we booked the tickets for our third day on the trip. We left Budapest Keleti station at 8:50am and arrived at around 11am, and departed Vienna later that day at 8pm. This gave us nine hours in Vienna, a place that I never thought I’d be able to afford to visit, for twenty bloody pounds!
Half-asleep, we took a metro to Keleti Train Station, which was pretty modest for a national train station; there was definitely no WhSmith here to pick up a book and a overpriced bottle of water. Despite it’s lack of rip-off shops, it was still charming. We spent a long time looking at the timetable board. There’s something luring about a train station that could take us to so many places, we could have gone anywhere. Salzburg, Szolnok, Krakow, Godollo, Prague, Bucharest, Gyor, Sulysap. Okay I don’t know where half of those places are but it was exciting nonetheless.
We were pretty sure we got on the right train, after asking a few other travellers and confirming with them, we were a little more confident. We sat in two random seats as surprisingly the train was empty. Two more passengers got on and started squinting at their tickets, murmuring seat numbers to one another. If there is one thing I don’t understand about humans, this may be it. It’s universal too, it’s as true in Bournemouth as it is in Budapest. Why, when there’s a train full of empty seats, must people sit in their designated seats? Why? I don’t get it. Just sit down, get out your Windows phone (because you probably think they’re better than iPhones) and your packet of crips (the most annoyingly loud train food), and shut the fuck up.
The train began moving and Jennie journeyed down the train in order to find a trolley bearing the cuppa’ we desired so much. Now I wasn’t there, but according to her this is how the conversation went. After politely asking for two teas, the man with the trolley replied:
“Of course, with honey or lemon?”
She asked the same question as I did when she retold the story.
“Honey and lemon? No I want tea please”
“Yes would you like it with honey or lemon?” he persisted.
He looked as appalled as Jennie had a moment earlier, as if she’d just asked him for some crack cocaine.
She returned with two teas, and to tell you the truth, they weren’t half bad. In fact, I was very much enjoying it until Jennie spilt my cup all over me.
We had bought and pre-made sandwiches, wary of the price that lunch in Vienna would cost. The journey through the Hungarian-Austrian countryside was nice, it was a bit like the English one, lots of fields and some rather depressing train stations. We knew we had crossed the border as all the wind-farms had turbines with the Austrian flag on.
When we arrived at ‘Wien Hauptbahnhof’, it was like landing on another planet. Budapest is a beautiful city, but no part of it is modern, and that’s not necessarily a complaint. It only opened last year, it was like arriving in Birmingham New Street, it was an oasis of metallic. Silver floors, silver walls, grey skies.
The people were also very different to the friendly, English-speaking locals we encountered in Budapest. When trying to buy a metro ticket to the centre of Vienna, the man behind the counter was exasperated with our lack of fluency in the German language.
We looked for a toilet, because after two hours of a toilet-less train, we were pretty ready to piss ourselves. We found the station toilet with a big sign, ‘TWO EUROS’. Nope. If I won’t pay 20p in London, what makes you think I’d pay two euros here? I’d rather piss myself. And thus, we were introduced to the extortionate city of Vienna.
We got on the U3 metro heading to Stephen-Platz, the home of the city’s main cathedral. If exploring a new city, and unsure where the centre is, the cathedral is always a good place to start. We tried the toilet at this station when we arrived, ‘TWO EUROS’. We couldn’t bring ourselves to.
We walked up the steps of the metro to be confronted by one of the largest cathedrals I’ve seen. Not particularly pretty, just, big. It was the most gothic and perhaps the eldest buidling I’d ever seen. It looked as if a fire had hit it, it was covered in what looked like burn marks? It had a beautiful patterned roof, the sort I’d fell for in Budapest. Unfortunately, I could only just make this out, as it was covered in scaffolding.
We stopped to look at it for a second, before turning and making way for what we really wanted to see, a toilet. On our way, we were approached by about ten men and women, trying to sell us tickets to see where Arnold Schwarzenegger once ate a Viennese whirl or the actual place where Mozart cut his toenails, or something like that. We found a McDonalds down the street, ‘ONE EURO’. By this point, all pride had gone and we coughed up.
We returned to the cathedral and noticed just outside a row of white horses attached to jet black carts. My Grandma had encouraged me to visit the Spanish Riding School here if I had time. I’d done some research and those horses looked a lot happier than these ones in front of us. They looked worryingly tired and dispirited. Austria is a country with vast rural landscapes, so why are these Horses towing fat, rich men around a cobblestoned city?
A little disappointed, we entered the Cathedral, and our spirits lowered further. Now we love old religious buildings, in fact, the older the better. But obviously, Vienna wants to leave this place in its original state. But it didn’t give off that archetypal, authentic charm, it just felt a bit dull and deteriorated. The contrast between this and the basilica that had dumbfounded us the day before was immeasurable. It truly needs some money and TLC. The cathedral was incredibly long, we only had access to about a quarter of it, the rest was unlocked via payment of 13 euros. We did however, have access to the gift shop, unsurprisingly.
We had previously decided that one thing we would spend money on here, would be to climb to the top of the cathedral, to see a central view of the City. It was the thing I was looking forward to the most. We eventually found the steps, and paid 10 euros, (compared to the £1 we had paid yesterday).
I don’t want to exaggerate the next part of the story, but seriously, the stairs we climbed were the most claustrophobic and hazardous in the entire world. It was a joke. 343 steps of impending death. They were steep, spiraling stairs, so narrow that if one person coming down passes someone coming up, one would have to stop and squash their body against the wall. There is no handrail, so you just sort of have to cling to cracks in the brickwork. Worse still, all people coming down the stairs were either German or Austrian, therefore you (the British), are always the one to stop and cling for your life. Further-fucking-more, not one of them said thank-you. I’ve just risked my life for you, and you cannot muster a mere “dankuchen”? It became clear to me at this point, how the Austrians were the first nation to cooperate with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party.
Four hours, two heart attacks and one attempted suicide later, we reached the top. Understandably, nothing that could greet us at the summit would be worth the money we paid, and the journey we made. But this was a joke. I’m pretty sure the staff working there laughed when he saw us, red-faced and dripping in sweat. The room was of similar size to that of Harry Potter’s bedroom under the stairs. We looked for the door to the balcony. No door. This was it. There were four tiny windows to look at the city from, oh and a gift shop, of course.
Jennie and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We pressed our noses against the steamy windows, trying to get a view of rainy Vienna. While I was looking through a pair of binoculars (the kind you find on Worthing Pier, until I realised you had to pay), Jennie took vengeance on the cathedral staff who had robbed us of our time, money, sweat, and sense of pride. She stole a map from the gift shop. Genuinely. When the attendant wasn’t looking, she stuffed a 10 euro map into her bag. That’s what this place had done to her. Five minutes ago she was admiring Gothic architecture, and now she was committing petty crime. That cathedral changed us.
We prayed to the gods to let us live, and cautiously made our way back down the steps. We thought the descent would be an improvement, perhaps it’s socially known to stop for whoever is going down the steps. Nope. We still ended up stopping, and we still ended up ignored. What happens when Austrians cross Austrians? I don’t know. I like to think they just confidently stride into one another and both crash down the steps.
I took great comfort in that thought and eventually made it to the bottom. We made our way to the Ringstrasse (German for ring-road), as we had read this is the best way to walk around the city and see all of its landmarks. We walked through some side-streets to reach it and I was instantly taken by its beauty. A lot of the city we had seen so far (bar the cathedral) was incredibly modern. This was the first part of the city that looked as if Mozart could have lived here. Cobblestoned streets, luring pubs with fireplaces in, small coloured apartments with huge black doors.
We reached the ring-road and it wasn’t as charming as the side-streets, traffic noise was loud and it was far more touristy. Firstly we stumbled across the opera house, which I was excited to see as they had filmed a lot of Mission Impossible 5 there (I know, but it’s a lot better than you might think, promise).
We took some photos and tried to go inside but it was shut. This seemed quite odd because it’s surely a money-making opportunity, and knowing Vienna for the short time I had, they would usually take advantage of that. We continued our walk, the city was lovely, not one building was ugly, and not one car older than five years. But there was something about it that didn’t charm us like Budapest, perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was our experience at the cathedral, we couldn’t quite put our finger on it.
We stopped at Hofburg Palace, which again, was beautiful. We had to squint to see it through a barred-gate, it was enormous and white. I realise I sound a bit uninspired but that’s how I felt. We took some photos but we daren’t ask how much it would cost to walk through the doors.
We passed the Austrian parliament, which looked like what I imagine the offspring of the White House and the Parthenon would look like. We walked through the University gardens, and discussed just how insane it must be to study in this city. It really is the most luxurious and opulent place I have ever been.
Eventually we reached the town hall and burst into laughter. It’s ridiculous. It is probably the nicest building I have ever seen. The laughter stems from the fact that Warwick (where Jennie lives) is a town steeped in medieval beauty, but its town-hall, in the middle of Warwick square, really is, so so ugly. I describe a lot of things as stunning, apple crumble, Joe Allen’s beard, but this really did stun me. This should be the cathedral, it’s just as big, and way more beautiful.
We made it round half of the Ringstrasse, walking down a road where each building is as beautiful is the last makes you really peckish. We stepped off the ring-road in search of somewhere reasonable to eat. This is the truth, and I’m not ashamed to say this, we ended up in McDonalds. After searching for a long time, all places that served food were split into three categories. Places that looked good enough to eat in, that were way out of our price range. Places that were in our price range that definitely did not look good enough to eat in. And places somewhere in the middle of our price range, that only served bizarre Austrian Schnitzel casserole.
With our stomachs getting emptier, and cautious of the fact we still wanted to travel to the famous Schonbrunn Palace, we settled for a good old Maccies. It was the most expensive McDonalds I’ve ever had. Nineteen euros for two meals which is obviously a lot, but trust me, we looked at a lot of menus, and we definitely saved a lot of money.
Also, we could access the free WiFi there, meaning we could contact our parents for the first time since leaving Budapest. Upon checking our phones, we discovered the news about the terrible attacks in Brussels. It really hit hard. With the tragic events that happened in Paris just months earlier, it could easily have been us in Budapest, or Vienna. We contacted our parents and told them we were safe. Jennie’s mum had already been on the phone to the foreign office, a bit dramatic but she’s a worrier. My mum told me that the terrorists had crossed at the Austria-Hungary border, I didn’t dare to tell Jennie’s mum that.
We walked to the river, not before stopping off at the former house of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I really wanted to come here. The man really fascinates me. Not because of his music, but because he wrote his first composition at five. FIVE. And also, his love of scatology. No, really. There’s a whole wikipedia page about it. One of the most complex, fantastic minds in the history of humanity, was obsessed with toilet humour. One letter he wrote to his cousin, reads,
“Oui, by the love of my skin, I shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin..”
And one to his father says,
“Father Emilian, oh you prick, lick me in the ass”
See what I mean, fascinating.
We reached the house, and from the outside it looked what I would imagine it looked like when Mozart actually lived there. Really modest, white apartment, down a small narrow street. It’s when you actually walk in the house that it loses its charm. It looked like it had been built last year. There was a gift shop and a cafe. It was at this point we were informed that he lived upstairs, and we would have to pay eleven euros each to see it. We left.
I’ve actually been meaning to say, that the entire city of Vienna milks Mozart. You see his face down every street. Hundreds of shops selling mugs, plates and tea-towels with his face on. Every historic building had his music playing. It reminded me of Stratford-upon-Avon (where Jennie went to school). Believe it or not but it’s not actually famous for being the place where she took her GCSE’s, but rather the place Shakespeare was born and grew up. And the whole town really bloody milks it. I swear to god, we saw B&B’s called Hamlet House, Twelfth Night Guest House and Shakespeare’s View. We visited a pub that swore it was the Bard’s local. Yeah, along with the rest of pubs in town. Warwick is the same. They’re not stupid, they milk the castle. Need a taxi? Call Castle Cars. Fancy something to eat? Visit Castle Kebab, or Castle Balti.
We continued to the river, stared at it for a couple of minutes, before jumping on the metro to Schonbrunn Palace. We didn’t buy a ticket, we weren’t sure if the metro ticket we bought earlier that day would cover our journey. I’m pretty sure they didn’t. This is a serious issue with public transport in European cities, no train barriers, and no guards checking tickets. I’m certain we bunked the metro twice that day.
We reached the palace around 5pm as everyone was leaving. A sign outside informed us it would cost 35 euros each to enter the palace. Steep, yes. But a bit of prior internet research let us in on the secret that you could see the gardens for free. The palace is the most famous landmark in Vienna, and the garden is the reason why the majority of people go. There is a huge sloped hill, with a view of the whole city from the top.
The palace itself is magnificent and white (like most buildings in Vienna). The place emptied as it was quite late in the day. We climbed up the meandering path behind the building and the scene at the top was worth coming to Vienna for alone. I actually felt sort of emotional. What a place. We sat on a bench and sat in silence for a long time, taking it all in.
We saw a couple of crazy things. The first were numerous joggers, many paths from the hill led out of the palace grounds. It just seemed insane to us again that people actually lived here. The whole city feels like its owned by aristocrats that don’t actually live here but just buy property here to show that they can. Imagine if this place was along your jogging route, I hope they know how lucky they are.
The second was a middle-aged chinese woman, she had begun walking down the sloping hill, which quickly turned into a jog, and then a sprint. She couldn’t stop her legs, she ended up screaming all the way down.
I thought about where I was, and just appreciated the moment. Vienna, whether I liked the place or not, was somewhere that I never thought I’d be able to afford to visit. And here I was. I have mixed feelings on the city, but I’m so glad I went. This is the thing about travelling, you might have somewhere you’d like to go but are unsure if you’d like it. Just go. Because if you never go, you’ll never know. Hey, I should write that down and sell it to Gary Barlow.
We got a metro back to the station and hopped on the train back to Budapest. This had been the longest day of our lives. It was a lovely city, but the best in the world? I’m not so sure. We spent nine hours here and did everything we wanted to do, I think we’d have struggled to fill a weekend full of things to do. And lastly, the expense – the price tag dominates everything. I understand it’s the way the whole country operates but it just feels like your being mugged off at times.
Unsurprisingly, we slept well that night. And we had to, as we only had two full days in Budapest left.