by Karen Rubin
Vienna is a bustling capital city of Austria and one of Europe’s cultural capitals – in fact, we have a brief bout of culture shock as we ride into the city after a week riding the Danube Bike Trail through the countryside and small villages. And yet, for a big city, Vienna is remarkably bike-friendly.
In fact, most of the city’s major attractions are along the Ringstrasse – originally the old city’s defensive fortifications, demolished in 1858 and replaced by a magnificent boulevard with its own bike lane. Along here is the Burg Theater (National Theater), Museum of Art History, Parliament, the Imperial Palace, gorgeous parks, and the best way to explore and see as much as you can in the few hours remaining of the afternoon, is by bike.
It is just as Justin, our BikeToursDirect representative, said when he oriented us at the start of our self-guided journey on the Danube Bike Trail, six days and 210 miles ago from Passau, Germany.
Here we are, in this bustling metropolis, and we ride along with the ease with which we had gone through tiny villages, feeling very comfortable and unintimidated by the city traffic.
We are utterly amazed at the bike lanes which are separated from the road – cars and trams – and even have their own traffic light system. It is heaven. You feel so free – able to get around independently, and yet at a slow-enough pace to enjoy everything, and able to just stop when you want.
There are even self-help bike rental stands. New York City could learn a thing or two.
We ride into the downtown – stopping first at McDonald’s for lunch. The fellows opt to rest for awhile in a park where there is a gorgeous statue of Mozart that receives a steady stream of visitors, like pilgrims coming to a shrine. All around the city, we find, there are statues of significant people with connections to the city – Franz Schubert, Beethoven, Gutenberg, Goethe, Freud, even Theodor Herzl.
The monuments and statues remind me that Vienna is a city of music and opera, a cultural capital of Europe for centuries. You can visit Musicians Memorials as well as important sites: Beethoven (we set out to find what I think is a museum to Beethoven, but it is a memorial), Hayden, Brahms, Mozart (you can visit his grave, as well), Schubert’s birthplace, Strauss’ apartment and grave.
There are fabulous gardens throughout the city: a Maze and Labyrinth, the Crown Prince Garden, Palm House, Zoological Gardens.
But most impressive of all is the architecture – our ride takes us past a veritable museum of the best architecture since the Renaissance, magnificently displayed because of the wide boulevards.
We stop by the fabulous Imperial Palace, crammed with tourists, but opt not to take a tour (there are many to choose from, including a tour of the famous Spanish Riding School), and spend our limited time exploring the city and taking in the fabulous architecture.
Leaving the Palace for a beautiful commercial square, I spot a sign for the JudenPlatz, and after much searching (no one knew where it was), we come to the plaza which in the Middle Ages was the Jewish quarter, and which today has become a Holocaust Memorial with an archeological museum on the site of the original synagogue (Museum Judenplatz, Misrachi-Haus, Judenplatz 8, A-1010 Vienna; admission is 4 Euro). (See story: Jewish Heritage Preserved in Vienna, Austria and slideshow).
In the evening, we return to the center of the city, actually to Gutenberg Square which I took special note of because it honors one of my heroes. The fellows have researched on Yelp the best, most typical restaurant in Vienna which the Hotel Wien concierge agrees is very popular: Figlmuller (www.figlmueller.at)
Figlmueller has been a popular restaurant since 1905 – so popular there are two locations on the same street and both are full. We go to the one that is inside a small alleyway. David manages to talk his way in – on the wall is a New York Times review with a photo of then-Senator Al D’Amato of New York on the page.
Figlmuller boasts Vienna’s best schnitzel, which comes as an enormous round, bigger-than-the-plate, breaded pork pancake pounded impossibly thin. It is delectable with a light, delicate, tender texture (13.50E)
The waiter tells us that four men do nothing but pound schnitzel all day long – 1,600 schnitzel a day.
The secret to the delectable taste, Figlmüller says, is using only the best light vegetable oil for frying. Only a few schnitzels are fried in the pan at a time. Then the vegetable oil is changed which means that each month several thousand liters of oil make their way in and out of the kitchen at Figlmüller; they are processed into biofuels.
“To ensure that each schnitzel turns out tender and crispy we do not take any chances with the frying temperature of the vegetable oil. It takes 3 different pans to make the perfect schnitzel. First the schnitzel is put in a pan with very hot fat to make the pores of the meat close quickly. And then two other pans are used to carefully fry them.”
It is a memorable dining experience in every way, and a perfect way to celebrate the end of a perfect trip.
We walk through the center, to St. Stephansplatz beside the St Stephans Cathedral, bathed in lights. Colored lights beam onto the cobblestone square in front of the church, making for a festive gathering spot.
We stop for gelati at a shop and walk back to the hotel.
We stroll back over the canal to The Hotel Wien (www.classic-hotelwien.at) is just across the bridge in a charming neighborhood, but still wonderfully easy to reach by bike and walking, though Vienna has marvelous public transportation.
The Hotel Wien is absolutely wonderful – classy, traditional, a small city-style hotel with 78 rooms. There is internet access throughout, a sauna and fitness center, a bar, cable TV with access to English programming, minibar.
We store our bikes in a garage that is designated for the bike operator, and have a key so we can access them.
St Stephans Cathedral
The next morning we enjoy a fabulous breakfast buffet – eggs, cheeses, meats, breads and pastries, yogurt and cereal, fresh fruits, even a cappuccino machine (served until 11 am).
We linger awhile, since the fellows will be leaving directly to catch a train to start the next part of their European adventure.
I still have four hours before I have to make my own train, so set out again on my bike, and tour around the city, stopping at the Parliament Building and taking in some other sights. But I can’t resist riding the ring yet again, to return to these stunning architectural jewels like the Imperial Palace and the Opera.
I return to St Stephansplatz and enter St. Stephans Cathedral. An organ is playing gloriously. Various guided tours are available: the treasure vault, the Cathedral, Catacombs, South tower, North tower (an all-inclusive ticket is 14.50E/adult). A Mozart concert series is presented during the summer in this Cathedral – it must be fabulous.
I try to find the famous ferris wheel, which I get just a tiny glimpse of,, before I lose the trail. But I find a beautiful path along the canal, much like the Hudson River greenway in Manhattan.
I ride around the city for hours, returning at 2:30 pm in time to get my bags and ride the subway. At the top of the stairs to the subway, strangers help me get down the stairs. It is relatively easy system to figure out – colors and numbers, but you need to know the name of the end point so you know what direction to take (you also need to know that you have to open the doors manually). People are very helpful. My destination is the main train terminal, to begin my next adventure, on the European Rail.
Vienna is probably one of the most vibrant and vital cities in Europe, and yet, so easy to get around. We really should have planned to stay three days here. We only touch the surface.
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