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Christmas in Vienna

Having left Melbourne at 6am, Emirates dropped us into Vienna at 8pm, and Lidia was on hand for our first walking tour - of our apartment! It’s enormous (I later measured it out - a cricket pitch in length (66’) and 38’ wide; it’s 25 squares - i.e. twice the size of my house).

We’re on the third floor of the building that houses the fin-de-siecle Cafe Sperl on the ground floor, so we popped down for a brilliant breakfast of ham and perfect fried eggs littered with fresh chives, washed down with excellent coffee.

Suitably fortified, we rugged up and tootled across to the Naschmarkt for provisions. This is Vienna’s main market, running the length of about four city blocks. So we did a quick reconnoitre, bought some basics at the adjacent supermarket, then stocked up on perfect cheeses, beautiful fruit and vegetables, darling little crevettes gris (for potted shrimp) and halibut for dinner. Oh, and pickles - irresistible, wallowing in their enormous wooden barrels.

(As an aside, Carol was by now hysterics - at my expense. We’d been told “everyone speaks English in Vienna”. They lied. And my Hun-speak is non-existent. For the past 40 years of European travel, I’ve happily survived on adequate French, and passable food-wine speak in Spanish and Italian. Not here. So after I’d thanked the check-out chick with ‘gracias’ and prattled on in various Anglo-Euro twaddle to the pickle lady about her barrel-batch’s inherent goodness, Carol said I reminded her of the Far Side cartoon of a man talking earnestly to his dog, and all the dog hears is ‘blah, blah, blah’.)

Hence I decided I must attempt to tune in to the music of the German language. Arriving back at the apartment, a gentleman shared the lift and exited our floor muttering something. So I said to Carol “what does Foetus Hen mean?” Now Carol, having done a year of German at school (taught by an ageing chappie who tucked his tie into his Y-fronts) is, according to Duolingo, 19% fluent (she can count to Elf (11)). Her reply? “He said Auf Wiedersehen”! Oh well, like ‘Koala’ (i.e. thank you ) in Croatian, it’s ‘Foetus Hen’ for me! (PS - the pickle lady lied - they weren’t crisp.)

The restaurant we’d decided on was closed for lunch, so we opted for the Japanese across the road, and a bento box plus miso soup hit the spot. With a beer and a wine, ‘twas a bargain at €22.

Next - time to get our weekly ticket for the metro and buses. We got a bit lost in the process, arriving at the wrong station, but with the help of a couple of local students, managed the trip to the Rathaus and its Christmas market. In the 4:30 gloaming, the park was stunning, with all the buildings, trees and infrastructure twinkling with Christmas lighting. And there were avenues of tinselled shanties flogging all manner of Noel trappings, plus sausage sizzles, beer and gluwein barrellers, chocolate fountains and santa suiters. After a fortifying aperitif at a nearby wine bar, we taxied home for dinner and an early night.

Bill arrived on time, so we headed down to Cafe Sperl for a late lunch. The weather was appalling by this stage, so our brisk walk to the Kunsthistorisches museum for the Thursday dinner beneath the cupola was seriously nasty in the driving rain and blasting wind. Foodwise, the dinner was average, but that couldn’t diminish the beauty of the setting. And we had the place to ourselves, so we could stroll around the masterpieces (Brueghel the Elder, Vermeer, Durer, Van Eyck and Rembrandt) at leisure. Not to mention the visual astonishment at the expense of the woman at the next table with the ginormous bazookas. At least the rain had stopped by the time we wandered home.

Our Friday morning cultural fix was the Belvedere, with instant astonishment at re-acquainting that fabulous painting of Napoleon astride his white horse that was a centerpiece of the Napoleon exhibition in Melbourne a few years ago, then on to the fabulous collection of Klimts - including several lovely landscapes! Needless to say, 'The Kiss' was obscured by the procession of selfie-takers with zero interest in actually appreciating Klimt's gorgeous works.

We taxied to Steirereck for lunch (Michelin ***), recently relocated into a purpose-built, beautiful modern building in the Stadtpark. Supposedly the Viennese cuisine is the only culinary style named after a city and is deeply associated with the Austrian monarchy. Whatever, it’s fine by me, because my meal was great. After a suite of delicious amuses bouche, I started with Schwarzauer mountain trout (a forgotten mountain variety) with melon, cucumber and etiolated pea shoots, pickled with verjus, ginger ale and white balsamic vinegar; then Puntarella (a foraged vegetable) with duck throat and herb-of-grace; next: a puck of veal shank with limed golden beets, peas, white onion, woodtuft and meyer lemon; and for dessert, ‘Roter Mond’ Apple and preserved walnut with spiced amaranth, sorrel and walnut icecream. The ‘Roter Mond’ apple is an old Russian variety with cherry-red, slightly tart flesh courtesy of anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant. Carol and Bill had fabulous Char cooked in beeswax to start. Their next choices - goulash and schnitzel - were less successful, being traditional in style rather than the thrilling renditions expected of a world’s top ten restaurant. For wines, the sommelier provided us with a lovely sparkly to start, then a Gruner Veltliner white and a 2013 Leithaberg Blaufrankisch. Excellent.

Needless to say, dinner was a non-event. A homely evening with a bowl of celeriac veloute and a bucket of water.

Time to prepare for our Christmas Eve dinner. We headed for the Naschmarkt after breakfast and loaded our gunny sacks with a orange-cured smoked salmon, a pork loin roast, and slab of pork spareribs to trivet the roast; fresh thyme and vegetables for roasting, but the sprouts were uninspiring so we settled on baby beans. A coffee and macaron stop, then home and lunch at Cafe Sperl (by now a firm favourite) to be entertained by a rampaging pianist thrashing the full eight octaves with gay abandon; adding sprinklings of Christmas ditties and three-quarter-time Viennese-isms.

Carol had discovered a nice jaunt by tram around the Ringstrasse, so we strolled up to the opera and zipped around, counter-clockwise, to the Shottentor stop, where we jumped off, in search of the Palais Ephrussi (from our favourite book, The Hare with Amber Eyes). For Bill and me, this was a real treat - a highlight of our trip. Back at Opera, it was time for a traditional cultural fix, a visit to the Albertina, with its fabulous collection of Impressionists, Fauvists, Expressionists. Oh, and a few hundred Raphael drawings in the special exhibition.

It was dark by now, so we scooted into the Sacher Hotel (no, not the cafe) and the Blue Bar for a restorative cocktail - a ‘Pick-me-up’ champagne/cognac/bitters/grenadine for Bill and Carol, and a Vesper (martini) for me (aka Mother Bond). Just the ticket.

December 24th, Christmas Eve, and our last opportunity to hit the Schloss Schonbrunn. In bright sunshine, and 9C, we took the train and then braved the perishing Arctic wind to queue for tickets. Bill, having visited the palace before, opted to circuit the gardens, while Carol and I were allocated a time slot of 1:10. To fill in the time, we spotted another suburb of Christmas market shanties in the forecourt, so headed in that direction with zero expectations of anything to tempt our wallets. But quelle surprise - there were multiple vendors with lovely handcrafted Christmas goodies - ceramics, glass, crystal, wood. After Carol and I had completed the Imperial tour in world record time, we met up with Bill and grabbed a taxi back into Stephansplatz.

Our late lunch (and I use the word ‘our’ liberally) was at a traditional cafe we’d staggered into in search of warmth and vittels. The waitstaff had been employed here since 1945, and harboured little interests in the niceties of service. I asked "what can you recommend that's gluten-free, please?" to which Herr Surly responded 'gluhwein'. Bill and Carol enjoyed weiners with mustard and bread rolls, so at least their appetites were sated. Roll on Christmas eve dinner, I say.

Carol was in charge of roasting our piggie loin, so while we demolished the Taittinger, the oven attempted to incinerate the crackling, but it was saved in time. We tackled the delicate smoked salmon entree and then launched into a roast pork dinner with major veg and jus, sluiced with excellent Austrian red wine. After a couple of hours we were ready for the Christmas pudding (GF) for which I’d macerated a king’s ransom of glace fruits in brandy, cherry brandy, port and rum for a month before steaming it ready for its journey half way around the world. With proper Creme Anglaise, it was grand, despite our failed attempts to flambe the pudding using a mini flacon of ‘booze’ that we’d collected from the 'Spar' checkout. A good Christmas eve’s feasting.

Christmas Day, and a late start before catching a cab to the beautiful Palais Coburg for (you guessed it) lunch, at the Michelin** Silvio Nickol restaurant. We’d opted for the 4-course menu with matched wines. To start - a glass of local bubbles with our amuses bouche; then foie gras with spruce, mushroom and chocolate (wine - Beerenauslese Riesling); Halibut with parsley root and consomme (2011 Grassnitzberg Sauvignon); Venison with pumpkin, amaranth and sauce rouennaise (1975 St Julien Medoc); Chocolate with sour cream, orange and cardamom (2014 Banyuls). Everything was delicious; served with typical ‘pay attention’ Austrian efficiency. Oh, and Santa stopped by with his sack of goodies. A very pleasant Christmas Day lunch.

We repaired downstairs for a digestif before taxi-ing over to the VolksOper for the 5PM performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s musical version of Hansel and Gretel, which was truly awful. The Grimm Bros’ plot was pretty thin in the first place, and this version played fast and loose with what substance there was. And the sur-titles were in Hun-speak (in case the locals couldn’t understand the libretto). Basically it went like this. Stepmother breaks jug, throws kids out of house, drunk woodsman comes home and he and wife squawk at each other for hours before noticing the kids have disappeared. Kids gather jaffas in woods all afternoon, lie down when it gets dark and a troop of angels trundle in to throw fog on them. Don’t know what happens then, because we left at interval. Some notes were hit correctly by the squawkers, but luckily the instrument bashers living in the pit drowned out most of the din. The taxi home was good, followed by snacking on soup and cheese, and packing our bags for an early morning departure for Salzburg.

Thanks for a lovely Christmas week, Vienna.


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