In 2012 I retired again and we are traveling in Europe. In 2009 Ron and I retired and we volunteered at Quaker Meeting House in Wellington, New Zealand for a year.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Vienna week 4

Our apartment house in Vienna

During our last week in Vienna, we continued to go to museums.  The School for Fine Arts has their own small gallery called the Gemalde.  Their prize, at least in our opinion, is The Last Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch.  Bosch much preferred painting the consequences of sins than the joys of heaven.  It was a small, classically laid out gallery, and included a few works from Rembrandt and Titian as well.  Almost every painting was worth looking at, and there was a good mix of religious art, portraits, and landscapes.

Venus of Millendorf

We spent an afternoon at the Natural History Museum.  Primarily we went to see the “Venus of Willendorf”, which was dug up near Krems on the Danube.  It is one of the oldest human art works found, about 28,000 years old.  They have a number of old pieces, including one on display that is about 35,000 years old. 

Lion man

We did not get as good a picture of it, unfortunately, so I have included this Lion man, also about 30,000 years old.  I was also very interested in their entire Paleolithic exhibit.  They had a great display of stone tools showing the development of different knapping techniques.  Since I was an anthropology student, I find this stuff really fascinating.  

Feathered dinosaur

 We looked at rooms full of stuffed bird and monkeys.  The museum also has a couple of rooms devoted to dinosaurs, including an animated Allosaur, which fascinated the small children.  Although the exhibits seem old fashioned, the science seemed pretty up to date, with information about feathered dinosaurs, and the meteor hit which precipitated their extinction. 

Dodo (extinct)

In another hall they had displays about the 6 major extinction events that have characterized evolutionary history, and said that our human caused extinction event looks like it will rank right up there among the majors.

Folk art
We also went to the Folk Art Museum, a quirky little place with furniture, wood carvings, farm implements, fabrics, miniatures, and many other things packed into small rooms.

Finally we went to the Leopold Museum, which features mostly modern art from the 19th century onward.  They also have an exhibit of Klimt and Schiele, and some Cezanne and Impressionists, and a good range of 20th century art.  I most enjoyed their exhibit of Japanese art – woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige and brushwork paintings also.  It included some modern Japanese photography and some works by contemporary Europeans influenced by Japan that was interesting. 


We had recently seen an exhibit in Washington of the 100 views of Fujiyama, so we had a background for looking at the prints.  One of the curator’s notes was about authorship.  The artist, for example Hokusai, would have a commission from a printer to create a set of pictures.  He would paint a scene and then the woodcutter would tack it to the print block and cut out the painting onto the block, thereby destroying the original work.  Then the printer works on the colors that go into creating the final print.  Only Hokusai’s name actually goes on the print though!
Family Irish Pub

For concerts this week, we heard The Vienna Akademie Orchestra do Wagner songs with a soprano soloist, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and 3 Liszt symphonic tone poems, which impressed me very much.  In the Konzerthaus Grosser Saal, we heard the Vienna Symphony Orchestra do a Schumann Piano Concerto and  Bruckner’s 4th Symphony.  Both were splendid.  This concert hall is impressive both with its big concert room, but it also has 3 side rooms for smaller chamber pieces and soloists.  Two of those rooms also had performances happening at the same time.

Prater Ferris Wheel

We also continued to enjoy wandering around the city and parks, eating lunch at the Palmen Haus, which also has wireless internet, and finding a couple of Irish pubs.  We have also eaten a lot of Asian food, from India, Thailand and China.  One afternoon we went out to the Prater, which is an amusement park that has been around for a century; the Ferris wheel is famous.  The park reminded me of one my family used to go to in Chicago.  We have been to St. Stephansdom, the central cathedral, a number of times, finally getting into the main area this week.  Other times they have been having mass.  We actually had a nice little Quaker meeting for worship there on Sunday, sitting in a side chapel while mass was going on.  

St Stepansdom

We also finally did a tour of the Opera House, which was quite enjoyable.  They were setting up scenery for that night’s performance.  They do a different opera every night, so the logistics of breaking down and setting up are very impressive.  We could not afford to go to a performance as only seats costing 200 euros or more were still available.  They have 500 standing room tickets available for 1-3 euros, but we don’t think we are capable of standing through an opera any more.

Inside St Stephansdom

The Opera also has its own little museum with costumes and photographs of the last 130 years, and a little history of each musical director.  The most famous are Gustav Mahler and Herbert von Karajan.  Mahler is famous because he made everyone take the opera performance seriously.  Before him, all the lights stayed on, people milled about talking and eating and going in and out.  He had the doors shut and the lights turned down when the opera started.  He had to allow for intermissions though, because people still needed to get up.  The emperor thought he was taking all the fun out of going to the opera!

At the Opera
At the Opera

On Saturday October 20, we left Vienna and took the train to Munich to stay for a week.  I could easily go back to Vienna and Austria in the future, if possible.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Vienna Week Three

Beethoven, Mozart & Shubert

We have continued our pilgrimages to the graves and monuments of composers and other famous Viennese.  This post opens with monuments to Beethoven, Mozart and Shubert.  In the same part of the city cemetery are graves for Brahms and three Strausses.  The golden Johann Straus is in the City Park. 

Johann Struass

We have started going to art museums, of which there are many in Vienna.  We began with the Kunsthistorische (Kunst = art), which is part of a grand museum district.  A great deal of the fun of these museums is the building itself – great monumental affairs with high ornate ceilings, marble columns, magnificent staircases, etc.  The Kunsthistorische has a large frieze around the top of its stairwell created by Gustav Klimt, among others, representing the different areas and time periods of art, such as ancient Egypt or Renaissance Italy. 

Theseus & Centaur

This is the 150th anniversary year of Klimt’s birth, so there is a city wide emphasis on his work.  In order to make it easier to view the frieze, they have created an eye level platform along the section he painted, so that was interesting.  It is also good that a hundred years ago they were supporting contemporary artists.  It also has a statue of Theseus fighting a Centaur that was originally made for the Theseus Temple.

The museum has a wide variety of European art, including a good selection of Breughel; the most well-known is the Tower of Babel, but also winter scenes, weddings, fairs. 

Museum cafe

There are also Rubens, Raphael, and Titian.  I did get very tired of all the crucifixions, scourgings, bloody heads of John the Baptist, etc., so that I found simple cityscapes by Canaletto quite refreshing and relaxing.  There are also, of course, many portraits, some of which make you wonder more about the persons represented.  I am sorry that so many are now nameless.  There was a quote from a painter that after religious art, he thought portraiture was the most important because it produced a sort of immortality.  It feels like you are less immortal if only your image goes down to posterity without your name.  So my recommendation is to always have your name painted onto the portrait.  Why should it just be signed by the artist?

The museum has probably the most ornate cafe I have ever eaten in – a two story rotunda with 3 or 4 different kinds of marble making up the columns and walls, and lots of folk statues in niches around the rotunda.  The food was good too.  It is interesting that, at least in Vienna, and I gather this is true in most of Europe, once you are seated, there is no effort to get you to leave.  Most of the time, the service for taking orders and delivering the food is reasonably speedy, but it can take forever to get someone’s attention to get the bill.  This can make waiting for a seat fairly long. 
After lunch we did the Greek, Roman and Egyptian rooms.  Lots of Greek vases in an amazingly good state of preservation, lots of little bronze statues, and Egyptian mummies and sarcophagi.

Maximilian by Durer

The next museum on the list was the Albertina.  This is next to the Hofburg Palace in what had once been a Duke’s residence.  It had a major exhibit on Emperor Maximilian I, a founding father of the Hapsburg dynasty, Holy roman Emperor in the early 1500s.  The exhibit is also about Albrecht Durer and the art of the woodcut.  Maximilian is particularly well known, both in image and history, because he made a great effort to do so – what might these days be termed branding.  In particular, he had many images made using the relatively new technology of the woodcut.  From the new studies of the classic world, people were aware of the Roman Emperor’s use of triumphant parades and arches to celebrate great victories.  Rather than actually have a march or a triumphant arch, Maximilian just commissioned huge pictorial scrolls and large wall prints and had them distributed around his kingdom.  Much less work and expense, especially since the procession is led by a mythic herald riding a chariot pulled by a gryphon. 


The Albertina, as I said above, used to be a Duke’s residence, so we also went through some of the apartments.  Mostly, we have not been making an effort to see royal dwellings.  The other big exhibit at the museum shows the recent donation of a collection of 19th and 20th century work from Monet to Picasso.  There were a lot of lovely and/or interesting works, but it was one of those exhibits where I got distracted by the exhibit itself.  There was an extravagant use of space – large rooms with only a few pictures on each wall (and very few places to sit).  It made me feel as though they wanted me to think the exhibit was bigger than it really was.  The other thing that can sometimes distract me in a museum is the picture frames.  I love most of the ornate classical picture frames, but a lot of modern art does not look good in it, and is better off in minimalist frames.  I have also enjoyed a lot of these exhibits where most of the writing is in German, so I don’t have to read the text.  I really prefer to try and experience the work directly, but usually get sucked into the text anyway.

Belvedere & garden

After the museum, we went around the corner to the Palmen Haus, a restaurant in the glass conservatory of the Hapsburg Palace.  Definitely the best food of the trip so far, and lovely setting and service.  We finally had a Viennese dessert – a chocolate/banana torte – with Viennese coffee (mélange, which is coffee with steamed milk).  We have gone back since.

Historic Belvedere view

Our last museum of the week was the Belvedere Palace, which actually took two days because there is an upper and a lower palace, separated by a huge garden with fountains and statuary that we walked through every day on our way to the German classes.  At the Lower Belvedere we started off in the stables with an exhibit of medieval panels and statues.  I find the statuary very expressive, and most of the panels were amazingly vivid and well preserved in their colors.  Then there were a number of rooms devoted to Carl Schuch, a little known Austrian contemporary of the Impressionists.  This is partly because he was rich and didn’t have to sell his paintings, and partly because he was a perfectionist who never liked to exhibit.  He did know a lot of contemporary artists and was respected by them.  His work is very good, and I actually appreciated a lot of the text (in English) because it did tell me what he was striving for – an accurate rendition of what he saw, but also recognizing that a 2 dimensional representation is never accurate, and must work on its own terms also.


Finally, in the main halls, there was an exhibit of 19th century Austrian paintings depicting scenes from Hungary to India – the exotic Orient.  There were a variety of styles, and it was fun to just view all the locals.  One interesting picture was painted underwater in a diving bell the artist had made for him.  Actually it was sketched under water and completed on land.  We also enjoyed strolling thru the side garden that is not available for public access.

Cruise boats on the Danube

The Upper Belvedere is even bigger than the Lower, with 3 floors of exhibits.  They also do a good job with the rooms themselves, with pictures of how they looked when occupied.  The 2 palaces were built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene (pronounced Oigun in German) of Saxony around 1715, being on a slight rise and well outside the city walls.  A number of the rooms still have their original ceilings and statuary, but a number do not.  The Belvedere has perhaps the largest of the Klimt exhibits currently going on in the city, including his famous Kiss.  Klimt is currently so popular, and his work is so decorative, that it is hard to take a fresh look at it.  I did find his landscapes to be interesting, and different from his more well-known work.  I also enjoyed some of the contemporaneous art work.   There was another exhibit of medieval art, and many rooms of 19th century art, and some 20th century.  It got quite exhausting actually.

Wachau view

More music: We are still going to concerts every second or third evening.  Not only is the music and performance brilliant, but it is still just so exciting to be in Vienna to hear it!  We returned to the Jesuitenkirche to hear Bach’s St. John’s Passion.  We went to the Vienna Musikverein (Music Society) for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.  And the Volksopera to hear La Traviata.  There isn’t much point in me trying to describe these experiences except that I have become a fan of live music.  It is great to have recordings to listen to at will, but live is just really different.

Melk monastary

We took a cruise up the Danube River one day – through the Wachau Valley, which is a world famous scenic stretch.  It started with a bus trip past Krems, where many Neolithic treasures have been excavated, and the ruined castle of Durnstein where King Richard the Lionheart was held captive.  I had expected more time on the river, but as it worked out, this was ok.  We had booked this particular day, Friday, because on the long term forecast it looked the warmest, but it turned out overcast and fairly cool.  It was not only overcast, but with low enough clouds that the tops of the hills were obscured.  The bus was warm and had a multilingual guide to tell us about the sites. 

Inside Melk church

We boarded our boat at Spitz and continued up the river to Melk, about an hour.  We had a very pleasant lunch on board.  This allowed us to take time to go into the village of Melk before touring the Abbey, the high point of the day.  We did have dessert in Melk though, apricot crepes and an apricot cake.  The Wachau is famous for both wine and apricots, including apricot liqueur, which we bought a small bottle of.  The Abbey, most of which is run as a school for about 700 students, currently has about 30 monks.  The tour went through what used to be the guest wing and is now a small museum.  There were lots of religious treasures – chalices and vestments and statues.  The great room/reception hall is another room with a great trompe l’oiel ceiling painting which makes it look like a much higher dome than it really is. 

Alex & Goethe

As I am running late on posting this entry, which only covers week 3, I am not including any of what we have done this week.  Stay tuned!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Vienna week two

City panorama


We have now finished our language classes.  Two weeks is not that long, but I do feel like I have learned a good deal of grammar, which is sticking reasonably well.  Vocabulary still seems to leak out of my brain at an alarming rate.  We both have ambitions to continue our studies, but we will see how well we keep our resolutions.  Let the sightseeing begin!

Historic Redoutensaal

Actually, the main thing that has already begun is music attendance in earnest.  We went to a totally marvelous Strauss concert in the Redoutensaal of the Hofburg Palace.  In addition to Straus waltzes and polkas, there were four pieces by Mozart, and one each by Verdi and Donizetti.  There were 5 soloist singers, occasionally singing in duets and all together for the finale.  The program showed off Strauss’s popular side with a number of pieces having some very funny bits performed by the percussionist.  The director had the audience clapping along on one piece.  The room itself has many historical associations, being the site of performances by Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Paganini, Salieri, etc.  It was also the site of the renowned balls and concerts held during the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15.  Sadly, in 1992 a fire destroyed most of that wing of the Palace, so all that remained were the exterior walls.  The building has been restored, but they have not tried to imitate its former opulence.  


On Sunday after our Hofburg tour, we had wandered around some of the old city on our own.  We went into a Croatian Church, St. Michael’s, where the walls were covered with little plaques giving thanks for prayers answered.  We found the Shoa (Holocaust) memorial in Judenplatz – a stark large block of stone with the names of the concentration camps chiseled into the pavement.  Austria was one of the many European countries which evicted the Jews in 1492, so there is a long history of anti-Semitism.

Around the corner, we also found a vegetarian restaurant, the Bio Bar, so we returned there for dinner before the Strauss concert.  It is always nice to be able to order anything on the menu.

Salvador Allende

We returned to Karlskirche for a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth that was quite overwhelming.  Even though we were worried that the piece is too familiar, it sounded very inspiring in that beautiful setting. 

Saturday, we went on another expedition offered by ActiLingua, our language school; this time, an exploration of the Danube.  We met at the Vienna International Center (VIC), which has a large United Nations complex and many other buildings on a large island in the Danube.  It is one of the few areas of the city with skyscrapers.  I don’t believe I have mentioned that that is another similarity between Washington DC and Vienna – they are both low, spread out cities without tall buildings.  From the VIC, we walked through many concrete spaces and then through a large park. 

View of the hills north of the city

There are many streets and plazas named after various international political figures, including a monument in the park to Salvador Allende.   We continued on to a space needle sort of building called the Danube Tower (Donauturm).  The observation deck is 150 meters high.  We were blessed with a beautiful mild clear sunny day, so we had a great view around the city, suburbs and out into the countryside.  There is also a bungee jumping platform up there, but luckily it was closed.  Then we took another long walk back to the underground station, a short hop across the river and then over to where river cruise boats left.  The boat turned out to be full, so we had an hour to eat lunch before the next boat came.  We were with a good group (about 30), with most people trying to speak German most of the time.  We

Guarding the entrance to the canal

had nice chats with a number of students from our groups, and met a new ActiLingua member about our age from California.  This is the second year he has come to Vienna.  So we invited him along as we walked down the river bank looking for a restaurant, which was surprisingly hard to find, but finally we were successful, had some sandwiches and returned to the group on time.  The Danube cruise went upstream along the city and then turned into the Danube Canal, which runs through a section of town.  Sitting in the lock took about half an hour.  One of the main sights along the way is a rather gaudy trash burning municipal power plant.  They are quite proud of their low emissions standards.  I also find myself impressed with the quality of a lot of the graffiti in Vienna – very artistic, most of it.

Today, Sunday, we went to hear mass in the Jesuitenkirche of St. Augustine.  We went to it as a concert performance of the Hofkapellmeistermesse by Antonio Salieri with the church choir, but it was indeed a full mass.  It was actually quite appropriate to hear it in context.  Again, the acoustics in the church were amazing.  We were in the back row of the packed church and the sound was beautiful.  Only when the organ played was the rest of the choir and orchestra hard to hear.  It was also a good opportunity to hear German in a context that I am a little familiar with.  I could tell that the Old Testament reading was Genesis about the creation of Eve, because of the phrase “flesh of my flesh” (Fleisch von meinem fleisch).  I could tell that the New Testament reading was about Kinder, and there aren’t that many of those passages.  The sermon had a lot about Menschen, Fraus and Kinder.  Ron said it seemed to be in support of the traditional family.  I like that there is a hand shake

Jesuitenkirche painting of a dome

in the Catholic Mass.  This church also is a marvel of marble columns, painted ceilings, including a trompe l’oeil dome in the center, and a beautiful carved wooden pulpit.  The painting behind the altar is Mary ascending into heaven “gaudant angeli” as the inscription said on the very large crown held up by two angel statues.  In fact, I am struck in all the church paintings I have been seeing at how the air is full of angels everywhere.  I can see how with all this visual evidence surrounding you, one could easily believe.  All these churches that we have been in are huge, by the way, and yet all of them are parish churches.  We have not been in the Cathedral yet.  Some of the churches have glassed in balconies in the altar area for any royalty that might attend.

After the mass, we went to the nearby Mozarthaus, an apartment where he and his family lived from 1784 to 1787.  Among other works, he composed The Marriage of Figaro there.  It was a well done audio tour, giving a good overview of the life, times and works of Mozart.  Much of it is rather sad, with only two out of six children surviving, and his own early death.  He lived here during the height of his fashion and spent all his money lavishly.  The Marriage of Figaro did not go over well as a satire of aristocratic mores, plus there was a war, so his fortunes decreased, and they had to move.  They loved him in Prague though.  An interesting character mentioned was Angelo Soliman, a slave from Nigeria, but also a fellow Freemason.  He did very well in the household of the Prince of Liechtenstein, and was viewed as a very accomplished person, but he still died a slave, and his body was stuffed and displayed in the Curio cupboard of the Prince until the building was burned down in 1848.