I am SO full of Christmas cheer, it’s ridiculous. If you are reading this and lacking in cheer, please get in touch, I’m sure we can arrange some by osmosis. One of the reasons I am so incredibly festive is due to a recent girls’ weekend in Vienna for the Christmas markets.
Why Vienna you may ask? Why not Berlin or Cologne? Is Germany not the place to go for an authentic Christmas market experience? There was no science involved, it was purely for the dates. Vienna kicks off early, they open the shutters to their faux wooden huts filled with trinkets in mid-November, compared with the rest of Europe opening up at least a week later.
Our journey was easy, just short of a two-hour flight from Gatwick, and at the Austrian end a very efficient – obvs – 16-minute journey on the CityExpress from the airport. A quick change, onto the metro and in less than 30 minutes we emerged from the underground opposite the splendid Opera House. We were greeted by an abundance of twinkly lights and our ears filled with piped music. The Viennese are rightly, very proud of Mozart, and his music is something we would be very familiar with by the time we left.
Upon arrival, we discovered that there are seven Christmas markets in Vienna, and not just one big one. It didn’t take us long to realise that we would probably be over the initial excitement quite quickly and so the reality of visiting all seven was quite slim. We sought advice and decided to visit three; The Royal Place at Schönbrunn, The Adventmarkt Am HoF and the Altwiener Christkindlmarkt.
If there is such a thing as a handicraft Christmas heaven then we visited it, three times. The markets are filled with stalls mostly selling the same bits and bobs. Christmas decorations fashioned from all sorts of materials, candles, toys, and edible seasonal goodies. The air was filled with tummy rumbling smells of food. If you like your food cheesy, sausagey and sugary, Austrian Christmas market fare is right up your Strasse. If you have quit sugar, off carbs and are a vegan, take a picnic. I’m not a huge sausage fan – stop it – but I did very much enjoy my enormous spicy bratwurst with sauerkraut, washed down with a ‘hot apple wine’ aka hot cider. To avoid filling Vienna up with plastic cups, each market has their own specially designed ceramic mug on which you pay a deposit. It gets filled up with hot booze at regular intervals and when you are sated, you hand it back in and get your deposit back. Zero waste and much nicer than drinking out of a plastic cup. Although open from 10:00, the evening is much more conducive to the market experience. At night, the pretty lights come on, the markets are busier, the atmosphere increases and everyone are merrily knocking back glugwein and chomping on gingerbread.
The other items on our tourist tick list were; eat a Wiener Schnitzel, eat Sachertorte and go to the Opera. Opera was out of the question, tickets are booked months, if not years in advance, so in our quest for cultural fulfilment, we booked seats for a classic ensemble at the incredibly beautiful St Peter’s Church. It was an hour of ‘classic’ classical hits played out by a string quartet. Serene and magical, it was the first time I had spent an evening with Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and they were surprisingly good company.
As per usual when I go away, I find I rarely eat green food. Why is holiday food so yellow? Our Weiner Schnitzel didn’t disappoint. We had reservations at Plachutta and I was expecting a very traditional, dark, wooden, cave-like restaurant – which wouldn’t have been a problem – but Plauchutta was modern, airy and buzzy and, like the majority of eateries in Vienna, stylish, efficient and laid with the most fabulous tableware. Yes, it’s the little things which, for someone like me who likes to drink out of nice glass and eat off a nice plate, make the whole dining out experience even more pleasurable. We went totally traditional at Plachutta, two glasses of the luscious sparkling Schlumberger and two Weiner Schnitzel straight up with potato salad. The only bit of green was some cress, something I haven’t seen as a garnish for years, pointless, but amusing.
Mooching around Vienna – and it is a very easy city to mooch around – it is apparent that the Viennese like the finer things in life. We delighted ourselves by playing Vienna Bingo. Every time we saw a jewellers, a fur shop, or a cashmere and silk shop, we mentally ticked it off on our bingo card. It didn’t take long to get a full house. There are no pound shops in Vienna.
The other establishments that had a clear presence were coffee and cake shops. Why are the Viennese not fat? All they seem to eat is cake and massive sausages. When we checked into our hotel there was cake in the fridge and on two occasions we bought cake to go as we couldn’t resist. Sadly we picked the wrong place for coffee and Sachertorte. We went touristy and queued unnecessarily to get a shabby table with rotten service, stale cake and dated tableware at the Cafe Central. Disappointing when there are SO many places to have coffee and cake. But we put it behind us and soldiered on.
In our eagerness to blot out the experience at Cafe Central, karma had us stumble on Sum Schwarzen Kameel. A local bar in the upmarket Am Hof area of the city, it was one of the few bars at street level and it was uncharacteristically busy, which is why we ventured in. On entering we were greeted by a glass cabinet full of open finger sandwiches, and a packed bar of people standing at tall tables, drinking, eating said sandwiches and SMOKING! – the Viennese have a blatant disregard for the European non-smoking rule.
We gingerly pointed at the morsels in the cabinet as we didn’t really know what the toppings were but that was all part of the fun, and we interpreted that the waiter behind the glass cabinet was telling us to find somewhere to stand, he’d bring over the nibbles and someone would take our drinks order. We squeezed in amongst the crowd and found our pitch, ordered the house white at less than €2 a glass and had one of those fab, impromptu evenings, off the tourist trail that makes a trip so memorable. FYI the toppings were mainly tuna fish or carrot based, which although quite random were delicious.
Our decision to visit the Albertina museum was not necessarily a cultural one, but somewhat based on the fact that the shops are, refreshingly, closed on a Sunday, and after almost 48 hours we really were over looking around Christmas markets. However, it was a worthwhile cultural fix. It amazes me at how many Warhols, Picassos’s, Monets etc there dotted all over the world in various different museums. They must have painted relentlessly to enable us in this age to have so many in circulation.
I have to mention our hotel, The GuestHouse. Located right behind the Opera House, and opposite the Albertina Museum, not only is it in the perfect location I think it is probably the perfect hotel. Modern and stylish without being too modern and stylish, and a reception and concierge that couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful. The Brasserie and Bakery were amazing – Eggs Benedict with artichokes a standout – and obviously one of the places to eat and drink in Vienna, especially for brunch. Each day we had FOUR bottles of complimentary wine in the room, and the room only slept two, you do the math. We had the most wonderful window seat with a view of the Opera house, an abundance of Molton Brown toiletries, a bath big enough to swim in, the most flattering mirror in the world, and a top of the range coffee machine. It’s a wonder that we actually left the hotel and did any sightseeing.
At the end of our two-night stay, I was uplifted. I can now see why Vienna is consistently voted as the world’s most livable city, it’s friendly, safe, beautiful and luxurious. The only downside for me was the smoking. But it was not only the city that uplifted me, it was the company of my friend. We giggled incessantly about all manner of things, especially the frequent mentions of ‘sausage’ its size and the amount consumed. School girl humour that would have been lost on many others. It’s proof that it doesn’t matter where you go, what you see, what you eat, but it really does matter who you share it with.
Dedicated to my top chum and sausage guzzler MM Xxxx