A Very Near (But Not Quite) Disaster

In all of my travels these past eight months, I made one travel mistake. I suppose if I’d gone the whole time without making any mistakes, that wouldn’t have been fair. When I finally messed up, though, it was bad, probably the universe’s way of making up for all of the times things did go according to plan.

I’d intended to take a day trip from Vienna to Hallstatt, a fairy tale lakeside town in northwest Austria, and I did, but whereas I was supposed to have spent seven and half hours on trains round-trip, I spent twelve and a half hours and an additional one hundred euros. I was sleep-deprived, having worked into the wee hours the past two nights, and that plus the facts that I’d bought my tickets far in advance and that they were in German led me to forget that I had a connection to make, even though I’d researched endlessly how to get to Hallstatt and knew there was no direct way there. I simply wasn’t thinking. Actually, I was thinking about sleeping on a train for three hours.

Anyways, I didn’t realize I’d missed my connection until it was what would have been almost time for me to get off the train, at which point there were still another 50 minutes before we would arrive at the next stop. I would go two hours in the wrong direction and was in Germany. I’d spent the whole day on this trip, though, a day I could have otherwise spent in Vienna! I had to go to Hallstatt, and so a sort of customer service conductor, mildly annoyed by my exasperation but also bored enough with her job to help me, looked up train times that I proceeded to write down: there was one trip itinerary left that could still get me to Hallstatt and back to Vienna that day (I had a flight out of Vienna the next morning, so it was imperative that I return before then).

As one might imagine, I saw a lot of the countryside. St. Valentin, a small town outside of Salzburg, was cute. Prettier, though, was the final part of the route, the part after I made the connection I was supposed to have made in the first place. At first I looked out the window to see tiny white flowers in the grass and white-flowering trees; then we came upon a lake, larger than Lake Hallstatt and around which various small towns were perched. This lake was dark gray and blue at once, reflective of the mountains but phosphorescent, too. I believe only the lakes in Germany and Austria look like this.

A bit farther on was the town of Ebensee, which actually appears on a map in a larger-than-microscopic size but is the most village-like small town I’ve seen. As our train passed, a woman on the sidewalk below paused to let us go by. The path on which she walked wandered all through the town, which was composed of pastel and lime-green houses, houses paneled in light and dark wood, magnolia trees, and more white-flowering trees. I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a town as tiny as Ebensee, peaceful yet so removed from the rest of the world.

We followed a river tinted green past cyclists and colts in the grass. By the time we had reached Hallstatt Station, the light glowed that misty glow that arrives only with the early morning or early evening, when the sun is preparing either to hoist itself into the sky or to demount, having finished its routine. Across the river, the town of Hallstatt was in shadow, but I could see the iconic steeple of the church and a yellow house on the far right, marking the edge of the town. Light shone through a space between two mountains and onto the water in an inverted fan, white on black water.

Getting to Hallstatt from the train station requires taking a ferry across the lake. It’s a short ferry ride, and I thought it a pretty little introduction to the town. I had one hour in Hallstatt before I had to catch the first of my return trains. Searching for the highest point in town, from which I thought a photo I’d seen had been taken, I passed the town square, ringed in restaurants; a museum; a small crêpe cart and an ice cream shop; and postcard and jewelry shops. I found the spot, but it was the wrong time of day and the wrong time of year to take a photo there of my own.

Instead, I took one from a viewpoint at the far side of the town, close to the yellow house, where one can look across Hallstatt at its houses, cream and red and dark wood, and churches, contouring their figures to the curve of the lake.

One Day in Vienna

Of all of the places I’ve gone, Vienna is the only one with which I fell in love at first sight—not Paris, though for Paris I’ve a fondness one might have for a second home, and not London, the vibrancy of which I liked from the start.

Vienna glitters. It glitters in gold and shines in sea green, a simulacrum of newness. The buildings are beautiful, all smooth stones and green domes; everywhere I turned was another of which to take a picture, pale sage, cream, taupe, or poolwater blue and ornamented with stately decorations over the windows or, as in the case of those more simplistic in style, little flowers between the stories.

I spent one day in Vienna, and Belvedere Palace was my first destination. It, too, glittered. From behind the windows in the back of the palace, opaline and tinted bluish lavender, shone dots of light, no doubt from chandeliers. In front of the palace, a tree-lined walk led to a black gate topped with a golden crown guarded by lions. Just beyond the gate was a bed of pink and dark purple flowers ringed in dark pink and more dark purple flowers, the same flowers that bordered a broad, flat pool, aquamarine with tiny wavelets brushed onto its surface. To the left, outside the palace grounds, stood stately buildings in all shades of off-white and cream that flirted with the yellows of summer sunflowers and dandelions the size of a five Swiss franc coin. From the top of the palace flew the Austrian flag; the entrance doors, in back, matched the gate.

The entrance of the Upper Belvedere led to the Sala Terrena, an all-white room of statues for columns supporting a ceiling, into each section of which were carved mythological scenes. Up the Grand Staircase was the Marble Hall, but it’s the staircase that was the most wonderful part of the palace. It split in two and wrapped around on either side to become one again at the uppermost landing, where lampposts on either side matched a lamp hanging from the ceiling as well as the windows, which were lined in black. The lampposts were statues, and like the ceiling in the Sala Terrena, the walls depicted scenes in carvings. Everything else was white, including the light streaming through the windows, except for the benches under the windows, which were red velvet.

Belvedere Palace is a museum. In the Marble Hall was both a fresco on the ceiling and contemporary art on the walls: Fredrikson Stallard’s Hurricane. It comprised two gold aluminum sheets twisted to look like elegant wrapping paper. In addition to this room were rooms dedicated to Baroque and early nineteenth century art, Gustav Klimt, Realism and Impressionism, and Neoclassicism.

From the Baroque and early nineteenth century rooms, I most liked Triumph of Aurora by Franz Anton Maulbertson, a small circular painting in tints I don’t know that artists can make anymore. They were pastel but of a faded quality, and I don’t think from age. Aurora, in Roman mythology, is the goddess of the dawn, so maybe Maulbertson meant the painting to look like newborn light. In any case, it looks as though on Earth there are angels’ wings, billowing fabrics, a chariot the color of new leaves, and a tree, and in Heaven two figures impossible to make out through the mist. I appreciated also some of the Josef Ignaz Mildorfer and Josef Rebell, both artists from Vienna.

After walking through the palace gardens, I walked into the city past the Heroes’ Monument of the Red Army and a large fountain to St. Stephen’s Cathedral via Kärntner Ring, a stately boulevard lined in gorgeous spring green trees. I was to find the same trees in Museumsquartier, where in Maria-Theresien-Platz, between the Kunsthistoriches and Naturhistoriches museums, stood a statue of a woman with horses all around her. Under the trees and along the walk towards the Austrian Parliament and a structure I thought resembled a castle from afar (it’s actually Rathaus, the city hall) were stationed horses and carts; I was taken with two white horses, one of which kept nuzzling the other.

Vienna’s Baroque and Classical music history were reborn in Augustinerkirche, a church near Hofburg Palace (which is the quintessence of imperial Vienna and in front of which also gather many horses and carts), where the organ in the back played to fill the room. The church really was small, far smaller than I’d imagined it, but it was beautiful. Gold and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, which was quite tall, for the length of the nave. To the right of the church almost immediately upon walking through the doors was an Antonio Canova cenotaph erected for Archduchess Maria Christina Augustinerkirche, daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor (Canova is the artist who crafted Psyche ranimée par l’Amour, my favorite work of art in the Louvre), a pyramid through which walked several people and upon which laid a lion and an angel. I sat in the pews and stayed a while, listening to the music in turns violent and gentle.

More music history was to be found in Burggarten, where there was a statue of Mozart behind a treble clef made of flowers. On the sides of the statue frolicked baby angels; on the front were opera masks and instruments and a keyboard set into the stone; on the back was a scene of Mozart at the piano, his father accompanying him on the violin and his sister looking on. There was a wait at Palmenhaus, a greenhouse café on the edge of the gardens decorated on the interior with palms, vines, hanging plants, and ferns, some flowering, most not, but it made for a good photo anyway.

I walked to Naschmarkt, Vienna’s most famous market and an extensive one, with both boutique restaurants and local vendors of fresh produce, and past the Secession building, an example of Art Nouveau architecture, with its orb of gold leaves sitting atop it and what look like doodles of owls and flower petals on the sides.

Then, tired from having walked all day, I sat outdoors in the sun at Café Mozart, which wasn’t far away and was only around the corner from the Staatsoper, the Vienna State Opera. I was to have there the perfect Vienna experience, made so by the violinist who played across the street as I sipped an elderflower spritz (spritzes are popular in Vienna—I even passed a “sparkling bar”!) followed by a Haferlkaffee (coffee with lots of foamed milk), which I paired with a sachertorte (a dense two-layered chocolate cake with an almost invisible layer of apricot jam in between). Thoroughly relaxed, I queued for a four-euro standing-room ticket to the opera that night, which was horrible. It did allow me to see the inside of the opera house, though, all red, gold, and crystal, the crown jewel of a city that respires music and romance.