Vienna (Wien), Austria and Bratislava, Slovakia

When originally planning this trip, our intention was to spend a long weekend discovering Vienna. After looking into airfares from the many discount European Airlines, we found a new one (at least to us) called SkyEurope. On offer was a flight from Manchester to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, for an unbeatable price. Bratislava is only one hour from Vienna by train or you can also go by boat or hydrofoil. Of course, we knew nothing about Bratislava or Slovakia other than it used to be part of Czechoslovakia and recently joined the EU, and in addition, we didn't know anyone who had been there. As it turned out, we only had a little time before and after our flights to see the city. After much searching, we finally made a hotel reservation at an unusual floating hotel or Botel as it is called. We spent our first and last nights there and found the city quite charming. Being on the Danube, we had a great view of one of Bratislava's architectural oddities - the Nový Most or New Bridge with its UFO-looking tower. The "UFO" used to be a Communist-era restaurant with lovely panoramic views from its viewing deck. Our taxicab driver told us that the Communist regime would not allow ordinary people access to the restaurant or the viewing deck because it was inappropriate for the people of Slovakia to see capitalist Austria.

Since our stay was extremely short in Bratislava, we missed some great sights and terrific photo opportunities. If you are interested in looking at some wonderful pictures not taken by us, click here. However, we did find an Irish pub and had the best meal of the entire trip in Bratislava. As we were exploring the city center, we found the unusual sculptures of Cumil and Napoleon as well as the beautiful and somewhat serene main square, Hlavne Namestie. On a side street we ran across an Irish Pub - oh lucky day! Before we left on our trip, our local Hartlepool Football team qualified for the game of their life. If they won the game in Cardiff, they would be promoted into the Coca-Cola League. Mike was beside himself that he wouldn't get to watch the game. We figured the only place in Slovakia that would televise the game would be a proper Pub and we had just found one! As we were about to order a beer, an English chap walked in and asked the bartender to turn on the Hartlepool game - our luck continues! We started chatting with him and it turns out he grew up in Fairyhill, which is very close to Hartlepool, and is living in Bratislava teaching English as a second language. Having lived in Bratislava for a few years, he explained his experience with the city's growing pains caused by the fall of communism and its joining of the EU during commercials. Unfortunately, Hartlepool lost the game but we had a nice afternoon at the pub. Our new friend told us about a terrific restaurant, Modra Hviezda (Blue Star), where we dined outside overlooking the Danube. The meal and ambience were fantastic. After dinner we made our way back to the incredibly hot Botelroom. As much as we love to travel, the European spring & summer heat has started to get to us. It is rare to find a hotel that actually has air conditioning, and when you do as in Rome during the heat wave of 2003, the hotel manager told us it wasn't hot enough to turn it on!?! However, we lucked out in Vienna. Our hotel was in a very old stone building. Walking past it, you would never know it was there except for the tiny sign above the door. The building was a mix of flats, hotel rooms, and possibly businesses, but as soon as you opened the huge wooden door, the cool air just enveloped you. Our room was on the backside overlooking a cute wooded garden and stayed cool - it was a sweet escape into paradise during the hottest part of the day. Vienna is much larger than Bratislava with so much to see and do. Everywhere you walk are gorgeous buildings - in this way it reminded us a little of Rome. Ordinary buildings and doorways are adorned with amazing statues and the squares and gardens usually have a fountain or statue as a main focal point. Beautiful churches are interspersed throughout the city and one could be hidden around almost any corner. After enduring the heat, we think Vienna would be a wonderful city to visit during advent. Austria celebrates Christmas similar to Germany with their unique Christmas markets, lebkuchen, and warming Gluwein. Check out this website for Christmas market info and this one for organized tours.

Our time in Vienna was mostly spent walking around and enjoying the city but we did pre-book a couple of events: Sunday Mass with the Vienna Boys Choir at Hofmusikkapelle, Hofburg Palace and an afternoon performance of the famous prancing Lipizanner horses and riders at the Spanische Hofreitschule - Spanish Riding School. It seems anywhere you go in Vienna; you will eventually end up back at Michaelerplatz - the square with Roman ruins in front of Hofburg, the Imperial Palace. Both the Spanish Riding School and Hofmusikkapelle (Imperial Chapel) are located there. We wholeheartedly recommend both of these events to anyone planning a visit to Vienna. I think most people know about the Vienna Boys Choir so we won't go into much about them except the Hofmusikkapelle is a wonderfully intimate place to hear the Boys sing and this tradition of singing at Sunday Mass has been going strong since 1498. During the Mass the boys are stationed in the choir loft and not everyone will be able to see them; but after Mass they come down so everyone can see them, take pictures and of course sing a couple of hymns. As far as the Spanish Riding School goes, our friends Amanda & Curtis recommended doing this and we are grateful for the suggestion. The school, founded in 1572, is the oldest and the last riding school in the world where classic dressage is still practiced in its purest form. The stallions are magnificent, unbelievably strong and disciplined, as are the riders. Rider and horse work together for years before they are eligible to perform. For more information on the Lipizzaner's, have a look at the section called Airs Above The Ground and the Photo Gallery, these are the types of moves you will see the horses perform.

Some other highlights were Church Votivkirche, The Imperial Palace - Hofburg, Providentia-Brunnen fountain in the Neuer Markt, Albertinaplatz, Park Burggarten with its statues, and the Volksgarten. The Votivkirche, one of the first buildings to be located on the Ringstrasse, is a beautiful neo-gothic church with a unique story as to its origin. The church was built on the site where Hungarian nationalist János Libényi stabbed Emperor Franz Joseph. The emperor was taking a walk with an officer, Count Maximilian O'Donell when he was stabbed in the neck. He survived due to the high collar on his uniform. János Libényi was taken into custody, put on trial, and was executed. The idea of building a church on the site of the attack came from the emperor's brother, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, to thank God for saving Franz Joseph's life. The construction was completed in 1879 after twenty-six years and the church is made from white sandstone, which has to be constantly cleaned due to air pollution and acid rain, like so many churches in Europe.

Hofburg sits in the heart of Vienna and is considered a city within a city. It was originally a medieval castle but over the years of Hapsburg rule each emperor made changes and now one can see many different architectural styles. The complex is vast and encompasses six museums, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (National Library), Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury), Imperial Apartments, Hofmusikkapelle, and the Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School).

One of the most beautiful fountains in Vienna is found in Neuer Markt. The Donnerbrunnen or Providentia-Brunnen dates from 1739 and was made by the baroque sculpture, Georg Raphael Donner. In the center is the goddess Providentia (providence) and around her four unclothed sculptures - each of them symbolizing one of the 4 most important rivers flowing into the Danube - the rivers Enns, March, Traun and Ybbs. The original figures can be found in the Baroque Museum at Schloss Belvedere. The figures in the fountain are bronze copies.

There are quite a few public parks in Vienna. We particularly enjoyed the Volksgarten (People's Garden) which was the city's first public garden and was established over a period of four years (1819-1823). Volksgarten was built after Napoleon destroyed Burgbastei (Palace Bastion) in 1809. Napoleon invaded Austria twice between 1805 and 1809. It was designed in a similar manner as the Luxembourg Garden in Paris and continues to function as an elegant and popular town garden with gorgeous rose gardens, fountains, sculptures, benches, and shady tree lined alleys.

Unfortunately, we didn't make it to any of the museums, concerts, or Heurigen. Vienna, like any city has so many special and unique sights and traditions that one cannot do it all in a single trip!

The Botel on the Danube - Bratislava:

Nový Most - New Bridge (1973) over Danube river:

Mike posing with Cumil [Tchumil]:

Hlavne Sq. - Napoleon (by Juraj Melus) looking over Mike's shoulder:

The Old Town Hall in Hlavne Namestie - the main square in Bratislava:

One of the many statues that adorn the buildings of Vienna:

Church Votivkirche (Votive Church) - Ringstrasse, Vienna:

View from Square Michaelerplatz at the entrance to Hofburg - Vienna's Imperial Palace:

Hofmusikkapelle, Hofburg Palace:

The Vienna Boys Choir performing after Sunday Mass at Hofmusikkapelle, Imperial Chapel:

Interior of the Spanische Hofreitschule - Spanish Riding School:

Gabi & Mike at the Spanish Riding School before the performance:

The famous Lipizanner's:

Gabi at the fountain Donnerbrunnen in the Neuer Markt:

Mike in front of a fountain at the Albertina Art Gallery:

Burggarten - The Mozart Memorial of 1896 by Victor Tilgner:

Volksgarten:

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