A Travels in Europe Script: Vienna and the Danube

(Open walking through pedestrian zone Graben past street music and plague monument, munching a piece of chocolate cake) Guten Tag, I'm Rick Steves. Glad you've joined us as we continue on our tour of off-beat Europe. We're in Vienna! I think this city does more to hang on to its old world elegance and love of life than any other. It's packed with history, culture, and people who are experts in good living.

Vienna has history at every turn: This street is called Der Graben, that's German for the ditch. This is where they piled victims of the great plague of medieval times. This monument is what the people who survived that plague built in the 1600s as a thanks to God. Vienna offers culture on every corner (toss a coin into a violin case of a classical street musican) and an inspirational knack for hedonism in elegant moderation. Vienna is second to none in coffee houses and chocolate cake--this is a slice of Sachertorte, perhaps one reason Hitler invaded Austria first.

(Montage) In this show we'll waltz through the high-cal and no- cal wonders of Vienna. We'll ressurect Vienna's golden age under the Habsburgs. Then we'll leave the big city to tour a dazzling abbey and cruise and pedal our way down the Danube Valley.

Stephansplatz, this square, is as colorful and lively as you would expect the heart of Vienna's medieval pedestrian zone to be.

With hundreds of years of history carved in its walls and buried in its crypt, and a super orientation view from atop its spire, the cathedral is a great starting point for any Vienna visit.

(Notice from schedule that a mass is about to start) The best way to experience any great church in action is to go to mass. Tourists are more than welcome.

(Show spelling of city in German) Like so many cities, Wien, as the city is called by its German-speaking inhabitants, was protected by a wall which it outgrew. In the 1860s, Emperor Franz Josef had the city's ingrown medieval wall torn down and replaced with this grand boulevard.

(On camera, on tram) The Ring Road is 190 feet wide. It arcs nearly 3 miles around the city's core. One of Europe's great streets, it's lined with most of Vienna's top sights. Trams 1 and 2 circle the whole route and so should you.

Vienna actually has two grand ring roads, one within the other. You navigate this town by these and the spokes which connect them. Like Paris the town is divided into districts. They're called Bezirks here. When locating anything in Vienna, you'll be referred to its district or Bezirk.

(Jump off tram) From a tourist's point of view, nearly all the sights are in the medieval core, Bezirk 1, or between the two Ring Roads, Bezirks 2 through 9. As a tourist, concern yourself only with this small old center and sprawling Vienna suddenly becomes manageable. My favorite hotels lie within this central, tourist-friendly area.

(Show address on building starting with Bezirk number) There's the Opera House. The address indicates it's in the first district--Vienna's medieval core.

(Stepping into TI) Vienna is huge, and with districts called Bezirks, you might expect a little craziness. But the city is orderly and works hard to make your visit smooth. The tourist office publishes a great city guidebook, "Vienna A-Z." Every historic building is clearly marked with a set of flags and a number.

(Flash out of TI to show an example) For instance, this is one of the 23 apartments that Beethoven at one time or another called home--even back then musicians were less than ideal tenants. Simply look up the number in your A-Z and you have all the information you need on that place, in English. Let's see...number 67...yes, Beethoven lived in this house from July 1807 through September... 1807.

(Making a phone call from a public booth) Something I stress in all my guidebooks is being your own tour guide. And good guides save time and money by using the telephone. Vienna has plenty of concerts to choose from. Ticket agencies charge at least a 22 percent booking fee. I'm going direct with the help of this listing from the TI and a phone booth. (Sound bite on phone) Tomorrow, we'll enjoy Eine Kleine Nacht Music. Mozart in Vienna!

(Walk through park to palace) Over half of Vienna is park land, filled with shady ponds, gardens, lovers, marble memories of Austria's glory days (browse past a white statue), and locals enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll any day of the week.

Vienna is called a head without a body. Built to rule the grand Habsburg Empire--Europe's largest--she lost World War I, and with it, her farflung holdings. Today, it's a grand capital ruling a small country.

Culturally, historically, and from a sightseeing point of view, this city is the sum of its illustrious past. The city of Freud, Kafka, Brahms, a trill of Strausses, Maria Theresa's many children, and a dynasty of Holy Roman emperors, is right up there with Paris, London, and Rome. Let's say hello to Mozart.

(Browsing through Naschmarkt) Much of Vienna's old world elegance survives. I imagine this traditional open-air produce market was around back when Wolfgang needed to grab a quick lunch. Across the street from the Opera, Vienna's Naschmarket is likeably seedy and surrounded by sausage stands, cafes, and theaters.

After a fast lunch I have time for a slow cup of coffee. Each of Vienna's many long-established (and sometimes even legendary) coffeehouses has its own unique character. Cafe Hwelka is my kind of coffee house. (Give waiter my order) What a great place to plan the overthrow of the Habsburgs...or scheme clever ways to pay off your caffeine tab. Even today the smoke-stained walls are decorated by the art of struggling artists who couldn't pay.

You're welcome to enjoy an entire afternoon of newspapers for the price of a cup. But that darn Habsburg family littered Vienna with the remnants of a 600-year-long divinely ordained rule. And that leaves us with a busy schedule of palaces, jewels, and other royal treasures and memories yet to see.

(Outside Habsburg's Royal Vienna summer residence) Schonbrunn Palace is far from the city center. This was the Habsburg's escape, their summer residence. It's big, the only palace in Europe to rival Versailles. It has 1,441 rooms--but don't worry, only 40 rooms are shown to the public. This sign says that the only way to see the palace is with a tour. German language tours go every 15 minutes. English tours are given three times a day. I called in advance and knew that there would be one at 11:00. For me the tour is much more interesting in English...sorry, no cameras.

(Back downtown at the Hofburg) Well, no divine monarchy would settle for only one 1441-room palace. The Habsburgs wintered in this one...the Hofburg. While WWI finally ended the Habsburg rule and the last Habsburg checked out of here in 1918, the Hofburg is still the home of the Austrian president's office, several important museums, the awesome Habsburg crown jewels, Vienna's famous Spanish Riding School, the Vienna Boys' Choir, and the local horse and buggy men.

(In crypt wandering through forest of Habsburgs tombs) Even though the Habsburgs led Austria to ruin with their losing role in WWI, they are still revered by many Austrians. Visiting the remains of the Habsburgs is not as easy as you might imagine. These original organ donors left their hearts in the church of the Augustinian friars in the Hofburg, their entrails in the crypt below the cathedral, and their bodies here in the Capuchin Crypt. According to this map, that's the tomb of Emperor Franz Josef.

(Stepping out of the crypt, surrounded by elegant architecture) Rather than chasing down all these body parts, remember that the magnificence of this city is the real remains of the Habsburgs.

The great Habsburg collection of art is yours to view in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It has an exciting collection of paintings by northern masters like Durer, Rubens, and Breughel. And the Habsburg love of things Italian is evident by their top- notch collection of Titians and Raphaels.

(At a table in the elegant restaurant, ready to eat) When we're busy appreciating art, it's important not to neglect our palates. The top edible artform in town is pastries. And the local chocolate cake that defies description is Sachertorte. In a strange sort of pilgrimage, most tourists visiting Vienna make a wishful detour through the restaurant where Sachertorte was born. Let me experience a Sachertorte for you. (Film Rick eating it) "Das smeckt sehr gut."

(At the Strauss statue in the city park) Okay, back to the low- cal art. This time it's music. Vienna's city park is a waltzing world of gardens, peacocks, music in bandstands, locals savoring their well-forested town, and memorials to local musicians. Johann Strauss was the rage a hundred years ago.

(At the Kursalon for a free concert) And he's still the rage today. The Kursalon orchestra plays Strauss waltzes daily in summer. The music is free but the coffee is expensive. Vagabonds join the local senior citizens and ants on the grass for free.

The ruling Habsburg family was a great supporter of the arts, especially music. Just like great atheletes come to late 20th century America, 18th and 19th century musicians and composers found respect in Vienna.

Vienna takes care of its starving artists (and tourists) by offering lots of incredibly cheap standing room places to top-notch music and opera.

(Touring the opera house) The State Opera House is a central point for any visitor. While the critical reception of the building 130 years ago led the architect to commit suicide, and it's been rebuilt since the World War II bombings, it's a dazzling place. As long as there's no practice scheduled, wonderful English tours are given throughout the day.

The Viennese appreciate the fine points of life, and right up there with opera is eating. The city has many atmospheric restaurants. As you decifer the menus, remember Vienna's diverse empire may be gone, but its flavor lingers. You'll find Slavic and Eastern European specialties here along with wonderful desserts and local wine.

For me the choice is a smoky traditional wine cellar or a colorful tavern. The local taverns, called Beisl, are filled with poetry teachers and their students, couples loving without touching, housewives on their way home from cello lessons, and waiters who thoroughly enjoy serving hearty food and good drinks at an affordable price on nearly every corner.

Centuries ago, the emperor gave the local vintners permission to sell their new wine or Heuriger. Vienna is famous for suburbs like Grinzing, filled with wine gardens, strolling musicians and, these days, tour busses in search of a place to park. For a near "Heuriger" experience without leaving the center, I eat here, at Gigerl Stadtheuriger. Just point to what looks good (cold cuts, spinach strudel, good salads, all sold by the weight) and choose from many local wines.

Since the Austrian wine is often very sweet, remember the word Trocken (German for dry). You can order your wine by the quarter liter...this is "Ein Viertel." Or, if you have lines to memorize, buy an eighth of a liter...this is "ein Achtel." "Ein mehr achtel, bitte"--that means "One more achtel, please."

(Getting off the train at Melk) While exciting cities like Prague and Budapest are natural sidetrips from Vienna, each just a three-hour train ride away, we're heading out to explore the Danube Valley.

(In the village under the Melk Abbey) Sleepy and elegant under its huge abbey, the Danube town of Melk offers a pleasant stop after the bustle of Vienna.

(In hotel) And Melk makes a fine overnight stop. Many travelers save money and stress by sleeping in small towns near their big city destinations. From this cozy nest, they commute, like many local workers, into the urban action. We were glad we slept downtown, but now it's time to relax. So we're staying in Hotel Furst, a fluffy, creaky old place with 15 rooms, run by the Madar family. It's right on the traffic-free main square with a fountain out your door and the abbey hovering overhead.

Melk is the ideal starting point for our boat and bike ride down the Danube but we can't leave Melk without visiting its Abbey.

(At Melk Abbey, Benediktinerstift) Melk's newly-restored Benedictine abbey, beaming proudly over the Danube valley is one of Europe's great sights. The views from its balcony are great but wait until you get inside. This library is filled with precious centuries-old manuscripts. Notice the Baroque decor. Baroque artists were masters of illusion. The ceiling looks curved...but it's perfectly flat.

(Wachau or Danube Valley, rolling bike onto the boat) By car, bike, or boat, the 20-mile stretch of the Danube between the towns of Melk and Krems is as pretty as they come. Our train pass gets us on the Danube boats for free. And we're taking advantage of the boat line's generous bike 'n cruise program which lets us rent this bike from the dock office, take it on the boat and drop it at any dock along the river.

(From the boat) The Danube flows all the way from Germany's Black Forest to its mouth in Romania on the Black Sea. This most romantic stretch of the Danube valley is called the Wachau Valley. This is the Danube's wine road. Along with vineyards, you'll see castles. Here comes Durnstein castle.

(Riding off the boat on our bike at village of Durnstein) The village below the castle is a touristic flypaper luring hordes of visitors with its traffic-free quaintness and its one claim to fame and fortune: Richard the Lion-Hearted was imprisoned in this castle in 1193. You can probably sleep in his bedroom. But this is a good place to start our Danube pedal.

Actually when you see that sign (bike in a red border) that means no biking. This "Cycle Track" brochure I picked up at the tourist office in Melk reminds me that the best bike path is just between the road and the river, here along the north bank.

(Show wreath) These wine gardens have hung out a wreath of straw or greenery. That's their way of saying "come on in and taste our wine." But I've got a few kilometers to pedal first.

And we've got a lot more of Austria to explore, experience and taste. Join us next time as we travel through Salzburg and the mountains and lakes of the Salzkammergut Lake District - also known as the Sound of Music Country.


Other Travel Tips: