Saturday, October 14, 2017

Day 6: On art, madness, and slowing down in Vienna

"What I have in my heart and soul - must find a way out. That's the reason for music."
- Beethoven
I was glad that my wonderful husband convinced me to spend a personal day in Vienna. I was going to head back right after my conference so he's not solo-parenting more than necessary, but he insisted that I spend an extra day in Vienna since I'm already going to be there anyway. To think that I had to be convinced to take a day off and spend it in Vienna? Argh. What's wrong with me?  5 points for husband. And you bet, I enjoyed that day.  I had indicated in my reservation that this day off was part of my 40th birthday celebration so my hotel made it right by serving mimosa with breakfast. Hey now!

A horse is a horse of course of course…

My piano teacher used to live in Vienna and told me about the Spanish Riding School or Spanische Hofreitschule, which is a world class equestrian school that has been in existence for over 440 years. Vienna’s Spanish Riding School was established by the Habsburgs back in the 1500s, with the school buildings forming part of the Hofburg Palace. The school’s main performance space, the Winter Riding School is not your regular arena. The hall is decorated with delicate carvings and huge chandeliers, and a portrait of Emperor Charles VI hangs on one wall; the riders tip their hat as a gesture of gratitude every time they enter the arena. Sadly, taking photos weren't allowed but you can see them here.

If you, like me, are curious as to the origin of the name of the school - It’s not the school or its riders that are Spanish, but the horses. The horses are all Lipizzaners, a breed which mixes Spanish, Arabian and Berber ancestry, and today's horses in the school has their bloodline traced back to 1750 and the first Habsburg stables. The training to become a professional rider takes over six years and only a few can be masters.

While I couldn't catch a show while I was in Vienna, I was able to watch a daily exercise routine. While the horses steal the show, it's really the art and mastery of training the horses to the way they elegantly move that makes this school unique. The fluidity in the movement comes from the harmony between rider and horse - not very different from a conductor commanding consensus to do an arpeggio or staccato with empathy, authority, and impeccable timing. Perhaps even more impressive, I sensed a feeling of contentment, pride, and accomplishment as the riders trained their Lipizzaners. It's as if I could feel the actual joy and fulfillment from the people working here, which made the experience of watching them even more enjoyable, and I left with gained perspective.

After strolling along and picking a Viennese cookbook at a bookshop, my next stop was lunch at Café Frauenhuber, the oldest coffeehouse in Vienna, also known to have hosted Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart's last public performance was said to have taken place in this very café. Although it's billed as Mozart's favorite café, surprisingly, there seem to be very few tourists and it had a more local feel. It's probably due to the place being tucked away in a little alley, plus, it's more costly than the surrounding cafes. The only downside is the menu has limited vegetarian options. Still, they served traditional Austrian food that screams 'Authentic'.

My book and meal matched!

Moonlight Sonata

When I was in high school, we were required to write an biographical essay on a famous person for our English class. I chose Beethoven for reasons I can't recall, possibly due to my fascination with playing Fur Elise then, but I my research left me feeling very awed by his life, by his music, by his genius.

Ludwig Van Beethoven born in Bonn, Germany, has been performing publicly as a pianist since he was 8 years old. His father had pushed him hard to become the next child prodigy after Mozart, and he studied briefly under Haydn and possibly briefly with Mozart. He later on moved to Vienna to make a name for himself as a virtuoso pianist and gain favor with the nobility. But, how can one play when you're losing your hearing, or worse, your mind? Beethoven hid his deteriorating hearing but continued to compose, conduct and play his music.

I couldn't leave Vienna without paying my respect to the Maestro at his final resting place at Zentralfriedhof. If it was the only place I'd have time to visit in Vienna, I would have been fine with it. Beethoven died at 56 years of age. Thousands of citizens attended his funeral procession including Franz Schubert. At Zentralfriedhof, in Group 32A, you'd find Beethoven's grave very near Schubert's grave and Mozart's memorial. Johannes Brahms' is just across along with Johann Strauss and his family. Ludwig Boltzmann, Physicist, is also buried in Zentralfriedhof, just before the presidential crypt. His entropy equation is engraved on his memorial stone. Very few places can give you the quiet introspective that a walk in a graveyard provides.

Humbling to stand here - Beethoven (L) and Schubert's (R) graves, and Mozart's memorial in the middle
Boltzmann's tombstone bears the inscription of the entropy formula: S = k log W
I took the tram back to the inner city to and headed to the Naschmarkt, Vienna's popular food and produce market. On the way, I decided to check out the Secession. The Vienna Secession was founded by artists Gustav Klimt and others because they felt that the Vienna Künstlerhaus was not serving their needs and expression of art. Secession artists wanted to break free of art confinement within academic tradition, and outside historical influence. Frankly, I'm not luddite enough to appreciate this. Because the Secession housed Klimt's Beethoven frieze, I had to check it out.
The iconic Secession building.  "Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.
—“To every time its art. To art its freedom.”—

 Last portion of the Beethoven Frieze

Gustav Klimt created the monumental Beethoven Frieze for the XIVth exhibition of Vienna Secessionist, as a tribute to Beethoven with the objective to reunite architecture, painting, sculpture and music. The frieze is actually a narrative presented on 3 walls, which reads from left to right. Three female figures, called Genii, symbolize humanity seeking fulfillment, pleading to a knight to lead them through struggles - disaster, vices, sickness, madness, death, etc. represented by characters such gorgons and a giant gorilla. Fulfillment does come at the end, where love and art triumph, shown by a couple locked in an erotic embrace, surrounded by a choir, echoed in the last part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the 'Ode to Joy'. The bottom line: Art, according to Klimt, can guide us through a life of hostility and pain to find pure joy. I truly envy the artists and the art enthusiasts for their unique perspective.

The art was meant for the exhibition only, and the frieze was painted directly on the walls with light materials. However, it was preserved and is now on permanent display in the Vienna Secession hall and considered one of Klimt’s masterpiece highlighting Viennese Art Nouveau. The art was so popular that a portion of it was used in one of the most famous collectors' coins: the Austrian 100 euro, The Secession Coin, minted on November 10, 2004.

Now for the other arts at The Secession, I wasn't too crazy about.

My kids can replicate this with little effort.
So, I moved along to the Naschmarkt, where tourists from around the globe mingled with locals doing their daily food shopping. Fresh fruit, olives, and spices make such colorful displays in stalls. It was a feast for the eyes.   

Selection of herbs and spices

Say cheese!

This one!

Mini Sacher Torte to go!
I couldn't leave Vienna without looping back to Hotel Sacher to get a sweet treat for hubby. He always tells me to slow down, take a breather, make use of my annual leave. I seldom listen... but glad that I did this time. The next time I'm in Vienna, I'm bringing him with me. And Vienna, there will be a next time.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Days 3-5: A kiss to remember

My days in Bratislava were filled with amazing science coming from all around the world, interesting people, thought-provoking research, zero alternative facts.  The conference gala on Day 3 was held in another castle, this time in Austria.  For the price of 120 Euros and a conference registration of about 700 Euros, you too can get a bus ride to Schloss Hof and be serenaded by a quartet while you eat, and treat yourself to great-dancing afterwards. 

Schloss Hof, Prince Eugene of Savoy’s country estate

The dinner service was well-choreographed with impressive precision. 

During the last conference day (Day 4) at Bratislava, I was disappointed to hear that the tour to Devin castle ruin was cancelled.  The organizers showed me the list of registrants: 1.  And yes, you can probably guess who that one was.  Argh. Humans! Seriously, out of ~1200 congress attendees, I was the only 1 interested to see the castle ruin? Who are these people?! How can my colleagues endure looking under the microscope for hours, but not be interested in seeing a ruined, historic castle from the Neolithic age? Sometimes, humanity fails me.

But I quickly got over it.  I contemplated going to the ruin myself and looked at the bus schedules etc., but in the end, the pull of seeing Vienna again was stronger.  Truth be told, apart from Devin, I felt that I've seen most of the things that Bratislava has to offer in the 4 days of my stay. I had great dinners and amazing walk with wonderful views, but otherwise, nothing to write home about in terms of exciting happenings. 

I decided to hop on the earlier train to Vienna.  The train station in Bratislava is quite small and easy to navigate. While all info are in Slavik, it wasn't hard to decipher the codes since I had a working WiFi at my fingertips.  One thing they don't tell you is that there aren't any escalators or elevators (at least I didn't see any!) so travelers have to lug their heavy suitcases up and down the stairs. 

2nd rendezvous with Vienna

In contrast, the Wien Hbf is big, very modern, and with escalators - woot, woot! The lines at Hbf can a bit confusing with the long names of destinations, but I researched my way en route from Bratislava.  I bought a 24h Vienna pass and boarded the U1 in the direction of Leopoldau and got off Karlsplatz, which is a short walk to my hotel at Das Opernring.

I chose my hotel well... The view from my window (State Opera) makes me want to sing, operatically!
The location of my hotel can't be beaten.  It's along the periphery of the first district, Inner stadt, diagonally across the State Opera.  It's walking distance to most museums, to the Naschmarkt, and has multiple tram lines station that can take me to most places of my interest.  I requested for a room with a view, and got it. (Again, it never hurts to ask!) I had a wonderful sitting area, but I wasn't going to sit long - I need to see this city and I had only a day and a half to see my top picks.

At this point, I just finished reading The Painted Kiss and was extremely intrigued by Gustav Klimt and Emily Floge.  Will the art seen in real life reveal the true nature of their relationship? The historical fictional novel portrayed them as "maybe" lovers, and google research wasn't revealing much.

First stop - The Belvedere

Everything is better with ice cream
The Belvedere is a actually a complex comprising of 2 palaces - upper and lower, the Orangery, and the Palace Stables.   It was the summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Upper Belvedere museum houses many of the artwork of Klimt alongside Egon Schele, etc.  The buildings are set in a Baroque park landscape in the third district of Vienna - close enough to commute to, but not swarmed with tourists.

Waterfalls and beautifully landscaped garden in between the 2 palaces
Now, I'm no art maven and cannot tell for certain the styles I like.  All I know is that there are paintings that move me and more that don't do anything for me.  Take for instance the Mona Lisa at the Louevre.  To say that I was disappointed when I saw it is an understatement. But maybe my expectation was just higher. It just didn't evoke any emotion from me. Nada. Same with most of Picasso's work, Matisse's, Cezanne's, etc.  In general, I find Van  Gogh's landscape paintings evocative, but his portraits not so much.  I had never been a fan of cubism, nor the random-sized dots and squares and other geometric patterns displayed at the Guggenheim in New York. But when I saw Klimt's pieces, I was speechless.

I Felt Like a Voyeur.

I couldn't pry my eyes away from the couple's passionate embrace on The Kiss. The grandeur of the art in size, the gold color, the expression of the woman... it was unlike any art I've ever seen. The brilliant specks of gold in the background appears to bathe the couple, intimately holding each other, in starlight. The art is set on the edge of a flowery meadow, and you can feel the bliss and love. It makes the viewer feel that their gaze is an intrusion. I felt compelled to look away, but I could only move closer. I had to see the delicate woman's expression and the gentleness of the man up close. It was quite powerful.

The Belvedere also introduced me to Egon Schiele's work. He happened to be Klimt's prodigy, and it showed in his art. Now I'll have to search for his bio too. 2018 is the centenary of Egon Schiele’s death, so the Belvedere is showing its collection of Schiele paintings to mark the occasion. What I saw from his work whet my art appetite.  This museum is a must see again the next time I'm in Vienna.

Death and Maiden, Egon Schiele

After seeing the Belvedere, I took tram D back to innere stadt and headed to Demel's, which has been been around since 1786 as the imperial and royal court bakery, and has indulged tourists like me in all sorts of pastry goodness. I could have tried their version of Sacher Torte so I can give an opinion on which had the better cake, but in the end the "come-hither" look of the apple strudel from the glass confectionery case was impossible to ignore.

I passed by the Albertina and was surprised to see people walking up to the museum entrance. Hmm. I was certain the museum closed at 6, but I quickly checked the hours online and found that they're open until 9 pm on Wednesdays. And what luck, it happened to be a Wednesday! The Albertina is actually also a palace converted to a museum. Since I was on an art enthusiast's euphoria, I decided to continue my art education at the Albertina. Their collection ranged from "Impressionism and Pointillism to Fauvism and Expressionism, from New Objectivity and the Russian avant-garde to Surrealism and Picasso..." Quite impressive, and I enjoyed it more so than I thought I would. I still don't like Cubism, but Picasso actually had some periods that I enjoy. I also enjoyed introduction to Emil Nolde's work. Perhaps unsurprisingly because his art bear the influence of van Gogh.


Stormy Sea (1930). “There is silver blue, sky blue, and thunder blue. Every color holds within it a soul, which makes me happy or repels me, and which acts as a stimulus,” the artist mused.

Picasso's dove became an international symbol of the peace movement.

Monet's The Water Lilies
And then it was time to kiss the city good night...

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Day 2: The Beautiful Green Danube

In America: "Please remain seated."
In Austria: "Please feel free to walk around the boat."
I had a few choices for transportation to Bratislava – plane, car, train… but, boat was an option! How could I not take that and sail down the Beautiful Blue Danube?! I’d happily hum Johann Strauss’ waltz for the entire duration of the boat ride.  Well, the boat turned out to be a high-speed catamaran – awesome sauce – but the Danube canal and river, at least in Vienna through Bratislava, turned out to be murky green and not the crystal blue that I was envisioning.  The Danube River is Central and Eastern Europe’s longest river, touching 10 different countries. So, presumably it’s blue in other parts. I later read that it is a vivid shade of blue in Budapest and Hungary, especially in the winter. The Donaukanal, as the Danube canal is called in Vienna, is green due to water turbines and the canal’s heavy use as waterway which causes movement of the sediments on the river. BUT, Strauss was Viennese, so why was Strauss waxing poetic? Then again, the Red Sea isn’t red.

Holy high winds, Batman!

After over an hour of cruising down the Danube river, the ruins of Devin castle, which marked the Slovakia-Austria border, appeared. Soon, the UFO tower and Bratislava castle became visible too. Because I left on the first boat out and the conference didn’t start until afternoon, I had a few hours to explore Slovakia’s capital. I dropped off my luggage at the hotel, which is pleasantly situated in Stare Mesto (Old Town).
Devin castle majestically standing on the frontier of Slovakia and Austria

Bratislava is a small city.  The shops were very cute, and the restaurants in Old Town were touristy. Still, I felt an inexplicable melancholy while walking through the city.  It is old, though not by name. The city was mostly known in English by its German name, Pressburg, until it was renamed to Bratislava in 1919. Walking the old city became a confusing narrative of beautiful old architecture characteristic of many Eastern European, beautiful cobbled stone paths, and unshakeable presence of communist history. A memorial caught my eye because it had the word זוכר, a Hebrew word Zakhor:``Remember''. I tried to look around for an explanation for the memorial, but there was nothing…. No plaque, no pamphlets. Not that it would help because most of the signs here are in Slovak.
Bratislava old town

Čumil - Bronze sculpture of a man peeping out of the manhole. He is said to be either resting and watching passersby after cleaning the sewer or is looking under women's skirts.
“Van Gogh House”, a derelict structure where the vacant windows have been filled in with Van Gogh-style art.
During construction of Most SNP, parts of the old town was demolished to make way for the road leading to the bridge. The old Jewish quarters was sacrificed, including the old synagogue. The high price of "out with the old, in with the new".

Storming the Castle

I decided to quietly look for a lunch place that has a view of the Bratislava castle. Thankful for WiFi and helpful Yelp reviews, I picked one that popped up as the highly rated lunch spot with a view. After a while of walking thru the cobblestone path, I found the place, but was confused because I couldn’t see the castle from the outside. But as soon as I was shown my table, it dawned on me… OH. I’m under the castle. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten under a castle before. That’s neat. I decided to order traditional food which seems to be bread dumpling of some sort, but I wasn’t crazy about it. It was very dry. I moved on to dessert… which was weird. It’s supposed to be poppy seed dumpling, but I’m imagining all sorts of creepy things. Hey, did I mention I was eating under the castle? I’m sure it’s acquired taste, but I wasn’t acquiring it this time.

A big bowl of Nope.

I hiked up the castle, which is Bratislava’s landmark, built in the 9th century. Eleven kings and eight queens were crowned in this castle as it proudly stood on a hill by the Danube river, as it does today – after it was ruined and restored. I explored the expansive castle ground but had to skip the museum because my conference was starting.
The castle was infamously bombarded by Napoleon and his troops.

The crown at the top of St Martin's Cathedral (left) is made of real gold. This is a replica of the Hungarian crown used by the Kingdom of Hungary for most of its existence. 19 royal coronations have been held here.

Flying purple people eater?
When my meeting ended, it was night time. After briefly schmoozing at the cocktail hour, I hightailed it to dinner.

Now, let’s talk briefly about heights. I love the bird’s eye view from high vantage points. Sadly, those closest to me are not too fond of heights so I often find myself ground-bound. But when I’m traveling solo, sky is the limit. Next in popularity to Bratislava castle, the Most SNP bridge is a dramatic structure bisecting the Danube. The flying saucer structure on top of the Most SNP support pylon is actually a restaurant, cheekily named UFO. There is a lift (elevator) on the leg that takes you to the restaurant.  A couple of staircases above the restaurant is the open space observation deck.  I headed straight to the deck to get the 360 panoramic view of Bratislava.  I imagine this is spectacular in the morning too, but in the evening it’s more breath-taking. The restaurant, UFO, is modern, upscale, and romantic, serving Mediterranean fusion food. It was fun to sit and feel the gentle rocking of the tower as a truck passed by below or the strong winds blew. Sadly, the service was poor, and the server just seemed plain miserable. The food was mediocre too – costly, but not spectacular. 
I decided to climb back up the top deck post-dinner to brush off the disappointing meal. Since it was rather late, I had the entire viewing deck to myself, which ended my day on a high note after all.  I pondered on the day's adventure and Bratislava's many sides - the modern UFO, the baroque style churches, the castle on top of the hill - ruined and rebuilt, the countryside across the bridge, and the beautiful Danube river that witnessed all of the turbulent changes with time.

Superman's eye view

Black Danube at night