My last stop of the Great Ideas Tour was Vienna, Austria. There was a cheap flight from Dubrovnik to Salzburg, and we arrived in Salzburg in the early afternoon. It was pouring rain, so we didn’t get a chance to explore the home of the Sound of Music, and find the beirgarden recommended by Kit, instead catching a train straight to Vienna.
John Harris has hosted every Ramsey Award recipient on their Great Ideas tour in Vienna. Dr. Ramsey, the man whom the award honors, bought John a Eurorail pass for his first trip to Europe when he was in college. John returned to Vienna after college, intending to stay for a few months, and never left. He worked as a trainer, then began to open gyms.
He was a wonderful host, letting us stay in his flat in downtown Vienna right outside the Ringstrasse (the road which encircles the oldest part of Vienna and runs past a huge number of historic buildings.
Jan Pruitt, and her husband, Ed, were also visiting John Harris in Vienna. They had been staying in the flat downtown. They met us when we arrived and headed out to stay in John’s cottage outside the city. We would meet them out there later in the week.
It was nice to be able to stay in our own apartment, especially since it gave me time to get over being sick without staying in a dorm at a hostel.
While in Vienna, I woke up every morning early to go read in the Burggarten, a nice park outside the back of the Hofburg Palace. The first morning as I was reading, white horses with riders dressed in traditional clothing walked into the park and began grazing around me as I sat in the grass on my blanket. It wasn’t until later that I learned they were the Lipizzaner horses, a special breed of white horses from the Spanish Riding School- a school in Vienna (right near the Hofburg Palace) which has trained horses for over 450 years. It is rare to see the horses in the city, and very few people probably get to experience them grazing around them in the park.
The Hapsburg Empire was the principal sovereign dynasty of Europe from the 15th-20th century. The Hapsburgs secured power in 1452 as Frederick III was crowned the last Holy Roman Emperor. The power continued to be passed through the Hapsburg line from this point on.
The empire expanded, mainly through marriages, at spread to almost every continent. At various points in history they controlled, Spain, Mexico, France, the Philippines, Florida, Brazil, Transylvania and many more places. Maria Teresa was an 18th century ruler of the Hapsburg monarchy, and perhaps the most powerful woman of the time. She had to fight constantly to maintain her power and convince the other nations to take her rule seriously.
The empire ended with WWI. The heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and WWI began a month later. The Hapsburgs were banished from Austrian territory in 1919 until they renounced their dynasty and became normal citizens.
I learned these things on the free walking tour I took the first morning.
We visited the Natural History Museum which had an incredible collection of taxidermy- most of which hadn’t changed in over 100 years. There was an enormous elephant seal, huge crabs, room after room of birds, and my favorite animal, the capybara- the largest rodent in the world. I fell in love with this cute bear-pig looking animal in Brazil.
We went to the Naschmarket in the city which had blocks and blocks of stands and tables of everything you could possibly imagine. It began with restaurants and fruit stands, progressed to tapestries and baskets, then ended in a huge flea market which Ashton said looked, ” as if all the pawn shops in Vienna had thrown up in one place.” Anything and everything you could ever need or not need was spread on tables and blankets in haphazard rows at the end of the market.
I bought a tapestry from a man who used my indecision in choosing a pattern to give me life advice. As I struggled to make my choice for what beautiful Indian print to bring home he said, ” you can stay here all day, I don’t mind, but you are wasting your life. Just pick one and be happy.” Then he asked me if I couldn’t make a simple decision like this, how would I ever choose a husband? I laughed at his philosophical sales techniques, and purchased a beautiful maroon blanket for my room.
We had an afternoon Barbeque at John Harris’ home on the Danube River. He picked us up from the flat and drove us to the outskirts of the city, making a stop at the gym he owns. John lives year-round in an old house he has renovated which was originally built as a summer home along the Danube. There is no new construction allowed in his community.
He has a pool in the backyard, and while we were there he jumped off his balcony three times to cannonball into the pool. He made hamburgers and salad and took us on a nice bike ride along the river and through the neighborhood. We rode past some Buddhist prayer wheels and flags. We got to meet Susanne but not his bird, Mango.
John gave us lots of tips for what to see in the city.
We visited the Kunsthistorisches art history museum. There were beautiful collections of Egyptian and Greek artifacts.
Upstairs there were galleries filled with classical painters. The building they are housed in is almost as incredible and the art inside.
We spent the afternoon at the Schonbrunn Palace, the Hapsburg summer palace. It is a beautiful palace outside the city. I spent a couple hours wandering the opulent grounds while Ashton visited the inside. In the back gardens there was a hill with a gate on top that gave a nice view of the city.
On the way home I explored the city alone, taking the Schwedenplatz metro stop and visiting the Jesuitenkirche– Jesuit Church. I wandered through the streets of that side of the inner circle of the city as it began to rain.
The famous opera house had shows nearly every night we were in the city. They have a Jumbotron on the outside of the building which live-streams the performance inside. I watched Swan Lake and since it had just stopped raining, there were plenty of empty chairs.
I sat next to an Irish lady who wanted to talk about the election in the US and the upcoming snap elections in Britain. She wanted to know my opinions about the next 4 years and current political situation in the US. I can’t tell you how many people asked me these questions while I was in Europe.
John offered to take us on a bike ride around the city to show us some of the hidden parts. Vienna is the best city for biking that I have ever visited ( I haven’t visited many) so it was very easy to spend almost 4 hours riding through the cobblestone streets, along the river, through the parks.
As he showed us the hidden corners it was easy to see why John fell in love with Vienna. We rode through alleys, past hidden churches, into palace courtyards. We went up the stairs of the tallest building in the city center ( his friend lived inside the building) to get a Birdseye view.
The city was getting ready for the annual Life Ball- a fundraiser for AIDS.
We rode along the Danube Canal to the Wiener Prater park which had almost 3 miles of a tree-covered boulevard open to only bikes and pedestrians.
We ended our ride at a cafe and discussed the Ramsey Award and helping future students with their Great Ideas Tour.
We spent our last evening at the Jumbotron opera, but that night it was the 4th installment of an 18-hour opera. With subtitles in German, it was difficult to follow and we didn’t stay long. I did find the infamous Opera Toilet in the metro station next to the opera house though!
We got up early the next morning so I could catch my flight back to the United States.
Staying in Vienna was a lovely way to end the trip, and it was wonderful to be around people like John and Jan who appreciate and love traveling and European culture as much as they do. They have so many good stories to share.