Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ye Olde Viennese Christmas


 After what has begun to seem like a long stretch of months, my husband and I are becoming accustomed to feeling a bit different from everyone around us.  I don't mean that in an awkward way, but in the sense of being foreign.  And though we are starting to understand more and more of the intricacies present in Austrian life, we do not yet identify with all of them, or even most of them, for that matter.  We have enjoyed experiencing a new culture; it has certainly been an adventure, one that we are excited to continue.  But on occasion, such as during the holidays, we get  a tiny bit homesick, as do I imagine a good number of people.

 But, in a fortunate 'Christmas Miracle' sort of way, we are hosting my mother for this Christmas and New Year's in Vienna.  So the three of us are exploring an old fashioned European Chirstmas.  While sadly we have no snow on the ground, the beauty of the Christmasmarkts remains unparalleled.  Above you can see the tree and the lights at the Rathausplatz Christmasmarkt, our second stop on the Vienna Amazing Christmas Race.  Our first visit, on Saturday, was to the Schoenbrunn Christmasmarkt.  Nestled in front of the Versailles style palace in an large oval, wooden booths neighbored one another so closely as to form a sort of a wall.  In the center of the oval were several small, umbrella style pavilions, housing outdoor heaters, as well as food and drink booths.  We looked at the traditional Christmas wares sold at the first dozen or so booths before we were cold enough to require gluehwein, the Austrian mulled wine ubiqutious at outdoor winter events.  We bought it at the food stand, where it was being offered in commemorative mugs.  We then ventured closer to the heart of the markt, where a huge tree stood, alit with Christmas lights, in front of a small stage.  The front of the stage was a huge glass case, displaying an exquisitely detailed nativity scene, complete with a bejewelled elephant at the birth of Christ.
For lunch we each sampled something different, as Mom had a chocolate waffle, Jonathan some nockeln (noodles) with cheese, and I had what was advertised as the best wurst (sausage) in town.  The sausage was indeed excellent, and was housed in a cheesy pastry that really sealed the deal.  We ate huddled along the standing counter space next to the heater, trying to stay warm.  As we ate, a jazz ensemble played Christmas music from the adjacent, small stage by the nativity.  Jon was so thrilled with his cheesy noodles that I eventually commented, "I guess you can take the boy out of Wisconsin, but you can't take the cheese out of the Wisconsinite."
And before we knew it, the couple that had been standing by us for a while jumped in and asked Jon about Wisconsin.  As it turns out, the guy was from Wisconsin, and we spent the rest of the afternoon listening to more live Christmas music, sampling the different punschen (punches), and chatting with the Americans. 
The favorite was definitely the Baileyspunsch, no surprise there, and mom loved the a capella choir that performed after the jazz ensemble.  She also found some ornaments she liked, cutout paper scenes, but they seemed quite pricey so we vowed to look again Sunday at the next markt.  When the heater and the punsch could no longer keep us warm, we headed home and snuggled up in front of the movie The Holiday with potato corn chowder.  We each took turns dosing on the couch or in the man chair while we watched, and before long we called it a night.
The next morning we had a late breakfast and planned our second day of Christmasmarkt discoveries.  We started at Rathausplatz, which was amazingly beautiful.  Mom bought some funny Austrian Christmas people ornaments to take home as gifts, and we again were forced to have some gluehwein to stave off the chill.  For lunch we had soup in breadbowls, eating gulash and beer and bread soup beneath the gigantic Christmas tree.  After making our way through all the booths at Rathausplatz, we forged ahead to what was described by a few of my colleagues as more authentic of a Christmasmarkt, the Freyung.  This markt was small, and right out of an old Christmas story.  You half expected Scrooge to show up.  It was tiny by comparison to theRathausmarkt, with not more than 50 booths pressed close to one another to shoulder out the cold wind.  The ever present gluehwein and punsch were available, and of course Jon's favorite store was the cold meat counter, where endless salamis dangled above all kinds of other cuts of meat.  High above them all, perched on the top of the meat booth, was the markt's Christmas tree, shining with lights.  Mom bought a chocolate that looked like a whoopie pie, but later she said it was marzipan. 
The cold was closing in on us again, so we pressed on toward our goal: Christmas lights at the Graben.  To get there we of course had to pass through yet another, tiny local Christmasmarkt which was also very cute.  By then the lights had started, large cylinders of Christmas lights hanging far above us in the streets.  We followed them to the Graben, where stings of Christmas lights had been fashioned to simulate chandeliers in a ballrooms, each 'chandelier' rising over 12 feet tall, suspended overhead in twinkling splendour.  This was our crown jewel, so to speak, and it was worth not being able to feel our toes.  We stopped on our way back at the historic and iconic Cafe Landtmann's to warm up.  We were lucky to find seats right away, and from the window one could easily see the lights at the incredible Rathausplatz Christmasmarkt, which were breathtaking.  Mom and I had hot chocolates, and Jon had a classic Viennese hot drink called a Tiger Milk.  We were happy to sit and enjoy the magic of the millions of twinkly lights, but we were also happy for the chance to warm up.  As we made our way back through the Rathausplatz for a final photo at night, the crowds were thick and we smiled, knowing we had been lucky visit it earlier, when we had the chance to see it all and explore, but still to have the pictures of it at night was priceless.  We went home to a hot meal and Chevy Chase National Lampoon's Christmas Holiday. 
Monday was a day of shopping, and how we were able to dodge the crowds I will never know but will always be grateful for.  For dinner, we had a reservation at Le Loft, on the 18th floor of the Sofitel at Schwedenplatz.  Our table overlooked the Donau canal, but there was so much fog we felt like we were eating in a cloud.  It was very serene, and gave the city lights below us a soft, effusive effect, cloaking the city in mystery.  Our food was delicious, and we even had wine and dessert.  The chef sent our table soup samples before our main course, and after our dessert he also sent us a sample of tiny pastries.  We came home after our lavish dinner and curled up in front of the TV, where I fell asleep while Mom and Jon watched reruns of Castle.
I have posted many of our pictures on Facebook and Twitter already, and several of our friends and family have commented on our Christmas adventures so far.  We are happy to have the chance to share our Christmas with so many of our loved ones, and if any of you are able to join us for an upcoming holiday season, we would be excited to show you all of this in person.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!