Monday, November 30, 2009

Almost vegan in Vienna II

Our full day in Vienna was probably one of my favorites of the trip. A very nice and unexpected perk of northern Europe in general was how at-home I felt there. Vienna is a great example—though it’s obviously far older and bigger than Kansas City, walking around there felt completely familiar and comfortable. No leering men to avoid (like in Italy), no pickpockets or gypsies to dodge (like in France or Spain), no street vendors constantly trying to sell you things (like in Italy or Turkey), clean streets and sites (UNlike Greece), and so on. I just felt very safe and at ease at all times.

I chose to wake up early to visit Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer home of the Habsburg family. The Habsburgs were the longest-running and most important royal house of Europe. They ruled for over 800 years (one family!), all the way up to the 20th century. Their empire included Austria, Spain, Hungary, and Bohemia, as well as parts of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Ambitious, no? The palace was built to rival Versailles, so that (and the picture below) should give you some idea of the immensity of this place. 1,442 rooms!

Of the palaces I visited on my trip, this one was my favorite. The inside is ornate beyond description. If only we were allowed to take pictures! Here is a shot of the astonishing backyard gardens.

After Schönbrunn, we bussed back to central Vienna, where we strolled around the museum district and through the Mozart gardens.

I went on a tour of the Habsburg crypts after that. Imagine a vast underground catacomb housing 800 years’ worth of one family’s bodies...truly fascinating.

The group disbanded after that, and Kim, Greg, and I excitedly walked down to the world-famous Hotel Sacher to have a snack at the attached Café Sacher.

This is one ritzy, expensive hotel. The inside of the café was as elegant as could be.

We had a seat on the patio. Greg ordered a Kapuziner (cappuccino), while Kim and I each had an Einspänner—traditional strong, black Viennese coffee served in a tall glass and topped with a hefty dollop of Schlag (whipped cream). (Can I just say that Schlag may be the silliest and most fun German word ever? Try using it in a sentence without giggling.)

Then, we ate what we came for: the famous Sacher Torte. You may have heard of it. Invented in 1832 by Franz Sacher, a 16-year-old confectioner’s apprentice, it’s pretty much the national dessert of Austria. The Original Sacher Torte recipe is top-secret, and there are only three places in the world to get a piece: the Sacher Hotels in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria (the only places it is made), or the official Sacher shop in Bolzano, Italy (the only other place it is sold).

The torte consists of two layers of not-too-sweet chocolate sponge cake, sandwiching a thin layer of apricot jam, and encased on the top and sides by a dark chocolate ganache. They serve it with unsweetened whipped cream (say it—Schlag!), since it’s considered too dry to be eaten alone. And oh yeah, we each ordered a shot of the Original Sacher Liqueur – an ultra-rich, incredibly thick chocolate liqueur with just a whisper of apricot – on the side. Talk about a decadent midmorning snack!

My mouth waters at the memory.

Kim, Greg, and I worked off a few of those calories with a long walk around the Ring Road that encircles downtown Vienna, admiring the city’s parks, monuments, and architecture. We walked all the way to...Sigmund Freud’s house!

As you might imagine, it’s now a museum. It was very small, but dirt cheap to enter, and we got to see his legendary couch.

After a stop back at the hotel, the entire group coalesced, and we took a trip to the Vienna Schnaps Museum. True Schaps (spelled with one "p"!) is not a liqueur, like in the U.S., but actually a very potent spirit.

It’s been run by the same family since 1902. Gerald Fischer, the great-grandson of the company's founder, conducted our tour, which ended with the opportunity to sample every single one of their products (!). We tried a half dozen different flavors of Schnaps, plus a half dozen flavors of creamy Schnaps liqueur, as well as brandy, whiskey, and some powerful absinthe. We were happy, happy people when we left.

Even had we not imbibed, the evening would have been a blast. We had dinner reservations at Marchfelderhof, which can only be described as a "crazy country mansion restaurant." We laughed in surprised delight when the staff greeted our bus with a "Welcome Friends!" sign, rolled out a red carpet as we walked up, and had Kim cut a ribbon strung across the front gate.

I can’t even begin to describe the interior of this place. Every inch of wall was covered with photographs, paintings, artwork, and the most random of décor, which also hung from the ceiling. Think lights, garlands, baskets, scarves, ballet slippers, musical instruments…

Downright kooky! At our tables, a shot of apple Schnaps (in a test tube) and a slice of unique and tasty garlic butter-sesame seed bread awaited each of us, as well as carafes of red and white wine.

Now, have a confession to make: I ate fish for dinner. Yep, that’s right. There was NO decent veg option, and honestly, if I were ever going to eat fish on this trip, then fresh-caught catfish from the Danube River was probably the fish to eat. And the truth is, this was delicious beyond my wildest dreams. The enormous, lightly breaded and panfried catfish fillets were served with creamy chunks of parsley potatoes and a scoop of garlic-chive butter. Not at all vegan, and not even vegetarian, I'm sorry to say, but DAMN this was good. Easily the best fish I've ever tasted in my life.

After that awesome entrée, dessert was a mere afterthought, but I certainly ate at least a portion of my vanilla-and-chocolate custard-crème parfait with macerated berries and tart, juicy berry sauce.

Vienna absolutely won my heart—and taste buds! Next, on our way out of Austria, we travel through Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart and setting of The Sound of Music.

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  1. I like the flowers in the shape of a treble cleff. And though the Sacher torte looks good, the whipped cream looks better - you know how I like whipped cream! The red carpet welcome and ribbon cutting must've been/felt awesome. What a welcome that was.

  2. This all looks simply amazing! I never thought much of visiting Vienna, but I have to say you've convinced me.

    The fish and potatoes looks to die does the torte!