TRAVEL Brno: Vienna is a Holiday Wonderland Just Down the Road
Photo: Vienna Christmas World on Rathausplatz. Credit: WienTourismus / Christian Stemper.
We had half-decided to go to Vienna. It was to be a Sunday daytrip to take the kids to visit the famous Christmas markets.
The plan was to wake up around 7. Get the kids dressed and organized. Then hit the road by 8. I had an Austrian highway sticker from a trip the weekend before. The gas tank was full. Kid snacks and drinks would be easy to throw in a backpack.
At 8 a.m., however, nobody was out of bed. The two toddlers were uncharacteristically not jumping around and fighting. We were all groggy.
The wife and I reevaluated. Do we really want to go all the way to Vienna, find a place to park, walk along the busy streets and fight through the masses of people on a cold day?
Me: Let’s just sit at home and relax.
Wife: We made a plan. Let’s go.
That was the correct decision
* * *
Vienna is an easy daytrip, either by car or train, from Brno. Parking can be costly, like in any big city, but you can save money by parking in a Park & Ride or an outer district and using mass transit. The wide sidewalks make walking comfortable (watch for the bikes). The masses of people in the markets and the cold — well, there’s nothing much that can be done about those aspects.
For most of the year, Vienna is a big city with world-class entertainment, a mix of international cultures, a cosmopolitan feel and an expansive layout that is full of interesting restaurants, shops, parks and historically significant landmarks.
This month, Vienna is even more appealing because it is decked out in holiday splendor. The city has had a Christmas market since 1298 and it is impossible not to feel holiday joy while looking at City Hall.
Oftentimes, it is just a matter of getting out of bed and building the momentum to get moving.
Halfway to Vienna, after only a slight decrease of speed at the border with Austria, my wife recalled the first time that she had made this trip. It was just shy of 30 years ago. The Velvet Revolution had rolled through Czechoslovakia and the border had just been opened. She, her brother and her parents took the opportunity to visit their extended family in Vienna. Finally, after decades of correspondence by mail, they would see each other face to face.
She was just a little girl, but the excursion opened her eyes nevertheless. She remembered the long and slow line at the border and understood the significance of being able to cross into a Western country. The car trip took hours.
Vienna was huge. The stores were packed with all sorts of varieties of food. Bananas were available in every supermarket. Toy stores — the same that you can find today on Masarykova or at Olympia Shopping Mall — were fantasies come true. Everything was crazy-expensive, so the family brought only chocolate back home to Brno.
Her most powerful memory of Christmastime 1989? The lights. Buildings, trees, lamp posts, market stalls — everything was lit with chains of lights.
Nobody in Communist Czechoslovakia lit their houses with holiday lights. Vienna sparkled like a Christmas tree.
* * *
In 1 hour, 31 minutes, we were parked in Vienna. I went to an outer district just past the main train station where it was free and I knew my way around. (The previous weekend, two friends and I from the Brno Writing Group went to Vienna for an event where one of our group members read her writing. The non-toddler, non-holiday experience is grist for a future Travel Brno story, or five.)
We thought that we would walk to the train station and take the metro into the city center. Kids are free and two one-way adult tickets are 4.80 EUR (126ck). Instead, we decided to walk in and take mass transit back.
It was about three kilometers. Toddlers walk slowly, but mine are used to distances from our weekend hikes around Brno. The city landscape was different from the forests. The kids pointed to letters that they recognized. They counted cars. They got excited over police cars — their sirens are different — and ambulances. The slow pace can be maddening, but, once you get used to it, you soak up more atmosphere than while walking at the normal got-to-get-there-fast pace.
Vienna has a mix of architectural types as you move toward the city center. Some buildings are of the ugly Communist-style that are common in the outskirts of Prague. Others have ornate balconies and reliefs around the windows and doors. There are also many modern buildings. One, which appeared to have a forest on the roof, was a particular favorite.
At one point we watched a tram glide by. The entire length was an advertisement for the Christmas Markets in Brünn. It took me a few seconds to understand why my Brno-patriot wife was so proud of it.
* * *
The Christmas markets are scattered throughout Vienna, including at Belvedere Palace, Maria-Theresien Platz, Schönbrunn Palace, Spittelberg and other areas.
We walked through Maria-Theresien Platz, which is between two world-class museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (an art museum) and Naturhistorisches Museum Wien
(the Museum of Natural History). The market stalls circle around the huge and impress statues that are in the middle.
We slowly made our way to Rathauspark, which is just in front of the Rathaus, or City Hall. This is the epicenter of holiday bliss. The City Hall is the building that is lit up, window by window, as part of the countdown to Christmas day. There is an array of stalls out in front. Each is wooden and well-decorated with fir branches and lights. They sell everything from holiday hats to high-end jewelry to psychedelic lights to wooden trains that have individual letters for cars — each letter car costs 1.85 euros.
There are also many food stands. The roasted chestnuts were excellent. The kids, who always seem to want an ice cream cone, tried a Shaumkegel, or a foam cone. Of course, there are Weinersnitchels and sausages and baked potatoes. And many stalls with hot drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
On one side of the City Hall Park, there are small Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and trains for children. There is also a Nativty Path. A huge tree — the Herzlbaum, or Tree of Hearts — is filled with heart ornaments. There are places set up for people to stand for perfectly framed photos.
On the other side of the park, there is an ice-skating track with pathways around trees and through the park. It has a total of 3,000 square meters of ice.
The walkways throughout the area are solid and flat, with crowd-control railings that are covered with wooden slats to maintain the forest-like atmosphere.
Just like 30 years ago, when my wife, as a little girl, experienced the Western world for the first time, everything is decked out in lights.
* * *
There are a few things that you should know should you make the trip to Vienna.
• Size. Vienna has wide boulevards that make it feel like Paris. It makes moving across town time-consuming. Even if you don’t have toddlers, consider taking mass transportation to speed things up. Of course, when you walk you have a much better chance of finding something interesting.
• Maps. Vienna doesn’t fit well onto maps. My driver’s atlas, Google maps on the internet and even the brochure map that I picked up at the train station Visitor Center were all too detailed and tiny to make them very useful. Some of the street names are so long that the entire word doesn’t fit.
On the plus side, the street names are easy to find on the actual buildings. The parks — and there are many — are the best landmarks to use as you find your way through the city. And when you are on the ground, there are a lot of large kiosk-like maps to guide you through the local area, especially in the touristy parts.
• Bikes. The main streets have large sidewalks that have been separated into bike lanes and pedestrian areas. It is great, but it can be difficult to stay in your area, particularly when you are dealing with little kids. Don’t freak out when you get a bell rung in your direction. It’s dangerous. I once saw a biker plow into an adult just meters away from me.
• Sundays. Most Austrian shops are closed on Sundays. That can be a problem, so plan ahead.
* * *
Brno has amazing Christmas markets. Visit naměstí Svobody and Zelený trh and Dominikánské náměstí and Moravské náměstí often throughout the coming weeks. But, if you want a reason to get out of town, consider using the Christmas markets as your excuse.
Small Czech cities and towns have markets, and Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Prague are all nearby cities that pull out all the stops for the holiday season.
Vienna, for one, is just a spur-of-the-moment decision away.
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