Touring Vienna’s Burgtheater

Vienna has lots of universities, and that means lots of international students. So there are several groups around town who organize events for the international students. When I found one group on Facebook taking a tour of the Burgtheater, I knew I had to join.

The tour took us through the foyer, grand staircases, and honor hall of the theater. The building, like so many others in Vienna, was stunning. Both grand staircases had frescos on the ceilings painted by Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst, and Franz Matsch. Our tour guide was very informative, and gave us a great lesson in the history behind the Burgtheater. Which was, of course, not without a few scandalous stories.

Situated directly across from the Rathaus, the Burgtheater was the last of the grand buildings to be built on Ringstraße in 1888. But it had been in operation since 1776, after a royal decree by Empress Maria Theresa. It is one of the oldest theaters in Europe. The old building, next to the Hofburg palace, had once been a banquet hall. It was there that many famous Mozart operas were premiered, including Le nozze di Figaro in 1786 and Così fan tutte in 1790. Today it only produces plays, and is a strictly German-speaking theater, making it one of the most influential in the German-speaking world.

The old Burgtheater, next to the Hofburg “Michaelerplatz altes Burgtheater” by Michael Frankenstein – Ausstellungskatalog: Blickfänge einer Reise nach Wien – Fotografien 1860-1910 – Aus den Sammlungen des Wien Museums. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When it came time to build a new theater, Emperor Franz Joseph hired the two architects who had designed the Kunsthistorische Museum, Gottfried Semper and Karl von Hasenauer. This was a terrible idea. The two architects had quarreled all though their previous project, and were less than keen to work together again. Semper wanted to design a less ornamental theater where the plays could really stand out. Hasenauer was all about the red velvet and gold leaf. All they managed to work out was the design for the basic structure of the building before Semper left the project. Hasenauer was free to run wild with his over-the-top ideas. And so he did.

The new Burgtheater

The new Burgtheater

While Hasenauer’s interior design is gorgeous, he also built a lyre-shaped auditorium with a domed roof. This sounds like a great idea in theory. The lyre was the instrument played by the ancient Greeks while performing, but it also created pockets of seats with no view of the stage. Domed roofs are wonderful acoustically for musical performances, but when actors are speaking, the echoing makes them impossible to understand. Viennese society at the time were said to have come up with a saying to describe these shortcomings, “At the new parliament you can’t see, at the new opera house you can’t hear, and at the new theater you can’t see or hear.” In 1897, the auditorium had to be remodeled.

That architectural fail aside, the grand staircases were what really impressed me. Combine some truly fabulous gold and marble brilliance with a ceiling of masterpieces and you have something magnificent. Our guide gave us great details about the frescos. Each staircase, the Duke’s and the Emperor’s, have a series of paintings that depict the history of theater from ancient times to the 19th century.P1090520 P1090505

One of the most interesting was by Gustav Klimt. It illustrates a staging of Antigone with a statue of Sophocles in the foreground. In front of the statue sits a woman dressed in white, staring out of the painting at the viewer. This woman was Katharina Schratt, the emperor’s mistress, and an actress at the Burgtheater. Now whenever the emperor visited the theater he would always be greeted by his lover.P1090521

To make the painting even better, the woman standing behind her was also an actress at the Burgtheater. The emperor had made advancements to her as well, but she had turned him down, saying, “My only love is my art.” Hence her looking up at the stage instead of at the emperor. I thought that was a great story of art reflecting life.

Every time I decide to tour another building in Vienna, there is always a twinge of fear that it won’t live up to expectations. How could it possibly be as beautiful or have as much history as all of the others? I may never be able to tell you how one city manages to fit so many splendors and stories into its boundaries, but Vienna never disappoints. My tour of the Burgtheater was fascinating. I would highly recommend it, especially for art history fans.P1090509

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Think Like a Freak Review

I thought it was high time I mixed it up and wrote another book review.

If you have read Freakonomics or Superfreakonomics, then you are acquainted with the writing duo of Steven Levitt and Stephan Dubner. They broke the mold of economic thinking to create a hugely successful “freak” empire. They have a documentary on Netflix, a wildly popular podcast listed to by about three million people a month, according to Dubner, and three bestselling books. It seems like they might be on to something.

That is the basic premise behind Think Like a Freak, their newest book. It uses examples to tell you, yes YOU, how to fashion your mind into a mold-busting machine. Kind of like a self-help book for aspiring economists.

I was familiar with Freakonomics, the books and the brand, before I picked this book up. Although it had been awhile since I had read them. And, to be completely honest, I’m not sure if I finished the other two. But I definitely had what marketers call “positive brand association” with the idea of a new “freak” book, so I decided to check it out.

The first thing that is very clear about this book is that it is not going to be a third Freakonomics. There was always a level of “here are the facts, draw conclusions” in those books. They remained detached to a certain extent. Here, the entire book was prescriptive. It flat out told you what to do. But, it still uses examples that feel very familiar. They have the old-Freakonomics flair.

When I finished the book I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it. It had passed the time in an adequately enjoyable manner. But I thought it lacked some oomph. It just wasn’t as thought provoking as I had hoped. Most of the advice seemed pretty straight forward, especially if you were familiar with their earlier work.

I think that is the downfall of this book. On its own, it would probably have been pretty good, but when compared to its best-selling older brothers, it suffers by comparison. I read some of the other Goodreads reviews, and the overall feeling was, the more familiar you are with their work, the less you enjoyed this book. Much of the content is also in their podcast series, so listeners especially felt it was a bit unnecessary.

However, if you aren’t as familiar with Freakonomics, this might be a great place to dive in. Think Like a Freak is still an interesting and well-crafted book. And if you are the kind of person who prefers topics that relate directly to your life, it fits the bill. For me, this was a satisfying book; it just didn’t blow me away.

March at Vienna’s Outdoor Markets

Vienna is home to many outdoor markets. Some are seasonal, like the Christmas market at Karlsplatz and the Ostermarkt (Easter Market) at Schönbrunn. Others, like the famous Naschmarkt, run year-round, rain or shine.

I was told by locals and tourists alike to make it a point to visit these markets. And so I did. For several weeks now, visiting some market or another has been a favorite activity of mine.

One cold Saturday I made my way to Vienna’s most famous year-round market, the Naschmarkt. I specifically wanted to go on a Saturday to see the flohmarkt (flea market), which is not held during the week. But, boy, was it busy! I didn’t walk through the market, I was carried along by the crowd. There were all kinds of cool stands to look at as I drifted past.

The market spans the distance between Karlsplatz and Kettenbrückengasse, the next Ubahn station, with the flea market stretching beyond that. On the Karlsplatz side there are many small cafes and stands catering to the tourist crowd. They house handsome arrangements of olive oil or homemade mustard but aren’t the place to find a good deal.

As you go deeper into the market, you start to see lots of Turkish food stands. That’s what they are called here. They sell hummus and fresh olives and spices, even dates stuffed with walnuts. I think back home we would call them “Mediterranean food stands.” Everything there looked delicious. I wasn’t brave enough to fight the crowd and buy something, but there were plenty of opportunities. I think I must have passed 30 similar stands.

After that, there was the flohmarkt. While not as big as some flea markets I have been to, this one was decent size. Most of the stalls were selling a variety of Austrian antiques that were fun just to look at. There were a few others with more of a garage sale vibe that would have been great, had I needed any random articles of clothing, etc.

The atmosphere at Naschmarkt was a bit hectic on Saturday morning, but it was also energizing. Lots of people talk about how Vienna can feel sleepy, even with everything going on. There was no time for sleepiness at Naschmarkt. I enjoyed going there just to be part of the bustling crowd and smell all of the spices.

The flea market

The flea market

The crowd!

The crowd!

You may have noticed that I didn’t really buy anything while I was visiting Naschmarkt. The prices at some of the stalls were fairly decent, but I was too caught up in the crowd to stop. For actual food-buying and a more local market, I went to Brunnenmarkt. This one isn’t a tourist market. It’s a local, multi-ethnic market. Here you can buy eggs, meat, vegetables, you name it. While it was still crowded on Saturday morning, I managed to stop at a few stands and snag some good deals, including 1 Euro pita bread.

Lots of fruit and vegetable stands

Lots of fruit and vegetable stands

What I liked about this market was the authentic vibe. You could hear people meeting their neighbors, and it was clear that this was a Saturday tradition for many. My vaguely confused looks might have prevented me from blending in completely, but I still felt in touch with local culture. Like I was one step closer to being someone who has a full-time life in Vienna, not just someone who is passing through.

As the sun peaks out from behind the clouds, it has finally begun to look like Spring. And in Vienna this means it is time for the Schönbrunn Ostermarkt! Since this is a seasonal market, it is a special occasion for everyone. My friend Lucie and I went Saturday afternoon (because Saturday is market day, if you couldn’t tell). Part of the area in front of Schönbrunn palace had been filled with booths selling snacks, crafts, and other artesian delights. It was decorated with giant Easter eggs filled with real flowers. For the kids, there were games and a guy in a chicken suit walking around. As we explored the market, we passed a pretzel stand selling the most delicious looking pretzels.P1090454 P1090460 P1090461

Pretzel stand!

Pretzel stand!

Yum!

Yum!

 The Ostermarkt was an entirely different kind of market, but exceptionally fun. I especially enjoyed the beautiful setting and decorations. And I think it added some Spring freshness to my market repertoire.P1090455 P1090454

For me, shopping at the market isn’t about the practical aspects or the goods being sold. Every market I visit is a new experience. That’s what it is really about, the atmosphere, the people, the smells, just going to have a good time. And I always have a fantastic time. Everyone who told me that I had to check out Vienna’s markets was absolutely right.

Paris Travel Tips for Students

I know I haven’t been posting on this blog as much, but that is because I’ve moved! Both in real life and on the internet. I’m spending this semester in Vienna, Austria, and writing about my adventures over at michellespostcards.blogspot.com. I am going to do my best to still post some things here, but you should check out that blog for more regular updates!

A few weeks ago, I took a quick weekend trip to Paris. The trip was amazing, seeing some of the remarkable sites in the City of Lights. While I was there, I picked up a few tips for other students who might want to see the city as well.

  • Download the RATP app. It is the official Paris metro app, and it works offline. While not a substitute for a paper map, this app is great for getting around on the metro. You definitely want to take the metro places.

    Paris metro map

    My very-used metro map.

  • While you are at it, check out HERE, my favorite new app. It lets you download country/area maps to use for step-by-step navigation completely offline. Super user-friendly, and the only thing keeping me from getting hopelessly lost.
  • Because you have a very secure way to carry your belongings around, you should bring your passport with your visa, or your resident card. Some places have free admission if you are a long-term resident of the EU and under 25. I know you need it for the Musee d’Orsay and to get to the top of Notre Dame for sure.

    Notre Dame

    The view from Notre Dame is worth the stair climb.

  • Wifi can be hard to find. If you see an unlocked network called “FreeWifi,” don’t connect to it. Free is a phone company, and you need a login to connect to their network. Some of the attractions, like the Arc de Triomphe and the Musee d’Orsay have wifi, but others, like the Eiffel Tower only let you connect to the app store. Check cafes for a sign on the door, public parks, and McDonalds if you are desperate for an internet connection.

Check out some of the awesome free things to do in Paris if you’re looking to stay on a budget. And who isn’t?

  • See the stunning view atop the hill of Sacre’-CoeurParis view
  • Visit Notre Dame’s famous rose windowsRose window
  • Learn about the city’s history and see some art at the Musée CarnavaletP1080906
  • Meet Victor Hugo at his old apartmentP1080916

Plus lots of other, cool activities. Especially if the weather is nice. Check out a great list here.

Hopefully these tips help you get the most out of every moment you get to spend in beautiful Paris!