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A Taste of Christmas in Vienna

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There’s no place like home for the holidays, but when home isn’t an option, and you live in a non-celebrating country, like Turkey, you’ve got to find the merry where you can.  My first Christmas in Ankara, I stayed in town and even went to class on the 25th. This year I decided to upgrade my holiday experience with a trip to Vienna and Budapest over the week of Christmas.

For a girl used to Ankara, which I would say is a modernizing city with a Middle-eastern bent, Vienna is a real treat. Even though I laughed when a friend compared it to a wedding cake, now I’d have to agree. The buildings are mostly gleaming white and beautifully decorated. There’s no trash laying about, and few leaves astray. While walking around, especially with the city all lit up for Christmas, I felt like I was in a fairy-tale.

Our first priority was Christmas markets, so we started with the largest at Town Hall. Lights shaped like hearts and snowmen hung from the trees leading to the market. The first booth we hit was the gluwein, hot spiced wine served in a real mug, and perfect for sipping while browsing the booths on a cold misty night.

You can buy all kinds of crafty gifts at the market – here’s a selection of what we saw:

Eventually we abandoned the market for the nearest beer house. Aside from the beer, I wasn’t too excited about the menu and chose what looked most decent, a Bergen sausage, without really knowing what it was. It was a lucky choice. Imagine a pork sausage full of cheese and wrapped in bacon, then cooked – amazeballs!

On Sunday I went to the Hofsburg Palace for a morning of culture.  First stop was mass sung by the Vienna Boys Choir.  The singing was absolutely beautiful, but because the boys are way up in the choir loft, you can’t see them until the end of mass, when they do an encore Hallelujah on the altar, kind of like a photo shoot.  Instead, I spent the mass watching some other guys, who I think are like grown-up choir boys, fooling around on the altar.

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Vienna Boy’s Choir at the Hofsberg Chapel

Between the mass and my next event, seeing the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School, I walked around the palace and enjoyed some more gluwein.  It was pretty misty, but for me it gave the city a nice, Christmasy feel.  In addition to the cleanliness, I loved the beauty of the palace and the statues.  I was surprised to see some Roman ruins right in front of one of the gates – they found them in the 90s!  I think it will be fascinating to revisit all of these sites over my lifetime and see what gets uncovered.

The Spanish Riding School is all about precision and discipline.  I won’t deny that the horses are stunning, and seeing them dance and pirouette was a treat.  However, I guess the American in me was waiting for a little more excitement, like jumping and cowboy-style rodeo tricks.  I should have known to expect an elegant European affair when the horses performed to classical music of Austrian composers and the announcer who explained each school in a crisp, intercontinental English accent.  Luckily I was able to keep myself occupied admiring the beauty of the horses and their riders.  Unfortunately you can’t take pictures during the performances, so here’s a before shot of the hall, and a few pics from the stables.

I spent the rest of the day wandering the city.  Vienna is pretty flat with nice sidewalks, so perfect for walking all day.  As I was getting ready for the evening, the notes of Deck the Halls came through my window.  Although I had to climb onto the windowsill to see it, there was a band walking the street and playing holiday tunes, while stopping in front of the gluwein stalls.  Vienna was perfect for getting into the holiday spirit!

As I was headed to another Christmas market on Sunday night, I stopped by to check out St. Stephen’s and noticed a long line and a guy at the gate.  After a few questions and trying to interpret a sign in German, I learned that there was a holiday concert there in a few minutes.  Feeling it a fortuitous sign, I joined the queue and then got to enjoy the cathedral with the accompaniment of beautiful music.

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