Monday 15 November 2021

QuickLit November 2021

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual. October was not a big reading month for me. One reason was this (sorry for the bad photo - it's from Messenger):

We bought this puzzle, Breughel the Elder's Children's Games, in the Kunsthistoriches museum, Vienna, in August, and I decided that the advent of autumn was a good time to get it out. It took my husband and I about a week, during which we neglected many other things (like reading). I also learned that a mathematician (husband) has a very different attitude towards doing a puzzle than an arts scholar (me). To me, it was about enjoying the emerging picture, to him, solving the problem as soon as possible. And P.S., if you like doing puzzles, I really recommend a puzzle mat.

The original for a better look.

The second reason was I felt unsettled for most of the month. Maybe it was the approach of the season where we tend to cosy up indoors, but I found myself dipping into two home-oriented books on my shelf/Kindle. Marie Kondo's The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up obviously sparks joy because I still have it on my bookshelf - honestly, I love it as a quirky memoir as well as inspiration for tidying. The other was The House Witch by Arin Murphy-Hiscock. It's new-agey, but I'm a little that way inclined myself, so I like contemplating the spiritual aspect of keeping the hearth, even if I no longer have a house with a physical hearth.

The final reason was my choice of audiobook: 

Jean Auer - Clan of the Cave Bear

I've never read this ground-breaking historical fiction from the 80s, but Chirp a dirt cheap deal, so I gave it a go. It took a little while to get into it, partly because the audio narrator did not seem especially suited to the book, and partly because the actual narrator is some sort of omniscient anthropologist, who gives all the technical and scientific details behind the story. But once I was into it, I was hooked. Usually, I have a reading book on the go at the same time, but I just couldn't think of anything that really complemented reading such a different book for me, so I stuck with this - over 22 hours of audio.

It tells the story of a Cro- Magnon girl, Ayla, rescued after an earthquake by a Neanderthal clan and adopted by their medicine woman and her shamen brother. Although loved by her adoptive family, she is always the outsider, her very DNA making her think and act differently than her new misogyistic tribe, and hated in particular by the clan leader's son. Through her we trace the final struggle taking place between these two branches of humankind. Interestingly, I've seen it described as a precursor to YA dystopias like The Hunger Games.

So there we go. Anyone else ever had the problem of not being able to pair a book and audio book? Are the others in the Clan of the Cave Bear series (Earth's Children) worth reading?

Friday 5 November 2021

Vienna: There be dragons

 Resisting the urge to title this "Oh, Vienna" or "Waltzing through Vienna"

St Stephen's Cathedral

Only the adventurous make international travel plans in 2021. Well, OK, going over the open border to Austria, the stakes were pretty low. There was one thing we were gambling on, though: that the rule stating that over-6s needed to have a negative test to visit many venues in Vienna, would be dropped for the school holiday period. It was not, but we vaccinated adults didn't let our son's discomfort get in the way of a family holiday.

To be honest, I have overlooked Austria as a travel destination, as it never really sparked interest. Somehow, it did not click with me that VIENNA WAS THE CAPITAL OF THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE, even though I spent a lot of time studying said dynasty in school. But about ten minutes of internet research got me really excited about visiting.

We stayed in our usual sort of shabby-chic city apartment close to happenings in town - across the road from the underground and trams, and a few stops into the main tourist area. Also, literally next door to a Covid rapid testing centre.

I'm not going to comment too much on coronavirus restrictions, because hopefully you will read this in happier times, but, for reference, the Viennese were far more (although not universally) strict about checking our "papers" as our eldest termed it, compared to attitudes here in Slovenia. Rules for private attractions were also, strangely, stricter than for public ones. 

This was a short visit, and we chose a destination for each morning and afternoon of our full days there (Tue-Thu). I think in retrospect, we should have had at least an afternoon or morning to stroll or hang out in a park. To be honest, I'd been hoping our hyper-organised eldest child was going to produce a holiday spreadsheet for us, but she got busy, so we only got about 3/4 planned. Anyway, as opposed to a blow-by-blow account of each day, here are the highlights of our itinerary, in order.

Aquarium (Haus des Meeres)

(Don't ask me how to pronounce any of these names. I steadfastly refused to even think about it because I still have so much trouble with Slovenian.)

The aquarium was first on the list, partly to console the six year-old for having a stick shoved up his nose. It's built inside an old flak (anti-aircraft) tower, a pretty ingenious interpretation of "swords into ploughshares". This means twelve floors of exhibits, plus some amazing views of the city on the way up. Defintitely worth the price. The main draw for us were the Komodo dragons (on the 9th floor) and the gila ("heela") monsters, but we saw some pretty cool exhibits on the way up. On several floors, they have tubing going around the walls in which you can watch a colony of leafcutter ants going about their work. There were also some of the biggest anacondas I have seen, thankfully looking like they had just been fed. The open monkey enclosure was pretty exciting - you get to walk bridges and climb among monkeys, birds, and fruit bats! - I love bats! Only one phone got pooped on by our flying friends. Going one up on fish petting, they also had a tank full of doctor fish, where you could stick in your hand for a fishy manicure. We thought that was so cool that when we got back home, we went to a fish spa in nearby Piran and all got pedicures.

Why are you all lined up, taking my photo?

Saint Stephen's Cathedral

Like Milan's cathedral (so maybe there is a trend going), you could only access part of the cathedral as a tourist unless you paid or were attending a service. We had not planned for that, and would have had to wait too long for the option that interested us - a trip to the vaults - so we opted to leave and visit the  Imperial Crypt instead. On departing, I could not help but reflect that the cathedral now stands smack in the middle of Vienna's upmarket shopping area.

Imperial Crypt (Kapuzinergruft)

If you are a history buff, or like contemplating how "the paths of glory lead but to the grave", this is for you. Row upon row of ornate sarchophagi housing the remains of four centuries of emperors and empresses. Maria Theresa, of course, has one three times as big as all the others (she made sure of that before she died). They are apparently guarded by Capuchin monks, so we were a little disappointed not so see robed, hooded security here. Also, for lovers of history or old films, there is the tomb of Crown Prince Rudolf - remember Mayerling with Omar Shariff? Rudolf and his young mistress were found dead at Mayerling in an apparent suicide pact (the truth is still a mystery). The line of succession had to change to his uncle, father of the fated Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination launched the First World War. Also, there are enough skulls, skeletons and weapons decorating the sarchophagi to keep a small boy relatively interested, but only with the promise of cake to follow...

The rewards for Covid testing and boring crypt visits

Demel cafe

We went for one touristy experience that we knew might be overpriced: Vienna's eighteenth century cafe, and one of the places that lays claim to the invention of the sachertorte. Even in these times of Covid, there was a queue, but not long enough for total rebellion on the part of the small and hungry (i.e. all of us). As a bigger party, we were lucky enough to get a seat inside to enjoy the decor and see the bakers at work, when most people were being funnelled to the smaller outside tables. The drinks and food (including sachertorte, of course) were tasty - but served with plastic strips around the slices of cake, which rather detracted from the elegance. Also, the service experience was not as advertised online, and they make you pay at the till so that you have to walk through their shop. Call me snobbish, but it's exactly the same as has happened with Fortnum and Mason - now a parody of itself. But we are still glad we tried it. (Website.)

The Natural History Museum

On a par with London (not quite as big, and not multiple shops to strip you of money as you walk around). It has an animatronic allosaurus to scare and delight your little ones, part of a good dinosaur collection. The gemstone and mineral and the early human exhibits were pretty notable, too - who doesn't like staring at huge lumps of gold and shiny things, or human skulls? But we were dubious about having to walk through several rooms devoted to reducing waste. Middle child and I also spent time in veneration of the Venus of Willendorf. However, by this day two, Alcuin had cottonned on to the fact that he was getting lots of treats as compensation for having to be tested, so he started pushing to get to the gift shop pretty early in. It took some persuasion to prolong his education and make for the loot, but even we had to agree that we didn't have the stamina to see the entire upper floor. In his defence, most of us also bought stuff (yes, I have a mini Venus of Willendorf on my bookshelf now). And his (directed) choice of a tube of dinosaurs made for fun for the whole trip, and many a prehistoric battle across restaurant tables. (Website.)

Imperial Treasury (Kaiserliche Scahatzammer)

Not top of my list, but on my husband's and eldest's. If you like splendour, then you can ooh and aah at the imperial and ecclesiastical riches of the empire. Or spare a thought for the work that went into all that embroidery. We also spent a lot of time pointing out ceremonial weapons and reliquaries (body parts keep kids interested) - especially fun were the ones that were 'coded' with the saint's method of martyrdom. I was going to say that we escaped the gift shop, but then I remembered the red feather pen... (Website.)

Spanish Riding School

No, not even in Covid times, did we manage to get affordable tickets to an actual performance, but went for the popular and much cheaper morning training session (1 hour). The riders are still in costume, and you get commentary, so it's worth it. So was the chance to sit down after two days of walking. It did not occupy our youngest as much as we thought it would, but at least he didn't realise there was a gift shop. When you book tickets, be aware that the seating plan makes it look like it is all tiered, whereas the upper rows are in a balcony, so you don't get a 100% view of the arena (though close). And remember, the original stud farm is here in Slovenia, in Lipica, and well worth a visit.

Any by the way, if you're wondering why my descriptions are flagging as I go on, it's reflective of the fact we were wearing ourselves out, plus the memories are starting to blur.

Upper Belvedere

There are three museums in the Belvedere complex, two of which are part of a former palace complex, and the other is a Modernist building (the Lower Belvedere is currently shut for renovation).  We opted for the Upper Belvedere because of course you have to see the Klimt collection, even if The Kiss is ubiquitous. We arrived by tram, and enjoyed the tour of the city (OK, Alcuin complained a lot because he wanted to ride the underground - he'd evolved some ritual about the journey). There was almost a crisis when the children's activity material we promised turned out not to exist, but an audio guide saved the day, combining art and maths.  I admit to liking Klimt's Cottage Garden with Sunflowers best of the paintings on display. And of course, the museum houses (one of several copies of) Napoleon on his rearing horse.  Somehow we managed to persuade Alcuin to share a gift of Klimt origami paper with a sibling. I admit to a Cottage Garden with Sunflowers notebook just because. Fun and freedom afterwards running up and down the terraced Castle gardens.

Kunthistoriches Museum

This is the equivalent of the British Museum. It was the last morning, and we probably pushed ourselves too much, trying to do one last thing instead of heading home. But it was also Ted's birthday, so he got in free (and got a discount in the shop). Also, hurrah for a free children's audio guide. Sadly, a lot of the ancient civilisation exhibits that we wanted to see were closed for renovation. I went for the Breugel the Elder paintings, though, and was not disappointed. However, after about an hour we met in an exhausted heap on a bench, ready to go. We used the shop discount on a Breugal puzzle, which looks hard enough to tax our failing eyesight in the winter evenings. Update - I took so long to write this post that we did the puzzle - it took about a week of neglecting other tasks.

Somehow, we forgot to visit the Butterfly House, which was on our initial to-do list. Still, I expect we'll be back, though Salzburg is the next Austrian city on our list.

I thought I'd round up with favourites and tips from the family, since we're multi-generational. 

Me. Favourite: for intellectual satisfaction, the Venus of Willendorf and Breugel, but I have to admit that the aquarium was really fun. Tip: take time to hang out, even if you think you want to see it all.

Ted. Favourite: Dragons and monsters (Komodo and Gila). Tip: Be aware that Google Maps will not show you all the parking garages, and there is some cheap parking (see below); also, consider the Museums Card if you intend to visit a lot of them.

Eldest (20s). Favourite: Klimt collection in the Upper Belvedere. Tip: take the underground (subway)

Middle (teen). Favourite: Venus of Willendorf. Tip: have some basic German phrases, e.g. entrance, exit, train station, "May I have..."

Youngest (6). Favourite: Komodo dragon, of course, plus almost limitless loot. Tip: I'm guessing he'd say, milk parental guilt for all it's worth.

Our experience was that the main tourist areas were still quite busy, but step just a street or two away, and it was almost deserted. I recommend bringing a young adult who is used to negotiating maps and transport online - we just followed her around, and got on and off trains and trams as commanded.

Touristy stuff - I don't have specific recommendations, because there are lots of options depending on what you want to do, so I'd suggest making a list and then seeing what transport and sight-seeing offers are best for you. The sorts of deals offered include state museums, combined transport and sights, or transport. This site compares the current types of city cards. We scored big on a special discount for a federal museums card - only 19 euros instead of the usual 59 - you can buy that online or at the first museum you visit. We bought separate one-week travel cards for the adults (children of school age are free in the summer holidays). They were easy to purchase at the underground station (several language options at the kiosk). The public transport system was very good - easy to negotiate and with frequent trains and trams. I don't know how crowded it would have been in a normal summer, though.

Randomly, this was on the wall of one of the bedrooms. No nightmares were reported.

This was our AirBnb. For city breaks, we go for cheap and convenient over some penthouse experience, so we tend to end up in older apartments in more residential areas, which suits us perfectly. This was opposite a shopping centre/indoor market (which had a covered car park that was about half the price we normally pay for city parking in Europe), next to transport (as I said above) and with lots of restaurants close by. The apartment had three bedrooms and plenty of space for us. This is the city, though - you might want earplugs if you don't go to bed late, and are used to silence at night. We would stay there again.