OBSERVATIONS FROM THE SADDLE OF BIKE 2019 (Continued)
Please note that this post and the ones following, which document our continuing travels in our Odyssey #6, are being posted well after the event. Further posts will follow our journeys to Brno and Bratislava, our ride back to Switzerland through Austria and Germany along the Danube and a trip to picturesque Colmar in France. A lot has happened since 2019, namely the Coronavirus pandemic, the war in the Ukraine and the resultant cost of travel to foreign shores. Our Observations from the Saddle of a Bike 2019 might well be our last visit to Europe.
RETURN TO VIENNA PART 1
Following our trip to the Morteratsch Glacier we returned to Zurich. After a few days in Zurich we thought we needed to get into a less expensive country and one of the closest low cost countries to Switzerland was the Czech Republic. There we had a number of options: pick up the Iron Curtain Trail (Eurovelo 13) and ride towards Warsaw in Poland or take the Amber Route (Eurovelo 9) to the Baltic Sea. The cost of living in the Czech Republic is around 65% less than Switzerland, an attractive proposition for the budget-conscious backpacking cyclist.
THE AMBER TRAIL. The word ‘amber’ comes from the Arabic word ‘ambar’ meaning ‘jewel’; also from old French ‘ambre’ meaning ‘amber-coloured’.
The Amber Route, Eurovelo 9, follows the way that amber traders in ancient times travelled south from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea. Deposits of fossilised amber from ancient conifer trees existed along the shores of the Baltic Sea and it was from there that the ancient caravans shipped it south to various Mediterranean destinations. The cycle route from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic Sea in the south is 2050 kilometres.
In many respects, it is a miracle that amber fossils exist. Trees excreted resin in which insects became trapped and suffocated. If the resin landed on a dry forest floor it disintegrated. If, however, it fell into an oxygen-starved environment then, with the passage of time and pressure, it became a polymer and it is these polymers that we know as amber.
Regardless of which option we took, we needed to go via Vienna and seeing that we hadn’t been there since 1972 we thought a revisit would be a trip down memory lane. It cannot be said Vienna looms large when entering it by train. The city does not have shimmering mountains as a backdrop. All one sees is an endless tangle of railway lines and overhead power lines. The train from Zurich to Vienna was an express and what I found amusing about the train was the inboard toilet. As the reader knows, I am interested in such necessary houses and I found the wall decorations in the train loos very creative.
It was dark when we emerged from the station and knowing which way to go to find our lodgings was a challenge. However, Bev’s expertise came to the fore and with the aid of her phone and a young direction-savvy Viennese man we were soon standing at the front door of an apartment armed with unfortunately an inactive entrance code. Because we crossed from Switzerland, Bev’s phone was not connected to an Austrian provider, therefore she was finding it difficult connecting to the mobile number shown outside the door. Time was getting on, Bev was trying not to panic and I was thinking of an alternate plan. Eventually, through garbled phone calls, the host arrived and we were directed to our room. Needless to say, we found the bed very comforting after an exhaustive entrance to Vienna.
Bev and I first visited Vienna in 1972. We drove in from the west in our VW Beetle en route to Baghdad in Iraq. Baghdad as an end point to our grand 1972 tour was deliberately chosen because when I was a kid (1940-1950s) I read Chums magazines. These magazines were boys‘ reading and detailed stories of adventure and heroism. One story I read, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, stuck in my mind and its highlight was when Ali Baba hears one of forty thieves saying in front of a cave in which a treasure was hidden, ‘Open Sesame’. In the Chums story the action took place in Baghdad.
In latter years I took to reading Agatha Christie mysteries and she wrote a number of crime stories based around Baghdad. Several of her books were written on excavation sites in Iraq and they included The Gate of Baghdad (1933) and They Came to Baghdad (1951). If the reader wants to become informed as to Agatha Christie’s exploits in the Baghdad area, I suggest you read The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames.
Agatha Christie travelled to Baghdad on a number of occasions when visiting the ancient city of Ur. In 1928 she met her future husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, and she accompanied him onto the digs. After reading some of her Baghdad adventures I decided to add it to my 1972 ‘Bucket List’ but unfortunately, due to political troubles, Bev and I never made it to Iraq. We only made it as far as Damascus in Syria.
AND NOW TO VIENNA: My most vivid 1972 memory of Vienna was not the palaces and other public buildings but St Stephens Cathedral and its glazed tile roof. The cathedral towers over Stephansplatz and is hemmed in on all four sides by historic buildings. It is difficult to get a photograph of the entire cathedral, even with the use of a wide-angle lens, so I have therefore borrowed one from the web.
The cathedral is a symbol of historic Vienna and being almost a millennium old it has witnessed catastrophic events that have befallen the city. During WW2 the German Viennese commandant told soldiers to ‘fire one hundred shells at the cathedral and leave it in ashes’. Fortunately, by way of stealth, the order was ignored. Regardless, the cathedral did suffer damage. Fires in nearby houses spread to the cathedral and the fire destroyed the roof causing it to collapse. In 1948, soon after WW2 ended, the cathedral was partially restored and by 1952 restoration was complete.
The roof angle of St Stephens is steeper than most cathedrals, meaning it is self-cleaning when it rains.
All who view the roof of St Stephens agree it is startling. There are 230 000 glazed tiles placed in various patterns. On the south side the tiles have been laid featuring a double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Hapsburgs who ruled Austria for 650 years.
Our accommodation arrangements in Vienna were mixed. At first, we stayed in an apartment and then with a very accommodating Couchsurfing host. The apartment was close to the Naschmarkt (mixed market) and we visited it on a number of occasions, once during a downpour.
The most fascinating stall I found in the market was devoted to tea consumption apparatus (teapots, cups and mugs) and of course, leaf tea.
According to Wikipedia, the tea plant is probably a native of the southwest border region of China. According to legend in 2732 BC Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into a pot of boiling water. He named the coloured water ‘cha’, meaning to check or investigate. After investigating and tasting the coloured brew, he decided it was a refreshing drink and over the years the drinking of tea has spread across multiple cultures. If you had asked me in what country of the world its population drinks the most tea, I would have said China or maybe England but no, it’s Turkey.
A tea plant, if left to grow undisturbed, will reach a height of several metres and live to one thousand years. The scientific name for tea is Camellia sinensis which is the predominant species of tea plant grown these days. The flowers from the tea plant, if dried and infused, produce a tea called ‘flower tea’, which has known properties such as being anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, anti-bacterial and lowering cholesterol. A wonder plant indeed.
When it comes to preparing tea for consumption there has been a long-running debate as to whether to add milk to the cup before the tea. It was believed that adding milk first protected the fine china cups from the shock of boiling water. There is also a suggestion that pouring boiling hot tea into the cup first kills lurking bacteria. Regardless, I feel that tea with milk is the worst drink on the planet and I suppose I am of this opinion because I was brought up on tea without milk. My father was a plumber and he worked for a large company in Sydney. On Saturdays, I would go to work with him and at lunchtime retire to his ‘shack’ (a dilapidated shed where he stored his tools) and have a cup of hot black tea. It is politically incorrect to say ‘black tea’ these days; it is preferable to say ‘tea without milk’.
In my opinion, the best-tasting tea can only be brewed in a billy, usually an old Sunshine powdered milk tin. This leads to a popular term when boiling water for tea, ‘boiling the billy’.
The wire hoop with rags hanging off it (just below the billy) is a fly veil. The hoop was positioned around the rim of the hat and the rags hung down in front of the wearer’s face as a deterrent to the Australian bush fly.
The billy has fared in many songs and poems and a song that comes to mind is: My old black billy, my old black billy; Whether the wind is warm or chilly, I always find when shadows fall, My old black billy’s the best mate of all! Edward Harrington (1895-1966).
In Australia, the billy came to symbolise the spirit of the bush, although now it is regarded as a symbol of a past age.
Tea bags: People might think that the tea bag is a modern invention. This is not the case. It was developed by accident in 1908. A New York tea merchant sent samples of his tea to customers in small silken bags and the recipients thought it was a new way of making tea. After dunking them in boiling water it became the norm.
Some years ago, I studied photojournalism and one of the recommendations when writing was to kill adjectives. This I have attempted to do but in Vienna, it is impossible, especially when confronted with the design work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It is tempting to draw from the dictionary every descriptive adjective to describe his work. The following photographs explain what I mean.
Hundertwasser had an aversion for straight lines and only incorporated them in architectural design when it was absolutely necessary, such as those in window frames and doors. Straight lines to him were ‘godless and immoral, something cowardly drawn with a rule, without feeling’. He called his theory of art ‘transautomatism’ and his work is based on different styles relating to spirals and drops. A drop is a bluntly pointed arch drawn from two centres within a span.
The apartment block in Vienna has undulating floors, as Hundertwasser believed that undulating floors were melody to the feet. The roofs are covered with earth and grass and there are trees growing from inside the rooms with limbs extending from the windows. Hundertwasser took no payment for the design, declaring that it was worth the investment to prevent something ugly from going up in its place.
Hundertwasser was born to a Jewish mother and a German Catholic father and was baptized a Catholic in 1935. Having Jewish heritage meant he needed to keep his head down to avoid coming to the attention of the Nazi regime. Posing as a Christian and to remain inconspicuous he even joined the Hitler youth.
When I first started researching Hundertwasser I thought I would simply make passing reference to the man but the deeper I delved the more I realised I needed to know more to fully appreciate his artistic skills.
Hundertwasser developed his artistic skills early in life. Following the end of WW2, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and soon after commenced travelling extensively and painting anything that caught his eye.
In the early 1950s, he commenced work in the field of applied art creating stamps, posters, coins and flags and his most famous flag was his koru flag. This flag was based on the Koru, an iconic symbol of New Zealand flora.
During the 1950s, Hundertwasser travelled the world promoting ecological causes. In 1959 he helped the Dalai Lama escape from Tibet. Surprisingly, at one time, he decided to banish the flush toilet from his life. He read all there was on the subject of dry toilets and subsequently built a system without a fan.
Hundertwasser was a truly remarkable man and his passing is a loss to us all. He died in 2000 after a heart attack aboard the liner Queen Elizabeth II while travelling from his adopted home in New Zealand to Europe. One reference to him quoted that his trademark was the wearing of odd socks. Perhaps this idiosyncrasy might indicate a number of things: the wearer is not concerned with footwear or perhaps he is too lazy to match socks. I’m not concerned if my socks are odd. I’m preoccupied with thinking about other things and I believe there is also a certain creative freedom about it. I’m sure the latter two theories applied to Hundertwasser as well.
In our travels Bev and I have seen a number of Hundertwasser-designed buildings, however the most impressive is the Spittelau incinerator in Vienna. The original incinerator was built in the 1960s but following a fire in 1987 it needed a major refit and that was a good opportunity to make it something more than just an incinerator. Bev and I rode to the incinerator, which is located in an urban area of Vienna, and were stunned by the design.
The incinerator burns the waste of the city and produces enough energy (heating and warm water) for up to 50 000 Viennese households. The plant produces six major pollutants and all are, according to authorities, within allowable limits. There is an electronic display unit at a nearby set of traffic lights and the data suggests that emission limits are below what is recommended. The display shows carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and dust levels.
The dome indicates that pollutants are being caught and dealt with. The plant incinerates around 270 000 tonnes of waste per year. Waste is delivered by 250 trucks daily with each truck depositing its load into a bunker topped with a garden of densely planted trees. The municipal incinerator is said by some to be the ‘wackiest’ building in town. Bev and I are inclined to agree!
To learn more about this artist, his biography makes fascinating reading. On the website are also images of his colourful artwork.
Along flat surfaces in Vienna, there is much graffiti/street art, some very artistic and some very amateurish.
Other simple graffiti appears in the streets of Vienna.
It is possible to spend days riding around the back streets and commercial areas of Vienna and on one such jaunt we came across the Lobmeyr shop. At the time we didn’t know the significance of the business, we simply thought it an impressive building. The Lobmeyr company deals in fine glasswork, including chandeliers.
The Lobmeyr glassware company was founded in 1823. The company provided chandeliers for many of the prestigious palaces and castles of Europe and the company teamed up with the electric light man, Edison, to produce the first electric chandelier. Chandeliers have been around for many years. Early versions had candles as the light source.
Few people have had experiences with chandeliers; they have perhaps admired them but have not become closely acquainted with them. Bev and I have, and the story is definitely worth relating.
In 1972 when on our grand tour of Europe we stayed in a hotel in Antakya Turkey and upon arrival I asked the receptionist if he could provide us with a nip of whisky each to settle our stomachs. It was unusual for us to drink whisky but my mother said, ‘if you feel nauseous at any time, a nip of whisky does wonders’. The whisky never came until evening mealtime when a Syrian man, uninvited, sat at our table with a bottle of whisky which he quaffed like wine. After various attempts to escape our unwanted visitor, we finally made it to our room. The parasite of a man came soon after we retired and knocked on our door asking to come in to share a cigarette. The light switch for our room was a two-way one with a switch inside as well as outside the door. After our refusal to share anything with him, he began flicking the light on and off. After a time of this annoyance, I decided to take action and remove the light globes from the chandelier hanging in the centre of the room. Removing the light globes meant partly disassembling the chandelier and as I did it, I passed Bev the pieces and she placed them in order on the second bed.
Our room was located on the second floor but I decided to secure the balcony door. When I went out onto the balcony our unwanted visitor was climbing along a narrow ledge towards our room. At some point, he decided not to proceed with his dangerous plan so he turned back and bothered us no more. The next morning when leaving the hotel our ‘friend’ was slumped in a lounge chair, looking very seedy. I never reassembled the chandelier; I left it for someone with more skill than I to effect its reassembly.
In more recent years I have become acquainted with things other than chandeliers, as in spokes in bicycle wheels. The reason I mention this is because there is an historic spoked Ferris wheel in Vienna and because I have re-spoked bicycle wheels anything that involves spokes attracts my attention.
The Vienna Ferris wheel, or the Wiener Riesenrad, was designed by English engineers Hitchins and Booth and constructed by Englishman Walter Bassett in 1897 to celebrate the golden jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef 1 (1830-1916). Franz Josef was the emperor of Austria and the king of Hungary and Croatia.
In the past there have been a number of death-defying stunts performed on the wheel and one I find difficult to believe was in 1914 when a circus director completed a full rotation whilst sitting on a horse. The horse and rider were standing on the roof of one of the cabins. I would definitely have to have seen this feat to believe it. There is an image on the web showing a couple hand in hand standing on the cabin of a Ferris wheel in America but I believe they had a safety harness on. Maybe, in the horse event, the horse was secured on top of the cabin to stop it from moving.
Another death-defying feat was carried out by Marie Kindl in 1898. She hung by her teeth during a rotation to draw attention to the poverty surrounding her in Vienna at the time.
The expression, ‘skin of your teeth’, means you succeeded by a very narrow margin. It is an ancient phrase and appears in the Book of Job, ‘My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I escaped with the skin of my teeth’.
The entrance to the Prater was not very pleasant with fairground music reaching an uncomfortable level. Regardless, we pushed through the sound barrier, as I wanted to see the Prater Tower, a chain carousel.
The operation of the chain carousel is simple enough. The rotating mechanism descends and ascends the main column; the faster the carousel spins the further the passengers extend outwards. No doubt an adrenalin kick. There have been no fatal accidents involving the chain carousel in Vienna other than a drunkard attempting to climb aboard the carousel after it had commenced rotating.
At day’s end, we were done for and decided to have a rest in a secluded part of the park where it was quiet, peaceful and cool. In the park many others were doing the same, all drifting off to the Land of Nod.
It was hot when we were in Vienna and the local authorities provided water sprays under which people could cool off.
The main reason why cities are hotter now is because of climate change. Lesser factors include building materials that reflect the sun’s rays, precipitation run-off into drains rather than being absorbed into the ground that keeps the surroundings cooler, and reduced vegetation which adds to the city getting hotter. Viennese councils, in an attempt to keep residents cool, have set up a series of ‘cool streets’ and residents are encouraged to use outside space as an outdoor living room rather than being cooped up in small non-air-conditioned apartments.
The end of this post has arrived. The next post deals with our ride to Brno in the Czech Republic. Bev and I hope you stay with us as we continue the stories from our 2019 observations from the saddles of our bikes. Place a comment if you wish.