I am 75 years old and a retired book professional with nearly forty years of book selling for publishers, as a retailer and for a book wholesaler. Most recently, I have been a volunteer at a regional writers’ association and written book reviews.
My wife and I completed a two week visit to five cities in Europe– Prague, Vienna, Venice, Florence and Rome. The trip was based primarily on books that I read from 2006 to 2016. Here are the books that influenced our choice of meals, hotels and sights/sites. All of the hotels, restaurants and most of the sightseeing that I write about I have reviewed for TripAdvisor.com (you can look them up).
Steve Berry continues to be one of the most prolific writers of the genre I call “Archaeological Thrillers” These are stories that have a history element and a modern day adventure. Mr. Berry has written many novels featuring Cotton Malone a retired spook (spy) for the Department of Justice. In retirement, Malone lives in Copenhagen, Denmark where he owns an antiquarian bookstore. In The Columbus Affair, Malone is not a major part of the story. Instead a disgraced, award winning newspaper reporter is featured. He uncovers a story related to Christopher Columbus. Yes, that Columbus. His journey of discovery takes him to both Prague and Vienna as well as Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea.
Graham Greene wrote the movie “The Third Man” based on a novella he wrote as an outline for the movie. The movie and the novella differ on several points, most importantly, the ending. There is a Third Man Museum in Vienna that is well worth going to see (see below under Sites and Sights). The main protagonist is an American writer of pulp Westerns who goes to Vienna to visit a friend, Harry Lime. He finds out that Lime is dead (or is he?) and the adventures begin.
Phillip Kerr is an award winning, bestselling, British author who has written a historical mystery series featuring Bernie Gunther. There are a dozen books in this series. Gunther is a German policeman/investigator. The time period for the stories runs from the early 1930s to the mid-1950s. In Field Gray, number seven in the series, Bernie is in Cuba but he has flashbacks to 1933, 1940/41, the post-WWII years and the present (1950s). Throughout the series, Bernie travels to many places including Prague (see the section under Prague below) and Vienna. While in Vienna, Bernie visits a café on Dorotheergasse. While checking on that café in TripAdvisor, I came across the Jewish Museum (see below). I never did find the café, but the Museum was an even better discovery. The books contain a great deal of history on the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Real people and real stories abound. The books are fast-paced. I recommend them first for history buffs and then fans of mysteries.
David Downing is another British author who spent a few years living in the United States. He now spends time in France as well. His protagonist in six “Station” spy thrillers is John Russell. Russell is an Anglo-American journalist who lives in Berlin before, during and after WWII. In the course of the books, Russell travels from Berlin to both Vienna and Prague. At times, he works for the German Gestapo, British MI-6, Russian KGB and the United States’ OSS. Sometimes all four at the same time. And he is paid by all four as well as for his newspaper and magazine stories. He has an ex-wife, a teenage son and a lady friend. The books provide an intimate look into what it was like living in Europe in the pre-war, war and post-war years. Really scary stuff.
SITES and SIGHTS
We went to Vienna because my wife’s father was born there in 1905. He and his family left during and just after The Great War (World War One) and settled in New York City. He used to tell us about a Giant Ferris Wheel in Vienna that was in his neighborhood. Fortunately for us, it is still operational in Prater Park. We rode that Ferris wheel in his honor and memory. It is also seen in the movie “The Third Man” (see more under Graham Greene above). The following photo gives the dimensions of the Giant Ferris Wheel in Prater Park.
Our hotel was not located in area with lots of hotels but it is only 5 minute walk to the Red Line subway stop Nestroyvplatz from which it is one stop to the Praterstern station and the Prater Park/Ferris Wheel. Going the other way it is two stops to St. Stephen’s Cathedral and one more to the Opera House. A small museum well worth the effort to find is The Third Man Museum, Pressgasse 25, 1040 Vienna. It can be reached by the subway (Metro, Underground) system from St. Stephan’s Platz. My recollection is that it was only one or two stops.
The Jewish Museum has two locations – the aforementioned Dorotheergasse 11 and Judenplatz 8. The subway stop for St. Stephan’s is a convenient starting point for the two. The former is a newer and larger facility with a decent kosher café in the building. The latter is a 15 minute walk through narrow alleys and Vienna’s pedestrian-only, premier shopping district. It is okay to be distracted by the premier shops. This museum sits over an archaeological dig that goes back to the original 13th century site of Vienna’s first synagogue. It also houses a Jewish genealogical office, the Jewish Archive.
EAT, STAY and TRANSPORT
We stayed at the Austria Classic Hotel Wien, Praterstrasse 72, Vienna 1020 AT, Phone: +431211300, from which you can see the Ferris wheel clearly. The hotel has been owned by the same family since 1837. The room was about $100 per night (100 euros). Of the five hotels at which we stayed, this had the best buffet breakfast (included in the room price). The front desk arranged for taxis when we needed them. They also recommended dining options in the neighborhood. A laundry service was available.
Just behind the Opera House is the Hotel Sacher, Café Sacher Wien, Philharmonikerstrasse 4, A-1010, which gave its name to the Sacher Torte, a chocolate cake not to be missed (bucket list item). Another traditional Vienna dessert is Kaiserschmarren that we had at Nestroy Gasthaus (see below). It is a thick, large, diced pancake with powdered sugar sprinkled on top and served with jam. It was created by a royal chef 200 years ago. Not for dieters. For a main course try Wiener schnitzel (veal). But be forewarned, the portions are usually huge, completely covering a 10-inch dinner plate.
We dined twice at neighborhood bistros not far from our hotel– Gasthaus Hansy, Heinestrasse 42 and Nestroy Gasthaus, Weintraubengasse 7. Both were excellent and affordable. The former was across the street from the hotel. The latter was a short walk and off Praterstrasse.
In front of the Opera House, you can catch a tram (trolley) to go one stop to the Museum District. There you can find the Treasury Museum. In the Treasury you will see, among the many artifacts, the tip of The Holy Lance (sometimes called The Spear of Destiny). It is supposedly the Spear tip that pierced Christ’s body on the Crucifix some 2,000 years ago. It was also the tip of the spear that Charlemagne carried into battle in the 8th and 9th Centuries. It was on the lance that carried his Battle Flag. Napoleon and Hitler both stole the device because of the supernatural powers it was supposed to bestow on its owner. We know what happened to them! It was returned to Vienna after both thefts. Recent experiments on the Spearhead can only accurately trace it back to the 6th or 7th Centuries. The following photo is all that remains of The Holy Lance/Spear of Destiny in Vienna.
Our last night in Vienna we really splurged. We dined at Schonbrunn Palace, Café Restaurant Residenze, Schoenbrunner Strasse 244 followed by a concert in the Palace. The concert included music by Mozart, Haydn and Strauss, two dancers from the State Ballet and two singers from the State Opera. The finale was one of my Bucket List entries– rhythmic clapping to Radetzky’s March. Go if you can. The cost was about US$165.00 (150 Euros) for two, including a three course dinner and the concert. A night to remember. We took taxis both ways and the cost was US$10 each way plus gratuity. It took about 30 minutes at rush hour. The Vienna Symphony gives a free spring concert at the Palace in May. It is usually attended by 100,000 people. Our PBS TV station shows it every year around September.
Using public transportation such as the subway (Underground, Metro) and trolleys (trams) is inexpensive and convenient. We took a train from Vienna to Venice, about 8 hours with a change in Innsbruck. We did not book a first class ticket. BIG MISTAKE! Spend the extra bucks to make yourself more comfortable because it is a long trip. The ride took us through Brenner Pass and the Swiss/Italian Alps. This is a spectacular ride. David Downing’s John Russell made a similar trip while looking for a way to get Jewish refugees out of Germany.