Monday, August 9, 2010

Pelican Brief at Meiringen Switzerland

This tale is about the over sized pelican (I hope it is a Pelican) that stays in my house. It is also about an off the edge adventure but above all a sweet little story from life. The pelican is funny and it sits in my drawing room, making every visitor laugh and scaring a few. This is the story of how this bird found her way from the Bernese Alpine meadows of Switzerland into my house.

We would have to go back in time and give the credit of this to the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In his story ‘The Final Problem,’ Conan Doyle decided to eliminate his detective and Holmes’ arch rival Professor Moriarty in a deadly duel where they finally meet atop the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland and while engaged in hand to hand combat both slip from a ledge and hurtle to their death. This, as Doyle had decided, would be Sherlock Holmes’ last story. But public outcry from all over the world forced him to resurrect Holmes from the dead soon. But while doing so, the sleepy locale of Reichenbach Falls; the little township of Meiringen in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland became an overnight hunting ground for all Sherlock Holmes fans.

I am or used to be a die-hard Sherlock fan. I could actually recite lines from all of his 56 short stories and four novels though could not remember any of my subjects in school. Well, I can’t do that anymore and I don’t delve in Sherlock memorabilia now but I do still read the master detective’s exploits. Therefore, on my first self-financed trip to Switzerland when I wrote down my wish list of things to do; a trip to Meiringen was high on priority. Visiting the place seemed easy since it involved only a slight detour to reach my top favourite part of Switzerland; the Aletsch Glacier that is home to such mountains like Monch, Jungfrau and the dreaded Eiger.

From Bern I took a train to Interlaken and after a day of walking along the shores of Lake Thunersee, which so often gets overshadowed by other Swiss lakes, boarded the tiny train running on narrow gauge between Interlaken and Meiringen. It’s pointless trying to capture the passing scenery as every aspect of nature in Switzerland is a delight to experience. Soon enough I get off at Meiringen station and feel excited to be in the proximity to the place where Sherlock Holmes fell to his death (almost). Spectacular scenery and rising mountains in the background is sure to raise your pulses in Meiringen but then I have seen such vista many times; Sherlock Holmes made all the difference.

From the station I take a lift to the town centre. Meiringen is a small sleepy township of nearly 4000 people engaged mostly in farming or tourism industry. It has large tracts of open ground outside the housing complexes with the backdrop of a fabulous mountain massif and located amidst a quiet verdant valley. Though not strongly on regular Swiss tourist circuits, the town gets many visitors from the continent and neighbouring countries of France and Germany, not to mention Sherlock fans from all over the world. The sloped roof houses, typical of Swiss design are spotless and picture perfect and so are the lush forests and streams running everywhere. The town’s other claim to fame being the place where Meringue was invented. Though debatable, I find the thought comforting. Of all its variants and applications, Baked Alaska is my top favourite.

Finding the Holmes museum is easy as there are large conspicuous sign boards and markers right from the station urging the visitor to reach the place. I reach the Conan Doyle square and stand outside the old deconsecrated church that now holds the museum in its basement. The great sleuth in a statue form sits atop a platform on the garden outside puffing his famous pipe and looking thought full as ever. I feel his presence though I know he never existed in mortal flesh; such is the power of Doyle’s writing and collective belief in cult following. The museum holds the usual Holmes memorabilia of hats and pipes, books, magnifying glass, life sized figures, etc similar to the ones in the London museum at 221 B Baker Street. I soon leave the museum and follow the signs towards the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls.

I cross the magnificent River Aare, which at Meiringen enters a spectacular gorge and winds its way further north. Reichenbach Falls water too joins this river. I take a customary toe-dip into the river and gulp its ice cold water for the record.

Reichenbachfall-Bahn funicular railway (cable railway) takes visitors up to the platform high up along the waterfall from where they can see the exact spot from where the pair had allegedly fallen. I avoid the railway and opt to walk up the steps next to it all the way to the top. As I emerge out at the top of the cable track, I find a Sherlock Holmes cut-out (with the face left missing for visitor’s to place their heads and take pictures) near the ledge along the thundering waterfall. From my vantage point I am awestruck by the five distinct cascades of the waterfall as it drops through nearly 250 m and is mainly divided into the upper and lower waterfalls. The upper falls with a continuous drop of 100 m is among the highest in the Alps and the sound of the impact with the bottom is deafening. The air is filled with atomized water spray. The actual ledge from where they supposedly fell is on the other side of the falls; and I climb the path carefully to the top of the falls, crossing the bridge above and follow the trail down the hill to the point where the ledge ends. A plaque marks the ledge and I read the English inscription: At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty on 4 May 1891.

And then, out of nowhere, the quiet noon turns into a nightmare and a game of life and death; a game I am acutely familiar with.

As I take out my camera to get a shot of the plaque, a shrill cry of help in German and English tears the still beauty of the place. Though I can discern the languages I can’t make out what is exactly being said, other than ‘help, please help.’ The voice comes from my right and little below. I find a narrow path leading away from the ledge into the woods below me. I trot down the slippery path and soon take a turn and come across a scene straight out of a Hollywood thriller, only exception being that this is in real. I find a woman and a young boy, totally distraught, looking down over the steep drop from the narrow path and shouting for help. They are crying their hearts out. Seeing me appear out of nowhere, the lady rushes to meet me. She drags me by my hand while saying something totally incoherent, and brings me to the spot where the young boy is looking down with tear laden fearful eyes. I go to the edge and look down and what I see sends a shiver up my spine.

Narrow ledges, straight walls, vertical drops and death are all my friends and part of my vertical world. They don’t scare me or deter me from doing what I love doing; which is to often hang out from such places by choice with my similarly inclined friends or alone. But what I see here is something I wish I never had to see. A little girl, no more than five or six, is clinging or rather hanging from a tiny little ledge and a branch of a tree, between which she has got stuck, around 30 feet from where I stand. She is badly injured; bleeds from her head and seems unconscious. She is wearing full sleeve jumpers so I can’t see any other body injuries. The slope from the edge of the path where we are, down to the girl is nearly devoid of any holds and is more than 70 degree incline, and it becomes totally rocky and smooth and vertical just below the place where she is stuck. There is a drop of several 100 feet below her. It’s a miracle that she got stuck between the ledge and the tiny branch and they both could give way any moment.

To attempt reaching her unaided and free one had to be either a suicidal fool (since it’s certain to kill the person and the girl) or the finest rock climber in the world; and I am neither, far from it. I don’t have a rope or my rock climbing shoes (even with them I wouldn’t attempt such a steep and exposed face) or any of the self-anchor or arrest gear. There’s no way am I capable of down-climbing the slope to reach the girl and get her back all the way up. One slip and I would hurtle to my death. The girl is severely injured and might die of exposure and blood loss shortly and we have no time to lose but to attempt to rescue her with my limited resources and climbing skills for such terrains seemed out of question.

My brain takes less than a minute to run through and weigh all possible options and rules out each one as impossible. The girl is doomed and so is anyone who tries to save her. I have never felt this helpless before. The mother and her brother look at me as their only hope and I look up to God for a miracle. I am not scared of death but this is futile, even if I do make an attempt I will not survive. And I realize I am not ready to die, not here, not today, not while doing something so futile and I feel for the first time my inadequacy to climb like Spiderman on sheer rock faces. Precious minutes evaporate and the girl seems destine to die either way. The mother too has now realized that I would not be able to save her daughter and she collapses on the ground, filling up the forest with her anguished cry. I feel worthless. Barely few minutes have passed since I arrive on the scene.

Out of desperation I up turn my rucksack and rummage through whatever I have and discover one 12 inch stitched sling and my Swiss knife. I am not carrying anything else at all that could be used as a rope or for anchor. My mind conjures up all the impossible climbs I have done or seen all my life and all the possible uses of these two pieces of equipment I now have and what I have done with them earlier, running all possible scenarios, trying to find a way that could save the girl and I, since by now I had made up my mind that come what may, if I didn’t attempt to rescue the girl, her face is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.

I have always wanted to die buried deep inside some high Himalayan Glacier where no one would ever find my body; if I died here, my heart said, my body would at least be within the vicinity of glaciers. And then I remembered that there’s a trekking trail that passes by the top of the falls, that was around 150 ft above us, which is frequented by serious trekkers and they are sure to carry ropes. Now if I could reach the girl by some means and then anchor myself to the tiny ledge with the sling and hold on till a trekker came along with a rope then we both would survive. While if a trekker did not arrive then we both die; as simple as that. But where we are is totally hidden from the trekking trail and no one would come by; well no one has since I have arrived, so the young boy had to go up to the trail, find someone with a rope and return before we fall. I explain my plan to the young boy, who nods his head and runs off and soon disappears into the jungle.

I lie on my stomach and stare down the smooth face of rock and mud and feel my heart thumping against my ribs and my stomach coiling inside my abdomen. My head swims in a tizzy. Proximity to death, especially when it is planned and out of one’s own choice, clears your sensory perceptions and vision like never before. I can now distinguish every fissure and undulation on the slope and see that there’s barely any large enough to put the very tip of my toe. There are large patches without any hold where I would simply have to use my full body friction to reduce gravitational pull to minimum and no way can I allow my body to slide out of control; if that happens then I won’t be able to arrest my fall and I would plunge to death for certain.

I coil the thin arrester rope of my Swiss knife around my right wrist and grip the blade straight like an ice axe. As the mother silently watches me, now in an incomprehensible manner (her mind must have stopped working), I lower myself over the edge, inch by inch right above the girl. I look down and place my right toe on a tiny rocky knob. There’s no place for my left toe and it hangs in empty air. There’s a root right on the edge that I grip for my life and lower the full extent of my body down and over the edge. I can feel the vast gaping emptiness beneath me as gravity begins to pull me down. I am glad that I am five kilos underweight and in peak physical condition. I plunge the knife at right angles into a fissure like a piton and finally let go of the root with my left.

I find a thin runnel and insert my left hand fingers to make a fist jam and the sharp edges immediately cut my skin like razor. Now I am safely anchored on three points. I lower my body looking down, trying not to look beyond the girl, and find a foot placement for my left toe and let go of my right hand. It is amazing how human body and mind work once you accept that death is inevitable and take the thought of your demise completely out of your constitution. Mind calms down, heartbeat normalizes and your stomach feels less squishy.

I know I will die within the next few minutes if not sooner and there’s no way I can reach back up to safety and I actually begin to enjoy my last few moments on earth. I down climb mechanically, using the moves that are ingrained in my genes through years of routine and practice, purely by reflex even as the strain makes my knee shiver uncontrollably and both my hands bleed profusely. I am covered from head to toe in mud, rock dust and grime, my mouth is dry and throat completely parched and I don’t hear even my mind. The few minutes seem like a lifetime and I find myself with the girl. I rest my weary legs on the tiny ledge and check her pulse. Though faint, she is breathing and alive. There’s an ugly crack on her forehead and the blood is dripping still though some of it has now clotted, reducing the flow. I tie my handkerchief around the cut as tight as I can.

I gingerly put my full weight on the ledge and feel it move, so does the branch that is sprouting out of the sheer wall. I anchor my left arm with the sling to the branch and perch myself as lightly as I can on the ledge and wait for something to happen. There is nothing more that I can do now.

Minutes tick by and I feel the ledge move millimetre by millimetre, emerging out of the wall, due to the combined weight of the girl and I. I have no idea how long would it stay. I hear no sound from above; perhaps the mother has fainted, the brother has not found any trekker; and at worst he might himself have fainted or injured himself somewhere up there and no one was going to arrive for us anyway, now or ever.

Balancing myself like a badly askew trapeze artist on top of the ledge with emptiness below I wait for the inevitable to happen and end the agony for once and all. Funnily enough, as I can recall now, more than the thought of death, what I found more upsetting at the moment was the manner of my death, which by then was a certainty. My death would be treated like that of an ordinary foolish sightseeing tourist who had no knowledge or experience of mountain climbing and to me that was unacceptable.

As I watche the breathtaking valley far below and silently speak to the setting sun, suddenly I hear a lashing sound and something hit me like hammer on my head. My head seems to have cracked open and I feel angry that on top of my present woes now even rock fall wouldn’t spare me for that’s what I thought had hit me. Then something hit my face from the side and I knew that no rock falling vertically from top is capable of such a manoeuvre and I realize through my frozen mind that it is a length of rope dangling next to my face. I don’t think even the sight of any of my girlfriends had ever given me that much of joy and pleasure as that piece of twine. I look up and find two men staring down at me, holding a rope apiece.

The second rope lowers a harness that I quickly strap on to the unconscious girl and clip her safely to the rope and soon she is raised from top. Few minutes later I collapse on top too into the arms of my rescuer. The other fellow and the mother along with the brother have already started off for the road on top. We follow, while my companion tells me that they were hiking towards the waterfall when they met the brother. They have a car at the park 2 km away and they would take us to the Meiringen hospital. Thereafter it becomes a mad rush to get the girl to the hospital, through the twisting mountain road, without killing us all in the process.

I tend to the girl with the first aid kit the two hikers have with them. One is an aspiring Swiss Alpine guide; hence the first aid kit is very well stocked. Had the hospital been far I would have had to stitch up the girl, but now I apply pressure pads and icepack to arrest the flow and clean the gash as much as I can. Miraculously she hasn’t suffered any other major injuries anywhere else on her body. The mother and her brother were hugging each other in a corner silently. Our rescuers had already radioed the hospital and the emergency ward was standing by.

The girl is admitted in the hospital for the night and I am discharged after cleaning of my superficial wounds. The two fellows offer me refuge at their lodge for the night, which I take with utmost relief. We speak of our climbs and treks and guzzle gallons of wine and fill up our stomachs under the alpine sky, listening to the rush of a nearby stream, sitting around a fire and I feel completely at home.

Next morning when I arrive at the hospital, I find the little girl fully awake and having a wholesome breakfast. She looks frail and exhausted for sure but has the brightest smile possible. Her mother gives me a tight hug and refuses to let me go and the hospital staff treats me as a hero and my ears turn red in embarrassment. They had no idea that they are actually hailing a fool and not someone courageous at all. The girl doesn’t speak any English, but she knows who I am and she kisses me on my cheeks and hands me over the pelican as a parting gift. That’s her favourite toy and she never gives it to anyone, the mother explains, please take it and never throw it away. Pass it to your child when you have one.

It’s difficult to tear myself away from the girl, she is angelic and I feel a deep connect to her. For a certain period of time I and she were joined for life and death. Then it’s time for me to catch the bus that would drop me at the top of the mountain. Everyone hugs me and I kiss back the girl and finally leave with a heavy heart. I am sad but I am happy. Life is full of adventures and unexpected happiness. One gets over for another to begin and I had a trail awaiting my steps. The bus drops me at the beginning of the well marked trail that runs through Reichenbachtal Valley and through Grosse Sheidegg would eventually take me to my final destination, Grindelwald where my friends are waiting for me at the youth hostel.

I take a final look at Meiringen, now far below my feet and think of the little girl who would eventually grow up to be a bright young woman soon and I smile at the Pelican now poking its head out of the top flap of my sack. I punch her nose and she seems to say, ‘Ok mate it’s time for us to hit the road again.’

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fine Dine in Wien – Vienna. Part 2

All this mindless rush had brought back the pang of hunger in my growling stomach but Cynthia is not in the mood to listen to such banter. Art and culture is food for the soul, she says, stomach can wait. Perhaps I should postpone my departure by a day or two I muse. My alpine skills and Himalayan endurance being no match to Cynthia’s artistic inclinations, I follow her like a lamb resigned to its fate of being butchered for supper. As we zoom past the eateries I salivate at the tempting sights of food, desserts and those who tucked them in with unabashed gusto. We return to Ring Boulevard, waving past the statue of Athena, still erect, still regal despite several pigeons on its crown, and stop in front of a building that we had passed earlier in the morning. Staatsoper, Wien Opera House, declares Cynthia with the flourish of a conductor. If you had the time I would have treated you to an evening of our Philharmonic Orchestra; Cynthia ruminates sadly. Well, I surely have the inclination, I mumble.

Cynthia parades me through the Italian Renaissance building, keeping up a fine babble about everything in sight, of which I barely grasp the tip. The loggia through which we entered is adorned with a representation of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ and several other operas through the works of Moritz Von Schwind. Eye boggling statues and figurative embellishments within and without the opera look significantly festive and immodestly demonstrative. Overall I like the garden outside as more my type. I hope you are hungry, Cynthia looks at me; I can start eating the grass of the well manicured lawn. My artistic hunger is full to the level of attaining indigestion if I ate any more of these Baroque architecture and opera. Cynthia leads me to a place called Julius Meinl not far from the city centre that she claims is a legendary place for tasting all that Viennese cuisine is known for.

It’s a plush decorated restaurant, or delicatessen store, with an attached eatery where we order Wiener schnitzel. I pass up the tafelsptiz (boiled beef) preferring to go for a plate of brown rice with mashed potatoes and horseradish sauce deeply sautéed with Turkish herbs. We round it all up with helpings of palatschinken (pancakes) and apricot stuffed knodels (dumplings). My palatschinke is the Hungarian cousin of Gundel palacsinta, made of ground walnuts, orange peel, raisins, cinnamon and rum coated with dark chocolate sauce, cream and cocoa, with a generous sprinkling of confectioner’s ground sugar atop. After licking my plate clean, all I can think of is a nice and long siesta under the cool sun on one of the parks. You look full, Cynthia comment while looking stunning in her neat attire. Where did she tuck in all the food, I wonder. I nod in agreement. Then Sacher Torte for supper, she says enigmatically and we leave. I have no idea what that particular object can be, save the fact that it needs to be eaten and is something worth dying for. Surprisingly I don’t see anyone dying around so it can’t be that exotic or rare to find. As my guide revs up her mean machine all my hopes of siesta is dashed to ground.

We reach Prater and dumping the motorized bicycle, pick up two manual ones and cycle along the track over the next half an hour or so. You must like this, Cynthia points out to the trees and the beautiful garden precincts. I realize huffing and puffing that she is fit as a fiddle as she cycles effortlessly next to me. We take a round of the park, eyeing the giant Ferris wheel from below where a considerable crowd attempted to take on the ride. I liked the diminutive Lilliputian railroad and wished I could swap place with the driver. From Prater we cut across the city and briefly dally outside a strange looking building that Cynthia introduced as the Hundertwasserhause, the most ingeniously designed of all modern buildings in Austria. Besides the colourful walls and sections of the floors and undulating walls and roofs, there were hundreds of trees and branches growing from all over the building as if it had been abandoned for centuries and nature had claimed the territory. We walked in and stumbled through more number of vegetation and trees sprouting from everywhere. It could well be a tree house with modern glass windows and office furniture.

From the tree-house apparition we arrive at the place that to me must remain that place in Vienna, which you must visit if you have time for only one sight of Wien; the UNESCO world heritage site of Schönbrunn Palace.

Much is already known about the palace for me to elucidate further except the fact that we spent a merry two-hour within the Baroque palace hopping from one room to another and getting totally amazed and spellbound by the grand crystal chandeliers, frescoed ceilings, ostentatious ornaments and mirrors. We walked through the Tyrolean Garden and the palm pavilion that maintained three climatic zones and contained rainforest samples from all continents. We even managed to peep into the puppet show, tucked away within the vast expanse of the garden, and take a quick tour of the zoo (Tiergarten), which is the oldest and the only Baroque zoo in the world. We had to literally sprint from the Neptune Well to the obelisk and then to the Gloriette through the Great Parterre and finally dump ourselves in the cafe for a brew of life and something to eat. Looking down from the Gloriette, the Great Parterre takes my breath away. I have never seen a more beautiful sculpted garden in my entire life. As always a massive water basin girdles the Gloriette on one side and on the other the city undulates along the sloping hills like a distant dream.

Cynthia points out the Donauturm (Danube Tower) in the distance and mentions that it has the world’s highest bungee platform. Right then and there I decide to show Cynthia something her delicate upbringing may not have offered her yet. Brave girl that she is, she takes up the challenge and then soon enough finds herself strapped onto me in a tandem bungee atop the city of her birth; that’s where I had started my narrative.

That was fun, Cynthia confides as we take the lift down. Would she do it again, I ask hopefully; I had indeed enjoyed the proximity to my pretty companion. I am not mad as you, she laughs and holds my hand to show some favour to her new found student of art and music. Despite its regal opulence and infinite grandeur, Vienna is a small city and the main city centre has almost all its worth seeing sights within a radius of 10 km. So we were back again after dusk set in, this time smack in the heart of Vienna and stopped outside the cathedral that is synonymous with the city – St Stephens Cathedral.

Considering its reputation and the power it wielded I had expected a cathedral of much larger proportion though in terms of height it towered well enough into the sky. Neighbouring lights played on the multi-coloured roof tiles that are a unique design of this church. Its spire reaches above 135 m into the azure and for long did it remain the tallest building of Europe. Steffi, as the locals fondly call the cathedral, is known for the two towers and the roof. The south tower stands to its full intended height while the north tower could only be built up to 68 m high since the Gothic architecture era ended during then and it became too expensive to continue. So there it stands like a mutilated stump of its cousin nearby. The 110 m long roof is ornately patterned and covered with richly coloured tiles; and is so steep that I would need my ice tools to find a purchase. It was night and the tiles weren’t clearly visible and I had to have a look at them. Towards the back of the church I found renovation workers had placed iron stilts and scaffoldings right up to the roof and within seconds I had swung myself off from the ground. Cynthia screamed from below while I climbed into the darkness. I agree a slip would have sent me down crashing on ground but then height has always been my ally.

I reach the roof and walk on the smooth slope holding onto the stilts carefully. The tiles are mesmerizing and I can imagine how they would look under the light of the day from top. Cynthia threatens to call the police if I don’t descend immediately, so I come down right next to the pulpit of John Capistrano. We enter the church from the back door and I gape at the High Altar as its vaulted roof almost disappears from sight into the dimness of the ceiling. Hand in hand we walk through the church eyeing the pulpits, chapels, alters and the priceless artefacts from every corner while Cynthia whispers the legends and myths of the place in my ears. It is mostly deserted and soon we exit through the main door into the St Stephen’s Square, which, once the night dawns, turns into a Square full of fun and frolic.

People walked, people danced, people skated on roller blades and on skateboards. Children roamed around with parents holding colourful balloons while amorous couples stole kisses in corners. Mobile stalls sold kebabs and pizzas and fried nuts and other savouries. The festive air is infectious and we too join a crowd of onlookers surrounding a ventriloquist who plays ‘money, money, money, it’s a rich man’s world,’ while his alter ego, a well moustached fellow sitting atop his left palm gestures at the pretty ladies around for money and a kiss on his round nose. We laugh till it hurt; never before have I seen something so outrageously funny. A small girl steps forward carefully to drop a coin into the hat of the ventriloquist when the doll suddenly jumps up and smacks her a kiss on her cheek. The girl screams and runs back to her parents while the doll winks at the crowd. Everyone including the girl’s parents erupt in one mammoth roll of laughter.

Cynthia pulls me away from the crowd and we start walking like a couple through the by-lanes of the city centre that is closed to any traffic in the evening. Words are unnecessary since she had possibly exhausted her verbosity and further artistic adventures for the evening. I needed a break after all. I am left to ponder and wonder of whatever I see without having to draw any further meaning or reason to it. We exit back into the Ring Boulevard that is now so transformed that but for the Statue of Athena, as erect and as sombre as before, I wouldn’t know it at all. The entire street as far as I could see now resembled a giant fair and circus with every conceivable form of entertainment and delight being offered and accepted with alacrity. We board an open roofed hansom cab for a distance as that’s a must do for all couples, Cynthia claims. Slowly the night gathers and I feel like entering a never ending dream of festivity. Rarely had I come across such a gathering of joyous people from different culture and nation. I really wished then that the world could assemble in Ring Boulevard for a day and forget all our differences, hostilities and animosity.

The night concludes with a trip to the world famous Demel bakery where we partake a piece of Sachertorte each with infinite care and patience. Such delicacy can never be hurried or gobbled; it had to sink into my soul and palate before it found its way into my gullet. Cynthia asks me to preserve the triangular seal of Eduard-Sacher-Torte placed on each piece that proclaims its authenticity. As we both sink our teeth into the dark chocolate icing and further into the chocolate cake, ever so slowly, our eyes meet and we finally find that we do have common interest in desserts and such matters of delicacy. Satiated and fully flushed, with some wine along the way, we return light headed to Cynthia’s apartment. And thus concludes my Viennese sojourn of art and culture and everything dulcet.

During my next trip to Austria I do make a two day stopover in Wien and learn to do the Viennese Ball with Cynthia and also experience the Philharmonic Orchestra suited in a most befitting tuxedo, but then that’s another story, which is neither here nor there.

Fine Dine in Wien – Vienna. Part 1

The following is part 1 of my sojourn through Vienna in search of art, culture and all things dulcet. Read on:

I totter at the precipice of a 352 m void with wind buffeting hard on my face and the prettiest girl in sight plastered to my body like second skin. The fact that I can’t see anyone else beside the girl does not vouchsafe much about the girl’s altruistic beauty, which in its mildest form would perhaps be ‘scintillating’. I stare deep into her hazelnut eyes and wonder why we hadn’t kissed yet since there remains no more than the gap of a hair between our lips. Her ashened face bespeaks of inner woes and unheralded troubles and she shivers wrapped around my body though the air up so high is warm. Her earlier boisterous mannerisms are now less obvious. I smile at her and grip her reassuringly. In the next fraction of a second we step off the platform and hurtle towards earth at spine shattering speed while we both scream till our lungs seem to burst – she in fright and I in exhilaration; for we had just jumped off from the world’s highest bungee pedestal. Welcome to the Danube Tower or ‘concrete needle’ as the locals call it. Shortly we are pulled up back on the platform and from there we find our way into the revolving restaurant from where, while sipping coffee and biting into delicious scones, we watch a majestic sun go down across the Danube marring the sky into myriad colours of orange and crimson. By now my companion has regained her courage and composure and urges me on for her to show me the night life of Vienna, which according to her, surpasses what I have witnessed so far.

Let’s now go back few weeks and retrace my path briefly to find why on earth, while in Austria, I am whiling away precious hours away from the majestic mountains and into the city that is synonymous with Baroque architecture and musical operas, not to mention the royal palaces and the wines and cafeterias. I have nothing against Vienna, mind you and it is among the very few real capital cities in the world that I like but if I had the powers over such things, for me the Austrian capital could be none other than Innsbruck.

That picture perfect township at the foothills of the snow covered ranges where I had my first alpine training is the one place where I always head whenever I head into Austria.

Sandwiched within the jagged ranges of Bavarian Alps and the Vorarlberg this headquarters of Tyrol province was solely created by God for the mountaineers and skiers and holiday makers who liked white over all colours. I have several friends in and around the area of Bregenz and in one such home, while helping myself to an oversized handmade clay oven baked pizza (which my much emaciated and bruised body badly needed) did I come across Cynthia of the auburn hair fame. Cynthia is the half sister of my friend’s wife and taught theatre in Vienna (where else could it be). She was visiting in the weekend for a show of her class in the open air theatre by the shores of Bodensee (Lake Constance). We were of equal age and we were introduced. Both my friend and his wife were seasoned climbers so Cynthia raises her eyes at me; not another alpinist for heaven’s sake, she gestures. My friend’s wife sensing that I was keen on Cynthia told her that I had other delicate and artistic inclinations as well. After which she quizzes me about Vienna where I fail miserably since to me Wien has always been an entry point into the country and nothing more. The delicate lady took pity on my ignorant self and managed to wriggle out a promise from me that on my way out through Vienna, I would for certain spend one day and night with her when she will show me the real world of art and culture. Later that evening we all go to see her play and is she brilliant! And was I looking forward to that day and night with Cynthia in Vienna!

Two weeks later as I haul my sorry ass into the train from Innsbruck heading east, I call up Cynthia to let her know of my impending arrival and that I do need an urgent and copious dose of art and culture to forget my near fatal fall in the company of her illustrious brother-in-law few days back. As I park myself sombrely into the bunk I wonder what on earth still makes me climb those insane mountains that were always conniving to kill me or maim me at the worst!

At the destined hour, late by two minutes only, the train rolls into Wien Main and I have no difficulty in finding the auburn hair flowing into the wind of my future Wien guide Cynthia. She chides me for my appearance and gives me a piece of her beautiful mind addressing me on behalf of all the climbers in this world as to what she thought of the likes of us. Which is not nice by any stretch of imagination and I promise to myself that I would do my best to upgrade my clan’s image and prestige in her world to the level of being ‘presentable’. Cynthia takes me home to her two room apartment and feeds me the nicest food on this side of Danube and then tucks me in a duvet bed that seems made of silk. I sink and slip into oblivion, grateful that my Austrian adventure for the year is finally over in this beautiful fairy’s home – little knowing what lay ahead in the day to come.

I rouse with the smell of strong coffee and open my eyes to glance at the radium dial of my climbing chronometer. It’s barely past seven in the morning and I hear my host stirring pots and pans in the kitchen that is connected to my room. Get ready, Cynthia coos handing me a cup of black coffee, and wear something nice, she adds. It’s the summer month of May and the day would be pleasant, so I pull on my only pair of jeans that had all its pockets in place and a round neck t-shirt of the Austrian Alpine Club. Cynthia quickly dislodges me off the t-shirt and supplies a full sleeve check shirt with blue and white raised squares that fit me well. We would breakfast on the way, my host says and off we go. She pulls out a funny contraption of a motorized bicycle and throws me a helmet as she straps into one. This is the only way we can see something worthwhile in a day (and night), she says. Even before I have managed to hook my fingers around the tail light, Cynthia dashes off into a lane and cuts across the tram line with the fury of a toreador. After weaving in and out of non-existent traffic we finally park outside Cafe’ Central. We enter the nearly empty coffee house and take up a two-seater table by an arched bay window. I am immediately taken aback by its vault like space and the high arched roof domes with long stemmed ceiling lamps and the columns.

I didn’t notice her order, but soon a pair of cups of coffee accompanied by two glasses of what looked like water and a newspaper appeared on our table served by a smiling waiter. What do you know about Wien, Cynthia asks in a tone that tells me that I better accept my total ignorance of such matters. I nod sideways in a fashion to show how worthless I feel at that moment. Viennese Cafes are an institution, a time bound tradition and don’t just sip your coffee but also look around; Cynthia says. I pity her students at her school. I look around and find the cafe warm, comfortable and nice to the point of being nostalgic. You may sit here the entire day and sip only coffee or read the newspaper or compose poetry or music and no one would ask you to leave; Cynthia says animatedly. I agree it has its advantage though couldn’t figure why anyone would spend an entire day inside a cafe unless he owned it or served in it. We order brown bagel and lemon tarts and wash them down with the coffee. Breakfast and a brief historical overview of Vienna and Viennese Cafe later we speed off into the cool day. The next stop takes my breath away in the literal sense of the expression.

We don’t have time to see all the churches and buildings worth seeing and you must absolutely see St Stephens Cathedral later so this we would see only from the outside; Cynthia gestures at a church that is perhaps the most spectacular form of Baroque architecture I had seen till then, and I had seen some. This is Karlskirche, one of the biggest Baroque style cathedrals in the world, my guide remarks. It is dedicated to Saint Karl Borromeo. All the different forms and elements of its facade collids with my vision and I can’t decide where to focus or from where to start looking at the entire canvas. The two columns engraved with allegoric tales from the life of the patron saint provide the perfect frame for the main cupola that is similar to Greek temples of the past. The front of the cathedral is taken up by an oval water tank that reflects the cathedral building in all its glory. Standing tall and regal against the blue azure, Karlskirche takes away my morning torpor and now I am ready for the Vienna wonders and lessons in art and music and all things dulcet.

Another mad dash through the now stirring streets and my guide literally dumps me in front of a square that I had seen before in movies though the name escapes me. Heldenplatz; Cynthia declares. This is our square of Heroes; she gestures, that’s Arch Duke Karl astride his horse, he defeated Napoleon in 1809 and there’s Prince Eugene of Savoy who repelled Ottoman Empire invasions. I look around endeavouring to grasp the enormity and magnificence of the square that stretches supremely symmetric in its entire dimension. From the square we walk to the entrance of Hofburg, Vienna’s erstwhile imperial castle. We enter and stride through the enormous complex where every possible architectural style—from gothic to art nouveau even medieval—jostles for attention. The library within along with the weapon museum lures me to stop and linger but my guide wouldn’t hear of it; as we have much more to unravel through the day. The butterfly glass house felt like a wonderland of its own and finally tucking in the world famous riding school we exit.

We rush along the Ring Boulevard, which would be the site of our evening promenade and possible soiree if I hear it right from Cynthia. We cross the imposing parliament building to our left with the erect statue of Athena and stop in front of the Burgtheatre. As I look at the imposing facade intricately carved colonnades of the white marble edifice I wonder at the rich tradition of such places. I am a man of nature and such display of opulence and man-made grandeur appears little out of taste to my senses. Cynthia bids me to move close to the walls and she points out the statues of Goethe and Schiller and many allegoric carvings of human emotions like love and despair. This is one of the finest theatres in the world; Cynthia utters, not only for its grand opulence but also for the quality of plays that it hosts, I guess you are not interested to see the interiors. I confirm that she guesses right. So off we go again taking in the turns and twists of Viennese street and fate, this time stopping in front of one of the most impressive and well known European facades – Belvedere Palace. Though the palaces stand far away from the street surrounded by a splendid park, there is no mistaking what I see. My guide is happy that I recognize the palace without aid. All is not lost, she murmurs as we dismount.

Belvedere Palace consists of two independent palaces; the lower was built before the upper one; Cynthia narrates as we walk through the garden. Commissioned by Prince Eugene of Savoy, the palaces are among the finest example of Baroque architecture in the world and presently house art museums showcasing Austrian Baroque art and paintings from 18th – 20th century. Arguably the Belvedere Park sported the finest alpine garden in all of Europe and as Cynthia confided has over 4000 plant species from the alpine ecosystem. I take in the garden and its resplendent plantations as we crunch atop the gravelled path. Tiered fountains, cascades and Baroque sculptures of mythological figures adorn the walkway. Cynthia orders me to pose in front of the fabled women-lion figure and clicks through her camera. As is customary, we hurry through the endless halls and corridors of both the palaces, I more impressed with the murals and ceiling frescoes and come out at the water basin where families with toddlers rest their weary limbs by the fountains.

As we walk towards the exit gates, Cynthia suddenly looks at her watch and utters a deep cry of anguish. No time to lose, let’s hurry, and off she goes like a vision on a mission. I sprint despite my torn ligament trying to catch her whiff in the air. We board her two-wheeled contraption totally out of breath. Through her heaving bosom Cynthia confides, it is almost noon. She doesn’t offer any further explanation and asking me to keep my mouth and mind shut, she races off, gunning her bike for all its worth. Is she a modern-day Cinderella I ponder; wouldn’t be surprised if she is, who would turn into a pumpkin at the strike of noon. We finally make it to wherever it is that she intended and Cynthia brings me hard against her back as she jams the brake at the corner of another ancient square of imposing presence. It is barely two minutes short of noon. Look, Cynthia gestures with her index finger raised to heaven where there is nothing but the same monotonous representation of Rococo architecture of two buildings joined by a bridge; beneath the centre of which stood a crowd of Japanese tourists, all gaping up at what seems from where I stand a clock made of mosaic motif. I run after Cynthia and join and wriggle through the Japanese tourists till we reach the ‘fish’ waving guide up front. And then the clock struck noon. Every neck in sight is raised up so do I and witness a strange spectacle.

The clock suddenly bursts out into extravagant music from bygone era, pipe organs, harp, violin, etc emanate from somewhere up there as a column of twelve figures from history emerge from one end and parades along the length of the bridge for our viewing pleasure. Cynthia excitedly points out the figure of Prince Eugen of Savoy, for whom she harbours a secret crush I vaticinate. This is the Anker Clock, Cynthia whispers into my ears, and it depicts the transition between life and death. Sure, I nod, and I am the grandson of Prince Eugen of Savoy, I add within the empty recess of my mind.