It feels somewhat unsettling to be writing about X-mas from the comfort of a sunny day in May … while enjoying a glass of wine … on a balcony in London … But hell, I didn’t start this blog with any adherence to chronology and it would be a shame to start worrying about that now.
In 33 years there was one time of year that’s been a dependable constant for me, and that’s Christmas.
My family isn’t religious yet, like many others, we use the enforced downtime as an opportunity to dive in to seasonal traditions. My father will spend hours untangling strings of lights, only to re-tangle them through shrubbery around the house.
I have dozens of memories of searching for the perfect tree … more than a few that involve fending off frostbite while trudging through underbrush in order to do so.
Then there’s the family aspect. The holidays are, of course, when we dust off our family trees and visit the folks we’ve perhaps avoided for the other 350+ days of the year. Or more. I’m not one to judge.
2015 would be the year, however, to break from tradition. Of my friends in the UK, there were 3 of us in the same boat. This boat had only been in town for a year, couldn’t afford a return visit, and its passengers were faced with the reality of what to do while absent from family traditions for the holidays. Thankfully the other 2 people in this equation were J & C; the aforementioned reasons this entire relocation kicked off in the first place.
So what do 3 young, 30-something, Canadians get up to when left to their own devices through the Christmas season?
There are a few things I want to say about Vienna.
There we are: one bag sans cat. Without building suspense, I’ve just revealed where this story is ultimately going. Vienna. And before flitting off to the Austrian capital, there are a few things worth noting.
Austria is renowned for its Christmas celebrations. Austrians take their holidays very seriously and you will find few places more suited for visiting through the holiday season. Starting from the early days of December, Christmas markets begin to sprout across the urban centres of the country. I can’t speak for other cities, but Vienna certainly puts on a remarkable showing in this regard. While there I visited no fewer than 6 different markets. A Venn diagram of the locales would, I’m certain, depict a reasonable amount of overlap; however, each managed to contain its own style and flavour. Certain delicacies would only be available at certain markets. Some would appear to focus on more traditional wooden trinkets, while other would lean more heavily on blown glass or kitsch. Really, if you’re in Vienna over the holidays, don’t limit yourself to just one market. Shop around. Explore! You’ll find something unique and tantalising at each and every one.
A huge. Colossal. Important aspect of note:
When the Viennese say that things will be shut for the holidays, they mean it. My friends and I had difficulty finding convenience stores, grocers, and even pubs that were open during the holidays. You will certainly be able to find food, and many vendors, restaurants, and food stalls will remain open. If you don’t plan well, though, prepare to get much of your sustenance from market booths. Note: There is only so much gluhwein and wurst a person can handle in succession.
That said, many museums will remain open right up until the 24th of December, opening again shortly after. Many will even offer holiday rates, with the reduction of their visiting hours. We managed to visit the Natural History Museum (which puts London’s own to utter shame!) on the 24th with no trouble whatsoever. Certain transit options will not offer the same degree of freedom. Boat service along the Danube grinds to a halt. During my stay, from the 22nd until the 28th, not a single boat moved along the river or it’s canals. Truly a shame as river travel is quick and inexpensive, and really the best way to travel to the Wachau Valley … a region of incredible natural beauty that is renowned for wine, tradition, and relics such as the Venus of Willendorf (more on that later).
One final note.
Don’t go to Vienna to chase the Winter. Being 3 Canadian expats in London, we found ourselves hankering for a white Christmas. It’s admittedly one of the reasons we opted for Austria. While other parts of the country can boast a bounty of fallen snow, Vienna is no longer one of them. Since 2010, they’ve experienced little-to-no snow over the holidays. I saw nary a flake while I was there. Although snow-removal equipment is primed and ready to go, you will likely be disappointed if you expect to find snow in the imperial city.
Austria’s Imperial Capital
It most certainly is! While parts of the city date back a fair span into history, much of Vienna saw itself renewed during the reign of Franz-Josef. His rule saw much of the city reborn and refurbished, turning Vienna into the imperial gem that it is today.
What else is there to say before getting down to the trip?
I’m going to skip the whole day-to-day account in this post. I’m learning that my travel style is somewhat slapdash. There’s a lot of overlap and filler. Vienna offered a lot of unique experiences, however, every day began and ended in mostly the same fashion. Wander through the old city in the morning to meet my friends … do things … stumble back through the old city in the wee hours before crashing on my threadbare blanket in the ghetto.
No exaggeration. The neighbourhood I stayed in was listed on the map as Josefstadt Ghetto #2.
It was a beautiful flat, however, and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer host. Being the Christmacapital that it is, Vienna is a tough city to find a room in in December. I opted for cheap and cheerful and, while the neighbourhood wasn’t much to look at, I had no trouble. Had I understood more than a lick of German, I likely would’ve been entirely at home. Although I did discover an exceptionally dodgy strip club at the end of my street on the last day, which accounts for a flavour of local I often encountered.
My host, Julia, provided a fantastic space and made me feel right at home. Most mornings, before I ran off into the city, we would sit in her lounge and chat idly, crack wise, or I would ply her for local advise as to the best sights to see. Airbnb, you crafty bastard, you did it again!
Back to the story…
So what is there to see and do in Vienna?
If you’re asking yourself that question, stop wasting time and just visit! It’s a beautiful city, steeped in history, oozing with culture, and overflowing with kind and lovely people. You’ll find markets, restaurants, architecture, incredible theatre, art, the birthplace of modern psychology … Not to mention you’ll be on the doorstep of some of the best that Austria has to offer. Should Vienna prove to not be to your liking, you’re a mere hour’s journey from the Wachau Valley; a picturesque landscape stippled with vineyards, tradition, and I’m sure some fantastic romantic opportunities. Being newly single and travelling with a couple, I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to plant myself amidst romance and abundant acts of PDA. It was there, though, should I have been inclined.
Vienna is also a short train journey from Salzburg, which is a city that should not be missed. It’s perhaps a truer Austrian experience. Surrounded by mountains and countryside, it’s an absolute jewel and every bit as drenched in Christmas as Vienna.
But I didn’t go to Salzburg, so now I’m going to wax poetic about Vienna!
To put it lightly I thoroughly adored my time in Vienna
Christmas 2015 could have been a very different time. Instead, thanks to some incredible friends, it turned into one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for any other and I can’t thank J&C enough.
I’d been feeling quite alone in the past few months and, if I’m entirely honest, hadn’t handled it well. I’d hit the dating scene hard in 2015 and hadn’t met anyone with even the remotest amount of chemistry. In fact, It was perhaps the lowest I’d felt in a year of emotional upheaval. Being away from family for an entire year, not to mention over Christmas Day, had managed to do a number on me.
On Christmas morning, I awoke in a cold room, wrapped in a threadbare blanket, with a small parcel I’d Santa Claused myself under a makeshift “tree” the night before. It sounds melancholic, but it was also quite exciting and cathartic.
For one brief, zen-like, moment, I felt truly on my own.
More isolated than I’d ever been before. My family was thousands of miles away, soundly asleep in the snow-covered wilds of Northern Ontario. J&C would be enjoying a lie-in, with some quiet time as a couple, whether they wanted it or not. As always on Christmas morning, I’d be awake at the crack of dawn.
I took the opportunity to relax. For the first time in 18 months, I actually relaxed.
Sitting on that bed, I slowly unwrapped a pair of lovingly-knitted gloves while taking my time to enjoy a long-awaited Empire Biscuit. Had I a coffee, as well, I think Julia would’ve had to forcefully kick me out lest I waste an entire day.
Christmas Day would prove to be the most relaxing of the trip. When finally I met up with my friends, we took a lazy tour of the city. Our goal for the day to move at our own pace. We’d see more markets, eat at a leisurely pace, then convene at J&C’s hotel for board games and choice beers from Salzburg.
After the events of the night before, it would be a welcome respite.