Vienna’s Naschmarkt

There are lots of things about Vienna which make me think it would be a nice place to live. One of my favorite parts of the city is the daily outdoor market called the Naschmarkt. It’s just one of those sumptuous sensory-overload type markets, bursting not only with fresh fruit and veggies, but also olives, fresh bread and pasta, dried fruits, fresh sauerkraut, and plenty more. There’s also a section of the market which consists of primarily Asian shops and restaurants where we enjoyed a couple meals during our Easter trip.

Kaffee und Kuchen in Vienna

The Viennese have a lovely tradition of dropping everything at around 4 PM and indulging in some Kaffee und Kuchen. In the interest of getting the most out of our vacation, we of course also adopted this practice while we were in Vienna. We are nothing if not cultural adventurers.

To get the true Austrian experience, you have to order your coffee mit Schlag, which translates roughly to buried under copious amounts of really stiff whipped cream. I’m not sure if it’s the word or the actual cream which makes me not like this particular type of coffee, but I always just got mine black.

Although Kuchen translates to cake, it’s used more as an umbrella term to include a wide variety of sweet baked things that one may consume alongside the coffee. Of course there is the oh-so-famous Sacher Torte, a chocolate cake with raspberry jam filling and a chocolaty outer coating (not entirely unlike Magic Shell). It originated at the tragically snooty Hotel Sacher, which is right next to the Vienna Opera House, but these days every Thomas, Dieter, and Horst in this city makes his own version of it (despite Hotel Sacher’s claim to having a top-secret recipe).

Luckily Vienna had plenty in the way of sweets that I was actually impressed with, like this thing called a Scheibbserkugel – a chocolate-coated ball filled with cookie and creamy goodness. We found them at the Easter markets around the city, but hopefully these things are around at other times of year, too. Another thing I liked were these pointy chocolate things filled with chocolate mousse. I think the name had something to do with Paris (how’s that for good journalism for you?).

Nudity season

[Warning: this post may not be suitable for Americans.]

Spring has sprung here in Old Europe, and that means the naked people have come out to play. Old and young alike are sunbathing naked in the parks, enjoying a nice naked sauna, or looking forward to that first trip to the beach where the can have some naked fun in the surf and sand.

Nudity isn’t exactly everywhere (and before you start whipping off that bikini bottom, be advised that its appropriateness varies greatly by country and situation), but to American eyes it sometimes sure seems like it is. Even after all these years here I sometimes catch myself staring when an unexpected boob or penis jumps into my range of vision. It’s not my fault – growing up in the US my brain was conditioned to pay attention to such things, since they are extremely dangerous and might attack me at any moment.

No, you say, they’re not going to cause me harm? Well then why are Americans so very afraid of them? I offer you Exhibit A: Nipplegate, a scandal which seized the entire country back in 2004. During the Superbowl halftime show, Janet Jackson’s breast was momentarily exposed at the end of a performance (her nipple, however, was covered). Meanwhile, over here in countries where boobies grace the cover of the TV guide on a weekly basis, people were scratching their heads trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.

This event caused a huge public uproar in the US which led to firings, lawsuits, public apologies, and fines. This rabblerousing was justified by the fact that children had been watching, and breasts are very dangerous to the delicate sensibilities of American children. Now I’m no child psychologist, but what do you really think is going to do more psychological damage to little Johnny: seeing part of a breast for a fraction of a second, or hearing his hysterically angry mother yelling about how evil breasts are?

I’m not saying the Europeans have it exactly right when it comes to body acceptance and sexuality, but personally I prefer living in a society which doesn’t deem any parts of my anatomy to be inherently repulsive. Plus it’s much easier to put a bra on in a public locker room when you’re not trying to keep your bits covered up with a towel the whole time. Much easier.

Will the real Mr. Switzerland please stand up

It’s official, there’s a new Mr. Switzerland (and much to my surprise, it’s not this guy). I learned this from watching the local news yesterday. It was the second story, following close on the heels of a very important piece about Paris Hilton’s first trip to Basel (or Zurich, or somewhere… how am I supposed to know where she was when even she didn’t? Look, the important thing is that it was definitely Switzerland, and thus worthy of the lead story on the Swiss TV news).

Anyway, back to Mr. Switzerland. I’m sure other countries have ‘mister competitions’, but I have never been aware of them the way I am here. Last year’s Mr. Switzerland has been prominently featured in ads (for underwear and barbecue supplies) plastered all over the city ever since we moved here. There was a poll conducted by the local commuter paper last week to determine everyone’s favorite candidate for this year’s competition (the shocking outcome revealed that people in this part of Switzerland favored a guy who didn’t even speak German). The Swiss seem to take this whole male beauty pageant thing quite seriously.

That’s the thing that strikes me as so strange: men in a beauty pageant, especially in not-so-progressive-when-it-comes-to-gender-roles Switzerland (not that I’m so sure male beauty pageants would count as progressive, anyway). The news showed a clip of the end of the pageant when the winner was announced. There was no immediate hug from the runner up, no crown and sash, and no running mascara from his tears of joy. The losers eventually hoisted the winner up on to their shoulders, in a manly display that seemed like it belonged at a soccer game instead of a beauty pageant. It definitely made me wish I had seen the whole thing. Next year…

Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I was watching the Swiss news at all, it’s because I desperately needed to know how long it took for the Böögg’s head to explode (12 minutes and 9 seconds, in case you were also wondering). I didn’t actually attend Sechselauten yesterday, but I have a strong suspicion it went down a lot like last year’s Sechseläuten (and not entirely different from 1948’s Sechseläuten, for that matter).

Lollygagging about in Vicenza

After filling up on the artsy type of culture in Padua, Ali and I hopped on a train and headed to Vicenza for an afternoon of passegiate, aperitivi, and shopping, all of which also clearly qualify as cultural activities in Italy.

Vicenza is a small city whose center is a large walking district of narrow cobblestoned streets sprouting out from the main drag, Corso Palladio. It’s insanely fun to wander around here, especially in the afternoon when the locals are out and about to provide you with some excellent people-watching.

If you sit down for a drink at an Italian cafe during the afternoon or early evening, your beverage usually comes accompanied by some sort of snack food. In Milan this is taken to the extreme, with several bars offering extensive hot and cold buffets that could easily replace dinner entirely (not that you’d want to skip a meal opportunity in Milan). In other cities (such as Padua or Vicenza), you usually get some potato chips and, if you’re lucky, a dish of green olives. I usually hate potato chips, but for some reason they become mighty tasty when accompanied by a negroni.

After plenty of window shopping, cafe sitting, and wandering, it was time to move on to the main event: dinner. We attempted to go to a restaurant that my local friend swears is just amazing, but alas we were turned away for being foolish enough to show up without a reservation. Luckily a suitable alternative was soon found at Osteria Il Cursore. I had eaten here once before, and was happy to be back. We had the same surly but entirely likable waitress, who recited the antipasti, primi, and secondi of the day in fast but clear Italian (no written menu here, so pay attention!). Everything was fresh, simple, and delicious. I passed on dessert (and by “passed on” I mean “nibbled on everyone else’s”) in favor of a cinnamon after-dinner drink which I remembered fondly from my first visit to the place. Mmmmm… Italy.

I get cultured in Padua

OK, so where was I? A couple weeks ago I spent a few days in Italy, staying at my favorite hotel and spa in the whole world (which has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the manager is a good friend of mine, I swear), which is in a small town just outside of Padua (Padova). I can’t go to Padua without feeling an intense urge to move back to Italy, and this trip was no different. It’s just so…. Italian. The cobblestones, the cathedrals, the art, the public humiliation of graduates… and of course the food. Why am I not there right now?

When we weren’t watching Italians spread food substances on each other, we actually managed to take in a little culture on this particular trip. First there was the Scrovegni Chapel, a fresco-covered room painted by the master Giotto in 1303-1305. Much like at Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, visitors must enter through various sealed chambers which are supposed to help with the preservation of the precious frescoes inside. You have to buy a ticket for a specific entry time, and you only get to spend 15 minutes marveling at the chapel. Unlike the Last Supper, these frescoes are actually in pretty good shape, and there’s a lot to ooo and aah over. I didn’t want to leave.

We also paid a visit to the Basilica di Sant’ Antonio. St. Anthony is one of the Catholics’ most favorite saints, so he has been honored with a particularly fabulous church, even by Italian standards. Although I declared myself all churched out years ago (a non-life-threatening condition reached by people who have visited too many Italian churches within a short amount of time), this one was actually worth breaking my abstinence for. Every square centimeter of the place is ornately decorated. And, in addition to housing the tomb of Anthony himself, this basilica boasts quite a collection of other dead saint parts, too (they call them ‘relics’ and display them in custom-made decorative vessels; don’t get too close if you’re easily queasy).

Hungry for more art, we also took in the De Chirico show at Palazzo Zabarella. I was disappointed to not see my favorite work by him (Melancholy and mystery of a street, which looks exactly like the street I used to live on in Bologna, only creepier), but it was an awfully thorough and enjoyable show nonetheless. It’s on through May 27th, so quick, plan your trip to the Veneto now…

me on slate.com

For the next month I will be contributing to the TravelBox Blog over at Slate.com. My posts there cover some of my favorite European travel destinations. They even did a fancy-schmancy caricature of me for the site. Can you pick me out of the three? Quick, go look now!

Buona Pasqua

Easter in Italy is always marked by the omnipresent giant chocolate eggs. No bunnies, no peeps, just big chocolate eggs. If you’re lucky, there’s an exciting surprise awaiting you inside your giant chocolate egg. These surprises can range from cheap plastic toys to fine jewelry, depending on where your egg came from. They’re kind of like giant Kinder Surprise eggs.* Continue reading

As seen on the streets of Vienna

Back signs seem to be the preferred method of advertising in this city. They were all over the pedestrian zone. This guy wanted us to say rosaries to have our sins forgiven…

…while this one wanted us to go drink beer. Hmmm, which one do you think we listened to?

And, everywhere you turn in this city, Mozart is there beseeching you to try his balls.

To show you how early we had to get up this morning…

The 20 Minuten* bin was still overflowing with fresh papers…

…and the Bahnhof** was deserted. It was ass early.

* 20 Minuten is a free commuter newspaper that comes out early each morning. The bins are usually empty by the time I leave the house.

** Bahnhof = train station. I spend a lot of time there.

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