I’m home. =)
So Saturday night, we got home and I got to packing. Paced through the apartment several times, seeking out anything I might have left behind (I’m telling you, I had stuff ALL OVER her apartment…in the sink, on the couches, on the coffee table, on the flower stand, on the balcony, between the bed and the window, in the office, throughout the bathroom…it was really kind of impressive, considering I was only there a week). Decided to use the red Vienna bag to hold all my “treasures” from my travels…all the souvenirs I bought. It wasn’t completely filled, but a good bit of it. And amazingly, this practice left PLENTY of room in my backpack! I think it really was lighter than it was when I left home. Most of that was my use and disposal of the ridiculous amount of toiletries I brought. Don’t laugh too much at me…the last time I took a trip of this length, I had all but shaved my head and was existing on the bare minimum…so to bring a couple bottles of product felt like luxury!
Anyway…Sunday morning we slept in till 10 (at least, I did), and had another fabulous breakfast courtesy of Chef Christa: eggs sunny-side up, semmele with Philly on it, grapes, prosciutto, even a little halloumi…mmm!! I don’t know what I’ll do with no one to cook me breakfast now that I’m back! We took the whole morning slow…lazed around in the sunshine on the deck and breathed in the cacophony of petunias (have I mentioned her arsenal of petunias??)…made sure one more time that I had everything packed away, took showers, and headed out the door early enough to stop for gelato before she had to go to work.
When we parted, I headed for the Hofburg for my tour of the Spanish Riding School. Along the way, I discovered that what Christa told me last week when I arrived was, despite my firm disbelief, in fact true: ALL the shops were CLOSED. Except the cheesy souvenir shops. I’m serious…in Vienna, if you come for a weekend, you better do all your spending on Saturday, ’cause they are locked up tight on Sunday! I can’t believe that a tourist destination in summertime would waste an entire day’s worth of tourist spending!! I felt the same way about the Italian leather markets that packed up at 7 in the evening! What are they thinking??? I’m tryna spend some MONEY hee-ah!! lol
As it happened, the souvenir shops suited me fine…I’d finally decided what was junk and what I actually wanted…got a few touristy matchboxes for friends at home and a Vienna Austria sweatshirt and a fridge magnet (the other thing I get when I travel…Christmas ornaments and refrigerator magnets). Headed off to the Spanish Riding School.
This was a great tour. I took copious notes…I’m sure you’re not surprised if you know I’ve been obsessed with horses my entire life. As a result, I’d like to share with you some of the more interesting (to me) facts about Vienna’s famous Lippizaner stallions. (If you don’t know what they are, you probably actually do…you’ve probably seen fancy images of white horses mounted by riders in dressage uniforms, and the horse is usually crouched on his back legs, front feet in the air, and it’s happening in an ornate, Baroque, white indoor arena.)
There are 72 stallions in the Spanish Riding School…and the horses themselves are Spanish, not the school. The breed started hundreds of years ago by a guy who emigrated there from Spain with his beloved horses, and started selectively breeding them in a place called Lipica, which is in modern-day Slovenia, and is spelled Lipizza in Italian, and therefore the breed became known as Lipizzaners, and are now bred in Austria. (Enough nationalities in there for you?) They became a big deal under Charles VI, whose portrait still hangs in the arena, and whom the riders salute at the beginning of each training session and performance by circling before it and taking off their hats.
You can enter the Spanish Riding School at the ages of 17-20, IF you’re a fantastically talented dressage rider, and IF you’re not more than 70cm tall. That’s 5’6″. Because if you’re too tall, you look funny on the horses, which are not huge (14.2-15.2 hands, if you’re a horse person). You spend 5-6 years as an aleph, during which time you’re instructed by a senior rider and a “finished” stallion, both of whom you must call “Professor.” I like that. =) There’s a dropout rate of 60-80%. You’re not even on a horse your whole first year…you work from the ground and learn the cues. After that, you spend 2-3 years learning perfect balance. After you finish being an aleph, you’re promoted to the rank of “rider,” and you only become a FULL rider after 8-12 years. By that time, you make pretty good money…and if you’re seriously awesome, you can be promoted to the title of Chief Rider…there are currently three of those. (Though it’s referred to as a “school,” its students/riders are “hired,” and it works something like a medical residency.) Each rider works with 6-8 horses, and those horses work with no one but that particular rider.
The stallions start at 4 years old. Each year, there are approximately 50 births, and statistically, half of those are male…and the top 5 or 6 of each “class” will be picked to go to Vienna…no fillies ever go, and the colts are never gelded. Everything they do in their performances is meant to go along with the stallions’ natural desire to show off, and the colts who are picked to go to Vienna (the primary stud farm is about 2 hours away) are the ones who have shown the most eagerness to learn. When I asked, I was told that it is virtually unheard of for a selected horse to be an underperformer and be sent back once he is chosen. The horses are retired around age 28 and live a life of luxury back on the farm outside Vienna. At no point in their lives are they ever for sale…which means it’s impossible to put a value on a Lipizzaner stallion. (Mares and non-selected geldings can become carriage horses, can be sold, or can be used in the Carabinieri, the Italian military police force.) Many of the colts are born all different colors, but they are all supposed to turn gray/white by the time they are 13. Out of a hundred stallions, one stays its original color and is NOT white…we met him, a beautiful brown…his name is Neapolitano Bellanato, and he’s the stable “lucky charm.” The breed’s success is guaranteed as long as they have one fully-trained, non-white Lip in the stable. But though he can do everything his brothers can do, he will never perform. Sigh. Horse racism?
The horses spend 7 weeks out of the year (in summer) back on the farm where they were born, and have that time entirely to themselves to run around in the fields and enjoy being out of their stalls. 5 to 6 stallions a year go on “sex holiday” to propagate the breed. =) They get 45 minutes of in-arena training a day, spend time on the specialized, unique “horse walker,” which is an oval track-like structure that has a horse in each compartment, and is motorized so the barrier in front and in back of the horse moves ahead, which exercises him without needing to have a human guiding him, and the rest of the time, they’re in their stalls…which is why they have to have two months in the pastures every year (there are no suitable fields in Vienna, of course). They get vetted once a week. Each stall can be heated by its own fireplace system (there are chimneys all over the roofs of the stables), and their stalls are mucked out every single hour, 24/7/365.
I’d kill just to be a Spanish Riding School stall mucker. These guys are THAT beautiful.
They all come from six original studs: Pluto, Maestoso, Neapolitano, Conversano, Siglavy, and Favory. Every stallion has a first name that is one of these six names. His second name is his dam’s name. And he’s called by that name…or some nickname variation of it. Therefore, you have all kinds of big strong stallions being called “Kitty” or “Bella” or some girly name like that…which the guide thought was hilarious.
The balance thing the rider has to spend years getting perfect turned out to be interesting. The “airs above the ground,” the jumps and stands and such that the horses are so famous for, are all done with no stirrups on the saddle at all. The rider has to stay on through grip, the traction between his riding breeches and the saddle leather, and his own sense of balance. I thought that was pretty amazing.
The last time they travelled abroad was in about 2004, I think she said. They were hoping to go to a World Horse Expo in Kentucky this year or next…but they didn’t make the competition cut. Which blew my mind. What competition could THESE horses not succeed in?? Turns out: any competition. They’re not competition horses. They’re the only ones who do what they do, and what they do is not modern dressage…so therefore, unless an Expo has a specific category that only Lipizzaners can fill…they don’t go. So basically, Kentucky looked at the Lipizzaner Stallions of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, and said, “…Enh. No, thanks.”
Anyway. As you can tell, I was pretty taken with these guys. They were just breathtaking. White and dappled gray, manes in braids, swishing about in their clean, clean stalls, nickering at us and at the two barn cats who live with them…I’d give anything to be able to ride like these men do. (Speaking of men…there are currently two female riders at the School. Two. That’s it. And they’re recent. I think 2004 and 2006.)
Sooooooooo…after that, went to the Prater to soak up the sun. The Prater is a huge park that is half grassy quad and half amusement park. I just picked a patch of grass and sat down with my Kindle and apparently was wearing a sign that attracted all kinds of weirdos to me for various reasons…take a picture of my family and me, what is that thing in your hand and how is it a book, hey baby look over here…the usual stuff. Total international spot, too…people of all colors, shapes, and sizes. After an hour or two, I went back to the city center, wandered through the (closed) shops again down the main drag between the Hofburg Palace and the Opera House, got myself a Starbucks and waited to get hold of Felix, whom I was supposed to meet for another amazingly fabulously awesome meal at Vapiano’s.
Nope. Felix and Daniel are broke. They’re cooking dinner. Come on over.
Cool! I had just heard of the Hundertvasserhaus, and Christa tells me Felix lives right across the street from it! This is a building created by an architect on crack…pretty much. He decided flat floors are unnatural for us to walk on. Humans learned to walk on curvy surfaces. So his floors aren’t flat. His walls aren’t square. There aren’t corners. On top of the building is a huge garden, with trees and plants and totally natural settings. The outside is painted in bright, bizarre colors. Even the brick walkway outside the place is all wavy and lumpy. Seems pretty cool, till the boys point out to me that you can’t really put furniture in there, because of the uneven floors and the cornerless, wavy walls. So they’re “social housing.” Which means welfare. Homeless people live there. Jobless people. I don’t know what they sit on, eat on, sleep on. But it was neat to see from the outside.
Felix and Daniel whipped up pasta with an amazing sauce that they made from scratch that had white wine and lemon zest and tuna and sun-dried tomatoes and garlic and onions and peppers and was just YUMMY. Washed down with “Munich beer,” as Felix proudly presented it. Once we started eating, I regretted not paying closer attention to the sauce-making. He’s promised to send me a recipe.
So I hung around with the boys for the evening, and then headed back to the city center to pick up Christa from work. Said goodbye to Felix…he promised to come to the USA next summer…and Daniel and I got on the underground. I made him tolerate a few more paparazzi shots because I wanted to prove to everyone how much he looks like our Joe, and he was gracious and allowed it. =) Said goodbye to him, wandered to the hotel for the last time, and rode home with Christa in a car belonging to a friend of hers who had dropped in unexpectedly to see her…and realized for the first time how far we travelled each day to get to her hotel from her house!
Things left undone in Vienna: Schonbrunn Palace. Yeah, I don’t know how I missed that one…especially since she lives just one stop away from it. Ran in the gardens and up around the Gloriette, but didn’t go into the palace. Didn’t go into the Hofburg, either, come to think of it. The Belvedere Museum. The Ferris Wheel at the Prater. Hang out with ANY of Christa’s friends (all of whom got back to Vienna the day I left and came over for a barbecue). Visit Durnstein. Guess I’ll have to go back one day. =)
The trip home really went off without a hitch, despite the fact that it took about 14 hours. I was able to check in AND check my bag from the train station in Vienna, from which I took the airport train straight to the airport. Short hop to Munich…some minor confusion over my gate and my departure time to the States…some very bad airport coffee that I bought just to burn up the last of my Euros…a Toblerone to help me make it through the long flight…a short delay at the gate before departure…and ten hours later, I was on the ground in Virginia, through customs, and in the car with the mama!
I got some pretty cool stuff…it’s neat to go back through it, especially the stuff I sent home from Florence. Italy seems like a different trip. It’s weird to think all the way back to Italy after a week in Vienna, especially since Italy was with my mom (except for Assisi) and Vienna was mostly alone and with Christa and Felix. So it seems a lot longer ago than Austria does. I’m excited to frame my artwork I bought along the way (some amazing watercolors of Tuscany)…can’t wait to wear my new leather jacket and my scarves this fall and winter…have already moved into my Italian leather purse…and MAN did I do some damage at Wegman’s today!! I’m basically trying to recreate every meal I ate there…which would be hard enough even if I COULD cook…which I can’t. But I have balsamic vinaigrette and zucchini and HALLOUMI!!!! WEGMAN’S HAS IT! For ten friggin’ bucks a (small) package. But if I can do it like Christa did, it’ll be WORTH IT! And olive oil. I’m gonna learn how to do EVERYTHING with olive oil. Because all told, the pizza-and-gelato diet didn’t go too badly with me, and I think my skin looks better than it usually does, too. So we’ll see how I do with Mediterranean cooking….
Getting used to my American keyboard is proving a bit of a challenge…which amuses me. Keep hitting the wrong key for Y, and have to remind myself that apostrophes are just a tap of the pinkie instead of requiring three separate keys.
Other nice things about home…everyone I encountered today spoke English with no trouble, and I didn’t feel guilty about speaking it myself, haha. The ATM dispensed good ol’ greenbacks, all the same size, and I know which is the front and which is the back of the bill. My car. Buying things and knowing that the amount I put on my check card is the same amount that’ll show up on my statement, and I don’t have to mentally add 20%. Bought new running shoes today and knew just what my size was, and it wasn’t in the 40s. Enjoyed being cellphoneless, but nice to be able to contact friends who welcome me home. And, of course, all the computer time I like. I have NO idea what’s happened in the world for the last three weeks, and it’s tough to catch up on news, strangely. The only things I really know are: the oil well is capped, finally, and those Chilean coal miners are facing a hardship I can’t even fathom if it really is Christmas before we get them out.
Anyway…that’s the end of the story for Italy/Austria 2010. It was a good trip. Full of new friends and old friends and helpful people who arrived, always, at just the right moment…thanks to Mom for coming with me, because I probably wouldn’t have gone alone…and to Christa for her hospitality…and to Lumpy, whose decision to move in with me last fall made the whole trip possible.
And if you’ve been reading…thanks so much. Always nice to be followed. I appreciated all the comments. From here on out, I think it’ll be back to being a running blog…and if other things strike me as being noteworthy, I’ll include them…who knows what it’ll turn out to be?
So…stay tuned if you like…. =)