Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Contemporary Madame Butterfly photo courtesy of Wiener Staatsoper
Sacher photos courtesy of Hotel Sacher Wien
Imperial Hotel photos courtesy of Imperial Hotel Wien
Memories from the days of my youth.
64 years ago, I got my first taste of European travel when my father said, “we should instill some culture to the children”. At the time, I was living in Athens with my folks and it was the last year of high school.
So my mother, a couple of her friends and I embarked on an escorted summer trip to Austria and Germany departing from Piraeus by ship to Venice, spending half-a-day in La Serenissima, then by “Pullman Bus”, as high-end coaches were called in Greece at the time, to Vienna over the Brenner Pass.
In Vienna we stayed at the Imperial Hotel Wien for a few nights, attending operas at the Wiener Staatsoper – “Madame Butterfly” one night and “Tannhäuser” another, with Lehar’s “The Land of Smiles” operetta at the Volksoper Wien in between. Frankly except for Tannhäuser I found the others boring. We also visited every palace that was open to the public and many of the palace gardens, plus art museums and other “interesting” city locations.
The only remembrance I have from the Imperial was some of the food at the hotel’s restaurants. At the time, even though my mother was considered one of the best home cooks in Athens, cooking dishes that family and friends would come to observe how she created them, I was a miserable eater surviving on only charcoal-grilled lamb chops and French fries and, very infrequently, a hardboiled egg! But, somehow, this was “different” food; I never had wiener schnitzel before, and the main restaurant at the Imperial offered a very tender and large schnitzel that almost overflowed the plate it was served in, with a large patty of melty compound butter on top.
The less formal restaurant of the hotel had a delicious “Assiette Anglaise” i.e. a cold cuts plate that included a very thinly cut, rare roast beef!
I never had beef like that, as most of the meat in Greece was lamb and what was called “rosebif” in Athens was usually a slice of overcooked and leathery piece of veal. Here, the Assiette Anglaise had slices of ham, salami and chorizo and other preserved meat cuts, a cold chicken drumstick plus pickled red peppers and potato salad in addition to the roast beef. Washed down with a cold beer it was Ambrosia!
The other thing I vividly remember to this day from my Viennese visit was going to the Prater and the ride on the Riesenrad, the giant Ferris wheel there.
I had recently seen the atmospheric black and white Orson Welles film “The Third Man” that even though was produced in 1949, was showing in Greek cinemas in 1956. The Ferris ride was one of the key scenes. I was hoping to be able to also see the Vienna sewer system as portrayed in the film but, no luck. The ride on the Prater Wheel was good enough for me; I spent the rest of the day whistling the theme from the Third Man.
Another disappointment was the view of the “Beautiful Blue” Danube; it was neither beautiful nor blue!
From Vienna we drove through Germany to Munich.
My mother and her friends went shopping in Munich because they could get high-end products that, even at retail prices, were much cheaper in Germany than Athens. At the time, luxury products from outside Greece (even cosmetics were considered by the government “luxury”) were very expensive because the Greek government was imposing import duties from 100% to 500%, and that was on the costs of the products, the freight and insurance. Therefore, half-empty suitcases were our luggage.
As far as I was concerned, when my mother went shopping I was thrilled to spend my time at Munich’s Deutsche Museum. It was, and I believe still is, one of the world's largest science museums with a multitude of interactive exhibits plus a full scale model of a mine shaft in the basement.
I spent 2 full days there.
Munich’s beer halls are some of Germany’s most famous establishments, operating for hundreds of years in the same location usually being part of a brewery. The beer is fresh and the food simple and very traditional. Lots of wurst.
One of the younger men on the trip was a brewmaster for the Fix brewery in Athens with friends in Germany where he had studied beer-making. So, I went with him when he met his German friends at the Hofbräuhaus, a local institution and tourist attraction; talk about a busman’s holiday! They serve traditional Bavarian food and beer in a festive atmosphere complete with oompah band and all!
At the Hofbräuhaus I had my first 2 liter beerstiefel and grilled bratwurst, bauernwurst and other wurst, with potato salad. Later on, during my European peregrinations I returned for the Oktoberfest, and I had many more beer mugs then.
German wurst is a key component of the German national heritage. It incorporates more than 1500 different wurst varieties and includes not only sausages, but any type of smoked, cured, or preserved meat.
Another exciting activity was to wait for the Rathaus-Glockenspiel at the “new” town hall. The Marienplatz in front was full of tourists and locals waiting for the clock to strike. Three times a day (11am, 12 noon and 5 pm) 32 life-sized figures come to life in the 260 foot tower, reenacting scenes from Munich’s history. You could also walk inside the inner courtyard where there was a biergarten, visit the Ratkeller restaurant in the cellar and climb the tower for a view of the square.
Just a short distance from Marienplatz was the Viktualienmarkt, another location I visited in Munich. The market is open daily except Sundays and holidays and you’ll find an incredible array of local produce and food products in the stalls and shops that surround the market. Browsing the fruit and vegetable stalls will give you a good idea of what’s in season, from white asparagus in the springtime to wild mushrooms in the autumn.
The return trip from Munich took us back through Vienna and Salzburg.
I don’t remember much of Salzburg, except for the hotel’s garden that was full of flowering hydrangeas. And the walk through the old town, where shops still sport exterior tin signs descriptive with images of what was sold inside, since in medieval times most town residents were illiterate.
On our return to Vienna we stayed at the Hotel Sacher this time, home of the famous Sacher Tort!
Its cafés and bars are normally a meeting place for artists, writers, politicians and heads of state. The sumptuous rooms were furnished with comfortable antique-looking furniture and portraits of emperors and other important members of the Viennese high society hanging on the walls.
Their restaurants are still integral parts of Viennese culture. Anyone who is anyone is going to be eating or drinking there at one time or another.
Of course, that’s where the famous Sacher Tort is created, a piece of culinary delight that I made sure I had every day we stayed there, accompanied by lots of Schlag (whipped cream).
Then back to Venice for a quick visit to the Doge’s palace and the Bridge of Sighs and the San Marco Basilica. We only stayed there overnight as the next day we boarded our ship for the return voyage. But I still made sure to have a cup of espresso at Café Florian, the famous pastry shop with tables in Piazza San Marco that, somehow, the square’s myriad pigeons never bother!
Is it a wonder then that, later on in life, I became a food writer? What a development… someone that ate for most of his childhood nothing but lamb chops and fries, now is spending a large part eating exotic meals in some of the best restaurants in the world, drinking lots of iconic wines and enjoying every minute of each meal!
C'est la vie!
For further on the Imperial Hotel Wien also see the article Imperial Hotel Vienna.
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