Sunday, December 21, 2014

INTREPIDLY, FROM BERLIN TO VENICE (Part 3): Cafe Culture in Vienna and the elusive Sacher Torte

During the latter part of our trip, we had an informal survey amongst our group (we were 16 persons, in total), regarding which cities we liked the best and the ones we liked the least. Surprisingly, Krakow was the runaway winner - being the number one choice of half the group (apparently, the early favorite, Prague, was well-liked, but did not live up fully to its lofty billing). 

                                Facade of the Upper Belvedere

Also surprisingly, the place that was liked the least was. .  . Vienna. Given the amount of time we were here (1 1/2 days), it was deemed "too big" and full of imperial structures that seemed to take forever to see. 

                                The lovely gardens

I thought this insight was quite valid, as Vienna can be overwhelming even for dedicated culture vultures. Take your pick from the palaces - Schonbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Belvedere Palace (with the biggest collection of works by Gustav Klimt) - and more than 100 (!) museums, such as the ones in the MuseumsQuartier complex (Leopold, Museum of Modern Art, Architecture Centre, etc.), Albertina, etc. And we haven't even started yet on classical music and the various opera houses. 

In fact, i was too 'cultured-out' during our second day that i didn't bother showing up to the Schonbrunn Palace. So my pre-booked online ticket Classic Pass worth EURO18.50 was wasted. Drat!

Vienna is known for its traditional coffee houses, where you can have your hot or cold coffees in a multitude of ways; and choose from a staggering variety of cakes and pastries as well. These people really take their sweets seriously. 

In fact, the traditional coffee house is deeply ingrained into the fabric of locals' lives. Since October 2011,  the "Viennese Coffee House Culture" was listed as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by the UNESCO. It described the Viennese coffee house "as a place where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill." (Here's more about it from our source, Wikipedia)

In practice, it is accepted for a coffee house patron to sit for hours, reading newspapers (and given modern times, avail of the free Wi-Fi), etc. The waiter will typically serve a glass of cold tap water, along with the order of coffee and/or cake; and during a long stay, he will often "bring additional water unrequested, with the idea to serve the guest with an exemplary sense of attention."  [Ibid]

The most famous of these is Cafe Sacher, which bills itself as "a must for every visitor" to Vienna, being the inventor of the original Sacher Torte.  This was invented by Franz Sacher back in 1832, and the recipe is a closely-guarded secret. 

The Sacher Torte is essentially a chocolate cake, with chocolate icing on top and a thin layer of apricot jam beneath the icing. Nowadays, all coffee houses serve their respective version/recipe of this.

Unfortunately, as the following photos attest, hordes of tourists were waiting in line in front of Cafe Sacher.

Its foremost rival is Demel, started way back in 1786 and (rather haughtily) officially known as "K.u.K. (‘Imperial and Royal’) Court Confectionery Bakery Demel". Why so? Apparently, there was a long-running legal battle between Sacher and Demel regarding who had the rights to use the phrase "Original Sacher Torte".

According to the Vienna Unwrapped website:

[Franz Sacher's son] Eduard later perfected the recipe at his work place at Cafe Patisserie Demel, which supplied its cakes and desserts to the Imperial Court and also sold them to the broader public. In 1876, Eduard Sacher founded the Hotel Sacher and started selling the Sacher Torte there. Its success spread quickly, in Austria and overseas. In 1934, the Hotel Sacher went bankrupt and Eduard Sacher’s son Eduard (junior) started working for Demel like his father. He transferred the single ownership of an Eduard Sacher Torte to Demel. In 1938, when Adolf Hitler annexed Austria to the Third Reich, the battle for the original Sacher cake started between Patisserie Demel and Hotel Sacher. It was sparked by the Hotel Sacher’s registration of the brand Original Sacher Torte and the street sale of the cake.

At the centre of almost 20 years of dispute was the rightful use of the brand, the question whether the original cake had a layer of apricot jam in the middle, and whether it was made with butter or margarine (I am not joking).

According to the jurisdiction of the High Court, only the Hotel Sacher is allowed to use the name Original Sacher Torte and the characteristic chocolate seal. Its cake has two layers of apricot jam. Patisserie Demel can use the name ‘Eduard Sacher Torte’. (It now sells it as Demel’s Sacher Torte). The Demel Sacher cake has one layer of apricot jam underneath the icing, and a triangular shaped seal. 

Pretty intense, huh? Denied by the long line at Sacher, i walked over to nearby Demel - only to be met by another long queue of would-be patrons. 

Undeterred, i walked a rather long distance to Cafe Central, which opened in 1876. You guessed it, there was yet another long queue!!!!!!! Argh!!!

Finally, after yet more walking, i ended up at the Cafe Griensteidl (founded 1847). It was, strangely, not very busy; and offered a fantastic location, right across one of the gates of the Hofburg Palace. If you sit at the outdoor veranda, it is the perfect place to take in the cool weather and people-watch. 

And here was my long-awaited Sacher Torte!

My first impression was that it looked kinda dry. After taking a bite or two, it was indeed dry. Taste was okay, so-so. I was very disappointed, and couldn't understand what the fuss about this cake was all about. Boo. 

On the other hand, maybe the versions of other coffee houses were better! And there is only one sure way to find out!!! ;-d

After spending an hour or so walking around the museum district, i dropped by Cafe Mozart, located right behind the Opera house, for a late afternoon snack. Look at the lovely building:

Here's their warm cream cheese strudel, with vanilla sauce. Looked lovely, and it tasted even lovelier!!

And i ordered the 'Mozart coffee' (double mocha topped with whipped cream), and it came with its own chocolate cream liquor (spelled as "liqueur") bottle, with Mozart's profile. Such a cute bottle!

 Here's a close-up of the liquor bottle: (I brought it home, hahaha!!)

I think there's so many Viennese cafes that one has to live here for a month to be able to check them all out. Here's another one, which i heartily DO NOT recommend: 

At the end of the day, all we need is love, actually. Here's the most famous kiss in the world for all readers of this blog! ;-D

Here's a list of the websites of some of the well-known coffee houses:
Cafe Sacher 
Cafe Central 
Cafe Hawelka 
Cafe Mozart 

Friday, December 19, 2014

INTREPIDLY, FROM BERLIN TO VENICE (Part 2): Prague Astronomical Clock

Located at the old town square area of Prague, the Astronomical Clock is definitely the star attraction in these parts, judging from the throng of tourists holding their tablets and cameras, and eagerly awaiting the coming hour. 

First, a bit of history. It was built way back in 1410. One of the (false) legends was that a certain Master Hanus built this clock, and the city councilors were worried he would build another one just like it in another city. Thus, they kidnapped him and blinded him, to ensure their astronomical clock will remain the only one of its kind. 

The clock is chock-full of symbols, such as honored figures during the Medieval times - Astronomer, Philosopher, Chronicler and Angel; and four characteristics detested - a skeleton (Death), a miser with a bag full of money (Greed), a man looking in a mirror (Vanity), and a Turk (Pleasure). It rings at the top of each hour, from 9 AM to 9 PM, and provides a show as well.

 So, let's see what all these tourists are waiting for: (video courtesy of Globetrotter, via You Tube)


Well? Pretty UNDERWHELMING stuff huh? ;-D 

Somehow, the procession of apostles passing by the window and stiffly waving; Death ringing a bell; the golden rooster crowing, and the ringing of the huge bell at the top of the tower, etc.,  just don't seem to cut it, at this day and age.  No laser show, no holograms, no 3D, no surround sound - it's all blah, right? 

In fact, the guide of the Sandemans Free Prague Tour that i joined, a local named Filip, half-jokingly labelled the Astronomical Clock as the "World's Second-Most Disappointing Tourist Attraction". Strong words, indeed. 

I found the 'show' totally dull, and was inclined to agree with him. But he pointed out that it was really a matter of perspective. After all, for something that was more than 600 years old, the clock was definitely space-age-y during its time. 

Besides, after doing some research, interesting facts came to light. The upper dial of the Clock tells Babylonian, German, Italian and Sidereal times SIMULTANEOUSLY. (Sidereal time is time kept with respect to the distant stars) It also keeps track of sunrise and sunset, and the phases of the moon. 

Isn't this great? I'm sure none of the modern, ultra-expensive watches (yes, that's you Chopard, Hublot, Rolex, Cartier and Piaget) can do this!

Going back to Filip, guess what he calls the world's most disappointing tourist attraction? Here's a clue :D :

 I had previously blogged about it in a previous trip to Europe. Click here to find out the answer. :D

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

INTREPIDLY, FROM BERLIN TO VENICE (Part 1): Lake Bled & The Legend of the Sunken Bell

(I had joined an Intrepid Travel small-group tour during September-October 2014, and we had a blast going from our starting point Berlin, to Krakow, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna, Budapest, Bled, and finally Venice! 

This is the start of my series of posts; and as usual, the posts will not be in chronological order. In fact, some places i'll probably skip altogether. . .and a place or two, i'll ramble about on and on. So here goes! ;-D)

Most of the stops on our tour were capital cities. And after enjoying the cosmopolitan delights of the enormous Vienna and Budapest, a stay at the small, quiant town of Bled, Slovenia was a welcome change. 

Bled looks very laid-back on the surface; but in truth, it seems to have modelled itself to be the 'extreme outdoor activities' capital of Central Europe. If you love the water, there's canyoning, wild-water rafting, river tubing, kayaking and scuba diving. Want to get up in the air? Paragliding, sky diving and ballooning are options. Planted on terra firma? You can choose from trekking, rock climbing, mountain biking and the rather sedate horseback riding. 

But of course, yours truly did not partake of any of these strenuous activities ("umm, my travel insurance doesn't cover it" was the lame excuse proffered). Instead, a relaxing ride on the traditional Pletna boat on Lake Bled was in the works.

These are traditional wooden, flat-bottomed boats, operated by the oarsmen. Just like the gondoliers in Venice, this profession is respected, and handed down from generation to generation in families.  

Fare was EURO12.00 per person, and we (tour mates Maia, Joanne and i) sat back for the 20-minute relaxing ride. Which proved to be not quite relaxing, as the other passengers (3 families related to each other) apparently had no concept of water dynamics; and some of them got up to transfer seats, thereby tilting the boat dangerously to one side. A sharp "HEY!!" from yours truly quieted the mutiny though, hehe ;D 

And here was our destination, the island in the middle of the lake and its star attraction, Church of the Assumption:

Here's a closer look in color:

You might be wondering, what is this church all about? Well, it really has to do with a certain legend about the sunken bell. Here's the official version from the website:

The legend of the Sunken bell

Once upon a time there lived a young widow in the castle of Bled. Her husband was killed by robbers and his body was thrown into the lake. She was so inconsolable that she gathered all her gold and silver and cast a bell for the chapel on the island, in memory to her husband. But the bell didn’t arrive there. The bell, the boat and boatmen sank during a terrible storm. 

The desperate widow sold all her property after this accident. She offered the proceeds for the construction of a new church on the island. She left Bled and lived the rest of her life in Rome as a nun. 

After her death the Pope had heard of her misfortune and of her good deeds during her life as a nun, so in memory to her he decide to make a new bell. He said that anyone that rings the bell three times and believes in God, his or her wish would come true.

So, this is what we (or most tourists, for that matter) came here for - to ring the wishing bell three times, and make our respective wishes!!

Ah, there is the matter of an entrance fee of EURO6.00 though. It does include admission to an exhibit of the national costumes of all European Union members, as well as to the church tower (warning: 99 steps!!!) 

It did feel a bit like a rip-off, but Joanne and i duly coughed up our money. Maia was likely much wiser than us, and laughingly demurred.

Here's Joanne getting ready to pull the bell cord:

 I took my turn thereafter, and silently made my wish. Nothing like the sound of bells ringing for that sense of instant gratification - it makes you feel like your wish will indeed be granted! Immediately! Right now!

(Postscript: Two months after. My wish hasn't come true yet.)