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Wanderlust in Vienna

In September 2002, I joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the Head of its Physics Section on an 8-month assignment. Minnu joined me in November for a three-month stay. We started the serious exploration of the beautiful city of Vienna whenever I was free from office work.

Austria’s capital offers a unique blend of imperial traditions and stunning modern architecture. It is renowned for its cultural events, imperial sights, coffee houses, confectionaries, wine taverns, and the exceptional Viennese charm. We decided that our short stay had to be exploited cleverly to sample the many wares of the city. The technique we used was to do a random walk through the city using the Viennese facility of a single ticket valid for subways, trams and buses. 

Vienna’s history dates back to the first century when the Romans established the military camp Vindobona. Today’s cityscape is characterized by the abundance of Baroque buildings created mostly under the rule of Empress Maria Theresia (1740 – 1780) and Emperor Franz Joseph (1848 – 1916), who were largely responsible for the monumental architecture around the Ringstrasse.

Sacher-Torte, the classic chocolate confectionery is a Viennese invention. So are croissants, associated with the period of failed attempts by the Ottoman Empire to capture the city of Vienna. During the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683, the Turks had wanted to plant the Turkish crescent on Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. A Viennese master baker named Peter Wendler created a crescent-shaped pastry to mock the Turkish crescent.

Belvedere Palace today houses the Österreichische Galerie displaying the largest collection of works by Klimt (The Kiss) and Schiele. Vienna’s prime landmarks are the gothic Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), the Giant Ferris Wheel in the Prater, Vienna’s old recreational park, and the Spanish Riding School with their world-famous Lipizzaner horses.

Vienna has many museums and galleries of international reputation: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna with the world’s largest collection of Bruegel paintings, MuseumsQuartier with the Leopold Museum, Museum Moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art), Architekturzentrum (Architectural Centre) and Kunsthalle rank among the city’s most important cultural venues. The Albertina is home to the world’s largest collection of graphic arts and prints (60,000 drawings, 1 million prints).

Vienna is a great musical metropolis. Celebrated composers who lived and worked here included Strauss, Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the world’s best and the Vienna Boys’ Choir equally famous.

My interest in Plasma Pyrolysis and waste to energy application made me take time to visit the Spittelau incinerator. The plant processes around 250,000 tonnes of household waste every year. Around 50 per cent of the energy produced every year from waste incineration stems from biogenic or renewable sources. It makes a key contribution to Vienna’s waste management system and produces an average of 60 GWh of electricity and 500 GWh of heating. producing energy for around 50,000 Viennese households (and heating and warm water for 60,000). now ranks as one of Vienna’s most striking landmarks, with the huge golden ball on its chimney an integral part of the cityscape. the Municipal incinerator plants rarely become architectural highlights. Friedensreich Hundertwasser redesigned it in his unique style in the 80s after a fire destroyed the original structure built-in 1960.

We decided to visit Venice during the Christmas holidays in December. Two modern Austrian rail jet trains link Vienna with Venice every day. The Austrian countryside, full of mountains, lakes and windmills begins an hour after leaving Vienna and is breathtaking. At the end of the 8-hour journey, there are several long tunnels through the Alps reaching the delta of river Po (remember Giovanni Guareschi’s delightful characters Don Camillo and Peppone from this region?) with miles and miles of vineyards.

We stayed at Hotel Abbazia, in Ghetto Vecchio in the Jewish quarters, a short walk from the Santa Lucia Railway station. In the late 19th century, this rambling building of old-world charm was a Carmelite Monastery. There is a delightful garden, where we found a patch of the grounds converted into a mini Kerala by an old staff member from Kerala.

We spent a couple of days wandering around the picturesque city. No one comes to Venice and fails to be struck by the uniqueness of the city. For centuries Venice dominated trade on the Mediterranean through wily diplomacy, assisted by its mighty navy. Like the architecture of its signature Basilica di San Marco, the Venetian empire was dazzlingly multicultural. Venice turned arrivals from every nation and creed into trading partners with a common credo: as long as everyone was making money, cultural boundaries need not apply.

I had been to Venice in the early 70s when I visited the International Centre for Theoretical Physics to attend the Summer Schools in Plasma Physics. I could not help compare the changes after twenty years. Floods for example. San Marcos was flooded during our visit. The northern Adriatic region has strong tides, unlike most other Mediterranean regions. Thus, floods usually occur for a few hours at high tide.

Two Malayali names stand out in my memory of the Vienna days. James Pazhayadath, working in the administrative section, went to great lengths to make my stay in Vienna hassle-free. He was a veteran in Vienna, with his brother working in the Indian embassy. We found that we share a common interest – books in Malayalam. I was quite impressed by his perseverance and motivation which helped him to build a beautiful home in the suburbs and convert the compound into a mini-Kerala. Another friend was Dr Alexander Verghese, an economist with UNIDO. I recall many pleasant week ends at his home, meeting many people, including the Indian Ambassador Sri Srinivasan.

The large Malayali community in Vienna originated from the efforts of the Catholic Church to bring trained nurses from Kerala. The husbands who followed them found jobs in the International agencies like IAEA and UNIDO. This prosperous, mostly Christian group is friendly and helpful to new visitors. There is a Malayali association with the inevitable politics. The Jacobites conduct weekly services in a Turkish church. We were hosted by many groups, and we found a prosperous community who transplanted their Kerala roots to the Austrian soil.

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