Upon returning back to my Viennese suite, I was surprised to find a message from my host. He owned another apartment (or 3) in the building, that he called home. Walter was living only a few floors above.
He wanted to speak to me.
I was hoping I hadn’t done anything wrong – and also hoping he wasn’t going to do something strange to me (this picture freaked me out a bit!). It was a bit late, but I thought I better head to his suite and quietly knock on his door.
If he was asleep he wouldn’t hear me – actually – he wouldn’t have heard me unless he was in his kitchen.
I knocked, he answered, and before long we were drinking tea.
“What are you doing out all day in the cold by yourself?” He asked me.
“Just touring around, enjoying Vienna.” I answered.
“You like this ‘touring’? What do you do exactly?” He asked.
I told him that I loved history and had researched some of the places I could potentially see even before leaving Canada. He asked me a few more questions and then told me he had someone he wanted me to meet.
He said that he thought perhaps I might enjoy helping this young man host a tour of the EU.
There was a group of international female students lined up without a proper (preferably female) host. It was decided that because the languages spoken by the tour-ees varied (but did not include German), the best host to find was one who spoke English.
The opportunity was as follows: if I could ‘pass inspection’, I would be guided through prepping the tour (it hadn’t been prepped?!) And we would be leaving in 3 sleeps (what?!).
We called the contact and agreed we would meet at Schonbrunn Palace. I would get there by transit. We would meet at 10am the next morning in front of the gates.
I was excited – like REALLY excited, and nervous and worried about whether I had gotten myself in over my head – but I was going to go for it.
I didn’t realize what a huge amount of work I was going to be ‘in for’ but of course it was going to be worth it to explore Europe for free.
Oh yes, that was the thing – I wasn’t going to ‘get paid’ per say – I was just going to travel without paying for my own hotels (hostels in this case) and transportation. Food was up to me.
So technically it can cost to be a bottom rank, international tour guide – a job only for the compelled (which of course I was/am).
It was good I followed my instinct to come up right away to speak to Walter – I may have missed out on the opportunity, had I waited until morning.
The next AM I hopped on the Underground: U4 to Schönbrunn station (Schoenbrunn/Schonbrunn). I have to admit to being a bit nervous to handle foreign language public transit – there really wasn’t a lot of English signage of any sort in Vienna – though I did find a few locals spoke to me in decent broken English.
Turns out the subway was easy to handle – just as easy as what I was used to with Toronto’s transit system. And certainly it helped that the stop I was to get off at was named after the Palace.
When I arrived at Schonbrunn, I was overwhelmed by its sheer size – enormous! It seemed to span city blocks.
I would learn that Schonbrunn (meaning ‘beautiful spring’ after a natural spring located on site) housed 1,441 separate rooms (huh?!). Of course there was a Christmas market outside on the front grounds too, just for extra charm.
Did I forget to mention that now it was Christmas day?
I wasn’t sure who I was meeting but knew where to stand. So stand I did. It was only moments before a short, dark haired, bearded (well more of a thin goatee), stalky man walked up to me.
“Yes, that’s me. Hello…” I replied. Before answering, he was ushering me to the entry door.
“I am Alpagu. Let’s go. We have much to do.” He said in a thick accent I didn’t recognize.
We rushed in, he paid and handed me an audio phone thingy (but did not take one himself). As he rushed me through a few rooms, he was asking me questions while simultaneously telling me every detail about every room.
This guy was a skilled guide. He knew what he was doing.
After a room or two, he told me that we would be doubling back so I could lead him through a brief tour – a test – so I had better be watching and listening!
He asked me if I had a camera.
I told him I did. He told me to get it, I did. I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if photos were allowed inside the Palace and he looked at me with a furled, disappointed brow.
“Oh Ana, Volta (Walter) told me you were an adventurer but you are too afraid to capture a photo memento and it is not even you clicking? Always capture a picture, Ana. And try to get yourself in the picture. Years from now no one cares about another picture of the Eiffel tower – they care who is in front of the tower. You understand? And if you have no photo – it did not happen. Now give me the camera.“
He snapped away as we walked.
His personality was compelling. He was very smart – I would learn later that the reason I couldn’t pick out his accent was because he was fluent in 7 languages (and spoke more with less fluency). He was raised speaking three languages – Turkish, German and French.
He was born in Turkey and his parents were Turkish – but he moved to Germany as a toddler after his father, a religious man, was murdered in Ankara. He lived close to the French border and spent lots of time in Paris, chasing French girls and such.
We continued through the enormous, ornate Palace. At this point in my life, I had seen nothing like it – but that was about to change.
Schonbrunn was gorgeous from room to room to room. A world class collection of sculpture and paintings, elaborate ceilings, ornamented floors. Decadent – as a palace should be.
I couldn’t imagine living somewhere like Schonbrunn, and sure enough Austria’s most beloved Empress Elisabeth – couldn’t handle it either. She found life here stifling.
The story of Empress Elisabeth (known to her family as Sisi or Sissi) is quite dramatic.
From her informal upbringing to her insecurity based vanity (she was often sewn into her clothes), her meddling spiteful mother-in-law, her unheard of smoking habit, a strong case of wanderlust, the murder-suicide of her only son, her known dislike of Austria and finally her untimely murder…
It doesn’t get more Grimm fairy tale like than that – at least not in reality.
It was time now for us to turn back for my test.
I threw in every fact I had been told since entering the building, and I spewed them out as concisely as possible.
At the end of it all, Alpagu had very little criticism for me, and figured I could handle the tour. Plus – he really needed the help. He was under a time crunch. Departure = t – 3 days and counting!
Now I had to go to Klagenfurt (Austria) where the tour would be departing, and I would be doing my research. There was communist bloc housing that I would be staying at. I didn’t know it yet, but that would take some adjusting to. Exciting!
Many additional photos of Schonbrunn Palace in the slideshow. Click any photo above to view it in a larger format.
- Schloss Schönbrunn (schoenbrunn.at)
- Empress Elisabeth of Austria (wikipedia)
- Schonbrunn Palace (wikipedia)