Friday, June 29, 2012

A Month in Vienna: Plan it Now!

When I retired, my short list of things to do included spending more time in Vienna, Austria. In the past two years I have done so, making month-long visits to the city in early Spring 2011 and 2012. They were so much fun, I plan to continue these extended stays in coming years.

Staying a month in Vienna has advantages over shorter trips there. One is that I do not feel the need to cram everything I want to do into just a few days, so my pace is more leisurely and relaxed. Also, an extended vacation in the city ensures that I have a wider selection of concerts, operas, and other events from which to choose. For example, during both of my month-long visits, the Musikverein had an orchestra playing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a favorite, and had other attractive offerings scattered among other concerts that did not interest me. 

Vienna Flea Market, Open Saturdays at Naschmarkt
With more time to amble about the city, I made multiple visits to the Saturday flea market at Naschmarkt, filling my bags with fascinating old pictures, postcards, and books. Also, I went several times to the book and stamp room of the Dorotheum (adding more things to cart back home), and even attended an auction there. The extra time in the city also gave me time to walk around some of areas of the city, such as Simmering, that I have rarely visited.     

A month in Vienna not only provide opportunities for more exploration of the city, but also can be economical. The cost per day of vacationing in Vienna can be significantly reduced by renting an apartment for thirty days or more. Also, because rental apartments have fully equipped kitchens, money can be saved by making and eating meals there, dining out only on special occasions.

The monthly cost of renting a comfortable, fully equipped apartment starts at about $50 per day for a place large enough for one or two people. A comparable hotel room, without a kitchen, would cost at least $100. If two unrelated people want an apartment large enough for two separate sleeping areas, the cost per person starts at around $35 per person per day.

If you enjoy Vienna and have the time, a month-long visit may make sense. Here are some things to consider when planning such a trip and some tools to help.  

When to Go

For me, any month is a good month to be Vienna, but some months are better than the others. The least desirable months for a longer stay are July and August. During these months, the Staatsoper, Volksoper, Burgtheater, and Musikverein do not offer their regular fare of performances. Major orchestras and production companies are traveling or on vacation. However, all is not lost during these months because the city provides some music, outdoor theater, and other attractions for tourists, often at spectacular outdoor venues such as the City Hall plaza and Schönbrunn Palace. 
Summer Outdoor Movie Theater in front of the City Hall

Two other things to consider when thinking about a July or August stay in Vienna:  First, most apartments are not air conditioned, and these months can be scorchers. Second, finding a bargain — or even reasonably priced — flight from the United States to Vienna during these months is likely to be more difficult than during other months.
The other ten months do not have the same drawbacks as July and August, and each has its own advantages. My choice in 2010 was to spend the month of April in Vienna. In 2011, I left a week earlier, arriving in Vienna during the last week of March and staying to the last week in April.  I selected these months because:

●  Flights from Seattle to Vienna were reasonably priced during this period (about $1,000)

● I expected the weather to be decent, and both years, it was very comfortable in Vienna during these months, with only a few uncomfortable days.

● The city would not be too crowded with tourists; there were plenty, but not hoards.

● Vienna’s Easter markets were open during these times. Easter markets -- at Freyung and Schoenbrunn -- have booths with food and handicrafts, plus attractive easter decorations. They are fun to visit

● I would have a good choice of apartments for the month.

The Old Vienna Easter Market at Freyung
In both 2011 and 2012, the timing of my month-long stays worked out well. However, two things that I enjoy were unavailable until the end of my time in Vienna. First, because of the iffy weather, few musical events were held at outdoor venues. Outdoor concerts and other events are usually fun in Vienna and many are available in warmer months. Second, the city’s heuriger (places located near the Vienna Woods serving new wine) did not offer outside seating until the weather warmed near the end of my vacation. Sitting outside at a heuriger, surrounded by vineyards, is one of the true pleasures of a visit to Vienna.

No doubt, May, June, September, and October are spectacular months to be in Vienna, though they cost a little more and are more crowded. The city’s annual arts festival (Wiener Festwochen) starts in May, offering some of the best musical and other cultural events of the year. The festival continues through June, and is supplemented that month by many special outdoor events. In September and October, the weather cools and the new concert and opera seasons open. These months are great for tromping around the Vienna Woods and sipping new wine in Grinzing, Heiligenstadt, and Nussdorf. 
An Outdoor Heuriger Surrounded by Vineyards near Beethovenweg

 Although a visit that straddles November and December might include some very cold days, it would also provide an opportunity to visit Vienna’s Christmas Markets that open around the middle of November and last until Christmas. At last count, Vienna had thirteen different Christmas markets (see for descriptions and locations). My favorites are the old Vienna Christkindlmarkt at Freyung; the large, colorful Christkindlmarkt in front of the Vienna city hall; and the Christmas village (Weihnachtsdorf) located at the old hospital, which is now part of the University of Vienna.
Christmas Market in from the Vienna City Hall

These Christmas markets are a treat to visit. I have timed several week-long Vienna vacations to be there in early December so that I could enjoy the warm wine, decorative lights, historic settings, and gemütlichkeit of these Christmas markets. In some years, the evenings at these  colorful markets were comfortable; during a few years, the cold was almost unbearable.

Where to Stay: Finding an Apartment

In both 2010 and 2011, I found an apartment for my month-long stay using the internet. Both years, I spent several hours comparing options, finally choosing one in a preferred location at a reasonable price.

In 2010, I traveled to Vienna with a friend -- a former college roommate -- who had recently retired and had never visited Vienna. We want a space large enough to have two sleeping areas. We ended up in a 70+ square meter apartment on Schopenhauergasse in the 19th district (about four blocks from the Volksoper). It was fully equipped with wireless internet, dish- and clothes- washers, cable television, and kitchen. Bedding, towels, dishes and other necessities for daily life were provided. The apartment had one bedroom and one very large living room/kitchen area. Moving an extra bed from the bedroom to the living room, we had the two living areas we wanted.
Part of the Living Room-Kitchen at Schopenhauergasse Apt.

The apartment was nicely maintained. After occupying it, we did not see the apartment owner again, though we talked to her on the telephone on different occasions. We cleaned the apartment (with the equipment that was provided) and washed our bedding.  

The location of the apartment was nearly perfect. It was on a quiet residential street a short walk to the streetcar on Wäehringerstrasse and two nearby subway stops. Several small grocery stores and bakeries were within four blocks. Also, a couple of block away was an outdoor market with fresh vegetables, plus some good baked and cooked goods. 

We paid just under $2,000 for the apartment (including utilities), about $33 per night per person. The utilities were included in the price. The only disconcerting thing about renting the apartment was that I had to wire the full payment for it in a couple of months advance. The owner did not take credit cards. Wiring this amount of money to an unknown person was a bit of a leap of faith. Fortunately, it worked out well.

In 2011, I rented a smaller apartment (36 sq meters) for myself in the 6th district, on Liniengasse. The price was about $1,500, or $50 per night. I chose the apartment for its location (a short walk from the West Train Station, near Mariahilferstrasse) and amenities. It was on the third floor of a five-story building; a small grocery store was on the first floor. From the apartment, it was a short walk to a bus stop on Gumperdorferstrasse and to a subway station.
The Newly Reconstructed West Train Station

The owner went out of her way to make the stay there enjoyable, meeting me at the West Train Station to guide me to the apartment and offering to clean and wash the bedding whenever I wanted her to. As with the other apartment, it was fully equipped, including such extras as a microwave and electric tea pot.

Again, I paid for the apartment several weeks in advance, but this time I was allowed to use Paypal, which meant that I could use my credit card and had some protection if something went  wrong with the rental. 

I describe my experience renting two apartments to illustrate the rental process and how easy it was. If you have an interest in renting an apartment for a month or longer stay, I suggest that you check out these three websites:

I used the first one for my two rentals, though I also checked rental accommodations (and even tried to rent an apartment) using the second one. I have not used the third one.

Each of these sites provide, in German and English, a list of apartments for rent with a description, pictures, and a location map for each apartment. The first site,, is easiest to navigate (though it is by no means elegant) and it has a calendar showing for each apartment the days that it has been rented and the days it is available. Using an interactive page, you can check price and make a reservation by entering the first and last days that you would like to rent the apartment. This page will confirm the apartment’s availability during the days you want it and show the price. At that point, you can use the interactive page to reserve the apartment for the days you selected. After you make a reservation, the apartment owner will contact you by email with information about payment. 

The last time I looked at this site (June 2012), it had listings for 359 apartments. These listing could be sorted by price or by location (district). One thing is important to remember: for many of these apartments, to get a bargain price you need to stay a full 30 days (a month). For example, when I searched the price of the apartment on Liniengasse where I stayed this year, I found the price was 1,785 Euros from November 1 to November 30 (29 days), but was 1,125 Euros from November 1 to December 1 (30 days).

The second website is a bit clumsier. However, it has one feature that is better than the first site: it allows sorting of apartments by category (economy, standard, premium), location (district), and features  (smoking, pets, internet, parking, elevator). Thus, it can help you find an apartment that best meets your needs if you have a special situation (e.g., traveling with a dog). Unfortunately, this website does not have the calendar feature showing the dates that the apartments are available. It also requires more clicking to find pictures, price, and descriptions. If you find an apartment that you want to rent, you must complete a form specifying the apartment and the days you would like to rent it, then the site operators will respond by e-mail in a few hours letting you know if the apartment is available when you want it and its price. This site had about 145 apartment units listed for rent.

In early 2011, had some problems reserving an apartment using this site. Twice, I sent, via the web site, an inquiry about renting an apartment. Each time the response stated that the apartment was not available on the dates I requested. Because of time zone differences and the lag between completing the apartment inquiry form and the response, I wasted several days trying to rent, without success, an apartment though this site. 

The third site allows sorting by district, apartment name, number of persons accommodated, size, and quality rating. In June 2011, it had 196 apartments listed. Like the second website, it does not show on-line the availability of apartments, instead requiring completion of an inquiry form to determine if a specific apartment is available during the days that a person wants to rent it.

In addition to these two websites, you might also wish to check for an apartment on the Vienna Craigslist. I suggest looking at two locations on Craigslist. The first is

This set of listings is mostly for daily and weekly rentals, but occasionally has listings for longer term stays.

The second site is  It might be worthwhile to keep an eye on these listings. They ads by people who want to rent their apartments some specified period  (weeks to months) while they will be away. With a little luck, it may be possible to get a good deal on such a rental for the weeks that you plan to spend in Vienna.

Many other websites offer apartments for rent. Many of these website are for short-term rentals, including these:

Other websites offer a small set of apartments located together or near each other. In most cases, these apartments are available for short-term or longer term rental.

Planning for your Month in Vienna

When you know the days that you plan to be in Vienna, it makes sense to purchase tickets for major cultural events in advance. Of course, the earlier you decide which events you want to attend, the more likely you will be able to buy tickets before the event is sold out. Also, you are more likely to be able to find tickets in your preferred price range. There seems to be no shortage of tickets costing several hundred dollars each, but ticket costing $30 to $60 each are much harder to find for the more popular events.
On Stage with the Munich Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

A good first stop for planning the trip to Vienna is this website, which provides an overview of what is happening in Vienna and what will be happening in the coming months:

This site is comprehensive, showing not only the high culture events, but also pop concerts, diverse performances, outdoor festivals, and other public events of all kinds.  A branch of this site has a searchable listing of events by day and location:

You can also research events and buy tickets for them at for-profit websites, including:

When it comes to the premium music events in Vienna, I prefer to buy directly from the official ticket office of the Musikverein, Konzerthaus, Volksoper, and Staatsoper. When buying directly on their websites, it is easy to review the schedule of upcoming performances , select the ones   to attend, pick the seat(s) that I want, and purchase the tickets.

The sites for concerts are:

(If the home page appears in German, it can be changed to English by clicking the EN button at the top of the page.)

You can use these websites to find the concerts at the Musikverein and Konzerthaus for coming months, and you can buy tickets, selecting the price range you want and selecting your seats. To buy tickets, you will need to establish an account at the sites, which is very easy. Also, you can sign up for email updates that will keep you informed of coming events. After you purchase tickets, you can pick them up at the ticket office of the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus after you arrive in the city. 

The sites for the Vienna State Opera and the Volksoper have similar pages, easy to negotiate, to identify performances scheduled for each month and buy the tickets you want.

I have used these pages for several years and have never had any problems with them. Just remember to print out receipts for your purchases and take them with you.

Time to Go

One of Vienna's Many Museums
By finding the right apartment, a person traveling alone should be able to have great month in Vienna for about $150 per day; a couple traveling together can have a month in the city for about $135 per person per day. For a single traveler, the costs include $1,000 for an international flight, $1,500 for an apartment, and $2,000 ($67 per day) for everything else (meals, transportation, entertainment). For a couple, the expenses include $2,000 for international transportation, $2,200 for an apartment, and $65 per day per person for everything else.  

If those costs fit your budget, if you have the time, and if you enjoy what the great city has to offer, it’s time to go.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

May Day, Vienna, 1955

Among some materials that I bought from Vienna's Dorotheum Auction House  in April, I found a few pictures taken at the May Day Parade held in Vienna in 1955. This date was, of course, a holiday, International Worker's Day. And on this day, it was traditional during much of the 20th Century for the workers in Vienna to hold a parade on the Ringstrasse.

The May 1, 1955 date was especially significant in Austrian history because it was the tenth anniversary of the reinstatement of the 1929 Austrian Constitution, the one that had been discarded by Chancellor Dollfuss on May 1, 1934, following the civil war that destroyed the Social Democratic Party and created a one-party Austro-fascist state.

Also, May 1, 1955 had to be a time of optimism for Vienna and Austria because it was just two weeks before the signing of the Austrian State Treaty whereby the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union returned sovereignty to the Austrian state and ended their occupation of the country.

Most of the pictures of the parade was taken at around 10:15 in the morning at or near Schottentor (see the clock in the picture below). The first shows a float that is a globe with the words "World Holiday of Labor, 1 May." The float is built on a platform of two bicycles, and you can see the legs of the two people inside the globe moving it forward. At the rear right of the float is a man holding a flag, but I cannot tell what it represents. To the rear left is a banner whose words are mostly blocked by the float. It appears that a pretty good crowd is observing the parade. 

Float at Vienna May Day Parade on May 1, 1955
 A little later view of this float, up the Ring a few steps from Schottentor, shows good crowds and an identifying sign, "SPOe XIX, Section XII." I think this sign identifies the marchers following it as members of the Socialist Party of Austria who live in Vienna's19th District.   

Another View of the Vienna May Day Float, near Schottentor
The parade also had bands, including the one shown below.  The building behind the band still stands today with Victoria Versicherung written on its exterior, but the Tuxedo Club is long gone. Note one of the bicycles to the right has decorated spokes.

Marching Band in 1955 May Day Parade in Vienna
My small cache of pictures include one other float, this one a little stranger than the first. It seems to be a celebratory float with a bit of protest. It shows the three arrow symbol of the Socialist Party of Austria and says "10 Years, Socialist Party of Austria, 2nd Republic Reconstruction. It has a chain around the float with a lock showing the flags of the U.S., Great Britain, and France (but not the Soviet Union). This float seems to suggest that these three occupying powers had hindered the rebuilding of the Second Republic. 

Float Celebrating Ten Years of Rebuilding Austria's Second Republic, With a Protest Message
The parade ended in front of the Vienna City Hall. The following is the only picture taken at that location.
You can see the first float, plus some large crowds, and the Burgtheater in the background.
The 1955 May Day Parade Ending at the Vienna City Hall

No doubt speeches followed the parade.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

New Bridge for Birch Bay, WA

The Bay Rim Condominiums on Birch Bay Drive have a footbridge across Terrell Creek, near its mouth, to link the condo owners to the oceanfront land that they own. In recent years, the wooden bridge has been decaying, finally becoming dangerous to cross. Here is how it looked on June 18, 2012 at about noon:

To remedy the problem: a new bridge. The Condo Association decided to replace the wooden bridge with a metal one. It was prefabricated and hauled to Birch Birch. Using a big crane, the old bridge was lifted up from its spot over the Creek.

Then, the new bridge was hoisted up and put in place of the old bridge.

After some adjustments, the new bridge was fastened down.

And in early afternoon, the new bridge looked like it belongs:

Reviewing Robert Caro's Latest Book: The Absorbing, Shocking, and Puzzling Life of Lyndon Johnson

The wait between Robert Caro's third book on Lyndon Johnson (Master of the Senate) published in 2002 and the fourth volume (The Passage of Power) that appeared in May was too long. However, I will forgive Caro the inconvenience of the delay if he promises to finish his fifth and last volume quickly. It should be a doozy.

Unlike the first three volumes of Caro's biography, in which Johnson's negative personal behavior seemed to overwhelm, or at least greatly detract from, his considerable accomplishments, in the fourth volume Johnson's pitch-perfect performance following the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination dominates the story. For a few months, Johnson showed all of his best qualities and assisted the nation through a difficult time. During this period, his public approval ratings reached 80 percent. He achieved the pinnacle of his career and life.

Though much of the book covers the post-assassination period, it also tells the story of Johnson's initially hesitant quest for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1960, when he delayed launching a campaign and underestimated John Kennedy's political abilities. The book then describes the circumstances of his acceptance of the nomination to join the Kennedy ticket as vice president, and it documents in some detail his painful experience as vice president.

In those years before the assassination, from the late 1950's to November 1963, the noble elements of Johnson's character often battled unsuccessfully with his negative attributes. In those situations, Johnson's behavior could range from distasteful to criminal to immoral. It is the clash between the positive and negative attributes of this complex man that makes his biography absorbing and, at times, shocking and puzzling. 

The Passage of Power ends with the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Johnson's call for a War on Poverty. The next volume will cover the 1964 presidential campaign and his full term in office starting in 1965. It is likely to be a brutal one for LBJ's reputation and a page turner for those of us who lived through it.

For a more detailed review of The Passage of Power, see my book review at this link:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Buying My First E-Book: Inching Toward the Dark Side of Bookdom

The Passage of Power E-book on a Xoom
A few days ago, I bought my first e-book, crossing over to the dark side of bookdom. At first I felt guilty about it, but now, I must say, I have enjoyed visiting parts of the dark side. Nevertheless, I don’t plan to live there (at least not yet).  

Let me explain. I am a book person. I own several thousand. I have lugged tons of books from coast to coast to coast. Moving from Berkeley to Durham N.C., I took a couple thousand pounds of books with me. Changing Durham for Athens, Georgia, I hauled a couple of large vanloads to the new location. More recently, relocating from Athens to Birch Bay, Washington, I packed a huge u-haul van full of them (who needs furniture?) and drove them here.

It gets even worse:  a couple of years ago, I bought more than 11,000 books through an EBay auction and moved them from Seattle to Birch Bay. Thanks to that purchase, until recently I had two storage units full of books in addition to a house jam packed with them.

I not only read and collect books, I sell them on Amazon. At present, I have a couple thousand books listed and several hundred waiting patiently to join them.   

Given this context, it should be understandable why, as a buyer and seller of real books, buying an e-book seemed like crossing to the dark side, joining the forces of evil that intend to entice everyone to read books from a screen rather than from paper. I feared my treasonous behavior would contribute to the demise of real books that have long been a part of my life.

Now, a few days later, my guilt is gone. I have figured out that it makes sense -- and does not betray bookdom -- to own two types of e-books: free out-of-copyright books and expensive bestsellers. However, I also have concluded that if I start purchasing digital versions of my favorite type of book, “serious non-fiction,” I will have truly joined the deepest levels of the dark side of bookdom, instead of just visiting it for my own amusement.

Before I purchased my first e-book a couple of weeks ago, I had long been the proud owner of the digital version of several old books whose copyright expired long ago. These rare, almost impossible to find, books relate to some of my research interests. For example, I downloaded from Google several books by Friedrich Gerstaecker that were published in Germany in the 1840s and 1850s, describing his travels in the United States, including long visits in Arkansas. Also, I added to my free digital collection several books written during the last part of the 1800s about the experiences of Germans in the American Civil War. All of these books are accessible only in a few U.S. libraries. If they are available for purchase, they are very expensive. Yet now I have them in digital form at no cost.

Google Play Library on my Computer, including The Passage of Power
The Passage of Power E-book on an Android Phone
My positive experience with these free books on Google Read (Play Read) showed that it is possible to enjoy reading books on a tablet, computer, and cell phone, though I found that reading from a screen is somewhat less enjoyable than reading real copies of a book. So, when I was preparing to buy a copy of Robert Caro’s long-awaited The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage to Power, I considered the reasons while I should buy a real copy of the book instead of a digital copy. While I slightly prefer reading a real copy, price considerations favored the digital copy. The Caro e-book cost $16.26 with tax, less than half the hardcover list price, $35.00, plus tax. The e-book price was also a few dollars less than the lowest on-line discounted price of the new book, especially when postage costs were included in the calculation.

A couple of other convenience factors also favored the digital version of the book. Firstly, I could download it in seconds, avoiding a drive to the nearest bookstore or a wait for the book to arrive in the mail. Secondly, I planned to take this thick book, which has over 700 pages, with me on a trip that would include a couple of flights. The idea of adding a few pounds to my carry-on bag was not enticing.

With cost and convenience as pluses, and reading experience as a slight negative, the next consideration was my preference that e-books not take over the world. As I have said, I like real books -- to read and sell -- and want them to thrive. Would my purchase of an e-book contribute to the demise of real books?  Maybe it would, I concluded, but that might not be a bad thing for popular best sellers like Caro’s. Do we really need to cut down forests to publish hundreds of thousands of copies of the latest morsels from Patterson, Clancy, Steel and the like?  Face it: their latest books are gobbled up by excited readers, then discarded like day-old newspapers. Within a few months of their publication, used copies of almost all bestsellers can be purchased on-line for a penny, indicating the large surplus of supply over demand.

So yes, darn it, I thought, I can buy the digital version of bestsellers like The Passage to Power with little harm to the future of the "serious nonfiction" books that matter. Buying bestsellers as digital books will mean that fewer real copies of these books will be printed, but I don’t see a big downside to that result. (Note: owners of book stores, I am sure, disagree with this conclusion, but their fate depends on how well they can adapt to the realities of competition with on-line sellers of real and digital books. I wish them well, but I am not going to subsidize them by purchasing books at full list price.)

While I can justify purchasing a bestseller as an e-book, I still reject the idea of buying “serious non-fiction books” in digital form. These books are not bestsellers. They are published in small numbers to sell to libraries, researchers, and other specialized groups they interest. If you go to the non-fiction section of a public or academic library, you will find shelves stuffed with them. This category of books makes up most of the books I own and sell. I want them to continue to fill the bookshelves of homes and libraries throughout the world.

Fortunately, this type of book will continue to be sold mainly as real books, at least in the short-term future. Most of them, especially those published more than a couple of years ago, are not available in digital versions. (Google could change that when the legal fight over its book copying project is settled.)  And when one of these books is available as an e-book, its e-book price is usually about the same as the price of a new hard copy of the book and is higher than the cheapest used copies.

The high prices of the digital version of a “serious non-fiction” book reflects the concern of publishers that selling it at a discount would reduce the number of hard copies it would sell at full price, thus lowering the total revenue produced by the book. The assumption is that the book has a limited, fixed set of potential buyers so that a lower e-book price, instead of increasing the number of books sold, would result in people substituting the purchase of the e-book for the purchase of a higher-priced real copy of the book.    

Fortunately for me, the pricing of e-book vs. real book versions of “serious nonfiction” supports my preference to minimize the sale of this type of book in digital form. Given the choice of paying, say, $40 for an e-book or $40 for a new hard copy of the same book, most people will choose to purchase the hard copy. If the book relates to a research interest, the book purchaser will likely want it accessible on his or her shelves for an extended time. Typically, the book is bought not only to read, but also to be part of a personal or public library.

A more difficult test of my commitment to the continued dominance of “serious nonfiction” in real book format will come if publishers (or some company such as Google) start selling this type of book, a couple of years after it is published, in a digital format at a lower price than new hard copies and perhaps even cheaper than used copies. If that happens, will I be willing to pay a premium for a hard copy of a “serious nonfiction” book I want, enjoying a preferred reading experience but giving up the convenience of downloading and porting a digital copy?

I expect that the prices of older "serious nonfiction" e-books will fall in coming years, and I like to think that I will make a stand against bookdom's dark side by continuing to purchase hard copies of these books. Then I remember that a few years ago I got great pleasure each morning from holding in my hands a newspaper with fresh ink, devouring the latest news. I enjoyed the feel of the paper, the familiar look of the layout, the ability to  clip articles related to my interests. I enjoyed seeing the older copies in a pile ready for recycling. But I gave up all that for the convenience, immediacy, vast selection, and lower cost of news available on the internet. And I would not want to go back to the days when I got my daily news mainly from a newspaper and the evening network newscast.

So, realistically, if I could be bought by lower prices and convenience to change how I get news every day, I am likely to trade my preference for real "serious nonfiction" books when offered these books in digital form at prices lower than hard copies. Sadly, it appears I am inching toward a life on the dark side of bookdom where I will be purchasing most of my books in digital form. However, when I'm there, I promise to still visit garage sales and thrift stores to add real books to my growing ever-growing ibrary.     

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Getting Around in Vienna and Austria: The (Mostly) Superlative Transportation System Is Getting Even Better

One of the most impressive things about Vienna is its public transportation system. Its streetcars, buses, and underground trains provide excellent coverage of the city, are usually clean, and, almost always, run on time. I like most aspects of the system, except one, which I will mention later.
Strassenbahn 5. One of my favorite routes

To encourage regular use of public transportation, the city uses both pricing and regulatory policies.  As elsewhere, traveling by car in Vienna has great allure, and the number of automobiles in the city keeps growing, crowding the streets. To get people out of their cars, the city recently lowered the price of annual passes for the city's public transportation from 449 euros per year to 375. At the same time, it adjusted parking charges and regulations to make short-term parking in the central districts (1 to 9) more expensive and difficult for out-of-the-neighborhood drivers. While an area resident can buy an annual neighborhood parking permit (parkpickerl) for 120 euros (until March 1, it had cost 135 euros), he or she must pay one euro per 30 minutes to park in other central district locations and may park in such a location for a maximum of 2 hours.  

The price of public transportation in Vienna is structured so that visitors pay much more than residents for their travel. A single ticket for public transportation, entitling a person to use any bus, street car, or U-bahn within the city to get from point A to point B, costs 2 euros. Another ticket is required to get back. These individual tickets can be purchased from ATM-type ticket machines (with optional English instructions) that are available at every U-bahn stop and a few streetcar stops. The ticket machines accept credit cards for which you can provide a pin number.
The Vienna transportation ticket machine.
It has an English option.

Locals, of course, rarely use these single tickets; they have options for weekly (15 euros), monthly (45 euros), and annual (375 euros) passes that greatly reduce the cost per trip. Most of these options are not attractive to visitors unless they are going to be in Vienna for an extended time. These passes cannot be bought from a ticket machine, but are purchased at one of the transportation offices located at major U-bahn stops such as Karlsplatz and the Westbahnhof stations. People without a valid Austrian picture i.d. need to carry a drivers license or passport with them when using one of the passes.

Short-term visitors who plan to make several trips on public transportation can get a better price on their trips by purchasing a Vienna Card for 19.90 euros. This card provides unlimited access to public transportation for a 72 hours period, plus discounts to many city attractions such as museums. (It can be purchased from hotels and different tourist offices.) Another good option for some visitors is the 8-day "climate" ticket, which costs 33.80 euros (4.22 euros per day). This ticket gives unlimited access to public transportation within the city for any eight days that a rider chooses. These days do not need to be consecutive. On a day that the ticker holder will be making many trips by tram, bus, or U-bahn, he or she can validate the ticket on the first trip and travel on the city's public transportation during the rest of that day at no additional cost. If two or more people are traveling together, they can each use the same 8-day ticket, validating a day for each person.

The use of Vienna's public transportation is simple. Back when I was a student in Vienna in 1967-68 and 1971-71, passengers had to enter each bus and tram at a designated door where the driver or a conductor checked and stamped his or her ticket. However, a long time ago the city moved to an honor system. The buses, street cars, and U-bahn no longer have someone to check and validate tickets; you do it yourself. If taking the U-bahn, you validate a ticket using a machine at the entrance of the U-bahn station you are entering. When using a bus or street car, you can validate the ticket at small machines inside it. The main thing is that each passenger is responsible for having a valid pass or validated ticket for each use of public transportation.

The striking new office building that is part of the
Vienna West Train Station complex
To insure that people are traveling with valid passes or proper tickets, the city has bands of roving inspectors that swoop into buses or trams and that check people exiting U-bahn stations to see if they have valid tickets or passes. Those that don't must pay a 100 euro fine. These inspections seem to be rare. As I recall, my ticket has been checked two times in the past twenty years of almost annual visits. During the past two years, when I used Vienna's public transportation almost daily for two months, I never saw an inspector.

When choosing which form of public transportation to take in Vienna, I take a streetcar if I am not in a big hurry and want to sight see while traveling. I choose a bus if I don't want to dawdle; they are faster, but less enjoyable than streetcars. Finally, I take the U-bahn if I am in a hurry and one is within walking distance. They get to their stops quickly, though when crowded they sometimes are uncomfortable. During rush hours, U-bahn trains are usually crowded.

First floor of the refurbished West Train Station
Another element of Vienna's public transportation system that impresses is its new links to the nation's rail system. Among the most striking developments in Vienna in the past few years has been the reconstruction of the city's two main train stations, the West and South stations. The city has other smaller stations, but these two are by far the largest and are used by most international trains.

Second floor of the West Train Station with entrance
to the train tracks; this level has a large food court
with diverse offerings
After several years of work and temporary displacement, the West Train Station (Westbahnhof), which lies where the major shopping street, Mariahilferstrasse, meets the Guertel, was recently reopened.  Not only was the train station refurbished and brightened, but multi-story buildings were constructed on each end of it. One contains an office complex, the other has a major new hotel. Linking these three buildings, on the ground floor and basement, is an impressive shopping center. This center has large grocery, electronics, and general stores, plus several fashion stores, restaurants, bakeries, and small specialized shops. With the completion of this reconstruction project, the West Train Station has become a major shopping destination as well as an attractive entry way into the city.

An attractive bakery that is part of the
West Train Station shopping center
As work on the West Train Station was being finished, an even more ambitious project was underway at the South Train Station (Suedbahnhof). This project is taking several years and will cost a couple billion dollars.

In December 2009, the South Train Station was closed and trains that used it were rerouted. Soon after that, the station was torn down and construction of a new station, located a quarter of a mile away near Suedtirolerplatz, began.

In April 2012, the results of this work are major parts of a modernistic new station, a huge hole in the ground, and obvious construction work between the two. Much of the past two years was devoted to constructing roads to serve the new station and building new tracks that will take international trains through this new station, which will be called the Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station).  Plans are for the first train to go through the new station in August 2012, and after that, more trains will be using the new track. Parts of the new station should open in 2013.
The old South Train Station; it was torn down beginning in early 2010

The site of the old station, now a hole in the ground, is being used for major new office and commercial development. This development will be completed in 2015 or 2016. Information on and pictures of this project are available at this website:  (Use Google translate to change from German to English.) A webcam showing updated pictures of the construction is available here:

This is the entrance to Vienna's new Main Train Station
These huge, ambitious infrastructure projects have contributed to the economic growth of Vienna and they help position the city as an important link between west and east Europe in coming decades. They are grand in scale and should provide a continuing boast the country's economy for many years to come.

This hole in the ground is where the old South Train Station was located
(the new one is in the background).
A large commercial center is being built here
My final observation about the Vienna transportation system has to do with the one thing about it that I find substandard: the bus to and from the airport. I have been using this bus for many years; until the last two years, it met the high standards of the other forms of public transportation in Vienna. However, that has now changed.

The problem starts at the airport. In the past, the buses parked curbside at the doors used by arriving passengers to exit the airport. The buses have moved: they now have boarding areas across a narrow street from the curb. In this location, the proper bus is a bit more difficult to find and the procedures for taking it are not transparent for most people who have not previously used them. The passenger is expected to deposit his/her luggage in the storage space under the proper bus, then stand in line to get into the bus. Unfortunately, there is not much space for a line to form; when it does form, it blocks access to the storage space. Often, the result is confusion and traveler anxiety.

A Vienna Airport Bus 
Unfortunately, no transportation employees are around the buses -- typically several buses are waiting to go to different locations -- to help confused travelers find the right bus and get on it. Certainly the drivers are of no help. During my most recent trips to and from the airport, the following was typical: the driver waited until a few minutes before the scheduled departure to show up to open the bus, resulting in a long line waiting to get into it (the buses leave every 30 minutes; on busy days, a line starts forming soon after one bus has left and another has taken its place.) With people boarding the bus so near departure time, the bus did not leave on time because the driver was still taking payments from late boarding passengers. Of course, it was not apparent to most riders that the buses were starting late because the bus's clock near the rear-view mirror no longer works.

The drivers have nothing to do with loading or unloading luggage (lower paid folks, apparently, have been hired to do that) and little apparent interest in passengers, though they certainly enjoy talking to each other. In my most recent bus trips, the drivers have turned on the radio to listen to their favorite station, which some passengers near the front might find annoying. (I have never heard a radio in any other Vienna bus, street car, or subway train.) On my last trip from the Westbahnhof to the airport, which was so overcrowded that people were standing in the aisles, the driver made an unscheduled stop at which some guy came on the bus to take something from the driver and to give him a package.

Who knows what is going on with the airport bus service? It certainly is not up to the standards of other transportation in Vienna. The good news is that the plans for the new Hauptbahnhof include a train that goes to and from from the airport. Something to look forward to in 2016 or so.

One final comment on a new development in Vienna transportation. Travelers who want to go to from Vienna to Salzburg (or five cities in between them, including Linz) have an alternative to the country's national train system, the Oesterreichische Bundesbahn (OeBB).  A new private company, Westbahn, offers train travel between these two cities twelve times a day, departing from and arriving at the West Train Station.

Here is a Westbahn Train sitting at the West Train Station in Vienna
Westbahn's walk-on week-day ticket price (at present 23.80 euros) beats the standard fare of OeBB, though the OeBB may sell similarly priced discounted tickets a couple of weeks in advance for a specific day and time of departure. The private train's weekend price is a real bargain. For example, in April, I paid 7 euros for a Saturday trip on Westbahn from Salzburg to Vienna.

You can purchase Westbahn tickets on-line, or buy them on the train. Unlike OeBB trains, the Westbahn has free wireless internet access, plus nice cafes to purchase drinks or food. The cars of the train are comparable to those of the OeBB, and the service is friendly. You can get information (in English) about Westbahn and purchase tickets at this website:

Because travelers can get good prices without advance purchase and pay for the trip while on the train, Westbahn seems well-suited for tourists who want to travel between Austria's two largest cities.

Fall 2013 Update

The price of a single one-way public transportation trip in Vienna's Zone 1 has been increased from 2.00 to 2.60 Euros and the cost of the 8-day ticket has risen from 33.80 to 35.80 Euro.