Travel Observatory – NewsWhistle’s Take On World Culture

When I first went to Japan in my adult life, in the late 90s, I was walking around Ropponggi, and it hit me why certain parts of post-war Korea city architecture looked the way it did – perfect square box structures that some may view as drab, with elevated highways criss-crossing about, likely meant to prevent traffic but only adding to it half a century after being built. It was because the Japanese had built it.

Later I went to Lisboa, Portugal with a Brazilian friend. The minute we landed she said, “Wow, now I know why Sao Paolo is so ugly, it was built by the Portuguese!”

I had the same feeling of deja vu as I landed in Vienna, and started my journey from the airport into the city. The prominent ground level, with high domed windows and gateways, store entrances flush against the pavement, the thick walls with veranda-less windows set deeply back, whether you are looking from within or outside. I later met a colleague who explained to me that our hotel [Le Meridien Vienna, modern innards in a traditional shell, complete with the pick-up worthy mannequin lounging in the lobby] was located on the inner ring – the city was built around rings, inner and outer. Just like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Then we went through one of the large domed gates to enter our office building, and I was greeted with an inner courtyard. This was the distinct architecture of Imperial Russia that I thought was necessitated out of its cold weather, but no, I was finding it in a region a bit more southerly as well. And then it hit me. Catherine the Great. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Imperial Russia had been built by the Austrian aristocrats.

Then I started questioning how deep did this connection go?

Did Catherine the Great also bestow upon Russia its love of dill, smoked fish, and real black bread that I was now noticing everywhere? Not pumpernickel bread – but the black bread that has the slightly fermented linger of Asian rice wine. [For a taste of Austrian cusine don’t miss the fab restaurant Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper right by the Opera House.]

Before I could answer these question, my Austrian sojourn was ending and I was already at the airport. And guess what? I newly noticed the Austrian Air flight attendants dressed in red jackets, red blouses, red pants, red skirts, red opaque stockings and socks, red leather shoes – the exact same dye on all the materials. A popular color in many cultures, but most definitely in Mother Russia. One of them even showed her commitment to red with bright red hair color . . . a color I last saw on a Muscovite lady.

Just when I couldn’t take it anymore, feeling the full weight of Catherine and her royal reach, I opened the menu.

There on the Austrian Air menu was Chicken Kiev.

I gave the comparisons a break, and ordered the Tafelspitz, a traditional Austrian boiled beef dish kindly explained and promoted in the special Austrian fare section of the menu.

It was delicious.

By the way, if you are ever traveling on Austrian Air or Turkish Air, don’t sleep through your meal. Catered by Do & Co, the menu offered on flight as well as in the local lounges are heavenly. Everyone talks about the flying Viennese coffee service offering almost a dozen Viennese coffee selections delivered on a silver tray, however, my favorite was the amazing Austrian wine pairings they offer for the different main course options. Talk to the chef and ask for his recommendation. He will be in your aisle, serving food in full chef’s gear including the poofy hat.

I look back fondly on that Vienna trip and, while I’ve always had a weakness for Austrian white wines, I’m loving my Maria Theresia, black coffee generously infused with orange liqueur, and for some reason . . . I’m still craving dill.

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Photo Courtesy of Georgios Kollidas/