Through the eyes of a child

Seeing Vienna through the eyes of a Vienna choir boy!

I wrote this piece for The Hindu, Metroplus and a slightly edited version of it was published there (link here) on April 19, 2018.

I am standing in an empty alley on a chilly evening outside a grilled gate, punching buttons on the wall and chattering nervously into a speaker. “Yes, we’re here to pick up Rishan, could you let us in please”. I look surprised as no questions are asked and an electronic door in the wall opens instantly. My husband and I rush in at breakneck speed, unsure if it may change its mind and close on us plebeians. We are within the grounds of the Augarten Palais, home to the renowed Vienna Boys Choir – a choral group of young boys who perform across the world and are one of Austria’s key cultural exports. As we look around nervously, a friendly prefect greets us and invites us in to wait as the choir is currently in concert at the Spanish Riding School and are due back soon. We wait around looking at the busy office and schedules and rather normal looking dormitories. A few minutes later we hear thundering footsteps as a group of sailor uniformed boys rush up the steps, among them the cheeky 12 year old we’re here to see - Rishan. He is the first child from India to be in the Vienna Boys Choir and has been a part of the group for over 2 years. We’re in town to visit him and he has promised to take us around – an offer we can’t refuse, since it’s not every day you get to be shown around Vienna by a Vienna choir boy!

As he hurriedly packs an overnight kit, we watch amused as these kids who are thoroughbred professionals on stage and do not bat an eyelid when singing for heads of state, VIPs and packed concert halls, are now running around like regular children, shouting at the top of their lungs, being told to clean their rooms, eating candy and just being little boys. Rishan waves goodbye and trots over to the apartment across the street where his mom, sister and we are staying during our visit.

Over the next few days we’re treated to Vienna through a child’s eyes and it turns out to be a deliciously sticky, playful and hilarious itinerary led by Rishan and his 8 year old sister, Cyra. While Rishan is in school or in rehearsal we spend our time wandering around after leisurely breakfasts, which keep us fuelled before our next break for snacks or coffee at half hour intervals - the perils of being escorted around by munchkins with a penchant for donuts and sausages! We stroll through a farmers market; stumble across an unusual teddy bear museum with vintage bears arranged in various scenes including a tea party and a car accident; and walk along the Danube with its graffiti-d walls and cruise boats. The interesting sounding “Criminal Museum” catches our attention and though it is shut at the time, it does sound morbidly fascinating with its promise of photos, relics and documentation of Austria’s darker side.

Rishan joins us just before lunchtime and drags us on to a tram to Stephanplatz, location of the iconic Stephansdom (St. Stephens Cathedral) and also Rishan’s favourite spare ribs restaurant. We follow our little guides towards the impressive building dominating the landscape. Rishan points out the most noticeable feature of the structure, its colourful tiled roof. He explains how the church was damaged during various wars, particularly in World War II, and was reopened in 1948, its roof redone with ceramic tiles donated by the people of Vienna in 1950. After imparting that bit of trivia,
he skillfully steers us towards Chattanooga Bar and Grill, which is packed to the gills with happy lunchers enjoying the sunshine and tucking into generous portions of food. We squeeze in at a table and are soon laden with large plates of gorgeously sticky ribs, plump kebabs and golden brown schnitzel, washed down with lots of beer and wine. The ribs are as promised - sticky, sweet and finger licking good!

As expected from kids, a trip on stomach lurching rides seems appealing right after a big meal! We head over to Prater Park, an amusement park filled with rides and eats and dominated by the city’s Giant Ferris Wheel. Parts of it have a lovely old world charm to it with Punch and Judy shows, a merry-go- round, an old Viennese grotto train and ice cream stands. We start off rather tamely on a gentle water slide; proceed to a confusing indoor ride with flashing lights, a menacing voice warning us to “beware” and then being flung around in utter darkness while shrieking for our “mummies”; and end flat on our tummies on an outer door roller coaster where we were plunged, rolled and thrown around. Declaring each ride better than the last, the kids wobble over immediately to refuel with colourful slushies, sticking their blue tongues out joyously; chocolate covered strawberries on a stick; and Vienna’s ubiquitous apple strudel washed down with more coffee.

The next morning is a chilly Sunday and we bundle on layers and clamber into a tram to go to church, or actually to watch Rishan sing at the Hofburg Chapel. As we get down at our stop, we are immediately struck by the impressive Hofburg – or imperial palace complex. The area is packed with Viennese fiakers or horse drawn carriages offering rides to visitors. The collection of buildings range in design from Baroque to Renaissance to Gothic and Rococo, reflecting the influences of various rulers and architectural styles over 700 years. Home to visitor attractions like the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum and Silver Collection, one can spend hours taking in the sights and history of this spectacular area. Surrounding the complex are other attractions like the Spanish Riding School, home and training ground to the famed Lipizzan horses; the National History Museum, and the Imperial Court Chapel.

It is in this latter venue that the Vienna Boys Choir sings each Sunday to accompany the mass. It’s intriguing that they are not actually seen by the congregation, but only heard during the service, their voices emanating angelically from above. At the very end, they come down to sing a final song for the congregation after which they sportingly take pictures with beaming tourists and sign autographs.

Our ravenous guide, who has quite literally sung for his supper, or in this case lunch, takes us to Grinzing for the afternoon. Located in Vienna’s 19th district, this charming part of the city is primarily known for its popular wine taverns, but is also a great place to walk around taking in the quaint buildings; a Gothic church; the local cemetery, which is the resting place to several prominent Viennese citizens; and the 18th century house where Beethoven composed the Pastoral Symphony. We collapse in a heap at one of the taverns, ordering copious amounts of food and wine and enjoying the sunshine filtering through the leafy green canopy above.

To expend some of the energy from all the sugar breaks the kids are taking we are dragged to Stadt Park, a large complex of lawns, a children’s park and dotted with monuments and statues, the most famous being the gilded statue of Johann Strauss. While the kids swing, whirl and climb through hoops and roped spider webs in playful obstacle courses in the park, we walk around enjoying the music by a busker; and spending time at the padlocked bridge, weighed down by hundreds of locks symbolizing the everlasting love of the couples who have put them there.

Later, we make our way to one of the city’s most visited attractions – Schönbrunn Palace. On the way, Rishan points out the pedestrian traffic lights where instead of the regular little green or red man, we see a couple holding hands. It becomes a game to look out for these signals, which were done a few years ago to showcase the city’s tolerance and openness, with the symbols showing lesbian, gay and straight couples with little hearts!

We go on to the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace complex, which was the former imperial summer residence and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Imperial Tour takes one through the fascinating interiors that include the apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth, popularly known as Sisi, who I am told by Cyra was a very interesting person who loved to travel and had long hair! She turns out quite right on all three as we learn more about Sisi’s unhappiness with the constraints of court
life and her frequent travels on her own. A glimpse at her boudoir with a wax model of Sisi brushing her long hair does confirm the latter point as well! It is a luxurious sprawl of rooms that include the Great Gallery; the impressive Hall of Ceremonies and the surprisingly modest private rooms of Franz Joseph. While we take a wander in the beautiful gardens that are ablaze with autumn colours, the kids take in the Children’s Museum. They slip into wigs and costumes to get a taste of the lives of the royal children, help to set the Imperial Table, play with toys that were used in the day and wake up in the royal bed!

We spend lazy days in the sunshine walking by the Rathaus, the impressive Neo Gothic style City Hall and people- watch in the Museumsquartier among the fabulous sprawl of Baroque and modern architecture and museums like the Leopold Museum, with the largest collection of Austrian art; the MUMOK with contemporary art works; and the interactive ZOOM Kindermuseum. Before we know it, our last evening is upon us and we are back at the Augarten Palais, also a former royal residence.We are waiting to see the choir sing in the stunning Baroque salon for one of the many tour groups that frequent the palace to watch them perform. The boys launch into a classical repertoire, the performance moving some of the visitors to tears. Our little guide is singing in the front row, grinning cheerfully as he spots us in
the audience. It’s a great end to our trip as we sit in that gorgeous room with the sounds of Mozart and Mendelssonh soaring angelically through the salon.


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