The downside of the dispute at Gate Gourmet was that not only did we have to get up at obscene-o'clock to get to Terminal 4, we then had to patronise Starbuck's or some such for sustinence. The upside of the dispute was that BA actually managed to take off and land more-or-less on time, making it the least eventful travel experience I have ever had with Brutish Airways.
We began by touring the Ringstrasse. It was curiously reminiscent of London: a mixture of spectacular and more mundane buildings, generally a bit down at heel, with an unexpected contingent of beggars and 'Big Issue'-style sellers at the U-Bahn stations. A nation that used to have an Empire and now doesn't really know whether to be nostalgic for the 'good old days' or embarrassed about its imperial history, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its independence (from the occupying powers after WW2) with the far right once again playing a part in government. The Neues Rathaus (Town Hall) was particularly impressive, dominating the next-door Austrian Parliament. In much of Europe, the City State historically outweighs the Nation State: perhaps a factor in our own European ambivalence. The following day we toured the Innere Stadt, and the Ephesus Gallery and Musical Instrument Museum in the Hofburg Palace, and also stopped off at the door of Harry Lime's apartment block in The Third Man in Josefsplatz.
On Friday, rising once again early, a 3-hour train trip to Budapest. The onslaught of hawkers and general pandemonium at the tiny concourse of Keleti station was reminiscent of the opening scenes of Murder on the Orient Express, but once a few hundred yards from the station a more interesting city emerged. Buda Castle was reminiscent of Prague in its location on a hill overlooking the river, though architecturally it's quite different, and more importantly, was also largely closed due to a wine festival. Still, there were excellent views across the river to the Parliament Building in Pest. On the return trip, the Hungarian border guards gave impromptu lessons to some trainees using kharin's passport (which was, we were relieved to find, apparently genuine), while the Austrian border guard demonstrated that he knew rather more about the current state of Newcastle United than I did.
The following days were taken up with Schönbruun Palace, where the ravens looked on as the squirrels obtained all points for cuteness from the tourists; the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with its enormous collections of renaissance European art, Egyptian and Roman artefacts; the Prater and its famous Ferris Wheel; the Belvedere, where the collections were slimmed down to allow for an exhibition on the history of the Austrian State. I found this exhibition interesting (while kharin fumed at the removal of a number of Klimts and Munchs), but to my mind mingling this with the remnants of the permanent collection was not a success. On the final evening we sampled the local Sturm (new wine) at Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven took various residences during his time in Vienna.
The flight back to the UK was more eventful. As befitting travellers to a third world nation, food parcels were handed out by the gate staff, though they did not bear any Red Cross emblems. The pilot seemed to make a beeline for any available patches of turbulence, and finished off with a speech about how Heathrow required a fourth runway, never mind a third. In the hotel, CNN would have had us believe that it was the end of the world, what with the ongoing aftermath of Katrina, UK petrol prices at US$6/gallon and rioting in Belfast. Having filled up before leaving the country, I was immune to any petrol protests for the trip home.