Travel

Wandering through Vienna with a choir boy

I am standing outside a grilled gate on a chilly evening, 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”. An electronic door in the wall opens instantly. We are within the grounds of the Palais Augarten, home to the renowned Vienna Boys Choir — a choral group who perform across the world and are one of Austria’s key cultural exports.

In tune Nembers of the Vienna Boys Choir, and Rishan (centre)

In tune Nembers of the Vienna Boys Choir, and Rishan (centre)  

A friendly prefect greets us and invites us in to wait, as the choir is currently in concert at the Spanish Riding School. A few minutes later, a group of boys in sailor suits rushes up the steps, among them the cheeky 12-year-old we’re here to see — my nephew Rishan. He is probably the first child from India to be in the Vienna Boys Choir and has been a part of the group for over two 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!

The little guide

As he hurriedly packs an overnight kit, we watch these kids who sing for heads of state, VIPs and packed concert halls run around shouting at the top of their lungs, being told to clean their rooms, eating candy and just being little boys. 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.

Wandering through Vienna with a choir boy

While Rishan is in school or in rehearsal, we spend our time wandering around after leisurely breakfasts, stroll through a farmers market; stumble across an unusual teddy bear museum with vintage bears arranged in various scenes, including a tea party and car accident; and walk along the Danube with its graffitied walls and cruise boats.

The 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 on a tram to Stephansplatz, location of the iconic Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral) and also his favourite spare ribs restaurant.

The church was damaged during various wars, particularly the Second World War, and was reopened in 1948, its roof redone with ceramic tiles donated by the people of Vienna.

Wandering through Vienna with a choir boy

Chattanooga Bar and Grill 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.

We head over to Prater 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. 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 ranges in design from Baroque and Renaissance to Gothic and Rococo, reflecting the influences of various rulers and architectural styles over 700 years. Home to 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 Natural 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, 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 of several prominent Viennese citizens; and the 18th-Century house where Beethoven composed the Pastoral Symphony.

Before we know it, we are back at the Palais Augarten, also a former royal residence. We are waiting to hear the choir sing in the stunning Baroque salon.

The boys launch into a classical repertoire, and 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 with the sounds of Mozart and Mendelssohn soaring angelically through the salon.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 4:55:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/wandering-through-vienna-with-a-choir-boy/article23600669.ece

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