published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
academia blog conference travel
The International Semantic Web Conference (ISWC) took me to Vienna, where I had to present a paper in the workshop on Privacy Online (PrivOn). The (few) perks of academia provided me with transport, accommodation, and food costs while the conference was on, which is 21st to 25th October. I was there a day earlier, 20th being Friday, and left early morning the week after, on 27th Friday for Bratislava (see here for the blog post for Bratislava). In total, there were 7 of us (from the same research group - ADAPT, from Trinity College Dublin), including my Supervisor / PI / Guide.
Vienna is a city with a distinct culture due to being part and capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire until World War I. It has a lot of significance in terms of culture due to the presence of several distinct artists in the areas of painting and music. It is also the city where Sigmund Freud resided. All of these have had significant impact on the city by forming part of its identity.
In Vienna, the city itself is referred to as Wien, and everything from Wien is called Wiener. German (its dialect) is the official language, though a large population also speaks English.
DUB --> VIE
My flight from Dublin was from 11:55, and it took about 02:15hrs to reach Vienna. I was flying with Aer Lingus, which meant that service was better (than RyanAir) though I made the mistake of asking for tea on-board. I was busy in reading, and habitually said I'd like a cup of tea (please!) and was handed one with a prompt inquiry about how much I owed (a few euros I think). Thankfully, I had a few coins with me. Flying was okay, just travel. The seats were comfortable and I finished the book I was reading - The Old Man and The Sea and started another - The God of Small Things.
Once at Vienna, the airport style caught my attention. The airport was vividly decorated to portray everything Vienna had to offer - it's art, music, food. It looked like old culture being caught in a modern, sleek bottle. I liked this merging of the two. At the airport, the walls and the aisles were decorated with the attractions in Vienna. Paintings of Gustav Klimt, Tower of Babel, and even a food item - the famous dish served by Figlmuller.
We went to the city via a 6-person taxi. Our hotels were quite close to the conference center - situated in WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business).
ISWC had partnered with a few hotels, and we (me and two colleagues, one of whom also bought a friend along) ended up booking at the one of the last available ones - Hotel Ibis Budget, situated in Messe - Wien.
Once at the hotel, we discovered a disastrous goof-up: our accommodation was not paid for. Now, our research group does this using a travel agency and they apparently had an issue where the credit card they used went over the limit and was declined. While that was being sorted, we managed to get one room, dumped all our luggage there. The rooms in this hotel are budget to the highest degree. Everything is covered in cheap plastic paint, and the entire room is just one room. The shower is situated without any separation, with the toilet being in a closet or sorts. There's a basin besides the shower, and the only light in the room is situated on top of this arrangement. At the other end of the room is a TV mounted in the corner. There is a double bed in between, with a chair and stool besides it. Everything looks minimally functional, and uncomfortable. Not a cheerful thought to know that I would be staying there for about 6 days.
Knowing all of this, and putting our luggage away for the moment, we decided to go to the city, get something to eat, have a look around, and hoped that when we got back, everything would be sorted.
The underground / metro / trains in Wien are run by a company called Wiener Linien which means Wien Lines (or something similar). The transport system is famous for its efficiency and for connecting all parts of Wien. There are several lines, colored such as Red, Green, Orange, and Brown that run on different paths. Tickets can be bought as all-you-can-travel passes for 24 to 72 hours. We bought these for us as traveling via the underground / metro is the best way to travel around.
We started from the station called Messe-Prater, which, translates (in a completely amateur way) to fair or exhibition (says Google Translate) and Prater is a large park in the area. In the coming days, this would be one of our common go-to points for transport, since it was convenient for everyone, and also the closest stop for the conference.
We got off the train at Schottenring and randomly walked about. We marveled at the facade of the buildings and how everything seemed different and full of culture. People dressed nicer, and every building was beautiful. We walked and walked. And finally came across a restaurant called Vapiano (which is actually a chain-restaurant, but I did not know this at the time) and had dinner there. I ordered lasagna, because I like it, and because I wanted to taste it. It was good, but not exceedingly so. I put it down at the moment to perhaps lasagna being just a generic dish. Later, I attributed it to the non-specialty of the restaurant.
After dinner, we walked across the city on the stone streets with our eyes upwards on the buildings and the many facades it had. Statues and sigils and symbols were embossed, engraved, and hung everywhere. It gave it a bizarre modern rendition of older architecture. The rendition of fashion and art in the glass windows by the street gave the entire area an aura of elegance.
St. Stephen's Cathedral
Continuing walking, we found ourselves suddenly in the presence of a huge cathedral - St. Stephen's - and it was amazing and impressive. The cathedral has two towers - the north and the south, with the northern tower being incomplete. The southern tower rises an impressive height and used to serve as a watchtower. The inside of the cathedral reflects the large size of the building with empty space lending an atmosphere of austerity.
We walked to the river Danube, which runs through Vienna, and is famous from the waltz by Johann Strauss (the starting song in 2001: A Space Odessey). On the other side of the river is a sky-bar called Das Loft considered one of the very high-class and famous bars in Vienna. We went there, and were asked to wait. And then asked to wait some more. Finally, it was let known, that we didn't have the required dress (or fashion sense) and maybe if we went back home, and dressed up a bit, we could try again. This was all done politely, and reflected the status of the place. Naturally, we wanted what we could not have even more.
Pubs in Vienna
After the denied entry in Das Loft, we walked around till we found a pub, or a place to have a drink. Once I entered the place, I was perplexed by the lack of choice when it came to beers. This is because Irish pubs have several options just on tap, and there's more in bottles and other places. Here beer is just beer and everything else comes in a bottle. The local variety is a light, slightly sweet and mild lager, and is tasty and well suited to the autumn weather.
Sitting in the pub, I watched the place across through the window, where a house-party or gathering seemed to be in progress. People clustered into groups, and smoked, clutching their wine glasses. Vienna does not have a law prohibiting smoking indoors and in public places. This means that people smoke everywhere. This makes it somewhat annoying, though there are newer places that have started being exclusively non-smoking.
After the drink, I went back to the hotel. The conference had been kind and organized enough to send my registration and goodies bag to the hotel, and I picked that up from the reception on the way up. I slept after the tiring first day.
The hotel provided breakfast for 7€, which is quite expensive. Breakfast all over Vienna (in hostels and such) is bread/toast, ham, salami, cheese, yogurt, cereals, eggs, veggies or salads, orange juice, and coffee. It is a good breakfast, but does not live up to the city's addiction to taste in food. Nevertheless, I had breakfast and went to the conference center.
The first two days of the conference were allocated to all the workshops. These took place in the Teaching Center at the far end of the university. Walking through the campus, the buildings were all modern and designed quite differently. The inside of the teaching center was spacious and well planned.
There were several coffee breaks in between the sessions, and lunch after noon. There was lemon and mint flavored water, which I found to be quite tasty. The lunch was the best I had at a conference or a gathering (venue). It had some of Vienna's delicacies. The desserts at the end were good too.
After the first day of workshop sessions, I went back to the hotel, and simply fell into a nap. The next day being my presentation, I wanted to finish some work for it and rehearse. So I stayed at the hotel while others went out to explore the city.
After waking up from the nap, I decided to go to a nearby cafe so as to save time and get back to work. I found a decent cafe (decent reviews) called Moziak and went there. I had the famous Wiener Schnitzel which is a thin piece of meat that is fried. I ordered the pork variety rather than the veal. The meal came with finger chips and salad. I also had a glass of wine. The meat was fried lightly but still retained its distinct taste. It was good. I couldn't wait to try this dish in a good place that has prepared it well. For that, I had set my sight on Figlmuller.
After dinner, I walked around the Prater area, mostly exploring the place and the streets. I found a lot of cafes there, probably because of the proximity with the park. I also found a lot of places with bizarre red-blue lighting displayed prominently on their doors and windows. I found out later that these are sex-related establishments and prostitution is legal in Vienna. In fact, it is quite famous in Europe for this, after Amsterdam and Germany. These places are usually isolated, well marked, and therefore are never a problem to anyone.
I later went back to the hotel, worked on my presentation the next day, and then had a good sleep.
This was the day of my presentation. I had breakfast at the hotel, and ensured that I was well fed. My usual routine is to not eat anything until I've given my presentation because I believe it makes me lazy and lethargic and I am not able to present it with passion or a high level of energy. However, this time, I wanted to make sure I was not hungry in the afternoon, and wanted to be able to focus on the presentation when the time came. If needed, I would have had some coffee.
Privacy Online Workshop
I was to give a presentation on my paper at the Privacy Online workshop, which focused on specific aspects of privacy and security. My topic was about GDPR, the new regulation to be enforced next year that would change how companies collect, use, and share data. My PhD research is in documenting the provenance of activities as they happen and use data, and to find ways to prove or identify their compliance with this law. I was anxious to see what the community makes of my work.
The room the workshop was to be held in was a presentation room. It had the projector and screen centered in the room. Around it were two layers of tables and chair in a square fashion. It was effective and everyone could see everyone. I could see people walk in, and recognizing the who's who of the field, experts whose name I had only read in papers made me feel a little intimidated. Presenting my work to these people, who all seemed to know each other in well-enough friendly terms made me a little scared. I wasn't nervous about presenting - I have no trouble with that - but I was more aware that this is an opportunity and therefore it was important.
Dave, who is my main supervisor (PI or guide in some places) was there as well, to present another paper from the same research project. I relied on him to make certain concepts clear and to provide the motivation for why we were targeting that particular law. The fact that the organizer and some people in the room also had research interests in GDPR made me a little confident about presenting there. My presentation was after Dave's, which meant that I could rely on some things being already made clear. This made my job easier as I only had to focus on my part. So I went in there, and I gave the presentation. I didn't have a timer, but I seemed to do well on time.
After the presentation, no one really had any questions, so I'm not sure whether that was good or bad. But the organizer(s) asked a few good questions. She (the main organizer) also spoke about collaboration as she is working on the same area as well. It was a good experience. I also had some of my colleagues present in the room, and I think it encouraged me to some extent.
I attended the workshop until the last session, which ended in the evening. After that I had to go to the hotel and change for the conference dinner.
Dinner at Rathaus
We were to have dinner at the Vienna City Hall at Rathaus (that's also the name of the metro station) courtesy of the conference. I freshened up and made my way there.
The hall itself is impressive in its architecture. There was wine and beer being handed out. Finger food (dinner) had a queue as is the custom and necessity of conferences. There was a live band though I don't think the Blue Danube was being played by them. Later, there were dances, and I remember them as - Waltz, Samba, Rumba, Cha cha cha, and Jive.
We had a dinner, a few conversations, and then made our way out to a pub which was quite a (post-dinner) walk. Sadly, it turned out that the pub was closed. We continued our walk towards the city.
We went to Cafe Mozart (which is one of the places where people go have cakes) and I had the mini trio - which had three mini cakes of sachertorte, mozarttorte, and heimbeer-topfen. All three were best, though I found the famous sachertorte to be rather dry and unimpressive. My favorite of the three was the mozarttorte. I also had hot chocolate with it. Vienna meant I was hogging at least 10 desserts everyday. And I'm not joking, I was really eating a lot of sugar. As I said to one of my friends - Vienna = no rules.
This was the first day of the conference, as the other days were for the workshops. I had a leisurely sleep and made my way to the Wien Messe Congress Convention Center - an impressive building that is large and very accommodating. There were several parallel sessions in progress throughout the day, and one could move between them as needed. Coffee breaks every few hours meant we could talk and network. Lunch was served in the big room (I think which could also be expanded to create a bigger presentation place) and it was as impressive as ever. Dessert was a berry mousse which I loved and gorged on.
City Center Random Walk
After the conference, me and a colleague went to the city center to walk around rather aimlessly wherever the fancy took us. My only aim for the day was to eat the sacahertorte at the place famous for it - Cafe Sacher. We decided to have that after dinner. However, with our random walks, we couldn't find and agree on a place to have dinner. And it started to be a bit annoying as both of us were quite hungry and also had to pee.
We found an Italian place at the corner, and just walked in. It looked a bit small and cramped but there was a staircase that led upstairs. Once up, the place was quite large, and there was a crowd. It was a bit expensive, but the food was prepared well and with a certain subtlety. I had the tortellini made with spinach and it was excellent with a very subtle taste and excellent flavor. I had red wine (which I think went well with it).
Once dinner was had, we walked over to Cafe Sacher, found it to be very luxurious (posh!) and were treated with utmost politeness and courtesy. I ordered the sachertorte and a hot chocolate. It came in. I ate it. I was pure bliss. The taste was very very good. So good, that I had to say, "_shut up, let me eat this". The layered chocolate cake is filled with two layers of apricot jam which balances itself against the dryness. It is an excellent balanced taste.
After that, with me completely sated mind, body and soul, we went back to the hotel where I proceeded to read and sleep.
This was another day where I went to the conference, had lunch, attended a few sessions. In the afternoon, about three of us snuck out to go explore the city. We went to St. Stephen's Cathedral to go up the tower. It cost us 4.50€ and we had to suffer climbing extremely narrow, claustrophobic, winding stairs right up to the top. I couldn't believe I paid money to torture myself. I also realized how out of shape I was. The view from the top was nice.
After the (fiasco) of the stairs, we headed to Cafe Central which is rather famous for being frequented by prominent personalities such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Adolf Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, and so on. I had a Wiener Melange which is the special coffee from Vienna. It was subtle and tasty (which all of Vienna is, I think). A colleague ordered the peanut and caramel cake (snickers!) and it was very tasty. Cakes are a specialty of Vienna. After this, we went to the nearest metro station and were back at the conference venue.
The gala dinner was at Heuriger Fuhrgassl-Huber, which is a famous vineyard in Vienna. It makes white wine from locally grown grapes (Vienna does not produce any red). From the conference venue, we had buses arranged to take us there and back, which was very convenient. The dinner was a buffet, with a whole roast hog available as well. The food was nice, though everything got over pretty quick and I could not go for seconds. The wine (produced at the vineyard itself) was light and sweet and was mildly acidic. We sat, ate, drank, chatted, and then went back.
This was the last day of the conference. I packed my bags, checked out of the hotel, and went to the conference venue. I was there until lunch, after which, I left for the hostel I was to stay at. This required me to take a train and then switch to another line which actually went somewhere near the hostel. I had at first thought that traveling with a small suitcase would be an issue, but it was not hassle at all.
We had a booking at Wombat hostels, which have a good rating for their cleanliness and ordered stays. The one we (me and a colleague) were booked in was situated in Naschmarkt which is a popular local market, sort of like a farmer's market, but the stalls are more like shops here. The hostel itself was nice. It was the first time where I had to put on the bed sheet, put on the duvet cover, put on the pillow cover, and then take them all out and hand them over when checking out. But everything else was very well organized and straight-forward. Our keys were key-cards, and our lockers could only be opened and closed using the key-cards.
Once I was settled in, freshened up, and ready to go out, I explored the Naschmarkt. I walked from start to end and could see the cheap shops lined up offering all kinds of whacky things. It was mostly the immigrants who were manning the shops and the restaurants. As I was walking past, I hard shouts of "shahrukh khan... shahrukh khan..." and it took me a while to realize that they were directed at me. I turned back and it were the women in the stall behind, with the one going "...shahrukh khan?" with a questioning, almost hopeful look in her eyes. I laughed and said no, but thank you for thinking I am.
History of Torture Museum
After that market, I walked to the torture museum. I was curious what it was. The ticket was only 4.50€, which wasn't that bad. There were several exhibits inside ranging from witch-burning to more recent examples of prisoners in prisons of more developed countries. The museum states its goal to be awareness of torture and that it is vehemently opposed to torture itself.
Museumsquartier is filled with Museums (as the name says), and also contains the parliament square. I spend my time traveling around the area until I was finally tired enough, after which I walked over to the city center.
Cafe Alt Wien
For dinner, I went to Cafe Alt Wien, which is situated in a tucked away street and is fairly inconspicuous about its presence. Inside though, the art is well laid (Vienna!) and the food is good. I ordered a wiener melange and a frankfurter.
There was a court case as to the origins of the sachertorte. There's quite a bit of history there. Read it up on the internet. To put it shortly, the final version of the cake was made at Cafe Demel by the successor of the inventor. Therefore, there are two official versions of the cake. I had the one in Cafe Sacher, and had loved it. So I went to the other place, called Cafe Demel. It is situated in a very high-market street, with fashion labels dominating the shops. The cafe itself is very regal in atmosphere. The sachertorte, though good, was a bit drier than the one in Cafe Sacher, which I preferred more.
This day marked the Austrian National Day, and was therefore a holiday for all of Austria. People were out on the streets, though not celebrating explicitly as such (there was no flag waving or chants for that matter) but you could see them enjoying the national holiday. The grounds near the parliament had the traditional march where the military had set up their vehicles and tanks and helicopters. There was a huge crowd gathered around this place. The national museums were either free (to enter) or had reduced tickets for the day.
We went to the national library, where the immensely beautiful collection of books and architecture was amazing and reminded us of the Trinity Library (long room). While the others went off to see the house of Mozart, I had to excuse myself to keep my reservation at Figlmuller.
The one other thing on my mental palate about Vienna other than sachertorte has been the wiener schnitzel at Figlmuller. Yes, it's a big place now, and as with all big places, they will not have an authentic personal touch to every dish served. But it's ridiculously famous for its dish, and I wanted to try and see it. After much asking around (if they wanted to come too) and trying to get a table (reservations are small), I managed to get one this afternoon.
There are several Figlmuller restaurants, though they all are around each other. They just exist to seat people. I was seated upstairs in one, and ordered the Figlmuller Schnitzel, their famous signature dish. I also ordered a side of fried potato and sparkling white wine with apricot nectar. The wine was very refreshing. When the dish arrived, it filled the plate completely. The bit of lemon on top adds to the taste and is there for a reason. I found myself enjoying the simple taste of this dish and wishing I could come again there a lot of times. All this while I had my first few bites. I hope I can eat such nice food again.
After filling my stomach with delicious food, I went to see the Schonbrunn Palance. I took the metro to the station named Schonbrunn, and then it was a short walk to the palace. It is immense, and it was full of tourists, which dampened my moods a bit. The tickets to see the various things were very confusing, and there was no indication of what I was actually paying for. I got tickets for the palace tour, the garden, and the maze. I quickly covered all three by myself. The maze was especially fun, but too easy somehow. I was tired from all the walking around and heavy lunch, so I made short of my stay, didn't take any pictures, and headed back to the hostel and just crashed on the bed.
This was the last day in Vienna. We had breakfast in the hostel and then left for Bratislava. We got a cheap deal for 5€ which wasn't bad at all. It took us about 1hr 20mins (the bus first went to Vienna airport).
Read more about my stay in Bratislava here
- Vienna is really a great city to live in
- I like how efficient everything is, especially the transport
- Such cultured society, and it mixes tradition with modernism well
- I could want to be a postdoc at WU