Vienna -- Life in the Past Lane

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Eagles are one of my favorite bands, with a terrific and diverse music catalog including many top hits such as "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane".  The latter title played on my iPod ear buds while we cruising on the Danube and it dawned on me that it (metaphorically) might have described Vienna several hundred years ago.  In the 17th and 18th centuries Vienna was one of the most innovative and influential cities in the world.  Sadly, those days are gone.  While still an interesting place to visit, Vienna's finest days seem behind her.  To visit her now is to see the remnants of that history and view "Life in the Past Lane"; still, there are great old buildings to explore, classical music to be heard and wonderful food and pastries to be consumed. 
 
The history of Vienna -- Wien in German -- is intimately intertwined with the Hapsburg (Habsburg) family  who lived in this city and presided over their empire for almost 650 years (1273-1918).  The footprint of the Hapsburg dynasty is Emmett Kelly-like as the most visited places are those that housed the Hapsburgs in grand style or display their possessions.  The most notable Hapsburgs were Empress Maria Theresa, whose 18th century reign saw Vienna at its greatest prosperity and power, and Emperor Franz Josef whose rule was influential from 1848-1916.  The Hapsburg Empire collapsed shortly after Franz Josef's death, as part of the Peace Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I.

The Hapsburg influence goes well beyond monuments in that they stimulated the cultural life of Vienna and were patrons of its rich musical heritage.  It is in its musical heritage that Vienna is unsurpassed by any other European city as it was home to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss.  Vienna is a city of opera and symphony, of ballet and waltzes, of fine dining and wonderful pastries.  In keeping these past traditions alive Vienna excels for there probably are no finer productions of these classical elements anywhere in the world than in Vienna.  In 2001 Vienna was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site

During the 20th century Vienna began its decline, starting with the fall of the Hapsburgs.  The city suffered great damage from Allied bombing in WWII, with more than a quarter of the city being destroyed..  It gradually repaired and rebuilt.  Post-war its government developed into a nanny state with its citizens, all heavily taxed, reliant on it for cradle-to-grave "benefits".  Its birth rate has dropped precipitously to unsustainable levels and to support a youthful (ie. taxpaying) work force Vienna has had to rely on immigration from the former Eastern block countries and Turkey.  This has caused problems and friction ranging from widespread graffiti to gang crimes to lack of assimilation into Austrian culture.   

I'd always been curious about the city and was glad when Sylvia and I had the chance to visit it.  We stayed at a rented apartment for a week -- an older place filled with antiques and in a good location from which to explore the Old City -- and had enough time to visit most of what interested us.  We were surprised at how expensive Vienna was -- everything from small souvenirs to food and drink were at least twice what we're generally used to paying.  But it was nice to walk its old streets, parks, and palatial squares, and to enjoy its beautiful architecture.  We visited in mid-June.  Late spring or early fall are good times to visit as the weather is pleasant and everything is still open (many of the major attractions are closed for summer holidays in July and August).  Public transportation is excellent, making it easy to get around the city. 
 
Visiting Vienna

Most of what you want to see in Vienna is located in the Altstadt (Old City) inside the Ringstrasse (ring street), a circular road built on the foundations of the old wall.

St. Stephen's Cathedral is at the epicenter of the Old City.  This Gothic church -- with eye-catching yellow, green and blue roof tiles -- dates to the 12th century and suffered severe damage in WWII, with roof collapse and fire in both towers.  It was rebuilt and restored by an effort of the entire country and is now Austria's National Church.   You can enter the church for free but must pay a small admission to explore the entire cathedral -- well worth it in our opinion.  Enjoy the beautiful stained glass, arches, and the beautiful carved stone pulpit, dating to 1447.  See the font in which Mozart's children were baptized and look around the church in which he received a pauper's funeral.  Explore either the top of the North Bell Tower (Elevator available) or South (stairs only) Tower.  Visit the catacombs which has the preserved viscera of the Hapsburg rulers -- their bodies are kept at the Kaisergruft and hearts in the Augustinerkirche (St. Augustine Church).  The catacombs also contain the tombs of bishops and thousands of bones representing the earthly remains of plague victims who wished to be buried on this sacred ground.  As I walked away from this beautiful historic church I wondered if in a century or so a mosque might stand in its place.

Hofburg Palace complex houses what once was the winter palace of the Hapsburgs.  This large complex of imperial buildings, some dating back to 1279, have many museums and sites that combined can take several days to visit.  The palace has only a few of its 2600 rooms available for public viewing, most of the rest of this space being used by the vast machinery of the Viennese government. 

Within the Palace Complex we visited:

The Schatzkammer or Imperial Treasury, where the Crown jewels and other treasures of Austria are kept.  Access to the Imperial Treasury is from the Swiss Court.  The Schatzkammer houses fascinating exhibits which includes more than 10 centuries of treasure such as the golden jewel crusted Imperial Crown of Emperor Rudolf II,  the ornate crib for Napoleon's baby (weighs 200 kg) , a large assortment of royal and coronation robes (fine cloth stitched with thread of gold and silver), and the 9th century saber of Charlemagne.  Many beautiful religious treasures are presented (the Hapsburgs were devout Catholics).  There are also many unusual artifacts including an alleged unicorn horn (probably a Narwhal tusk).  This is absolutely a must see!

Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum and Silver Collection (Silberkammer) are available as a single tour.  The silver collection displays some of the tableware, silver and gold settings, candles, etc. of the Hapsburgs (see a sample in our video clip below).  The Sisi Museum focuses on the life of Empress Elizabeth (nicknamed "Sisi"), the eccentric, narcissistic self-absorbed -- though beautiful and popular -- wife and cousin of Emperor Franz Josef.  Sisi's life was ended by assassination at the hands of an Italian anarchist, who stabbed her in the heart with a thin dagger in 1898.   The Imperial Apartments take you through about 20 private rooms of Emperor Franz Josef and Sisi (somewhat different layout than what you'll see in Schonbrunn Palace).
 
Hofburgkapella, the old Royal Chapel inside the Swiss court, is home to the Vienna Boys' Choir (Wiener Sangerknabenchor).  For over 500 years the Vienna Boys' Choir has participated in Mass at this Imperial Chapel most Sundays. It is the oldest boys' choir in the world and has produced many skilled vocalists, musicians and composers (including Schubert).  We attended a Haydn Sunday Mass and the music at the service was stunningly beautiful.  The Boys' Choir was accompanied by a choir of about 10 men from the Vienna Opera and about 20 instruments from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  The chapel is small, the acoustics excellent, and it was a most memorable hour.  Please listen to the video clip below to get a feeling of what that experience was like.

The Spanische Hofreitschule is home of the world renowned Lipizzaner Stallions.  My wife loves horses (we own two) and this was high on our list of priorities of things to see in Vienna.  There are two experiences available.  The easiest and cheapest tickets are for their daily morning exercises, wherein the horses are somewhat randomly trained and worked by their skilled riders.  Far better is to get tickets for one of their weekend performances which I booked 3 months in advance (the shows are always sold out except for a few suboptimal standing room only tickets).  The Stallions are beautiful, extremely well-trained and perform steps -- the "Schools above the Ground" -- that reveal part of their battle heritage.  They are born a dark color, almost black, with their color fading to gray then white as they age.  While they are cantering around the world's most beautiful horse arena, they will be accompanied by Viennese waltzes.  Of interest, the stallions were saved by General Patton in WWII -- he ordered their removal from Vienna before Russian invasion to ensure their survival.

Immediately adjoining Hofburg is the Kunsthistoriches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts).  The Museum of Fine Arts houses the wonderful private collection of Hapsburg art including by many paintings by Europe's great masters such as Brueghel the elder, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Ruebens, some samples of which are in the accompanying slide show.  

A short distance from the Hapsburg Palace complex is the Kaisergruft located under the Kapuzinerkirche.  Within the basement of this church are several hundred ornate tombs which contain the bodies of the Hapsburg royal family.  It might sound morbid but it was fascinating to stroll between this collection of tombs and ponder the reality of how life ends for all of us.  We found it an interesting place to visit but not as important as those we've listed above.  

Other sights of interest within the City include:

Schonbrunn Palace was the summer palace of the Hapsburgs -- a sprawling 1441 room complex built from 1696-1712, of which you can tour about 40 rooms today (Royal Apartments), including Maria Theresa's, Franz Josef's and Sisi's quarters.  The exterior is Baroque, while the interior is Rococo.  It was built with the intent to surpass Versailles.  Mozart performed for Maria Theresa at age 6 in the Hall of Mirrors.  A visit to Schonbrunn will take about a half of a day, depending on whether or not you wish to visit their zoo and how long you want to explore the massive gardens which include a maze, large rose garden, several fountains, shaded paths.  The Palace is said to have a terrific coach museum which we did not have time to visit.  Schonbrunn was inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1996.

Belvedere Palace was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy, a French general hired by the Hapsburg family who orchestrated the defeat o the Ottoman Turks.  For his stunning military victories he was paid generously, money he used to buy the land and build the two magnificent structures that comprise Belvedere Palace.  These are among the most beautiful 18th century Baroque buildings anywhere.  The gardens are beautiful, with their unique sphinxes, and the grounds provide a wonderful view of Vienna. 

The Opera (Staatsoper), a massive building which is said to be one of the finest Opera houses in the world.  The building is just over a century old.  When it opened the Viennese so criticized its appearance it drove one of its two architects to commit suicide.  It was also extensively damaged by bombs in WWII, but was rebuilt and is now one of Vienna's favorite places to spend an evening.  Most performances are sold out and tickets (which cost up to 270 Euro each) must be purchased well in advance.  Fortunately in the summer a large screen projection shows the live performances (free) to anyone wanting to see it on the street.  If you're interested in seeing the interior of the Opera house you can take tours which last about an hour. We did and while it was elegant, it should not be at the top of your priority list.  There is also a forgettable Museum as part of the Opera.  Outside dozens of touts dressed in what look like leftover costumes from the movie Amadeus will try to sell you tickets to a Mozart Concert (which is NOT performed at the Opera); good luck trying to avoid them.   

Vienna's old center is worth spending some time walking around in.  Stroll up Kartner Strasse and the Graben Pedestrian zone.  Visit the unusual Monument against War and Fascism (odd arrangement of 4 statues), Albertina Museum (former home of Maria Christina, Maria Teresa's favorite daughter and the only one who was allowed to marry for love), or one of the many museums in the Museum Quarter.  There are dozens of museums in Vienna and even most locals haven't seen them all.  View food displays and vendors at the Naschmarkt (food market) and eat lunch at one of the many small eateries here.    If you're adventuresome head to the outskirts of the city for some hiking in the Vienna Woods (Wienerwald) or wine tasting at nearby vineyards.
 
At dusk on a nice day head to the Prater amusement park.  The Prater has a gigantic ferris wheel, originally built in 1896 but reconstructed after allied bombings in 1945.  You might remember this ferris wheel from the British film The Third Man.  This is a good place for a panoramic view of Vienna at night.  Or enjoy a walk or cruise along the Danube river

The Food 

It would not do the city justice without spending a little time talking about some of the excellent food we enjoyed here.  We did not have a single bad dining experience; in fact, our meals were all excellent.  Vienna has a wonderful coffeehouse scene where locals like to go for a cup of coffee and a pastry such as apple strudel or some cake (torte).   All the pastry we tried was wonderfully tasty and quite varied.  Chocolate is popular and whipped cream  and nuts are liberally used.   Sachertorte, a rich (though somewhat dry) chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam was developed in the Hotel Sacher, adjoining the Opera house  Demel Cafe is another excellent place to sample pastries. 

Dinner menus often feature weinerschnitzel -- a breaded veal (now more often pork) cutlet fried to a golden crispness.  Another Viennese meat specialty is boiled beef, or tafelspitz, which was Emperor Franz Josef's favorite meal.  Goulashes are popular and a large variety of ethnic foods are available.   Your wallet will be significantly thinner but your waistline will not after you spend some time in Vienna

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