Vienna

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Vienna

The streets of Vienna are paved with culture as the streets of other cities are with asphalt. -Karl Kraus (1874-1936)
 

Vienna is a modern multi-cultural capital city with a population of 1,500,000. It is one of the cultural centres of Europe par excellence with countless first-rate museums, galleries, concert halls and cutting-edge theatre productions. There's 24-hour nightlife if you know where to look. Vienna is two hours' drive from Alpine ski resorts and one hour from the sailing and watersports paradise of the Neusiedlersee. It even has beaches on the Donauinsel. It's a clean, well-run city with very little crime. Like any city of this size, Vienna has fantastic shopping possibilities, with international or specifically Viennese products. It's a cosmopolitan, friendly and exciting place. Its UN status makes it a political city of international importance. Architecturally, it can scarcely be bettered.

But when you think of Vienna these are probably not the images that come to mind. You think of Strauss waltzes, perhaps, of the Blue Danube and The Tales from the Vienna Woods, of spectacular chocolate confections like the Sachertorte, of Viennese coffee and cafes, of "he Third Man, "the Vienna Boys' Choir, the Spanish Riding School, Sigmund Freud, the Staatsoper, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, old world elegance. All these are, of course, touristic clichés but they are also more than that. They represent a real, living Vienna that maintains its glorious past at the heart of a thriving and very different future.

A Little History  The history of Vienna is very much the history of Austria and the Hapsburgs. It shouldn't be necessary to go into much detail. A few facts should do.

Vienna begins as a Roman garrison called Vindobona. Emperor Marcus Arelius died here. In the Dark Ages some say that Atilla the Hun got married here. The Babenbergs made it the capital of Austria. By the C13 it was the second city of the Germanic world after Cologne. From the late middle ages until the mid C19 Vienna was the bulwark between east and west. To the Turks Vienna was the "golden apple." They invaded twice, in 1529 and 1683. Chancellor Metternich once said: "Asia begins at the Landstrasse." The C18 was a great cultural epoch for Vienna under the patronage especially of Maria Theresia. This was the age of Haydn, Mozart, Schönbrunn Palace, the Belvedere Palace and the Karlskirche. But the golden age for Vienna was the C19 when middle class Viennese "Biedermeyer" culture became the height of European fashion. The glory of the fin de siècle is all encapsulated in the magnificent buildings of the Ringstrasse. In WW II Vienna was badly bombed. The Stephansdom, the heart of the city, was practically destroyed. Vienna was largely rebuilt as before.

The Guided Tour  Sightseeing with a guide might be roughly as follows, though not necessarily in this order. As it appears below this is a long tour. If you wish to do all of this you will need a break halfway through, e.g. at the Hundertwasserhaus. By the end, they will be hungry.

You will visit Schönbrunn* (Maria Theresia's summer palace), drive down the Rechte Wienzeile past the Naschmarkt, the Otto Wagner Jugendstil houses and the golden dome of the Sezession building. Pass the majestic Karlskirche by Fischer von Erlach and the Hotel Palais Schwarzenberg to make a stop in the lovely baroque gardens of Schloss Belvedere (Prinz Eugene's home, now a modern art museum) for the views on to the city. Then go right on the Ringstrasse alongside the Stadtpark (statue of Schubert). If you want you can make another stop at the extraordinary Hundertwasserhaus before crossing the Donaukanal to the Prater. Cross the grey Danubes to UNO city before returning to the centre. Take Franz-Josefs-Kai along the canal past the Ruprechtskirche (Vienna's oldest church) to the Ringstrasse and then make the circuit of the remainder of the Ring: the Votivkirche, the University, Rathaus, Burgtheater, Parliament building and Volksgarten, the Hofburg and Maria-Theresien-Platz, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Burggarten (statue of Mozart), ending on Albertinaplatz after the Staatsoper and Sacher Hotel. From here you can finish on foot, either heading towards the Spanish Riding School, Michaelerplatz and the Hofburg or to Kärntnerstrasse and the Stephansdom.

*Your local guide should have made a reservation for a short tour of the C18 rooms. The visit lasts about 45 minutes.

Free Time in Vienna  Free time is complicated because you will have so little of it. There is an enormous amount to do in Vienna. It is very pleasant and may well be enough just to stroll the parks and boulevards, take a ride in a Fiaker from the Hofburg and sit in an old-fashioned cafe drinking coffee — and paying for it - and eating a slice of Sachertorte (try Demel, Hawelka, Central, Schwarzenberg or Dommayer). Here are a few other possibilities.

Stephansdom  Vienna's Gothic cathedral is the great symbol of the city. Most of what you can see now dates from around 1250 and 1450. From the Schloss Belvedere or the Riesenrad its stunning tiled roof and its huge tower dominate the town. The tiles are painted yellow and black, and on the northside is a design of the great double-headed Hapsburg eagle. The tower nicknamed Steffi (Stevie) took 75 years to build. It's the third highest in Europe. If you really want to, you can climb up its 438 steps for the view. The lower unfinished tower on the north side has a lift to the bell, 193 feet up, called the Pummerin. This modern bell weighing 44,000 pounds was made out of all the cathedral's bells which had smashed to the ground during WW II. Inside, among all the glorious architecture and sculptural detail, you can visit the catacombs full of bodies from outbreaks of the plague and also the entrails of the Hapsburgs. (You can find some of them in the Augustinerkirche and the rest of them in the Imperial Vaults.)

Prater Amusement Park  Created in the late C19. In its day it was the biggest permanent park in the world. It is still entertaining with a great atmosphere and all sorts of rides. Not exactly exhilarating but of marvelous nostalgic value is the Riesenrad or Giant Wheel, 220 feet tall. Here you can relive one of the great scenes of cinema history when Harry Lime (Orson Welles) looks down on the city below and says to Holly:

"Victims? Don't be melodramatic, Holly. Look down at all those dots. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving - forever? If I said you can have 20,000 pounds for every dot that stops, old man, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money - without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax."

And then later: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly."

Shopping  The very centre of town - the Kärntnerstrasse, Graben and the Kohlmarkt - is the most prestigious and stylish area for shopping but it is very expensive (especially Graben). Otherwise your best bet is probably the less attractive Mariahilferstrasse (various department stores) just outside the Ring, though nothing in Vienna is cheap. If you are there on a Saturday, the bottom bit of the Naschmarkt becomes a very entertaining flea market until 6:00 p.m. Shopping hours tend to be 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings.

The Kaiserliche Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury)  This is the highlight of the otherwise rather rambling Hofburg and well worth seeing. It reflects the incredible Hapsburg heritage as Holy Roman Emperors for an almost continuous period of 400 years. The treasury has been kept here since 1800. You can see the only extant collection of medieval crown jewels in the world: the insignia and jewels of the Empire, with the jeweled crown itself dating to 962 and the coronation of Otto the Great, the Holy Lance which incorporates a nail from among the instruments of the Passion, a piece of the Holy Cross framed in gold, an agate cup that is reputed to be the Holy Grail, the gospels dating to 800 made for the coronation of Charlemagne himself. The whole collection is absolutely awe-inspiring.

EXCURSION TO THE VIENNA WOODS

A half day trip, about 50 miles total. The Vienna Woods cover an area of 100 square miles. They make up the eastern tip of the Alpine chain on its final descent to the Great Hungarian Plain. They form a series of densely-wooded hills and open vales, vineyards and pretty villages. This is a very attractive but by no means spectacular excursion. A drive to the Wienerwald was and still is a favorite activity for the Viennese bourgeoisie. It is that sort of excursion - ideal for country walks or Sunday picnics. It is the epitome of Biedermeyer Vienna (i.e. the style of the cultured middle classes of the early C19). This is the time to play your tape of Strauss waltzes.

Perchtoldsdorf  The first of the wine villages, right on the edge of suburban Vienna, and the entrance to the woods. In the centre of the town is the Pestsäule or plague column. These are typical of Austria - the most impressive one is in Vienna on the Graben - and commemorate deliverance from the plague. This one commemorates the epidemic of 1697 when about 150,000 people from this area died.

Vines flourish in the mild climate of this region, as they do north of Vienna in the Danube valley. In all the wine-growing regions of Austria you can find the tradition of the Heurige. This is a wine tavern identified by a wreath of vines or a branch hanging over the door. They sell this year's wine — it should be from the family premises — and they also have good food. Sometimes in the more touristic ones there is Schrammelmusik with accordions, guitars and violins. In theory there is no such thing as an expensive heurige.

Mödling  Another pretty winegrowing village. Beethoven lived here at Hauptstrasse 79 for a couple of years. Between Mödling and Heiligenkreuz you follow the winding course of the river Mödling. About halfway is Europe's largest underground lake, the Seegrotte Hinterbrühl, a secret site used in WW II by the Nazis for the manufacture and storage of arms.

Heiligenkreuz  This is a famous Cistercian monastery founded by the Babenbergs in 1135. It is a pilgrimage site housing a fragment of the True Cross kept in the tabernacle of the main altar. The Babenberg dynasty, rulers of Austria before the Hapsburgs, 976-1246, are buried here as well as Maria Vetsera, the tragic heroine of the story of Mayerling.

Mayerling  There's little to look at now, just a small Carmelite convent, but this was the scene of one of the all-time great romantic stories. On January 30, 1889, the heir to the Imperial throne was found dead in a hunting lodge here with his teenage mistress. It was so scandalous that the events were instantly covered up. The mystery and speculation as to what actually happened is still going on. You have three miles between Heiligenkreuz and Mayerling to tell the tale. The story goes thus:

Archduke Rudolf was the 30 year old son of Emperor Franz-Josef. He was an embarrassment to his family. His marriage, though a public success, was a private failure; he had affairs; he drank too much; in politics—and this was more dangerous than embarrassin— he supported the parliamentary opposition in Hungary, had excessively liberal political ideas and he wasn't religious. In early January 1889 he fell in love and began an affair with a 17 year old girl he met at a party called Maria Vetsera. His father summoned him, told him that the Pope would never agree to a divorce, demanded that he end the affair and demanded also that he stop meddling so irresponsibly in political matters he didn't understand. The next day Rudolf and Maria left Vienna for the little hunting lodge at Mayerling. At 5:30 a.m. two shots rang out from the bedroom, heard by Rudolf's valet. The valet found the couple dead in their beds. There was a revolver by Rudolf's side and a suicide note addressed to his mother in his hand.

The cover-up began immediately. The official line fed to the press said that Rudolf had died of a heart attack. No mention was made of Maria. Two days after the bodies were discovered she was moved from the hunting lodge into a carriage. This action was carried out — there were witnesses — in such a way as to imply that it was a living person, perhaps someone who had fainted, who needed help to get into the carriage. She was taken to an unmarked grave. The hunting lodge was knocked down and the small convent you see now was built in its place. Over 30 years later, after WW I and the fall of the Hapsburgs, the suicide note was published. Maria was exhumed and reburied in Heiligenkreuz. Whether she was party to a suicide pact or murdered will never be known. Was it even Rudolf who pulled the trigger or was he the victim of an elaborate, and still undeciphered plot?

Between Mayerling and Baden, the road follows the Helenental, the valley of the river Schwechat. It is wooded and rocky and probably the most scenic part of the drive.

Baden  A lovely town redolent of C19 affluent Viennese society. This is one of the most popular health spas in the country. There is a fault in the earth's crust here where the eastern Alps meet the Great Hungarian Plain, the Puszta, and at this point spring forth sulphur-carrying thermal waters at 97 F. Fifteen springs yield 1,500,00 gallons per day. Baden is the place to come for alleviating the pains of rheumatism in the neo-classical surrounds of the spa buildings. It was the Romans who first established a health spa here but its heyday was the early C19. The Emperor Franz II made his summer residence here. Czar Peter the Great came here to take the waters. Mozart came here and Beethoven made 15 visits in the hope of curing his deafness. Johann Strauss composed many of his waltzes here. The Kurpark is a lovely place for a walk. In summer they hold free concerts in the bandstand here at about 4:30 p.m. (every day except Monday).

Gumpoldskirchen  The home of Gumpoldskirchner, one of the best wines of the Wienerwald and the ideal place to stop for a glass at one of the many village Heurigen before heading back to Vienna.

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