Vienna: Spanish Riding School

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Vienna: Spanish Riding School

(The Spanish Riding School closes during July and the first half of August, and throughout the year on Mondays. Hours: 10-12 mornings. Entrance is at Gate 3 on the Josefsplatz. Tickets must be purchased at the door; and cannot be bought in advance.)

The Building  The building housing the Riding School was commissioned by Karl VI, father of Maria Theresa (beginning of 18th century), and built by Johann-Fischer van Erlach, one of the greatest Austrian Baroque architects. On entering, you find yourself in a beautifully-proportioned, white hall with 46 columns and a royal box which has not changed since the time Maria Theresa designed her own festival of riding: the famous Damenkarussell (1749), in which the symbolic triumph of a woman over her enemies was enacted. (Maria Theresa came to the throne as a beautiful but inexperienced girl in her early twenties, and was immediately attacked by Frederick the great of Prussia. She charmed the Hungarian nobility, however, who swore to a man to die for her, and this enabled her to rescue nearly all of her empire intact.)

Traditions  There is a strong sense of tradition in the Riding School. When riders come in, they salute the portrait of Emperor Karl VI, who is still present in spirit. Riders wear the same costume they wore in his day: coffee-brown jacket, white trousers, black boots and hats. The movements which the horses execute are almost without exception the ones that Karl VI grew up with in Spain.

Spanish Connection  The Austrian Habsburgs are of the same family as the Spanish Habsburgs, and there are deep links in Austrian culture and history with Spain. E.g.: the Prater Amusement Park is named after the Spanish word Prado (meadow). Austrians call a railway platform a Perron, not a "Bahnsteig" as in Germany. In literature, the influence of Calderon on Grillparzer and Hofmannsthal is unmistakable.

The Horses  The horses are the famous Lipizzaner, named after Lipizza, a town now in Yugoslavia, where they used to be bred. This part of Yugoslavia used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Lipizzaner horses had to be smuggled into what was left of Austria after WW I in order to avoid losing them for good. They are born black or dark brown, and turn white when they're between four and ten years old. They are descended from an old Iberian race of horses which were already famous in Caesar's time. A modern writer who saw them (Wilhelm Hausenstein) said they don't need wings: they are Pegasus already.

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