Traveling With History: Magnificent Vienna
I had not been to Vienna since 1965, remembering the beauty of the architecture and the fabulous palace of the Hapsburg Emperors at Schonbrunn. I was something of a neophyte to imperial Europe at that point and Schonbrunn etched itself into my memory. Now, nearly 50 years later, I was finally headed back on a three-day mid-winter visit that proved proved Vienna a city where aesthetics matter and the past is memorialized by good taste and Viennese orderliness.
Winter can be cold in Vienna, and my visit was no exception, with layered clothing and several scarves keeping the cold at bay, allowing strolls about the city that started after coffee and a pastry at about 9 AM, and didn’t end until I wearily made my way to to my hotel.
The weather was changeable: Grey skies alternated with hours of celestial blue, the city again revealed itself as an architectural masterpiece lovingly restored to the19th century grandeur befitting its role as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Imperial Age came to an inglorious end in 1918 with Austria-Hungary’s defeat in World War I, the abdication of Charles I, last of the Hapsburg Emperors, and the creation of a collection of countries created from Hapsburg lands. Imperial Vienna now ruled Austria alone.
Situated on the banks of the Danube, Vienna dates back to Roman times, founded as Roman Vindobona in the first century…a border post between Rome and Germanic tribes to the north, with the Danube providing a natural border. Surviving the fall of Rome, Vienna emerged as large trading center, and under rulers like Joseph II and Maria Terea in the 18th century, became the imperial capital of the Hapsburgs, whose lands, accumulated over the centuries by marriage and inheritance, included much of Europe..
History would grant a powerful role to Vienna.
It was here, in 1529, that the army of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was stopped, ending his unchecked advance into the heart of Europe. An Ottoman siege in 1683 also ended in retreat for the Turkish forces, the Balkans the dividing line between Ottoman and Hapsbug domains.
It was from here that Maria Teresa sent her daughter, Marie Antoinette, to marry the future
King Louis XVI in 1770, a royal pairing designed to link the Hapsburg and Bourbon kings, and extending Hapsburg influence to western Europe.
It was here that Mozart first came to perform for the Emperor as a child prodigy, ultimately composing some of his most memorable music under royal patronage. Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, andSchubert all lived and worked in Vienna, where Franz Schubert wrote the melodic waltzes that are Vienna’s musical signature. Music remains a part of a Viennese life, with seasonal and on-going events that can be accessed on-line, with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera are housed in landmark Opera House that provides a focal point to the heart of Vienna.
And it was here, in 1815, that the Congress of Vienna redefined borders and plotted the future of a resurgent royalist Europe following Napoleon’s defeat, the Austrian Emperor Francis hosting the representatives of more than 200 States, Duchies, and Principalities.
It was in Vienna, as the 20thcentury dawned, that Franz Kafka reached literary greatness and Sigmund Freud opened the door to the subconscious mind. Both were among the hundreds of thousands of Jewish Viennese, an estimated quarter of the city’s population, drawn from the diverse parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the vibrant capital. It also attracted the young Adolf Hitler, who came here to study art and instead set out on the path that led to World War II and the destruction of Viennese Jewry.
That many Viennese were willing henchman in Nazi brutality is a stain that lingers despite Vienna’s reborn elegance and beauty.
Hitler, Austrian by birth, proclaimed pan-Germanic rights to Austria and invaded the country in 1938, forcing its government to surrender. Austria was annexed as part of the Third Reich, an action approved by many Viennese, whose city was now a provincial capita, second to Berlin. In 1944 the first Allied bombers reached Vienna, and in the months that followed the city was bombed 52 times, reducing more than 20% of the city to rubble.
A joint Allied occupation of the city ended in 1955, when a neutral Austria escaped the fate that befell the rest of eastern and central Europe, emerging as a link between East and West, Today’s Vienna is an almost unimaginable rebirth: With pride, persistance and the pursuit of perfection, the city has been methodically and thoughtfully restored.
Vienna radiates from the old city, a very walk-able, historically rich square mile centered on St. Stephen’s. A portion of the old city is now a pedestrian-only zone, which makes it a great place to wander.
The city requires at lease five days to see to full advantage, but is worth fitting into a European schedule even if only for a two or three days. Vienna’s monumental buildings are all night-lighted, adding magic to nighttime promenades .
Hotels in the old city are generally pricier than ones a 15-minute walk away. Options vary considerable from
5 Star hotels like the Famed Sacher, where rates start at over $350/night. Check Booking.com for some far cheaper five-star options as well as rooms for under $100/night. Just check location
Dining out offers many options, with Figlmueller the place to go for Wiener schnitzel, but there are plenty of quality restaurants to choose from, including a wide variety of ethnic fare. Of course pastries are an ever-present temptation, with afternoon pastries and coffee a perfect warm-up from a winter visit.
This is a great walking city, defined by concentric rings that radiate from the old city, called the innere stadt. The Ringstrasse encircle the innere stadt, and is home to many of Vienna’s must-see attractions and museums, with architectural excellence an ever-present part of the cityscape. There is much to be awed by,
* Austrian Parliament Building a neoclassic masterpiece completed in 1883, beautifully integrating art & architecture.
* Rathuas An imperial city hall for an imperial city, the Rathaus was also completed in 1883.In winter a skating rink is created in the park front the building, which is magically illuminated at night. The Wiener rathskeller restaurant is a popular locale with visitors and locals.
* St. Stephen’s: Begun in the 12thcentury and added to over the years, this magnificent Romanesque/Gothic building is the heart of Vienna. It’s tallest tower rises 445 feet above the city.
Lookouts are reached by elevator or on foot, revealing the cityscape and the roof, its 230,000 glazed tiles designed with heraldic crests, that are a unique architectural element. The interior is gothicly soaring, enhanced by Romanesque detail. The Royal Crypts can also be visited, with the ornately carved sarcophagus of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III a highlight.
* HOFBURG This complex of buildings in the heart of the innere stadtwas not only home to the imperial family, but the government as well.
Government agencies still occupy portions of the buildings, but most is open to the public in a selection of museums that offer a fascinating look at imperial wealth and excess. The Riding Academy, home to the famous Lipizzaner stallions is another Hofburg attraction.
* Schonbrunn There are two self-guided audio tours of this grand country home of the Hapsburgs, taking in the imperial quarters and public rooms. The grounds provide a park setting, with gardens and zoo attracting many. Rail transit trains get you there from the innere stadt, in about 25 minutes. A great place to spend the day, with dining options and evening musicals that are worth incorporating into a visit.
* ALBERTINA If you’re into graphic arts or
photography, this is a must see, with permanent collections and impressive exhibits housed in what was once a bastion in the city’s defensive walls.
BELVEDERE Two Baroque palaces dating
back to the 18th century are now home to works of Egon Schiele and Gustave Klimpt, whose work is also on view at the Secession museum.
* Google Vienna Card and check into the possibility of getting a 72-hour Vienna Card which allows on/off bus touring around the city and discounts at museums (which are pricey) and attractions for about $30.
* MOZARTHAUS a shrine for fans of this musical genius, with interesting exhibits and musical performances.
* Freud’s Vienna Freud’s Vienna apartment, filled with comprehensive exhibits that are highly informative.
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