Deja Vu in Vienna
I had murky memories of Vienna from a high school trip in 1995. It was late December, and the city was decorated to the nines for the holidays. I remember the Christmas market in front of city hall; the main cathedral, Stephansdom; Schönbrunn with its gardens; and an evening outing on the metro during which I’m amazed we didn’t get lost – we were only 15, after all, and this was everyone’s first trip to Western Europe. We ended up eating at McDonald’s, which sounds terrible now but it made sense in 1995, when post-iron-curtain sentiments revered anything coming out of the West and especially America.
I was very curious to see how much I’ll remember, not only of the city itself but also of the German language, which a decade ago was better than my English but is now deeply buried in my brain somewhere (I hope). I have trouble remembering words in my native language when I talk to my parents; that’s how deeply ingrained English is now for me, so it’s no surprise that, without any practice, my German had fallen off the wagon.
You could already feel Fall in Vienna, and on the crisp morning of my first day here, temps were hovering in the 50F/10C range. I walked towards the tram stop, following the directions my Viennese friend Nina gave me, and of course stumbled upon a coffee shop before too long. I grabbed a coffee and a chocolate macaroon, then headed for the Innerstadt – the old core of the city. First, I planned on visiting the museums I had missed on my previous trip. Then, I wanted to take a walk around the city center to revisit all the sights. But for this former imperial capital to be fully appreciated, a bit of historical background is in order.
After Rome fell in the 4th century, barbarians took over much of Europe. It wasn’t until the 9th century and Charles the Great that Western Europe became unified again. When he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he designated Austria the “Eastern Empire”, or Österreich in German. In the 13th century, an Austrian noble from the Habsburg family was elected Holy Roman Emperor to rule Austria, Germany and northern Italy. The Habsburgs would go on to rule Austria for the next 700 years with one small exception. In 1450, Frederick III made Vienna his capital and built the Hofburg palace. The next few hundred years were peaceful until the Ottomans arrived from the East in the 16th century. Two centuries of battles between them and the Austrians commenced, during which Austria gained possession of Hungary and most of Eastern Europe. This would eventually spark WWI, as nationalist movements threatened the empire.
Now for that small exception to the 700-year Habsburg rule. In 1805, Napoléon defeated Austria, occupied Vienna and Schönbrunn palace (the Habsburg summer residence), and married the daughter of Austrian emperor Franz II. Ten years later, Napoleon was defeated and the Habsburgs ruled once again. Franz Josef took over in 1848, and ruled until WWI. He married 16-year old Elizabeth (nick – named Sisi) in 1854, and she became a 19th-century princess Diana to the Austrians. After WWI, the Astro-Hungarian empire was divided and Austria was assigned the small, landlocked territory it occupies today.
All this is important because you can’t throw a stone in the city center without hitting something imperial. And there is nothing more imperial than the emperor’s treasury – that was my first stop for the day. I was super excited to see the collection, as I had greatly enjoyed the Crown Jewels of the British in London.
The Habsburgs had royal regalia to be envied – the treasury includes crowns, orbs, scepters and gowns that they used in coronations, official ribbon cutting events and for their own pleasure. Among the most impressive to me were the personal crown of Rudolph II with its matching orb and scepter, as well as the imperial crown from the 10th century. Together with the coronation regalia in the next room, you could imagine what a grandiose event it was.
An amazing baby cradle was exhibited nearby – a present to Napoleon and his Austrian bride when their son was born.
Another impressive item in the collection were the 23-pound gold basin and pitcher used to baptize children.
Many coronation robes were also on display. One of the coronation robes was made when the Habsburgs took over northern Italy and Venice. I could see Venice’s symbol, the winged lion, at the front of the robe.
Many other amazing treasures were featured, and my audioguide (purchased at the museum entrance) made them all spring to life.
Next, I toured the Hofburg palace, the Habsburg home in the city.
The first part of the palace tour was dedicated to Sisi. She was beautiful but vain, and split between dieting and ordering chocolate from Demel (which I went by later). Her first-born son died tragically of suicide, and she eventually retreated from public life. She took to traveling and was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva. It was only after her death that Austrians became obsessed with her, and now her likeness can be seen on everything from mugs to plates. My friend Nina, whom I’m visiting here, has her on her key chain. After the Sisi museum, we entered the Imperial palaces, seeing the exact rooms where Franz Joseph and Sisi lived (in separate quarters). I didn’t take any pictures inside but the place is definitely worth a visit.
After the Hofburg, I went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, containing the private collection of the Habsburgs.
They collected art from all over their empire – Austria, Germany, northern Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. The highlights included a couple of Raphaels, a couple of Caravaggios that belonged to the Habsburgs as well as one visiting from the Palatina Gallery at the Pitti Palace in Florence – where I’d just been a few days before.
The museum itself was just as impressive as the art it held – a giant staircase at the main entrance led to a Canova statue commissioned by Napoleon himself. The statue ended up with the Habsburgs once they defeated him.
After the “Kunst”, as its known in short, I took a walk guided by travel writer Rick Steves, whose audioguide took me through the major sights of the Vienna core. I started at the Opera House, which I clearly remembered from my trip 20 years ago. But on this visit, I learned that the sidewalk next to it featured its own walk of fame, honoring the stars of classical music Hollywood style.
Just a block down, in the lobby of Hotel Sacher, the birthplace of the Sachertorte can be found in Cafe Sacher. It was invented by Franz Sacher, whose name it bears.
Next I walked by another world-class Viennese museum – Albertina. It’s cleverly named after Habsburg princess Maria Christina and her husband, Albert of Saxony, long before combinations like Brangelina became common. 🙂 I didn’t go in – I have to leave something for next time, yes? 🙂
At the square in front of the museum is the home of the Monument Against War and Fascism, which was very impactful.
Just a block away, I turned onto Kaertnerstrasse – a pedestrian street that has become an outdoor mall, but is still charming. I was surprised to learn that Vienna has its own Four Rivers Fountain, although this one, at Neuer Markts, isn’t nearly as nice as the Bernini masterpiece that graces Piazza Navona in Rome.
Not too far down Kaertnerstrasse, I finally ended up in Stephansdom – the cathedral that sits at the ideal center of Vienna. But before I continued walking, I had to take a break for lunch. Several people had recommended Figlmueller to me as the place the get the best schnitzel in town – and the biggest one! It was a good thing that I was starving because the schnitzel was, indeed, huge. I managed to eat almost all of it, but I couldn’t finish it. Before I returned to Stephansdom, I ducked into the Wammer store I saw around the corner. These hazelnut-creme-filled wafers are an Austrian staple.
Once back at Stephansplatz, I circled around the majestic Gothic-style cathedral that sits here. The cathedral has interesting history. It took about 150 years to finish, and it was the third church to sit at this sport – the ancient Romans had built a basilica here when they were around. The church has two towers. The taller one on the South side was finished in 1433. The other tower, on the North side, is only half as tall – it was not finished because funds had to be diverted to fighting the Ottomans. Speaking of the Ottomans, the biggest siege of Vienna occurred in 1683. A Turkish cannon ball can still be seen stuck in the buttress. The cathedral was heavily damaged during WWII – the original Gothic roof burned, and the bell fell from the tower. An outpouring of financial donations followed, and the cathedral was rebuilt in 1952.
From Stephansplatz I continued on the Graben, another pedestrian street. Graben means ditch – this street was originally the moat for the Roman military camp. Graben was a busy street with three lanes of traffic, but in the 1970s it became one of the first pedestrian-only zones. Just down a little ways sits the Holy Trinity Plague column. It commemorates the victims of the Bubonic plague, which ravaged the city in 1679. Vienna lost a third of its population, or about 75,000 people.
From the Graben I turned onto Kohlmarkt, which is home to the cities most expensive stores – you’ll find designer boutiques lining this street. Towards the end on the right sits Demel, the ultimate Viennese chocolate shop where Sisi racked up bills. I went inside to take a look. Unfortunately, I had no room for a Zachertorte after the giant schnitzel at lunch – although I thought about it, trust me. I did, however, marvel at their kitchen, which is behind clear glass and can be clearly seen from the back of the store. Several people were busy making cakes there – and if nobody buys them by closing time at 7 pm, they get dumped!
I finished off my walk just down the street at Michaelerplatz, at the front entrance of the Hofburg palace where I’d started earlier that day. Seeing the front of the palace from here was a truly marvelous experience – the place is, indeed, huge and majestic. I strolled through the courtyard, called In der Burg, passed by the Treasury again and ended at another square called Heldenplatz. Here, the New Palace (Neue Burg) is located, which now houses more exhibits. This wing was built in the 1900s to be the new living quarters of the Habsburgs, and a matching Burg was meant to be erected across the street, but those plans were foiled by the start of WWI.
My first day in Vienna was a wonderful combination of the vaguely familiar and the entirely new. After Italy, which was slightly more chaotic and still brimming with tourists, Vienna provided a more organized, calm and orderly experience, while the wine and coffee have been just as good. And a bit of schnitzel doesn’t hurt, either.