Vienna — Life in the Past Lane (part 1)

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 (Rose Garden and Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna, Austria)

 

The Eagles are one of my favorite rock 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.

 

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 (Vienna -- Grounds of Hofburg Palace, Heidenplatz)

 

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's historic core 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.

 

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 (Mozart statue, Hofburg Palace grounds, Vienna, Austria)

 

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.

 

 

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:

 

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(Crown jewels on display on the Schatzkammer at Hofburg Palace)

 

The Schatzkammeror 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!

 

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(Vienna -- Silver Collection (Silberkammer)) 

 

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).

 

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 (Vienna Boy's Choir, Hofburgkapella, Vienna, Austria)

 

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. 

 

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 (Stables at the famous Spanish Riding school)

 

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 are 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.

 

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(Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria) 

 

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.  A superb collection!

 

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 (Kaisergruft, tomb of the Hapsburg dynasty, Vienna, Austria)

 

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.

 

This blog is continued in part 2

 

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 (Roof of the Museum of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria)

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 For an extended high resolution slide show of Vienna, please go to this link.  The slide show is at the bottom of the post.  Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.

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Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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