Vienna Austria is the long-time political (home of the Habsburg Dynasty and Austro-Hungarian Empire), cultural (temporary homes to Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss), academic (Vienna University, Freud, etc.) and fashion capitals of Europe.
Although the city suffered severe comeuppances in both world wars, it has recouped significant portions of its glamour and its prestige (if not its power) on the basis of its extensive post-war restorations, its economic strength and commitment to culture and style.
As usual, we began our exploration of Vienna with a walking tour, this one with Prime Tours and our guide Anita.
Vienna Walking Tour History
Our tour of the Central City began around Karlplatz, home of beautiful Karls church and the primary station for the city’s light-rail system. There, we received an overview of the city and its history.
Vienna began life as a Roman Empire military camp in the 1st century. In the 11th century, it grew into a major trading center. By the 12th century, it had become Austria’s capital. It erected its city walls by the year 1200 and rapidly became a prosperous trading center and one of the most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire. The emergence of the Habsburg rule was in 1278. By the mid-15th century, the city became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Habsburg’s authority grew rapidly to include much of central Europe by the mid-16th century.
While the Ottomans invaded the city shortly thereafter, a narrow escape led to a redoubling of the city’s defenses. A second siege followed the next century, leading to an Ottoman defeat. Vienna grew rapidly in wealth and power until the early 19th century when Napoleon gained control of the city. After Napoleon was eventually defeated, Vienna struggled to reassert its previous power and prestige, which it eventually regained by 1870. During WWI it suffered a financial collapse, which resulted in a massive strike and the end of Austria-Hungary and the emergence of Germany-Austria. Growing economic difficulties resulted in a radicalization of the populace in the 1920s, the civil war in the 1930s and Hitler annexed it to Germany in 1938—a development that the Austrian people welcomed. It came under Allied control in 1945 and in 1955, it became an independent nation.
While Austria suffered greatly from American bombing and the ultimate Soviet conquest, it recovered and rebuilt quickly. So much so that a study by Mercer International named it the most livable city in the world ten years in a row.
A Tour of Vienna Landmarks
Our tour of the largely Baroque city covered a lot of ground. Highlights included:
- Albertina Square, with overviews of the Albertina Museum, whose collection was formed on the basis of a donation by Arch Duchess Maria Theresa;
- The Opera. This revival building is one of the most renowned performance spaces in the world.
- Hotel Sacher, which was the favored spot for both celebration and affairs by the city’s late 19th– and early 20th-century aristocrats. It is also the home to the famous Sacher Tort, which is a special kind of chocolate cake. It was interesting that most locals told us that the original Sacher Tort is too dry and not tasty. While tourist flock to taste the original recipe, locals prefer variations upon the theme.
- Memorial Against War and Persecution which contains a three-piece sculpture whose stone was taken from concentration camps.
- Lobkowitz Manor House, where Beethoven created some of his work, including his Symphony Number One, under the tutelage of one of his greatest patrons.
- Hofburg Winter Residence, a majestic 2,600-room palace. A courtyard monument to Joseph II has a pediment decorated with a high-relief sculpture of Athena (the Greek goddess of Wisdom) in a chariot. She is flanked by two other sculptures: those of the Greek Goddess Gaia (of the Earth) and god Atlas (of the Heavens), each holding golden globes on their shoulders. The combination is intended to represent all the knowledge of heaven and earth, presumably represented in the building’s library. Our guide also spoke of some of the dynasty’s enlightened ideas (such as freedom of religion and compulsory education) with some of its unusual practices (storing the hearts of deceased family members in silver urns) as well as less enlightened practices (like forcing non-royal families to use reusable coffins).
- Inner Courtyard, with its requisite monuments. Every wing of is designed for a different emperor and is in a different style (Medieval, High Renaissance, Baroque and High Baroque). At this stop our guide told us how after championing the Holy Roman Empire for more than 800 years, Emperor Francis dissolved it in 1806 in support of Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine.
- Heldenplatz, where we learned about the two statues of Emperors Charles, who defeated napoleon before he lost to him, and Price Eugene of Savoy who won the key battle of the Spanish War of Secession. It was from the platz that we also saw the two, nearly identical, Neo-classical Museums of Fine Arts flanking the square, and the Neo-classical Parliament, which represented Greek democracy.
- Royal Stables, home of the Lipizzaner Stallions. This breed is a cross between Arab, Italian and Spanish horses. They are born black, before turning white at age three or four. The horses and their riders have a rigorous 5-8 year training routines that each must complete to qualify for performances. The best trainers are called “Professor” and are allowed to perform at Spanish Riding Square performances (see below for our visit to the Riding School). Riders progressed from trainees to trainers who are typically assigned to training four horses apiece to chief trainers, who are responsible for the training of riders as well as horses. The most successful riders remain in the program until retiring around ages of 62 to 65. The stables, incidentally, were initially intended and designed as a royal residence, but used, from the beginning to house the stallions (never mares).
- A mansion where many of the city’s famous formal balls are held provided an opportunity for our guide to discuss how the waltz was formally introduced to an international audience at the 1915 Conference of Vienna. The violin music of Johan Strauss II and the waltz shock some of the audience. They felt that such active dancing was dangerous (due to the possibility of overheating) and immoral (since men and women were nearly embracing each other in public). Strauss, the Father of the Waltz”, composed more than 500 waltzes over his career, including the ever-popular “Blue Danube”.
- New Market Square, which, while currently under construction for an underground parking garage. It is lined with beautiful Baroque buildings and the Capuchin Church. The church is the principal place of entombment for members of the House of Habsburg. It reportedly shunned an Emperor’s repeated requests for a service when he introduced himself with his many titles. Once he introduced himself as an ordinary man requesting their assistance, he was accepted.
- Café Frauenhuber is on the block where the house in which Mozart died is located. It was the city home of Prince Eugene of Savoy, It was also the first of the city’s high-society coffee houses and a place famous for its small scale concerts, including the last one ever given by Mozart before his death at 35.
- The site of Mozart’s primary Vienna residence. Although the building was demolished and replaced in 1849 (58 years after the composer’s death), it had a plaque commemorating the location’s significance. Here we learned of Mozart’s domineering father, his lack of a childhood (due to the pressure to compose and perform to earn money for the family) and the profligate, social lifestyle and his heavy gambling during his years in Vienna.
- St. Stephens Cathedral (Stephansdom), a magnificent, 12th-century Gothic church that was once the largest in Europe. It was built with a wooden frame and not a single nail. It has an extremely sharply sloped, glazed mosaic tile roof with lovely tiled designs and two, 224-foot spires. While Hitler ordered the departing Nazis to destroy it, a captain disobeyed orders and left it standing.. Even so, its roof and choir were destroyed in a looter-set fire in a nearby building. After the war, the cathedral and the Opera were the first structures rebuilt after the war using the money raised from public subscriptions. The new structure had a limited reopening in 1948 and a full one in 1962. While the tour covered only the exterior of the cathedral, we returned later to explore the interior, entering its intricately-carved portal to peer down the long nave, to the richly decorated pulpit and alter piece.
- Judenplatz, the center of Vienna’s pre-war Jewish Quarter since the 13th century, was actually the second such quarter in the city (with the first dating to medieval times. Of the approximately 200,000 Jews who live here before the war, an estimated 65,000 were killed and 120,000 went into exile. Only 7,000 remained. While the neighborhood still has a rather hidden synagogue, there is little left of its Jewish heritage.
- St, Ruperts, dedicated to the patron saint of salt, is a small Romanesque chapel with an austere interior and the city’s first stained-glass window. Built in 800, it is the city’s oldest church.
The tour was very good. It was fast-paced, except for inevitable waits for people to catch up (which did provide great opportunities for the rest of us to ask questions). Anita, our guide, was enthusiastic and a veritable fountain of historic information, which she was anxious to share.
Independent Vienna Walking Tour
Although the Prime tour certainly covered many sites, it could not possibly address all the city’s important sites in two hours. We continued exploring on our own tour. Among the primary sights we explored were:
- New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus) is a dramatic, Neo-Gothic city administration building. It was built in the 1870s and has a triple façade and a 321-foot tower (now encased in scaffolding and plastic sheathing) and two shorter side towers. A huge, nicely decorated reception room occupies the entire first floor. The top floor has an even more nicely decorated, full-floor function room.
- Parliament, an 1883 Neo-Classical Building that while completely closed for renovation, still yields a partial vision of its lovely Greek temple-inspired exterior. We could see some nicely carved parts of the pediment. The superbly classical main entrance and Athena monument, meanwhile, are at least partially visible from a temporary viewing hall.
- Vienna University, on the other side of the nicely landscaped Rathausplatz, is the oldest university in the German-speaking world and the third oldest in Central Europe. The central courtyard of the current building, completed in 1883, is surrounded by a colonnade with statues of many of the University’s most prominent professors.
- Burgtheater, across the square from the City Hall, is one of Europe’s most prestigious theaters. The original, replaced in 1888 by an Italian Renaissance structure, was restored after a WWII bomb destroyed part of the structure. While we did not enter, the interior is supposed to be even more impressive than the exterior.
- Volkstheater, built in 1889, is an example of classic, late 19th-century Austrian architecture.
- Spittleberg is a section of the city that was built in the 17th century. It originally housed craftsmen, merchants, servants, and immigrant workers. It is currently one of the city’s primary arts districts with studios and many interesting galleries. It is also being gentrified into a popular evening entertainment area with dozens of upscale bars and restaurants.
- Hoher Markt, site of a Roman military encampment, is the city’s oldest square; traditionally used aa a cloth market and a public execution spot. It is also home to the copper and bronze Anker Clock which celebrates noon with a parade of figures of people from the city’s past. Also in the square, a beautiful Baroque fountain.
- St. Swift Church, with its copper and gold-domed steeple;
- Secession Building is an unusual, turn-of-the-20th-century building that was designed as a showcase for the new-breed Secessionist artists at a time when exhibit opportunities for their avant-garde works were limited. Although the building, with its globes and urns, is itself a piece of avant-garde art, we hoped to see some of its exhibits but arrived too late.
- Karlskirche (Karl’s Church) is a church that Emperor Karl VI promised to build in honor of St. Borromeo (patron saint of the plague, if you can believe that a plague deserves its own saint) if he delivered salvation from the 1713 epidemic. The predominantly Baroque church has a Neo-classical dome, richly-detailed Islamic-style minaret-like towers and inside, beautiful frescos and altars.
- Karlsplatz Pavilions, light-rail stations with their gilt-colored marble friezes beneath oxidized copper roofs.
- Schwarzenplatz, a grand square, that while dark by the time we got there, sparkled with its bursting color-lit fountain, colonnaded Red Army Monument (commemorating the Soviet’s WWII liberation of the city) and a statue of Prince Karl Phillip.
Spanish Riding School
No trip to Vienna is complete without seeing the beautiful and graceful Lipizzaner Stallions. Although we did see them in their stalls and being marches across the plaza to the school for their exercises and lessons, we desperately wanted to see them in action. Unfortunately, we were not in town either of the two days in which they give performances. The school does, however, stage daily workout and training sessions, one of which we did attend.
The school, founded in 1572 to train horses and soldiers for infantry duty, has long since passed. It has, however, been retained to entertain guests and is one of the city’s primary attractions. We estimated about 500 paid attendees on the day of our visit.
The event is staged with riders in immaculate, tailored uniforms and the beautiful white stallions performing precisely (at least from our untrained eyes) as directed. Although the session we attended did not entail any of the carefully choreographed precision jumping or kicking maneuvers as in the performances, we did see five horses at a time, trot, prance, high-step and perform several precision steps, including prancing in place, on the rider’s command.
While it was not quite what we expected from programs we have seen or from the excerpts of videos we saw at the school’s entrance. It was, however, interesting nonetheless and worth just seeing the beautiful, precisely trained horses.
Albertina Museum is a Habsburg palace that was turned into a museum. It has retained and refurbished a number of the beautiful rooms, with exquisitely painted moldings, original and period artwork and furnishings and in some, reconstructed or in-process reconstructions of incredibly intricate and detailed parquet floors. Although the rooms were a bonus, we were there to see the museum’s huge collections.
Monet To Picasso provides the highlights of the museum’s collection (donated primarily by Swiss collector Herbert Batliner) of early 20th-century European art from Impressionism through Expressionism. Among the collection’s many, many highlights are:
- Fauvism, which the museum identifies as the birth of Modernity, with a couple of introductory Matisses and highlights of several others who were, at points in their careers, deeply influenced by his work:
- Impressionism, especially a few pieces by Monet and Renoir;
- Post-Impressionism, including works by Derain, Vlaminck
- Transitional artists who would play key inspirational roles in moving art beyond expressionism, such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin;
- Pointillism, especially with works by Seurat and Signac;
- Cubism, as with Braque and a particularly large representation of Picasso through many stages of his highly varied career;
- Surrealism, as represented by artists including Magritte, Miro, and Max Ernst;
- Russian Avant-Garde of its many different phases, as with Goncharova, Larionov and, of course, Chagall.
- “Degenerate Art”, as so designated by the Nazis, from artists of many different schools and representing different types of art. These include Pechman, Nolde and many others;
- Expressionism, as represented in many galleries including a room dedicated to several Klee prints, a couple to Bruck artists (Kirchner, Nolde, and to an extent, Munch) and the Blue Rider School (Kandinsky, Marc, Jawlensky and others), both of which helped provided something of a bridge from Expressionism to Surrealism; and
- Smaller representations of sculpture (especially Modigliani and Brancusi); Secessionism (particularly Klimpt).
Albrecht Durer is a 15th-to 16th–century Northern Renaissance artist whose technique, multiple styles and a huge volume of output we never properly appreciated. The 200+ works of this exhibition begin with his first pencil drawing, a self-portrait at the age of 13. It spans several decades of totally different subject matter (religious art to jewelry design and intimate portraits to grand landscapes), media (pencil, ink, engraving, woodcut prints, watercolors, oils) and styles. He painstakingly studied the geometry of his subjects, including precise measures of rations of his human and animal subjects.
His ink drawings, finished with watercolors, provide new perspectives on traditional subjects and some of his oil portraits almost make you feel that you know the subject, perhaps better than he knows himself. His empathy is evidenced in this Passions of Christ series and a landscape of Christian Roman soldiers who leap to their deaths, rather than renounce their faith. In dramatic contrast is the huge-scale 3×3.5-meter ink drawing of a triumphal arch he designed for Emperor Maximillian, his primary patron.
Arnault Rainer is an abstract contemporary artist who works across media, from oil to paint atop photographic self-portraits and canvas compositions he makes by hand. We particularly appreciated the imagery of some of his reworked photos and especially the seamless and evocative blending of complementary colors of a number of his canvases.
Maria Lassnig had a roughly eight-decade retrospective of a female painter with an intense focus on the inner sensations of her body (which she represents with color) and gender conflict and the subjugation of women (which she portrays in her imagery). This retrospective spanned her career from initial experimentations in the uses of color, through the highly traumatic death of her mother and her representations of her own feelings. Although we couldn’t really engage with much of her work, we found some of her self-portraits (as with men, with her recently deceased mother looking over her shoulder and the loaded choice she offers in my life or yours, to be highly engaging.
We, as we typically do, chose to eat at highly regarded local restaurants. The top three recommended by our concierge, and which we verified with our own research were:
- Figlmuller. Tom had a tasty glazed calf’s liver with baked apple, roasted potato and overly breaded fried onion rings. Joyce was similarly pleased with her chicken cordon bleu which was lightly breaded and fried and stuffed with cheese and herbs. Our wines were a Gruner Veltliner and a Blaufränkisch (austrian wine).
- Fuhrich. Tom finally got the veal (versus the more common pork) Wiener Schnitzel served with lemon and German-style potato salad that he had been craving. Joyce had a good, albeit not particularly interesting, Austrian tagliatelle with tomato sauce, pesto, and parmesan. Our wine was a 2016 Kerschbaum Blaufränkisch from Ried Hochacker.
- Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper. Tom enjoyed his richly-flavored fawn ragout with red wine gravy and shredded root gravy, although the white bread dumpling left him cold. Joyce (and Tom) was much less enthused by her tasteless pike-perch filet with roasted almonds and herbs and parsley potatoes. We had glasses of three wines. A 2018 Federspiel Gruner (Keller Weingarden), 2015 Wiener Trilogie (a blend of zeitgelt, merlot and cabernet sauvignon) from Wieninger, Stammersdorf and a somewhat lighter 2016 St. Laurent Schneider Tettendorf.
Although we had reservations at the Arthotel ANA Amadeus, they were overbooked and moved us to Schosshotel Romischer Kaiser. We didn’t see any indication of AC and opened the windows which let a lot of noise into the room. The bed was very comfortable and firm. Each of us had a big pillow and a small pillow which worked well. Robes and slippers were provided and we had a ceramic pot to boil water in the room. The bathroom had a slight step up where we stubbed our toe until we remembered to step up. The room was clean but did seem a little tired. However, that is the style of the room and the hotel. The walls are wood, which is part of the charm of an older building. The bathroom was pink with matching pink towels. It was comfortable and the location works. Breakfast was good and the location was perfect.