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VISIONS OF FORMALLY-DRESSED COUPLES WALTZING AT THE OPERA BALL, OF THE BLUE DANUBE, OF HISTORIC PALACES, GREAT SHOPPING, BRILLIANT OPERA AND OTHER MUSICAL EVENTS, ALL FURTHER ENHANCED BY ROMANTIC DINNERS, TASTING A CUISINE THAT ORIGINATED IN EVERY CORNER OF THE OLD EMPIRE. "IF THAT IS WHAT YOU SEE IN YOUR MIND'S EYE," SAYS WALTER GLASER, "YOU'VE GOT IT RIGHT." BUT THERE IS EVEN MORE TO VIENNA, SO LET US TAKE A LIGHT-HEARTED LOOK AT THIS LOVELY CITY.
The epicenter of Vienna is Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral), the large polychrome-roofed church that is as much of a landmark for Vienna as the Eiffel Tower is for Paris. From there, the Kaerntnerstrasse, Vienna's most elegant shopping and walking street, runs down to The Ring, the ringroad that encircles the old inner city, and then follows the line of the old Roman walls that defended the city against the barbarians on the other side of the Danube.
The Romans, who occupied Vienna in the first century A.D., had selected the site of an old Celtic village to build their fortifications here to provide a defense force for the nearby town of Carnuntum. They named Vienna, which was on the very outer fringe of the Roman Empire, Vindobona.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, the barbarians from the east and north crossed the Danube in 365 A.D. descending on Vienna and razing it to the ground. By the 10th century the small, re-built Vienna came under the rule of the German Babenbergs, and by the 13th century, Rudolph Von Habsburg arrived from what is now the Austrian part of Switzerland, claimed Austria and settled there to rule.
In the 16th century the city was threatened by the Ottomans who were on an expansionary drive west. With the help of the French, the Austrians decisively defeated the Turkish forces at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The Ottomans fled, leaving sacks of coffee and crescents -- which were their banner insignia -- behind. The Austrians tried drinking coffee, liked it and baked crescent-shaped cookies and rolls to celebrate their victory. These became the Kipferl and croissants, so popular in Vienna and Paris today----- you didn't think that you'd get a lesson in gastronomic history when you started to read this, did you? But back to Vienna's history.
Once the Turkish threat was gone, Vienna prospered, acquiring many new possessions through the skillfully arranged alliances created by marrying imperial daughters off to foreign kings and vice versa. Where other countries acquired territory on the battlefield, the Austrians achieved the same results in the bedroom, at least temporarily gaining control of territories like Spain, Holland, and indirectly even Mexico.
Once you have passed the boutiques of the Kaerntnerstrasse, and just before you get to The Ring, one of Vienna's most famous buildings looms up on the right. It is the Vienna Opera House, a major source of inspiration and pleasure to composers, performers and audiences alike. Unfortunately the Opera House, like many other buildings in Vienna, was gutted by fire during WWII, and while the outside was restored to its former glory, the ornate interior was replaced by a most uninspiring modern economy version. Fortunately however, no such economies were practiced on stage and staff and the Vienna Opera performances are therefore as breathtaking as they have been in the past.
Whatever your personal preferences are, there is a good chance that Vienna will be able to cater to these without too much difficulty.
Is it history? Then you are in the right place, because Vienna's museums and art galleries are nothing short of a knockout. On the Burgring are two vast museum buildings placed face to face. One is the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which covers archaeology and the decorative arts from the 1600's to the 1900's. Allow yourself half a day here if you are even half-way serious about European art. The opposite museum, housed in a mirror-image of its twin, is the Naturhistorisches Museum which covers just about everything you'd ever want to know about natural history, minerals, zoology, botany and the like.
The Austrian Gallery of the 19th and 20th century has a sensational selection of Austrian painters like Schiele, Kokoschka and my special favorite, Klimt. But you really do not get a full picture of Austrian contemporary art if you do not see the works of Hundertwasser and Fuchs. Hundertwasser was the first artist to be asked to design a special house which would be made into a museum of his work. It was constructed as a residential building at the corner of Lowengasse and Kegelgasse to house the young Austrian artists and also contains a museum dedicated to this amazing artist's work. There is a private museum of the works of Ernst Fuchs at Huettelbergstrasse 26 in the 14th district.
To get an insight into what life was like for the Imperial Family, a visit to the Hofburg (Imperial Palace) is an absolute must. This was the city residence of the Emperor and you will find it fascinating to go through the residential quarters to the Treasury of the Imperial Family. Alongside this is the famous Spanish Riding School where you will find the Imperial Lippizaners, the famous Spanish horses so-beloved of Elizabeth, the last Empress of Austria. A fire has badly gutted a part of the Riding School but restoration is now on the way.
And there are enough other museums and cultural attractions to keep you busy for months. These range from a Military Museum to a Museum of Austrian Baroque Art, a number of examples of religious art, antique furniture collections, Museum of Gold and Silversmiths, a Jewish Museum, a Fashion Museum, an Armory Museum, and a Museum of Roman Ruins. There are Museums of Ethnography, Austrian Folklore, Resistance Fighters against the Nazis, Horticulture, Viniculture, and many, many more right down to a Circus and Clown Museum. What more could a museum-buff ask for?
Is music your interest? Then you've come to the right city also. Perhaps you might like to start with visits to the houses of famous Viennese musicians. That alone will take you to the places where Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Lehar, Gluck, and Brahms lived in Vienna. And then there is an incredible feast of musical venues. There is the Musikverein, the Konzerthaus, the Volksoper, the Theater An Der Wien, the Kammeroper and many others.
Culture vultures will be in heaven when they see the vast range of options, from symphony to operettas to opera and to modern musicals that Vienna offers. I could not help noticing on one trip that there were as many Lloyd-Webber-type musicals on in Vienna as were on offer in London. Check with the Vienna Tourist Office on arrival to see if the Vienna Boys' Choir are performing during your stay, and if you are an opera buff, but like to understand what the opera is all about and don't speak Deutsch, there's even an English Opera that performs reasonably often.
Is it fine cuisine you are after? Then Vienna is again the right place. Vienna's pastry cooks are famous around the world. And other culinary delights are also not to be missed. Some of the most interesting food in Vienna is the excellent bourgeois fare that you will find in the Austrian pubs. You might like a Schnitzel so big that it covers the whole plate. If so, there's a place in Vienna that won't disappoint you. Figlmueller, a stone's throw from the Stephansdom is housed in a 14th century building little changed to this day --- their Schnitzels are a Viennese legend. You may of course be a little partial to Hungarian Goulash. Then try the Goulash Museum Restaurant at Schulerstrasse 20, where you can try over a hundred different varieties of Goulash.
Rich pastries? The Viennese wrote the book on these. This is not a city for calorie counters, but if you follow that trend remember that Vienna makes its own rules. These are:
1. Any cake loses its calories once it is cut.
2. Chocolate has no calories in Vienna.
3. Whipped cream is known in Austria as Schlagobers instead of the more formal German Sahne. While Sahne is loaded with calories, Schlagobers is totally calorie-free and can be added to everything from coffee to cake, to Paprika Chicken and to every kind of pasta. If Schlagobers isn't used in a dish, it's probably because the cook has used loads of butter instead. Austrian butter has no calories either.
The result of all this non-calorie food is that Austrians tend to avoid the twiggy look quite successfully. They are also very friendly. Don't believe those cynics that say it's because they are too overweight to either run or fight. A ladies-wear shop on the Kaerntnerstrasse has the slogan "Moellig ist schoen" (Plump is beautiful). And it is only Austrian creative thinking that can call somebody who is quite overweight "Vollschlank" (Full-slim).
Of the Viennese coffeehouses and cake shops, the names that come to mind are Demel, Heiner, Sluka, Lehmann, to name just the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, I have to report that on my last foray to Vienna, I went into Sacher for a piece of their famous cake and found it dry and not up to the standard expected. By contrast, the Imperial Hotel make a similar take-away cake of the same style (though they cannot, by law, call it Sacher) and if you are planning to take a cake back to friends, I would opt for the one from the Imperial.
Shopping for quality items? Then you are in luck, for this is another great pastime in Vienna. This is not a city to buy cheap junk. But while prices are relatively high, so is the quality of everything you see. The Viennese are, by and large, a very picky, selective lot who demand the very best, are prepared to pay for it, but will spurn any shop-keeper who offers them anything that isn't made to last. Conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence are terms that the Viennese put into the same category as bad language.
Viennese shops open at 8.30 a.m. and close at 6.00 p.m. Don't forget that if you are a non-EEC citizen, you can, on larger purchases, get a refund of the 20 per cent VAT that Europeans have to pay. Some of the best shopping is at the Haas Haus, Stock-im-Eisen-Platz 4, in the Freyung Passage at Palais Ferstel1, Freyung 2 and around the Graben, which is just off the Stephansdom.
A great way to pick up the ambiance of Vienna is to take a horse-drawn carriage with that name you have to be careful in pronouncing, "Fiacker." There is a long tradition behind these horse-drawn carriages which were quickly copied by other cities that were under the former Habsburg umbrella. In Vienna, however, the Fiacker is still Erstklassik, and can be picked up outside Stephansdom Cathedral. Not cheap but a lovely way to see this city on a sunny day.
And once you have mastered the city's geography with the help of a little street map from your hotel, walking is the only really satisfactory way to explore. Perhaps your first visit might be to the Stephansdom Cathedral. This 450-foot tall church, on which construction started in 1147 and finished in 1556, was severely damaged by bombing during WWII, but has been superbly restored. Look at the Cathedral's Museum and the Pummerin Bell which was cast from the barrels of guns captured from the Turks after their siege of Vienna at the end of the 17th century. You can see it in the north tower. Check to see if there is an organ recital which you can attend.
By total contrast, visit the Haas Haus directly opposite the Cathedral, with its restaurants and shopping attractions. It is a classic example of modern Austrian architecture. The Austrian Museum of Applied Arts will fascinate those with an interest in that area. Then perhaps head for the Hofburg to see the stunning palace of the Habsburgs, part of which sadly succumbed to serious damage by fire and is currently being reconstructed. Just about every street in the Hofburg quarter has its own sensational history and is well worth exploring if you can get the right background on it.
My strong advice is to ask the concierge at your hotel which walking tours are currently operating and get a brochure on these. Last time I was in Vienna, I took several of these, run by a company called Vienna Walks, which ranged from a walk to see examples of the Jugendstil (Viennese design around the Art Nouveau period) to a walk entitled "In the Footsteps of Harry Lime," which took us to all the locations where the cult movie The Third Man was filmed. Before the walk, we were shown the movie, and the walk brought everything to life. There are walks entitled "Turn of the Century Architectural Designs in Vienna" and one called "Art Nouveau, Architecture and Painting" which covers the period of Otto Wagner and Gustav Klimt.
There are tours of Vienna coffee-houses and tours of the Vienna brothels and gay district. But perhaps the most enticing is a tour with musical accompaniment. Two young music students from the Vienna Conservatory join the tour. And as the group stops at certain places, the musicians, playing flute and guitar, add to the ambiance of the commentary by playing the appropriate music: Strauss at the Strauss Memorial, Mozart at Mozart's house etc....
This city has known laughter and terror, fame and depression. It's psychiatrists have analyzed the world and its operettas have charmed audiences from near and far. And by taking walking tours, one really gets an insight into what makes this lovely city tick.
Vienna's parks and gardens are also a delight. Stroll through the Stadtpark, and if you don't mind paying an exorbitant price, go to the Kursalon Huebner to drink coffee, listen to schmaltzy but satisfying waltzes and see demonstrations of the waltz as you have dreamt about dancing it. Visit the Tiergarten and the Prater, that marvelous Viennese equivalent of Coney Island where a ride on the Riesenrad (Vienna's giant Ferris Wheel) will give you the sort of view of Vienna that you get in Paris from the Eiffel Tower.
The city's hotels are also legendary, and range from comfortable, small establishments in the city to grand hotels like the Bristol, the Imperial, and the remarkable Hotel im Palais Schwarzenberg, perhaps the most unusual and striking hotel of its kind in Austria. The residences of the Princes of Schwarzenberg since 1716 - the current family still live in one wing - this 36-room, 8-suite hotel is set in a 7.5 hectare park adorned with fountains and statues, and is often the venue for some of Vienna's most elegant dinners and soirees. Yet it is within comfortable walking distance of the inner city. Vienna is full of such charming 'finds'.
To get to know Vienna is to fall in love with that city. And often, as with people, the little facets you discover are every bit as fascinating as the major attractions. Gute Reise!
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.