Part 13 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
Leaving Slovakia was harder than getting in. First we made a wrong turn while driving through Bratislava, getting thoroughly lost and touring large portions of the outskirts before finally getting on a bridge across the Danube which connected to the highway to Vienna. Then we spent nearly half an hour waiting in line to get through the Slovak and Austrian border checkpoints.
Austria had changed noticeably in the two weeks we had been in Slovakia – it was much greener, with many more flowers blooming than when we first arrived. We got to the Vienna airport shortly after 3 pm, where we gassed up and turned in our rental car (since we didn’t want to deal with driving or parking in downtown Vienna – a wise decision as it turned out). I also checked my carry-on bag full of books so I wouldn’t have to lug it into town. Then we tried to figure out how to get to the city center. An information booth person directed us to a bus, but I found out later that it would have been cheaper and faster to take the subway, since we later had to switch to the subway anyway to get to our hotel. Oh well, live and learn.
The bus did have the advantage of giving us something to look at as we drove into the city. We passed the Donau Kanal (a narrow side branch of the Danube) which was lined with elegant old apartment houses and many parks with lilacs in bloom everywhere. The bus brought us into the City Air Terminal, where we switched to the underground. Crossing the main concourse with our luggage was quite an experience, as it was quite busy, with people walking briskly across in all directions and not yielding an inch to a pair of tired and confused travellers. After 2 weeks in the mountains of Slovakia, everything seemed terribly fast-paced.
Then we had the fun of trying to figure out how to buy tickets from the automated ticket machines. Luckily, there was an information desk where they spoke English and were able to explain what we needed to do. The subway system was fast and clean, with modern features like “infoscreens”, automated electronic billboards.
From the City Air Terminal, we only had to go two stops to the Stephansplatz station, at the center of the city. Stephansplatz is a big pedestrian plaza outside of the historic Stephansdom, an ornate gothic cathedral dating from the 14th and 15th centuries that is one of the main icons of Vienna. It has a strange asymmetric shape, with one very large tower that dominates the city. Our hotel, the Hotel Royal, was on Singerstrasse just a half block down from the plaza – a perfect location. The hotel lobby was comfortable with a fascinating wall mural of the old city, and many historic old prints of city scenes hanging in the hallways. The rooms were very nice, with amenities I’d been missing in Slovakia, like a bathtub and a TV with English-language CNN Headline News. (Unfortunately, the first news we heard when we turned on the TV was about the school shooting in Colorado.)
The hotel had an Italian restaurant which the guidebook claimed was a favorite of Pavarotti when he came to sing at the Vienna State Opera, but they were booked up, so we made a reservation for the following night. We also got some help from the concierge, signing up for a city bus tour the next afternoon, and asking him to see if we could get tickets for a Mozart opera at the VolksOpera.
Then we went out for a little walk around town. Vienna is a fantastic city to walk in. It has many pedestrian streets, wonderful baroque architecture, interesting shops with clothes, antiques, and books, many coffeeshops and sidewalk cafes, horse-drawn carriages, and people in historic costume hawking tickets to tourist-oriented concert performances held in historic buildings. The photo shows the pedestrian Graben, which runs several blocks west from the Stephansplatz. The column in the center is the ornate Pestsaule (Plague Column), built in thanks for Vienna’s deliverance from the plague of 1679 by Emperor Leopold.
We had a lovely time walking around town, then stopped for dinner at another Italian restaurant we encountered. I was amazed at how easily the waiter switched his language from Italian, to French, to English, depending on the table he was waiting on. I had a nice steak with spinach, and was almost equally thrilled to be able to get cold water with ice! The bill gave the price both in Austrian shillings and in Euros.
Thursday morning we knew we were in a city, as we were awakened by the very loud clashing and clanging of garbage trucks. It was pouring rain in Vienna, and according to the news it was raining all over Europe.
My plan for the morning was the visit the Spanish Riding School, the main thing I wanted to see in Vienna. Ever since I was a horse-crazy young girl I had known about the Lippizanner stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I’d seen them twice on their rare tours to the U.S., once in Boston in 1964, and once in New York in the 1970’s. But I’d never had a chance to see them in the magnificant baroque riding school of the Hapsburg Palace that has been their home for nearly three hundred years.
On this visit, we couldn’t manage to attend an actual performance, which are held only on Sunday mornings, but I was determined to get into a morning training session. There was also a Lippizanner Museum that I wanted to visit. So we ate a quick buffet breakfast in the hotel’s elegant dining room, with soft Viennese music playing in the background, and took the subway one stop to the Herrengasse stop. We emerged near the Cafe Central (see picture), an historic coffee house that hosted many literary figures and free-thinkers in the period before World War I. In fact, Leon Trotsky used to play chess there before the Russian Revolution.
From there, we only had to walk a few blocks before we came to the Hapsburg Palace, and followed a street through a covered passageway between the Stallburg on the left and the Winter Riding School on the right. From the street you can see into the courtyard of the Stallburg (see picture), and sometimes, if you are lucky, you can see a group of horses being led by their grooms across the street back and forth to the Winter Riding School.
I planned to get there early so we could be sure to get in. But when we arrived, the big wooden doors fronting on the Josefsplatz were tight shut and there were only a few people waiting in line outside. Luckily, the rain had stopped, although it was still quite cloudy, so we settled in for a wait. As the time passed, the crowd got larger and I could tell that my Dad was not too happy with the situation. But he knew that I really wanted to see this, so he stuck it out. We started talking to an American couple who were behind us in line (and just as confused as we were). It turned out that they lived in the Boston area and the woman was a horse trainer who was accompanying her husband who was going to Slovakia on business. He was clearly there just to make her happy and she was clearly ecstatic to be there.
Things got even more confusing as some people showed up who already seemed to have tickets. It turned out that you could buy a combo ticket to the museum and the training session, but at that point we didn’t want to leave the line to try to find out where they were sold. So we continued to wait.
The doors opened right on the dot of 10 am – not one minute early – and the crowd surged in. There was a ticket booth off to the right side of the lobby and one small turnstyle at the center. We had to go off to the right to purchase our tickets (about $10), while the people who already had tickets surged through the turnstyle. Eventually we got our tickets and worked our way through the crowd to the turnstyle and got through it. We walked up two flights of stairs and emerged at one end of the first raised gallery around the perimeter of the riding hall, where the first group of horses had already started their workout. We were able to get seats right behind the balustrade on the first level, though, so I was happy.
The room was magnificent – four stories tall, 180 feet long and 60 feet wide, and all creamy-white with marble pillars, elaborate plasterwork, tall windows, a coffered ceiling, and glittering chandeliers. At the far end was the Court Box, with a portrait of the founder of the school, Emperor Charles VI, which is saluted by each rider as he enters and leaves the arena.
It is called the Spanish Riding School because the Lippizanner horses originally came from Spain, descendents of the graceful desert Arabs brought by the Moors crossed with the heavyset knight’s chargers of Europe. This combination of grace and strength allows them to perform the demanding movements of classical dressage.
The training session was less exciting than a formal performance, but had its own sort of charm. A formal performance is accompanied by classical music, which really adds a lot of magic, and the training session had no music. There were none of the elaborate patterns, like the Grand Quadrille, where 8 horses and riders dance an elegant ballet in perfect unison, and there were no “airs above the ground” – those wonderful poses and leaps of the Levade, Courbette, and Capriole. On the other hand, you do get to see the actual training process, which is interesting if you can figure out what’s happening. They certainly use a lot of patience, as they go through the familiar steps with each horse, and then maybe work on pushing one new movement. You could see when a rider asked the horse to do something that the horse failed at, the rider would back off, give the horse a break, and then come back to try again. Always trying to keep the horse from getting upset or agitated. And as soon as he would get a few steps of the right move, he’d stop right away and given the horse a pat and a rest.
There were 8 horses being trained at a time – each group lasting about 30 minutes – a total of 4 groups altogether. Wthin each group, the riders seemed to operate independently, although from time to time a rider appeared to consult with one of the senior trainers who sat in a few rows of seats on the floor of the arena.
The first group of horses appeared to be the younger stallions. They were darker in color and they were doing fairly simple moves – straightforward walk, trot, and canter. The second and third groups got steadily more advanced, getting into lateral moves like shoulder in and two track, canter change of leads every 3, 2, or 1 stride, pirouettes, and finally the piaffe (trotting in place) and passage (high-stepping collected trot). (All of these moves can still be seen today in high level dressage competitions, as at the Olympics, although the training methods of the Spanish Riding School have been virtually unchanged since the school was founded.)
After the performance, we spent some time in the museum viewing breeding records, historical tack and uniforms, films of the mares and colts at the Piber stud farm, etc. There was also a big plastic window with a view into a section of the stables. There was also the famous photograph of Col. Alois Podhajsky, director of the riding school, requesting the protection of General Patton at the end of World War II. Patton was so impressed by a performance that he had the horses of the Piber stud moved to safety in the American zone of Germany. I was thrilled that I’d had the chance to see Col. Podhajsky ride in the United States in 1964, just before he retired.
There was also an extensive souvenir shop, but I was mostly able to resist, as I already had an excellent coffee table book about the Spanish Riding School back at home. But I did buy a videotape of a gala performance, so I could see what I missed.