Part 14 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
- Bus tour of the Ringstrasse
- The Schonbrunn and Belvedere Palaces
- A quiet evening, with demonstration
After I finally tore myself away from the Lippizanner Museum, we didn’t have a lot of time for lunch before we needed to meet the pickup van for the city bus tour. We asked at the hotel for a quick place to eat lunch, and they sent us to a Gasthaus (sort of like a pub with substantial food) a few blocks down the street. It wasn’t all that fast, so I had to gobble down my beef goulash, but we did make it back in time to catch the tour.
The bus tour company had a clever system. They picked up all of their riders at the individual hotels and brought us to a central terminal, where we all get distributed to the different tour busses according to language. It took a little time, but it was worth it to get a tour guide we could understand.
As we boarded the English-language tour bus, we were pleased to run into the same American couple we’d met this morning at the Spanish Riding School. So we sat next to them and chatted a bit more.
The tour started by driving us around Vienna on the Ringstrasse – the grand boulevard that follows the outline of the old city walls. From the Ringstrasse, we could see nearly all of the important cultural, political, and religious buildings in the city, including the Opera House, the Parliament, many museums, the back side of the Hofburg, and many of the city’s 800 parks.
One of the reasons that Vienna is such a grand city is that it has had an unusually stable history under a dynasty of Hapsburg rulers who amassed great wealth during their long reign. Beginning with the Holy Roman Empire in 1438, the Hapsburgs ruled for nearly 500 years until they gave up the throne after World War I.
The greatest flowering of Vienna took place after the defeat of the Turkish invaders in 1683, in a battle right outside the gates of the city. When the Turkish threat was removed, the city was able to expand beyond its walls, and many elegant palaces were constructed.In the reign of the Emperor Franz Joseph, the last city defenses were torn down and the Ringstrasse was built in its place.
We learned about one of the icons of Vienna – the tragic Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed ‘Sisi’, who died over 100 years ago. Sisi was the Princess Di of the 19th century, and her image still appears everywhere on souvenirs of Vienna. She is usually depicted as in a portrait that hangs in the drawing room of the Hofburg, dressed in a full-skirted white ball gown, with a diadem of stars in her long dark hair.
Sisi was the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. Her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, was found dead with his mistress in a hunting lodge in the Bavarian woods in 1889. This has always been a great mystery. The official explanation is suicide, but some believe that he was murdered to cover up his involvement in a treasonous plot with Serbian rebels. After his death, Sisi travelled a lot, but she was killed in Switzerland by an Italian anarchist, leaving the Emperor and the nation heartbroken.
The highlight of the tour was a long stop at the Schonbrunn Palace, the famous summer residence of the Hapsburgs on the outskirts of the city. We were escorted on a formal tour of 20 or so of the state apartments (out of the 1400 total rooms!) and then had an hour free to wander the grounds.
The Schonbrunn was designed in 1696, and was painted yellow because that was Maria Theresa’s favorite color. This is where the 6-year-old Mozart performed for her in the Hall of Mirrors in 1762, and where the Congress of Vienna danced at night in the Grand Gallery, lit with 1000 candles. In a more recent political meeting, Kennedy and Krushchev met in the Grand Gallery in 1961, in the first meeting of the east and west since World War II. The Grand Gallery was damaged during the war (a bomb fell through the ceiling fresco), but it has since been restored to its original magnificence.
The grounds were extensive, and an hour only gave us time to scratch the surface. My father was a little tired, so he settled onto a nice park bench under the trees, and I walked with our American acquaintances down the long promenade, past the Neptune fountain (which was under repair and shrouded in canvas), and up the hill toward the Gloriette. But we only made it part way up before it was time to turn around and return to the bus. The weather had been gradually improving since the morning, and it was very pleasant to be outdoors among flowers and trees.
These pictures only show a small fraction of the grounds, which extend off into the trees on either side of the promenade. The whole thing is now a public park, and contains a theater, an orangery, a playground, a rose garden, Roman ruins, a breakfast pavilion, Tyrolean house, palm house, butterfly house, botanical gardens, a restaurant in the Gloriette, a public swimming pool, and a zoo! There is a city transit stop not very far from the front gates, so this would be a great place to spend a nice day if you had more time than we had.(By the way, those hills off to the left in the view from the Gloriette is the location of the famous Vienna Woods.)
We had another short stop at the Belvedere Palace, the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, whose brilliant leadership was key to the defeat of the Turks in 1683. Like the Schonbrunn, it was designed by Johann Lukas von Hildebrant, the court architect, and was built in the early 1700’s. It, too, has an extensive formal gardens with statuary and water features. We did not have an opportunity to visit the interior, which now houses a collection of 19th and 20th century art, including a fine collection of Gustav Klimt. There is a second building at the far end of the gardens, the “Lower Belvedere”, which houses a collection of Baroque Art.
On our return to the hotel, we decided to rest a bit, so I took a short walk to find a diet coke and a copy of the International Herald Tribune to read. The concierge had not been able to get us tickets to the opera, and my father wasn’t interested in attending any of the concerts staged in costume for tourists, so we had a quiet evening. We did have a very nice dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, which turned out to be Milanese-style Italian (which is not my father’s favorite – he prefers southern Italian cooking), but I enjoyed my ravioli stuffed with chicken, cheese and spinach, in a mushroom sauce.
After dinner, we took a short stroll around the Stephansplatz, but did not go too far. It was a lovely night, but the plaza was filled with police and people setting up sound trucks for a planned anti-NATO demonstration. (Remember, this was during the bombing in Yugoslavia.) So we decided we’d better get back into the hotel before things got too exciting.
As it turned out, the demonstration was quite peaceful, without too much shouting, and with lots of nice singing. It was still going on when I dozed off to sleep.