Part 15 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
On our last full day in Vienna we had nothing specific planned – this would be a day to walk around and try to catch some of the sights that we had missed on yesterday’s bus tour. First on the list was Stephansdom, the great medieval cathedral that towered over the Stephansplatz, just a half-block from our hotel. We’d walked by it several times, but hadn’t yet had the chance to go inside.
One of the distinctive features of Stephansdom is its south spire, which towers 450 feet over the city. The north tower is much shorter, only rising as high as the roof, and the guidebooks disagree about the reason. One book says that the builders simply ran out of money, while the other book tells a more fanciful tale about the master builder falling to his death from the partially-completed tower because he broke a pact with the devil. In any case, the cathedral’s unusual asymmetric silhouette is an icon of Vienna.
There had been church on this site for some 800 years, but the main Gothic part of the cathedral was constructed during the 14th and 15th centuries. Notable events which took place here include Mozart’s wedding and funeral, in 1782 and 1791, respectively. The cathedral was extensively damaged by fire during World War II – an interesting photo display outside in the plaza documents the damage and the restoration process.
The interior of the building is impressive – a soaring gothic space filled with a clutter of ornate Gothic and Baroque decorative elements, like this intricate Gothic pulpit carved by master craftsman Anton Pilgram.
There is said to be a viewing platform at the top of the taller south tower, but we couldn’t find an elevator to it, and weren’t up to climbing 450 feet of stairs, so we opted for the north tower, which did have an elevator. It’s not for the faint of heart, however, as the elevator lets out onto an open-air metal mesh catwalk that curves around the outside of the tower at the level of the great “Pummerin” bell. Pummerin means “boomer”, and it is one of the largest bells in Europe, measuring 3.14 meters across and weighing 20,132 kilograms (over 4 tons). The original bell was cast from melted-down cannons left behind when the Turks fled Vienna in 1683. When the cathedral burned in the war, the bell crashed down to the ground, and a new even larger bell was cast from the fragments of the old one.
From the tower we got a good view of the cathedral’s restored decorative roof, made from almost a quarter of a million glazed tiles. We could also look down at the ranks of horse-drawn carriages lined up in the plaza below and gaze out over the rooftops of Vienna to the distant hills of the Vienna Woods.
After leaving the Stephansdom, we strolled down the pedestrian Graben, turned left at the Plague Column, and returned to the Hofburg area to visit the National Library. The library is right across the plaza from the Winter Riding School, and I’d enjoyed looking at the array of prancing horses high atop the building while we waited in line the previous day.
We had to pay an admission charge to enter the Prunksaal, or the Grand Hall, which was almost like another cathedral, but this time a cathedral to books. This magnificent room, 252 feet long, houses the largest Baroque library in Europe – 2.6 million leather-bound books lining the walls in huge floor to ceiling bookcases. Each bay was labelled with gold-leaf roman numerals and had enormous rolling wooden ladders providing access to the higher shelves. Statuary, wall frescos, and marble and wooden columns abounded, and there was a collection of old globes that didn’t have all the continents quite right.
The library was built by Karl VI in the early 1700’s, around the same time as the Winter Riding School. His statue is featured in the center of the main hall, under a ceiling fresco by Daniel Gran.
Unfortunately, when we were there the books that were on exhibit on tables throughout the room were modern graphic books with very strange artwork, rather than the lovely older books. But it was nice to just soak up the atmosphere of the gorgeous room filled with millions of priceless old books.