Part 16 – Strolling Through Vienna
After leaving the National Library, we strolled through courts and passageways of the Hofburg, emerging onto a large open area called the Heldenplatz. We settled down on a park bench to take a short rest and enjoy the view.
Rows of open carriages were lined up along the curb, ready to take sightseers on a jaunt around the city. Two monumental equestrian statues – of Prince Eugene and of Archduke Karl – faced each other across the plaza. The Archduke Karl statue was surrounded by lilacs in full bloom, and I took the time to walk up to them and take a deep sniff – the first time I’d smelled flowers growing outside since the previous fall. It was April 23, and I knew my lilacs back home in Massachusetts would still be tight buds.
To the north us was an old section of the Hofburg. To the south was the Burgtor (outer gate) leading to the Ringstrasse. And ahead was the Neue Burg, a monumental curved building that was the most recently-built portion of the Hofburg, constructed by Emperor Franz Joseph and completed just before World War I. The Neue Berg was the place where Adolf Hitler stood to announce the Anschluss (the takeover of Austria by Germany) in 1938. I could envision the plaza filled with masses of people shouting Heil Hitler, and I have to admit it made me feel a little uncomfortable.
We were fated not to spend much time there, however, because as we sat resting, we felt a couple of raindrops and decided we should look for shelter. I applied my standard rule – when I’m a tourist and it’s raining, I look for the nearest museum. In this case, we were in luck, as we were right across the Ringstrasse from the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of the History of Art), so we scurried over there. (Sorry, no picture, we were too busy escaping from the rain.)
The museum contained a fine collection of European art that had been amassed by the Hapsburgs over the centuries. Some of the pieces I particularly enjoyed were:
- Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow (1565), a painting that brilliantly illustrates the idea of “cold”, with its dark birds in the bare branches of trees, hunched figures, and expanses of snow and ice painted in shades of white, slate blue, and black.
- A series of large, detailed paintings showing country life in the various months of the year. I failed to note the artist, but I believe these may have also been done by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
- Hans Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour, wife of Henry VIII of England.
- Jan Brueghal’s affectionate animal portraits of cats, monkeys, and burros.
- The trompe l’oeil paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo called Summer, Winter, Fire, and Water. You’ve seen these – they’re the clever paintings of faces that are composed of elements related to the theme. For example, the Summer painting uses fruits and vegetables: the cheeks are peaches, the ears are an ear of corn, the eyes are cherries, and there’s a jaunty artichoke in his buttonhole.
There were also many grand works by the old masters – Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens,and Tintoretto, among others – which were being avidly studied by a Japanese tour group that was being conducted around by a lecturer. And we didn’t even get to the lower floors which displayed sculpture, antiquities, and decorative arts, such as a golden salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini.
We did see an interesting special exhibit of objects found in a recent archeological dig. The most unusual objects were a series of gold ornaments, such as a necklace, that were decorated with exquisitely detailed tiny little tools, such as shovels, picks, clamps, scythes, etc. One wonders what type of culture would choose to put utilitarian items on their most valued adornments.
During our tour of the museum, we did take the time to have a snack at a cafe in their rotunda. I should mention that the museum building itself, which was built as part of the establishment of the Ringstrasse, was a pretty impressive building in its own right, and the rotunda was a great example of its architectural splendor.
When we emerged, the rain had stopped, but we were right near a subway stop, so we decided to ride back to the hotel, and then take a bit of a rest for the remainder of the afternoon. Dinner was at an American-style restaurant near the Graben. Then we strolled about and enjoyed the atmosphere of the pedestrian Graben and Stephansplatz. This was Friday night, so things were hopping, with all sorts of street entertainers, from break dances to singers to a balalaika player.
We decided that we couldn’t leave Vienna without at least once sampling the pastries at a sidewalk cafe. In Vienna, you need a guidebook to explain all the various delicacies, but I was prepared. Several years ago, my then-current boyfriend had visited Vienna and had come home with a whole bunch of pastry recipes that he enjoyed making for parties. So I was already acquainted with Dobostorte (a chocolate cake with multiple thick layers of chocolate butter cream glazed with caramel) and Linzertorte (a sweet almond pie crust filled with berry jam). But for my one indulgence, I chose the most famous one of all: Sachertorte, a chocolate cake with a thick chocolate coating and a layer of apricot jam. Yum!
Vienna is filled with these cafes and pastry shops – you’ll see one at every street corner. And they’re all packed – all the time! I don’t understand how the whole population isn’t grossly overweight with all these temptations constantly being indulged in.
On Saturday, we had until 2:00 before we had to leave for the airport, so we decided to continue strolling around the city. As I’ve mentioned before, Vienna is a great city for walking with things to see in almost any direction. This time we went in the opposite direction from our hotel, into a quieter, less grandiose section of the city. Our first stop was the Figarohaus, one of Mozart’s many residences in the city of Vienna. This one so named because it was where he lived from 1784-1787 when he wrote the opera, The Marriage of Figaro.
You get to the Figarohaus by walking down some very narrow cobblestone streets that look much as they must have looked in Mozart’s day. There was an exhibit you could visit in his suite of rooms. Unfortunately, the rooms were not furnished in period, so it was hard to get a feeling for what it was like to live there. But there were some interesting exhibits of documents and manuscripts, and a map showing all the different places in Vienna where Mozart had lived, and noting which of them were still in existence and which could be visited.
There was one really cute guide in the Figarohaus who couldn’t speak English very well, but was just bubbling over with enthusiasm with Mozart’s music, to the point where she was nearly swooning as she talked to us in a ferment of German, out of which every so often the name of a Mozart work would emerge, followed by a soulful sigh. She was adorable.
We walked on through a very pleasant neighborhood of narrow streets and courtyards, with many old historic buildings. The picture on the left shows a typical street scene. The Bernhardskapelle on the left is a small Baroque chapel, and the house marked with the Austrian flags on the right is the home of composer Robert Schumann.
We stopped in to see the interior of the Dominikanerkirche (Dominican Church), which the guidebook excoriated as the “height of bad taste” of the Baroque style, and they weren’t far off the mark. “This sort of Roman architectural orgy never really gained a foothold in Vienna, and when the great Viennese architects did pull out all the decorative stops they did it in a very different style and with far greater success.” (from Fodor’s guidebook) Sorry, I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of this architectural gem.
The building shown here, the Postsparkasse (Post Office Savings Bank) is one of the first “modern” buildings constructed anywhere. To quote again from the guidebook, “It was designed in 1904 by Otto Wagner, whom many consider the father of 20th-century architecture. In his famous manifesto, Modern Architecture, Wagner condemned 19th-century revivalist architecture and pleaded for a modern style that honestly expressed modern building methods. Accordingly, the exterior walls of the Post Office Savings Bank are mostly flat and undecorated; visual interest is supplied merely by varying the pattern of the bolts that were used to hold the marble slabs in place on the wall surface during construction. Later architects were to embrace Wagner’s beliefs wholeheartedly, although they used different, truly modern building materials: glass and concrete rather than marble. The Post Office Savings bank was indeed a bold leap into the future, but unfortunately the future took a different path and today the whole appears a bit dated.”
It is truly strange to see this harbinger of the modern style in the middle of this neighborhood of graceful and elegant buildings of the past.
We came out of this neighborhood onto the Ringstrasse and strolled along the Ringstrasse for a few blocks to one of the larger parks in the city, the Stadtpark. The entrance to the park was very festive, with children with balloons and florist booths festooned with masses brightly-colored flowers (“Blumen”). The park itself was lovely, beautifully planted with a great variety of trees, shrubs, and flowering bulbs and perennials. In addition to the more common trees, I noticed a pagoda tree, horse chestnuts, and ginkgoes.
The Wien River, which gives Vienna its name, flows through the Stadtpark on its way to the Danube. This is a pleasant spot to sit and feed the ducks.
Nearly every Viennese park has a tribute to some famous composer. Here is the Franz Schubert memorial. The Stadtpark also contains a gilded statue of Johann Strauss playing the violin and a bust of Franz Lehar. Elsewhere in Vienna, there are monuments to Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahams, among others
At the far end of the Stadtpark is the lovely Kursalon (shown here behind the floral clock), which was built in the 1860’s for concerts and balls.
We strolled back to our hotel through another lovely neighborhood of small shops and restaurants. Here’s a picture of a particularly nice little florist shop hidden in a little courtyard. We had plenty of time, so we had a bit of lunch and stopped in a used book store which had some interesting books with pictures of old Vienna.
Back at the hotel, we relaxed in the soft leather chairs in the lobby before collecting our bags and heading off to the airport. The flight home was uneventful (the best kind), and we got back home safely, although very late at night.
It was a wonderful couple of days in Vienna. We got to see a lot, and there was lots more that we didn’t get to see. I highly recommend it.