The next day, Sunday, we decamped from our boat and dropped our belongings at the Hilton property in the center of Vienna. Before we checked in, we were given a tour of the city by a very knowledgeable but frenetic guide. This laid the foundation for later visits to sites of interest. Most sites are well within walking distance in Vienna. Even the airport is quite close. There are very strict rules regarding the height of buildings in the center of the city. Skyscrapers are only allowed on the periphery.
In the early 18th century, the Liniengeld, a fortification wall, was built around the city to protect it from the Ottoman Turks which may explain why so many important sites are so close to each other. But by the late 19th century the Liniengeld was inhibiting Vienna’s growth and the Ottomans were no longer a threat, so most of the fortifications were torn down. Baroque architecture was the city’s leading building style in the 17th and 18th centuries. The 19th century saw a mixture of Baroque, High Italian and German Renaissance, and Gothic, sometimes in the same building, but it all works and it is a beautiful city. It was very damaged during World War II but rebuilt over a 10-year period.
One of the most moving sites is the Monument against War and Fascism by the Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka. The statues commemorate not only the Jews but all the victims of fascism. I was especially moved by the metal sculpture of an elderly Jewish man who was forced to clean the streets of anti-fascist propaganda with a small brush. There had been much criticism of that specific piece, particularly by Simon Wiesenthal who campaigned for a separate Jewish memorial. Eventually, one was built in 2000, but now the entire Monument has found general acceptance.
One of the most intriguing monuments is the Plague Column. Erected in the 17th century after Vienna suffered through one of the last great plague epidemics as well as the last of the Ottoman sieges, the column celebrates the piety of the Emperor Leopold I who was credited with ending both the plague and the siege through his prayers. Apparently, he had a special relationship with the Christian god that others lacked. However, it is the depiction of the Habsburg emperor with his defective jaw that makes the column so interesting.
The Habsburg dynasty ruled Austria from 1282 to 1918 and intermarried with most of the ruling families in Europe. This practice of intermarriage apparently led to some serious inbreeding that resulted in major genetic defects particularly among the males, ergo, Leopold I’s jaw. The medical term is mandibular prognathism. The Habsburgs were also plagued by bulbous lower lips and misshapen noses.
Serious centralization of the Habsburg dynasty began with the Empress Maria Theresa who reigned from 1740 – 1780. She was a mountain of a woman who had 16 children, 13 of whom survived infancy. She led the marriage negotiations for all her surviving offspring and used them to expand and consolidate the Habsburg dynastic influence in Europe. She didn’t do so well with her youngest daughter, Maria Antonia, whom she married to Louis XVI and who became the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.
The empress was a devoted Catholic who tried and failed to make Catholicism the state religion because she hated Jews and Protestants. Nevertheless, she managed to keep Rome and its popes at a distance, never letting the church interfere with what she felt were her royal prerogatives. In her domain she controlled the election of archbishops, bishops and abbots.
We took a break for lunch and Noel and I bought Vienna hot dogs from a vendor outside our hotel. We had heard a lot about Vienna’s hot dogs when we were on the boat. Basically, a Vienna hot dog is a hot dog inserted into a kasekrainer roll which is like a French baguette. You cut the top off and make space for the dog and then insert it into the bread. You can then squeeze mustard, catsup and whatever into the whole thing. Being from Chicago, we wouldn’t let the vendor put catsup on ours. It was ok but I wouldn’t get it again.
Our afternoon excursion was to the Schönbrunn Imperial Palace, the summer palace located outside the city. It is a huge Rococo style complex with massive gardens similar to Versailles. Schönbrunn has more than 1400 rooms and no corridors, so you walk directly from one room to the next. We only toured the first floor and, as in the Benedictine Abbey in Melk, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside. Maria Theresa remodeled it into a more neoclassical style. The British used the palace as office space during the Allied occupation of Austria after World War II.
Vienna has wonderful museums. The next day we explored the House of Music Museum which opened in 2000. It is an introduction to Vienna’s great composers with many interactive exhibits for both adults and children. Because we were there during a weekday there were several groups of school kids playing with the exhibits. For us, the presence of children added to the pleasure of exploring the museum.
There are piano stairs where you can climb up and down the musical scale and create a tune. There is a waltz dice game that the kids seemed to enjoy, but I didn’t understand. You can also create your own CLONG or sound creature experience where you create a tune that appears as a light apparition on the walls and ceiling of a darkened room while you lie on the floor and enjoy the CLONG soundscape.
There is an entire room dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven that includes the framed title page of the original score of the Eroica with holes in it. Inspired by the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven had originally dedicated the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte when he believed his hero to be the great liberator of the people. But when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, the composer violently tore out the dedication page and made holes in the manuscript because he was so pissed off.
We passed our second full day in Vienna exploring a supposedly more bohemian part of the city, but it didn’t measure up to the city’s center. We were basically tired and hung out at a small coffee shop and people watched. We did have wienerschnitzel for the second time at a highly recommended restaurant by the Hilton concierge called Schimanszky. We had eaten the dish the night before with a delightful Canadian couple from Thunder Bay, Ontario, at another, less upscale, place. Individual portions were huge and I couldn’t come close to finishing mine. I don’t know what we were thinking when we ordered the same thing again. The veal was probably a bit higher quality at Schimanszky’s but again gigantic portions that we should have shared.
On our last day in Vienna, we decided to explore the Kunsthistorisches Museum. We have a two-hour museum attention span, so we toured about half of the Kunstkammer Wien exhibit. In English, kunstkammer means a cabinet of curiosities, that is, an assemblage of generally small, very valuable and unique objects collected by wealthy individuals and families. The over 2100 objects in this collection date from the late Middle Ages through the Baroque period and belonged to the Habsburg emperors and archdukes. I have never seen small objects quite as astonishing as this assortment of wood carvings, gold objects, and artwork made from ivory and precious stones – objects like gameboards, clocks, elaborate automatons, etc. The collection is on display in twenty galleries. We made it through ten. If we ever make it back to Vienna, I would definitely return to view the remaining rooms.
The museum also has exhibits of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities as well as Dutch, Flemish, German and other European paintings, but the kunstkammer collection rules.
Right outside the museum is the impressive statue of the Empress Maria Theresa. We said our farewell to this mountain (or maybe monster) of a woman and headed back to the Hilton for the next day’s travel travails back to Chicago.