First published August 25, 20212021 and reproduced here by permission of the Morning News and SCNow.com.
My Favorite International Cities - # 6
I have been to Vienna about 10 times and love it. I appreciate its grand style, its magnificent location, the populace’ appreciation for dress and food as if they still ruled Europe and its fine architecture; but it amuses me, too, that along with all this elegant ambiance, Vienna tolerates and keeps busy a McDonalds restaurant about every two blocks, particularly in their central shopping and tourist districts, and in their airports and train stations. Go figure. Vienna is now often ranked from between # 2 to # 4 most livable city in the world with a metro population of about 3 million people, about 1/3 of Austria’s total population. It richly deserves its designations as a World Heritage site, a City of Dreams and a City of Music. Come with me.
Curiously, the name is derived from Italian with Celtic and Latin influence, meaning “fair village” or “forest stream.” As for Berlin, it goes back to about 500 BC with Gothic and Celtic roots, eventually established within the Roman Empire by Emperor Augustus. In and out of Germany’s shadow (or vice a versa) the Badenburg family established it as central to their Duchy in the Middle Ages. The rise of the Habsburgs to overshadow the Badenburgs made Vienna central to the Holy Roman Empire since about 1450 and a fortress to stand against the Northern European Muslim invasions (the Turks, the Arabs and the Mongols). The Austrian-German-Hungarian alliances coming and going for about a hundred years before and another hundred after the Napoleonic era were often governed from Vienna.
In the aftermath of World War I, Austria was organized as a formal Republic (1919), separate from Germany, with Vienna as its Capital. Curiously, and probably unknown to most of you, in 1913 Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud and Josip Tito all lived near each other and even ate and drank together at clubs and restaurants within the Vienna Ring city center. Vienna was socialist in the early 1930’s and the focus of a mini-civil war when in 1934 Austria sent troops to overturn the city government and shell the Karl Marx Hotel/House, housing socialist troops.
Of course, Germany occupied Austria from 1938 to 1945, Hitler giving his conquering speech from the Habsburg Palace. Deliberately, Adolf Eichmann made the Vienna Rothschild Mansion his headquarters; by War’s end, the Jewish population of Vienna had plummeted from 200,000 to 5,000; 92 Synagogues were destroyed. The Jews have not returned to Austria; as of 2020 the population has only increased to about 20,000. You will recognize these famous Jews fleeing Vienna: Sigmund Freud, Peter Lorre, Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankl, Stefan Zweig, Simon Wiesenthal, Erich van Stroheim, Hedy Lamarr, Billy Wilder, Aron Schoenberg, Walter Arlen and Fritz Kreilser. On the other hand, the Maier spy ring centered in Vienna (Heinrich Maier was a Roman Catholic priest cruelly tortured and executed by the Gestapo just days before the War’s end) collected significant intelligence for us about the German/Austrian rocket programs, German tanks, German fighter planes/jets and associated important factory locations across the German Empire, assisting thus in the successful Allied invasion of Northern Europe thru France, Operation Overload.
The Russian troops came into Vienna from the East and along with the US inflicted significant damage on the city, but both US and Russian troops tried to maintain historic landmarks and avoided saturation shelling/bombing, and thus a significant memorial to the Russian liberation remains along the Central Ring, just two blocks from the Vienna State Opera House. The Allies jointly ruled Austria and Vienna with the Russians finally leaving in 1955 returning Austria to full sovereignty although a President was established in 1946 (some of this history is captured by Graham Greene, “The Third Man” (1949) and Phillip Kerr, A German Requiem” (1999). Because of these complicated international agreements, partly, Austria did not enter NATO until 1995.
The Badenburgs began developing the Vienna central palace in the late 1200’s growing it along with the succeeding Hapsburgs to its present glory, now called Hofburg; I don’t want to overstate it, but it probably with all its courtyards and buildings combined, occupies about 100-200 acres of central Vienna. I have walked its streets, halls, courtyards, churches and museums many times and still have not seen all of its 2400 rooms and government offices. And don’t leave out the Hapsburg Summer Palace on the outskirts of town (take tram #60 from the Westbahnhof), the Schoenborn with its 1400 rooms, put into current form about 1750 by Empress Maria Theresa, its stunning art collection and its grand gardens, past the Neptune Fountain, up the hill to the memorial to Franz Joseph and the Just War (the Gloriette) and adjoining Park Cafe.
One of the oldest sections of the Hofburg still in use is the family Chapel, the Burkapelle, wherein Catholic Mass is heard still every Sunday and often the famous Vienna Boys Choir; I have attended the Mass thrice, once with my boys, sitting in the front row with the mayor (they could have cared less about the mayor, but they DID love the Choir, commenting “Daddy, are these boys angels?)” The Homily was in German, and I was so proud to tell the boys all about it and talk a bit with the priest; but then the boys showed me the printed “order of service” and the Homily was all written out in German, French and English. The Boys Choir gave a private performance after the Service for about 30 of us tourists.
Just around the corner is the famous Spanish Riding School, so named for the origins of the Lipizzaner horses, founded in 1572. The horses are saddled, but the riders have no stirrups; the Lipizzaners and their riders are famous for their maneuvers, particularly the “Airs above the Ground” and “Between the Pillars.” I have watched several practices, but I have only seen the real performances on television; they tour internationally. Stroll in and along the Palace complex for the Royal Apartments, the Sisi museum (the dark history of Princess Elisabeth), the Imperial Treasury, the Armaments Museum, the Silver Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Modern Art Museum, the National Library, several salons and ballrooms, don’t miss the Opera Ball Room, the Museum of Architecture, the Carriage Museum and the Leopold Museum. The musical influence of the city is eternal including opera, symphony and waltz, and not all Strauss family; an astonishing 450 Grand Balls per year continue to dance the night away in Vienna, many at the Palace complex. I have always been fascinated by the collection of letters between Empress Maria Theresa and her daughter Marie Antoinette, after Marie moved to Paris; like England’s Queen Victoria, the Empress used her family (13 surviving children) to cement diplomatic relationships around Europe and Russia, although Marie did not end well.
Akin to DC and Paris, Vienna is built in circles, along the routes of much older city walls, now mostly gone. Walk the Ring Boulevard if you have stamina and strength, it’s about 6 miles with the Danube River alongside, or take a tram, getting off at your “stops;” I should mention that the trams are very strict about collecting their fares. Along the Ring the most famous place apart from the Palace Complex is probably the State Opera House. It’s amazing with almost breathtaking architecture. I have attended over the years three operas here: increasing in price as my finances improved, first 50 cents for the Magic Flute (but so high up and forward that I could only stand and see about ½ of the stage), $5 for La Boeheim, and $25 for Madam Butterfly (the prices date me – today’s prices are about four times). Also walk past the Russian Memorial, the Coburg Palace (beautiful grounds and hotel on a steep hill), the Vienna City Hall, the Parliament Buildings, the University of Vienna, Maria am Gestade Catholic Church, a major hospital, several other important hotels and several parks. Nearby is the mother church headquarters, St Stephens Cathedral, since 1147, with important architecture, artwork, chapels, crypts and monuments. The parks dedicated to Freud, Mozart and several of the Strauss family are delightful and great places to just sit … and enjoy; strike off on a walk along the Danube for a while, too. Also visit these famous folks’ homes, open for tour.
In addition, there are about 20 Vienna museums off the Ring, not associated with the Palace complex. Several important international organizations have major offices in Vienna including the UN, the IAEA, OPEC and the OSCE and some of these are at times open to tourists. The residential neighborhoods are delightful and just pleasant to stroll. Some of you will love the central shopping districts or just wander the streets to window shop; be sure to take time to watch the famous Anker Clock strike.
In addition to all the above, important art works maintained in Vienna include the Austrian Post Bank chair, the Kunst Haus and collection, the Penacho Collection (unique and very valuable Aztec collection, maintained with the consent of the Mexican government), the Last Judgement, Field Hare, Venus of Willendorf, the Tower of Babel, Egon Schiele’s self-portrait and The Kiss, among many other Klimt pieces.
As usual, I prefer the Best Western, Novotel and Dorint hotel chains, but when alone and when much younger, I would stroll to the Wien Haptbahnhof (main train station) and bid for some of the rooms offered by the upper class town folks (using servants to hold signs up to the incoming passengers) for a “bed and breakfast.” Often these homes would provide us our meals, too. But my favorite Vienna restaurants include the Café Hofburg (great pastries and coffee – my boys wanted to go there almost every morning or mid-day), Spice of India, Indien Village, Wirsthaus, Edvard, Café Leto, Skopik and Lohn, Bludnzenstricher, Gasthaus Wickerl, Gasthaus Pfudl, Cafe Marierhof, Fenster Café and Griechenbeisl (since 1447).
By the way Hungary and Czechoslovakia are so close, they make good day trips. The Austrian alps are to the West and probably deserve a separate trip, say Innsbruck, but won’t be part of this series.
Auf Wiedersehen….for now.
Dr. Stephen Imbeau and his wife Shirley moved to Florence on March 1, 1980. Arriving from Wisconsin, they were most surprised the next morning to see three inches of snow on the ground. Their three children were born and raised in Florence. Dr Imbeau with Dr Joseph Moyer opened the Allergy Asthma and Sinus Center in 1996, now one of the largest Allergy practices in South Carolina. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.stephenaimbeau.com.