December 28, 2015. Our initial goal had been to pay an early-December visit to Vienna for its famed Christkindl Market, but various illnesses intruded on our plans. So we rescheduled it as post-Christmas trip, and boy was that the best decision we’ve made in a long time. Nobody celebrates New Year’s Eve like Vienna. From waltzing in the street in your winter coat, to whirling around a ballroom in your formalwear, you’ll definitely “get your dance on” in this capital of Good Times and Great Food. And of course, you can round out your revelry with incredible architecture, world-class museums, and divine classical music.
Our visit began with a late-evening arrival in the midst of a fog so dense that I practically jumped out of my seat when the plane hit the tarmac. The ground was completely indiscernible. A collective gasp from the other passengers signaled that, like me, they all thought we were still descending through the impenetrable cloud layer. Everyone rubbed their eyes a bit to make sure we were sitting on solid land, and I watched several Catholics cross themselves in thankfulness that we were still intact.
The wet woolliness continued during our short trip into the city, making our first sight of Vienna at night seem like a misty, water-colored mirage. St. Stephen’s spire loomed out of the blank grayness, giving us the feeling that we’d stepped into some sort of stage set from a gothic thriller. Both ethereally beautiful and a bit eerie, the church became our beacon in the fog and our navigational center point for our explorations.
After dumping our bags at the lovely Hotel Kärntnerhof, which possessed more than its fair share of old-world charm, we scurried back out into the murky evening. An incredible display of Christmas lights managed to cut through the gloom and give the city a more festive air. But we both felt the need for a cup of java with a generous side helping of sugar to lift our spirits and warm our fingers.
So we stopped at Aida, the first of many famous Viennese coffeehouses that we were to visit over the week. An overwhelming drink menu and a display case bulging with foodie art greeted us. Thankfully, the waitress gave us a quick tutorial in both coffee lingo and traditional desserts before we selected our final choices. Walnut-and-raspberry cake for me and Esterhazy torte for Matthew, washed down with a melange (a kind of uber-fluffy cappuccino) and a brauner (regular coffee with steamed milk).
A quick kiss for luck beneath St. Stephen’s shadow.
Cake and coffee at Aida’s.
More lovely lights.
A quick nighttime tour of the city gave us the chance to catalog its many quaint squares, each presided over by noble statues and bordered by some fabulous shopping. Who would’ve thought Vienna’s demographics could have supported an entire store devoted to nothing but luxury walking sticks? Or for that matter, how about cuckoo clocks, tracht (folk costumes), or “Mozart’s Balls?” (The chocolate-covered nougat kind.) But eventually we tired of window gazing and headed to Zu den Drei Hacken, a traditional Viennese weinstube (wine pub), where we partook of beef jelly with pickled onions and liver dumpling soup — much more delicious than they sound.
Emperor Leopold I erected the Holy Trinity Plague Column in 1679 to thank God for sparing him from the Black Death. If you look closely, you can see the jutting, genetic Hapsburg jaw.
Can’t remember who this guy is supposed to be, but isn’t the square atmospheric?
A statue to Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable-type printing press.
Emperor Franz II (1785-1835) greets visitors to the courtyard of the Hofburg Palace. Behind him is a tower boasting three different kind of clocks, including one that shows the current phase of the moon.
Liver dumpling soup — seriously yummy!!!
Festive and pricey traditional tracht (the national costume.)
My beef jelly — tangy and yet creamy, it hit all the right flavor notes.
A statue to Eric Lessing, who escaped Vienna for Israel during WWII and later became a photo journalist, famous for documenting post-war Europe.
I’m trying to justify the purchase of a walking stick. They’re just so freakin’ gorgeous!
The Four Rivers Fountain in the center of the Neuer Markt shows Lady Providence surrounded by six frolicking naked folks representing the rivers that flow into the Danube. Empress Maria Theresa found the statues to be too provocative, so she organized “Chastity Commissions” to protect the moral fortitude of her city.
The next morning, we hopped aboard one of the cute antique streetcars to follow Rick Steves’s tram tour along the Ringstrasse (the once-Medieval-wall-now-boulevard that encircles the oldest part of the city). Our verdict after our drive-by photo shooting? No other way to say it, Vienna’s architecture is eye-popping. I’d go so far as to say it rivals Paris in grandeur and scale, and it might just be my new favorite city. (Of course, I seem to say that about every new city we visit. Guess I’m fickle.)
From Gothic, to Beaux Arts, to Secessionist, to Modernist, every style is lavishly represented by immense and ornate structures that testify to the power this city once held under the rule of the Hapsburgs — the famously prolific and lantern-jawed family who ruled over the Holy Roman Empire (1452- 1740), the Austrian Empire (1804 – 1865), and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1865 – 1918) … and also supplied rulers to Spain.
Matthew and I rapidly realized that in four days, there was no way we’d be able to check off everything on our “must see” list, so we tried to focus on a few highlights with the promise that we’d come back again for more. Below are just a few of our greatest architectural hits, with photo galleries.
The Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper)
As expected for the world center of classical music, Vienna boasts a breathtaking opera house. True, one of its two architects committed suicide just before his masterpiece was complete — because the public had already deemed it to be a clunky behemoth. But I like to think that those folks were just spoiled for choice, living amongst so many gorgeous buildings. At some point, though, the Viennese must’ve changed their minds about its appeal, because when the Allies bombed the building in an air raid at the end of WWII, the locals spent ten years restoring it to its former glory.
And glorious it is, resembling a Neo-Renaissance jewelry box. To get a gander at the rich interior, we joined one of the English guided tours that covered an amazing amount of territory and information in just an hour. First, a visit backstage provided us with a fantastic overview of the incredible effort it takes to put on an opera — and made me consider the strange lengths we humans go to to entertain ourselves. Then, a visit to the Royal Box and various smaller galleries gave the guide an opportunity to dish the gossip and ply us with operatic fun facts, such as: During a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which lasts five hours, the principle singers lose about eight pounds. Consequently, the piece is rarely performed in its entirety, and never performed two nights in row.
The murals and statuary are incredible — I can see why dressing formally is required to attend the Opera. We felt quite shabby in our street clothes.
The Royal Waiting Room is where the king hung out before the show and during intermission. You can rent it today for around $20,000.
The Royal Box and galleries had to be reconstructed after the war and are not as lavish as they once were. But the seats still cost plenty. The cheapest tickets we could find ran about $300 per person (and beyond our budget). But, you can always go to the “standing room only” section ($30). Of course, you’re up in the nose-bleed rafters, and you have to stand for the entire three hours. But you’re allowed to claim your spot early. Just come in and place your opera scarf on the “leaning rail” to mark your territory.
The bust is of Gustav Mahler, whose piano sits behind a glass case nearby. He started the trend of turning off the lights during a performance and requiring the audience to remain silent. Before Mahler, the house lights stayed on through the show, and folks loudly chatted and flirted with one another. Yep, it was purely a “see-and-be-seen” affair. Needless to say, although Mahler was esteemed for his skills as a composer and conductor of wildly dramatic performances, his insistence on protocol and appreciation of the music rather irked the public.
The tour backstage revealed the enormous resources it takes to put on an Opera. Stagehands work around the clock to set up and break down scenery, since different operas are performed each night to allow the singers to rest their voices. Enormous warehouses around town house stage sets brought to and fro by trucks each day. The stage floor is pockmarked with trap doors through which parts of the set are raised and lowered via elevators that access a many-leveled basement.
In the lobby, visitors can “try on” a costume from the Opera. Numbering in the tens of thousands, the costumes are kept across the street in a huge warehouse that is connected to the opera by an underground tunnel (so performers can scurry unseen onsite.)
2. St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) & St. Peter’s Church (Peterkirche)
So I’m fudging a bit with my architectural review by squeezing in two churches for the price of one. The first is a moody, gothic marvel that broods over the city center, claiming a full acre of land with its massive footprint. Built atop a 4th-century Roman cemetery, and cobbled together from the ruins of a Roman pagan temple and two previous Romanesque churches, St. Stephens may have a somewhat checkered architectural past. But it also possesses considerable Medieval gravitas manifested in a gilded triptych altarpiece, a pulpit and organ supported by almost phantasmagoric tracery, and a string of stone saints that line the nave and adorn its pillars.
Beyond its incredible architecture and art, the church has some serious social connections. King Frederick III — the guy responsible for putting Vienna on the map of world-class cities — is buried in a huge marble tomb that occupies one wing of the cathedral. And several famous classical musicians can count St. Stephen’s as their home church. Joseph Haydn and his brothers were choir boys. Mozart’s wedding, funeral, and the baptisms of two of his children were held here. And Beethoven realized the extent of his deafness when he watched bats swarm out of the bell tower but couldn’t hear the bells ring.
Dubbed the Heidentürme (Pagans’ towers), these two turrets are made of recycled Roman stones from the days when Vienna was Vindobona, a Roman garrison town.
The small green tower at the far left houses the Pummerin (meaning “Boomer”). It’s the second-largest swinging bell in Europe, measuring nearly 10 feet across and weighing 21 tons. It was first cast in 1711 from cannons and cannonballs captured in 1683 after the Ottoman siege of Vienna was lifted. It was recast of its original material in 1951, after having fallen and cracked in 1945 during a fire set by looters when Soviet troops entered the city. It’s still rung today on special occasions, such as at midnight on New Year’s Eve. (We were lucky enough to hear it.)
The roof burned during the 1945 fire, but as a symbol of civic pride and freedom, Viennese pooled their money to restore it. A considerable feat considering the devastation of Austria at the time. Locals each had the chance to purchase a tile and donate it to the reconstruction. The double-headed eagle of the Hapsburgs can be seen here.
On the other side of the roof, two eagles represent the state of Austria on the left and the city of Vienna on the right. The 450-ft-tall pinnacle, affectionately called “Steffl” (Stevie) was the main lookout point for the city. By Hapsburg decree, no other church spire was allowed to be built taller.
The delicately ribbed Gothic nave measures nine stories tall and supposedly is longer than a football field. The church was saved during the Nazi retreat by Captain Gerhard Klinkicht, who refused his commander’s order to “just fire a hundred shells at it and leave it in debris and ashes.”
The High Altar contains a cheery painting depicting the stoning of St. Stephen, the church’s patron saint.
Anti-Nazi Austrians carved this “O5” into the facade of the church, in objection to Hitler’s renaming their country Ostmark (notice that the O doesn’t have the double dot, called an “umlaut,” over it.) Austria’s native name is Österreich. In German, OE can be used as a substitute for O with an umlaut, and E is the fifth letter of the alphabet. So by saying O5, the Austrians are reclaiming that damned umlaut and their country’s name.
The stone pulpit sinuously entwines itself around a column. Depicted are four church fathers of the faith being gawked at by the sculptor himself. (You can barely see him craning his neck out of a window beneath the stairs. In German he’s called the Fenstergucker — “window gawker.”)
Along the pulpit’s carved railing, lizards of light (good) wage war against frogs of darkness (evil). The three-lobed curlicues rolling up the stairs beneath the frogs symbolize the Trinity, while the four-spoked curlicues rolling down symbolize the four seasons and four cardinal directions. (Look at the top of the stairs to see the two next to one another.)
Notice another “gawker,” who holds a sculptor’s compass while leering out a window beneath the balcony. He may be either the Hungarian stonemason, Anton Pilgrim, or the sculptor of the pulpit, Nikolaus Gerhaert van Leyden.
On the left is the baptismal font used in the baptism of Mozart’s children. This was his parish church during his Vienna years.
The Wiener Neustädter Altar is composed of two triptychs that depict the life of Mary.
The second church — St. Peter’s — is a refined Baroque beauty that subtly beckons to passersby who are lucky enough to spot a glimpse of it. (It’s nestled demurely between shopping arcades.) Although it, too, has its feet planted in paganism, having been founded on the site of a Roman encampment, inside it celebrates Christianity in true Baroque form with emotionally riotous and gilded splendor. While St. Stephen’s darkly arched interior encourages somber contemplation of the heavens and one’s sins, St. Peter’s exuberantly domed space inspires orgiastic reveries of paradise and punishment — which is somewhat fitting, considering that the church is now run by Opus Dei. (Remember Silas, the self-flagellating follower of this sect in The Davinci Code?)
Supposedly Charlemagne established the second church on the site, which burnt down in 1661. Leopold I rebuilt it in 1733 as a “thank you” for having survived the bubonic plague of 1679-80.
Said to be the first domed structured in Vienna, St. Peter’s mimics its namesake in Rome. The fresco depicts the Coronation of Mary, and the little lantern in the turreted center houses the dove of the Holy Spirit.
The main altar painting depicts the Immaculate Conception, while the top of the frilly pulpit depicts the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Who claims that Christianity is monotheistic?
The Cech Saint John Nepomuk (c. 1340-1393) can be seen here mid-fall, having been tossed to his death off the St. Charles Bridge in Prague for defying the heretical King Wenceslas. (No, not the “good king” of the Christmas carol fame, but Wenceslaus I Premyslid who ruled 300 years later.)
3. Early Modernist Architecture
While Vienna is perhaps most famous for its Secessionist (Art Nouveau) structures, it’s home to remarkable Modernist buildings that rank as some of the first to deviate from ornate historical styles. The sleek Austrian Postal Savings Bank is a must-see, especially for an architect like Matthew. Designed by Otto Wagner between 1904-12, it meets the definition of modern by exemplifying the marriage between form and function. (Fussy non-functional ornamentation is verboten.) Every structural detail expresses its purpose without decorative flourishes, yet the overall effect isn’t boring. Fairly simple on the outside, the interior is an ode to glass, steel, and rivets. It’s the perfect stark setting for a film noir. Entering it, I felt like Matthew should begin addressing me as “doll,” while I straightened the seams in my stockings.
Its stripped-down, monolithic exterior gives the building the feel of an impenetrable vault — just what customers are looking for in their bank.
Marble plates adhered with aluminum-capped iron rivets coat the building, making it easy to maintain and clean — a Modernist goal. Modernity scorns unnecessary ornamentation, considering it a waste of the workers’ time and energy. But Wagner apparently relented enough to let his buddy, secessionist sculptor Othmar Schimkowitz, create some classical winged victories for the rooftop. I wonder if modernists ever realized that their anti-ornamentation and low-maintenance stance eventually put workers and artists out of jobs?
A glass ceiling and glass-block floor allow light to penetrate into the underground post office boxes and mail sorting room, which helps cut down on electric lighting bills. Check out the awesome heater on the left.
Inside, the rivet theme continues, with slim steel columns that support weight without blocking too much light.
The interior office areas have non-load-bearing walls that can be reconfigured as spatial needs change — a design concept that has caught on in modern office buildings today, giving way to the dreaded “cubicle.”
The next stops on our modernist pilgrimage were The American Bar, Manz’s Bookstore, and an underground public bathroom, all designed by Adolph Loos. I’m not kidding about that last one. Back around 1900, a local chemist wanted to demonstrate “the superior cleaning power” of his products, so he hired Loos (pronounced “loose”) to convert some old wine cellars into public toilets. You can still take a leak in one of Loos’s loos for about 50 cents, where you’ll find a surprisingly Frank Lloyd Wright-ish space. Loos’s other buildings are even more Modernist, clinging to his philosophy that “decoration is a crime.” Funnily enough, Loos liked to say that the act of putting decoration on a building is like smearing excrement on a bathroom wall. Wonder if he thought of the comparison after visiting his restrooms on a heavily touristed day?
Note the gorgeous coffered ceiling. Loos believed that the materials should stand on their own beauty, because ornamentation is trendy and eventually goes out of style.
Each stall has it’s own quaint sink.
Loos focused on simple geometric shapes. Here the cube is divided and subdivided again based on function: display window, doorway, lighting.
Originally called the Kärntner Bar, The American Bar was just around the corner from our hotel. True to its name, it was filled with Americans.
The interior of the tiny bar is gorgeous, but unfortunately the experience is marred by a suffocating amount of cigarette smoke. Although the bartender reputedly serves excellent cocktails, we couldn’t tolerate the cancerous cloud.
Stay tuned tomorrow for our best museum moments and foodie favorites!