Vienna – I

Vienna stole in upon us on a gusty summer’s night and caught me unawares after a somewhat subdued start to our weekend break.

The day we caught the early morning flight to Vienna from Heathrow, the results of the monumental Brexit referendum had just been announced. The elderly cab driver in Northampton quizzed us on our reactions, co-travellers opined ‘Now, if the Scottish want to leave us, bollocks to them’, and stewards gabbed on about it. Brexit travelled with us to Vienna.

From the cool climes of England, we were driven straight into the arms of a suffocating heat wave in the Austrian capital. My hair frizzed up with alarming alacrity and my happiness ebbed in directly proportional measures. The Turkish doorman at the hotel announced, “Everyone who comes in through the doors says, ‘Aaaah the air conditioning, I think we shall spend the holiday inside the hotel.” The sentiment was much appreciated as my wilting spirits revived in the cool of our room which had beautiful Viennese art etched into the décor.

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The Wiener Staatsoper or the Vienna State Opera dominates the Ringstrasse. The horse trap completes the picture, whisking you into another time and world.
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Atop the building is a winged horse with the muse of poetry, Erato, astride it.
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Heartbreak is woven into the stones of the opera. It was designed by two individuals, August von Siccardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll. Considering its grandness, I was surprised that people were scathing about the design – van der Nüll could not bear it and took his own life a year before the opera house opened in the mid-19th century. Two months later, his bereaved designer friend died of a heart attack.
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The Mozart costume sits askew on a paunch
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Twenty-two-carat gold leaf ceilings inside the Vienna State Opera. Most of the architecture around the lobby remained unaffected despite bombings during WW II, when an allied bomber mistook the opera for a train station.
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Schwind Foyer. The hall carries 16 sketched oil paintings by Austrian artist, Moritz von Schwind.
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Allegorical statues stand all around the beautiful, old staircase.
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Views from the Schwind Foyer
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Before the opera commences…
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Lest you do catch the opera inside the hall, it is screened for the public outside the opera.
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The view once you step out of the Vienna State Opera
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There on one of the fountains outside the opera building is Lorelei, a siren who is said to have lured sailors to their death near cliffs by singing to them.

Mozart, Käsekrainer and Sisi

The hotel was plonked right on the Ringstraße, Vienna’s ring road that runs in a circle around the Innere Stadt (Old Town). Emerging into the hot noon, we found ourselves in front of the iconic Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), nearby which we were accosted by a man in a poufy white wig, yellow brocade waistcoat and breeches. He has many counterparts, across Vienna’s Old Town, ready to pounce upon tourists. In his Mozart-esque costume, the man tried his best to sell us exorbitant tickets for an opera, apart from prattling on about Brexit and Zubin Mehta because the maestro had started his conducting career in Vienna.

We wound up watching Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) instead at the Wiener Staatsoper after laying our hands on a couple of standing tickets. There we stood transfixed by the beauty of it – you can never underplay the emotions that a good opera performance can induce. It was one of the most atmospheric things that we indulged in, in Vienna. The comic opera, first staged in 1786 in the city, revolved around the marriage of the servants Figaro and Susanna, and in the process, the foiling of an amorous count’s plans to seduce Susanna.

In its aftermath, enveloped in a haze of operatic enchantment, we armed ourselves with cans of chilled beer. Fortified further by Käsekrainer (Austrian sausages with cubes of cheese) from carts and spicy noodles rustled up by Afghan migrants, we explored the baroque beauty of Vienna. Magnificent palaces, fountain nymphs, gods and goddesses, and churches cast an imperial aura over the city. Horse carriages clip-clopped by. Every old building oozed charm, and in front of the stunning Rathaus, we ended up watching a Euro football match with a passionate crowd.

Particularly romantic were the sky-high spires of a church built by the Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as a gesture of Ferdinand’s thankfulness because of a failed assassination attempt on the emperor’s life.

History lurked around every corner we turned. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had addressed an Austrian German crowd in 1938 from the balcony of the Neue Burg, a branch of the Hofburg Palace which was the stronghold of the Habsburg monarchy. The way to the palace was through a massive gate, Michaelertor, and it housed a museum dedicated to the Austrian cult figure of Sisi. The beautiful empress of Kaiser Franz Joseph I, formally known as Elisabeth of Austria, stared back at me from shop windows and palace banners. She was known for indulging in fripperies such as washing her hair with essences extracted from eggs and cognac and tightly lacing herself – which is how she maintained a slender figure, an enviable sense of fashion and lush long hair. Sisi was a woman oppressed. Her mother-in-law and the rigidity of courtly life were a couple of instances. I admired her for becoming a champion of independence, penning poetry and indulging her passion for wanderlust. “If I arrived at a place and knew that I could never leave it again, the whole stay would become hell despite being paradise,” said Sisi, who was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in 1868.

A couple of my friends were in Vienna at the time. We spent an evening with them near the impressive St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its richly tile-glazed roof, talking about politics and travel. We drank copious amounts of beer till the pubs shut down and resorted to some more from late-night food stalls while buskers played sweet music to us.

Vienna by night is truly unmissable.

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Where the streets wind off into classical beauty on a gust summer’s night.
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A peering lady inside the Hofburg Palace
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Sausage fest
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Käsekrainer, a wonderfully juicy pork and beef sausage is an Austrian favorite and ours too. We would tuck regularly into its peppery-garlic goodness and feel the Emmental cheese, which it is stuffed with, ooze into our mouths.

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The 19th century Neue Burg
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That is the statue of Empress Maria Theresa on Maria-Theresien-Platz, a large public square. In the backdrop is the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum). Maria Theresa was the only female ruler and the last of the House of Habsburg. By marriage, she became the Holy Roman Empress. She was revered by the Austrians because she introduced reforms such as compulsory schooling.
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The Rathaus is a stunning Gothic structure on the Innere Stadt and houses the office of the mayor of Vienna.
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That summer night they were screening a Euro match on a giant screen on the Rathaus.
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The atmosphere was electric and the crowd quite charged up.

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The Neo-Gothic Votive Church reminded me a bit of the Sagrada Familia. It was built as a sign of gratitude by Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, following an attempt on the emperor’s life in 1853.

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Classical figures on the Albertina Platz

Ye Old Cafés and Horse Traps

An inevitable part of being in Vienna is traipsing through museums and making pit stops at coffee houses. We absorbed Vienna’s Habsburg history in the Schönbrunn Palace and could not but miss out on Mozart’s birthplace. Warned by a friend, I skipped the museum dedicated to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He had fled to London with everything he owned to escape the Nazis and thus the museum in Vienna has barely nothing to show.

My ardent wish of meeting the Lippizaner Horses at the Spanish Riding School was in vain however. “They are on holiday,” beamed the blonde girl behind the till. I dismissed it as a joke. The girl reiterated, “They actually go on holiday during this period and return only in August.”

I drowned my sorrows. I ate cake.

We sat in the luxurious café of Hotel Sacher and sliced into Sacher Tortes along with dollops of whipped cream. We dug into more tortes at cafés which are institutions in Vienna. If I shut my eyes, I can almost taste the goodness of the Cleopatra Torte at Demel and the intimidating mound of shredded pancake known as Kaiserschmarrn at Central Café.

 

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The Spanish Riding School in Vienna is an institution. It is in fact the only institution in the world to have practiced classical dressage (classical riding that believes in riding in harmony with the horse) or haute école, a Renaissance tradition, for over 440 years. Since, the Lipizzaner beauties were on holiday, I came back with a little magnet.
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Hotel Sacher, an icon of the city
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The Original Sacher-Torte at Hotel Sacher. The Sacher Torte is a chocolate cake that was invented by an Austrian patissier called Franz Sacher in 1832 for Prince Wenzel von Metternich in Vienna, when the Prince was throwing a party and is said to have declared, “Let there be no shame on me tonight!” But there is a legendary tiff between Hotel Sacher and Demel because both claim precedence over each other for the cake. I would say, give both a go.
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The kind of smile that comes naturally post a Viennese chocolate cake
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Demel is an absolute visit in Vienna. They serve the most gorgeous pastries. The pastry shop goes back to the year 1786 in Vienna and till date the company bears the title of a Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court.
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Pastry making at Demel.
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Inside Demel
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The Cleopatra Torte at Demel is delectable enough to make Cleopatra and you swoon.
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Café Central, another institution of the city
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The beautiful, traditional Café Central interiors
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The husband and in the backdrop is a family (father, mother and son though you can only see the mother) who could not stop giggling once my order arrived at the table. Needless to say, I was gobsmacked with the order but their reactions were priceless.
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Yes, that is what elicited such amused laughter. The Kaiserschmarrn (Emperor’s Mess),a shredded pancake was a favourite with the Austrian emperor (Kaiser) Franz Joseph I. The Kaiser’s table was never without it.
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Now we know the ingredient that went into his girth.
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The original Hungarian shepherd-dish of goulash made its way into Austria at the beginning of the 19th century. The Viennese Goulash at the Central Café is peppery and wholesome.
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Central Café, a traditional Viennese café, where Viennese intellectuals such as Peter Altenberg, Alfred Polgar and Leon Trotsky used to meet. Not to forget the chess players who met there regularly, lending it the epithet, the ‘Chess school’, or Die Schachhochschule.

A cup of Viennese coffee and a slice of cake go hand-in-hand at these traditional coffee houses which have been listed as pieces of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by UNESCO. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Freud, Hitler, Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Soviet politician Leon Trotsky were some of the famous names who patronised Café Central.

For these cafés were and continue to be places filled with marble table tops, bentwood chairs and gilded columns, where time stands still, where the hours are spent at leisure, but where you pay for just the price of coffee.

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Vienna waits for you.

If you enjoyed going through this post and do not mind a little more of this beautiful city, here’s more for you, Vienna – II.

3 thoughts on “Vienna – I

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