I finally got around to editing my travel notes about Vienna and putting it into a more readable format. Here is the first of a three part series.
Srijith and I started on our journey on a Wednesday evening. After a rather uncomfortable flight (Austrian airways is the only non-budget airline I know where they charge you for onboard food and the legspace is worse than trains), we reached Vienna sound and safe.
Thursday morning dawned bright and clear. We decided to spend the day outdoors – and started with taking the tram to Karlsplatz. At Karlsplatz, we visited the Karlskirche – a beautiful church that was built as a sign of gratitude for delivering Vienna from the plague of the early 20th century. The church combines the beauty of Baroque and Gothic architecture and also borrows from other regional styles – The two imposing columns are borrowed from ancient Roman architecture, the front entrance is decidedly Greek, the dome resembles contemporary Roman, and the towers are Viennese. Surprisingly, the church was not packed with tourists – somehow it tends to be overlooked by many. But this beautiful and impressive building is definitely worth a visit.
Walking distance from the Karlskirche is the Secession building. A distinguishing feature of the Secession building is the golden globe like structure on its roof – considered an eye sore by many Viennese when it was first opened.The Secession building represents the free spirit of Austria. The outside of the building proudly proclaims: “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.” (To each time its art, to art its freedom).
A visit to the Secession building is worth it even if it were only to see the Beethoven Frieze by the Viennese artist, Gustav Klimt. Believe it or not, this beautiful masterpiece was created just as a decoration for an exhibition to be destroyed later, but was bought by a collector and later restored. It spans the four walls of a reasonably sized room and is an artists impression of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. It is a coherent and sequential representation, which spans from showing human longing to the miseries of humanity and eventually ends on an optimistic note with the blissful kiss.
The other parts of the museum have moving exhibitions and what you get to see depends on when you visit. The works of Kirsten Pieroth, which were on display during our visit did not catch my fancy. A volume of Sherlock Holmes (named the ‘Book’) or a stolen minute hand from a clock in Stockholm (yes, the real clock hand, accompanied by some photographs which detail the act of stealing) are just not my idea of art. A saving grace was the piece, Indonesian, which represents all the islands of Indonesia, arranged linearly in alphabetical order.
From the Secession building, we walked down to the Museum Quartier, popularly known as MQ. The amazing part of Vienna is that most of the things you might want to see are located within the Innere Stadt or Inner City and are within walking distance from each other. As expected, the Museum Quarter houses most of the museums. Since it was too nice a day to be spend couped up inside a museum (and with predictions of bad weather for the weekend, we did not want to take a chance), we decided to enjoy a stroll by the museum grounds and then walk over to the Hofburg complex. More on MQ later.
The Hofburg Palace
The Hofburg complex is collection of buildings with very different flavours to it. It was originally a medieval castle, which has been added on to at various points in time, giving it an odd variety and diversity to it. Add to it horse carts with men in black coats and bow ties, and its not too hard to wonder if you have time travelled to the 15th century.The Heroes square in the middle is vast and very impressive and has equestrian statues of Austria’s heroes.There are several different things you can see in the Hofburg complex – be it the Imperial treasury, National Library, the furniture museum, the Spanish driving school, silver ware museum, collection of musical instruments so on and on.
We chose to see the Silverkammer, which exhibits an astonishing quantity of silver ware, porcelain and crockery. If I were to eat in a different plate from the museum everyday of my life, I would still die way before I am anywhere near running out of plates. Why anyone would need so much silverware is truly beyond me. But then royalty is not known for possessing only what they need.
After the Hofburg, we headed down to the famed Stephansdom or the St.Stephens Cathedral, which is at the heart of Viennese life and probably Vienna’s most recognizable landmark. If you have been to the Cologne cathedral, you will notice that the two are architecturally very similar – relics of a splendid Gothic architectural heritage. Inside the Cathedral, you should not miss the the tomb of Prince Eugene, the Altarpiece of Wiener Neustadt, the pulpit by Anton Pilgram, the sepulcher of Emperor Frederik III by Niclas Gerhaert (1467-1513), the watchman`s lookout, a self portrait of the sculptor, and the Gothic winged altar. We took an English guided tour which had advertised that they would take us to the catacombs, but for some reason, I saw no catacombs. Still I think it was worth it because I wouldn’t have observed the significance of the subtle details which can be found everywhere in the cathedral.
Numbers play a very significant part in the architectural details of the cathedral. To give an example, the number 3 stands for trinity and 4 stands for humanity – the windows on the God’s side, the altar, has panels of three, while the one where people sit are four-panelled. At the stairs to the pulpit, three spoked wheels go up, while four spoked ones roll down. There are lizards which represent the good that go up the pulpit, while toads that represent the evil go down. And to catch the odd disobedient toad that reaches the pulpit, there is a watchdog sculpture on the top. If you relish the beauty in the details, the guided tours are absolutely worth it.
The tourguide will also let you in on some of the myths about the place – the story of the Servants’ Madonna, who once saved an innocent girl from being arrested for stealing, the weird indentation of the wall at the left side of the main entrance, which was used to measure the size of a loaf of bread by dissatisfied customers, the tale of the lord of tooth ache, the story of the incomplete northern steeple and so on. Outside the church, the Stephansplatz is a very lively place which houses some of Vienna’s famed cafes and venue to engaging live performances.
The Holocaust memorial
After the Stephansdom, we headed out to see the Holocaust memorial, which is probably not worth a visit, because it is a rather dull and somber rectangular structure in the middle of what might otherwise have been a pretty little square, Judensplatz. There is a Jewish museum next to it, which is said to have some really good images of the life of Jews in the concentration camps – but having been thoroughly depressed by such images in the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, we decided we were not upto visiting such a museum again and gave it a miss. If you haven’t seen them before, this might be worth a visit.
After that we decided to walk to the Rathausplatz, which is a large square flanked by four of Vienna’s proudest buildings – the Townhall, the Burgtheatre, the University building and the Parliament. The great navigator that I am, we somehow lost our way and ended up back at the Hofburg complex! But the good news was that the Rathausplatz and the Hofburg complex are actually right next to each other. We had just a whole big circle. Looking at the bright side, we now had a good idea of the Viennese city and the general local life as our walk led us through some non-touristic parts of town.
Kuchen and Kaffee
En route the long-winded walk, we took some time off to enjoy the famed Viennese Kuchen and Kaffee (cakes and coffee). If you are in Vienna, you must try the Wiener Melange, a type of coffee that is a cross between an espresso and a cappuccino – without the bitterness of the espresso and the foaminess of the cappuccino. The real Viennese cakes are called the Torte, which though often falsely translated to a Tart in English, is in fact very different – it is more layered than a usual pastry and almost melts in your mouth.