The Celts had established an active trading post long before the Romans arrived in 15 BC, carrying their grape vine saplings. The first written documentation of the town of Wenia dates back to 881 AD. During the course of the following centuries, control of the region passed between various interests. Eventually, the Hapsburgs came to power when they inherited it, but they never lived in Vienna until 1533, under Ferdinand I.
The 1700s heralded a golden age for the city bringing stunning architecture, enchanting classical music and the reform of civil laws. In the early 1800s, Napoleon marched in, not once but twice, but his reign was brief and the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 was held to celebrate his demise. The First World War brought an end to the building frenzy and also the monarchy.
Following the war, fascism reared its ugly head on the streets of Vienna, and amid the resulting turmoil, Hitler marched in to the cheers of over 200,000 residents on March 15, 1938. WWII brought heavy damage to the city from Allied bombing and on April 11, 1945, the Russians put an end to the Nazi domination here. The Cold War is behind the residents now, and today it serves as a bridge between EU nations.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We had heard that Cologne was really Köln, that Prague was really Praça, but it came as a complete surprise to us that Vienna’s name is really Wien. We’re both thinking that we should probably have come to Europe much, much earlier, but the exotic destinations in the world have always held more fascination for us. It seems it wasn’t till we got many of them under our belt, that we could turn our interest to the ‘continent’.
Hotel prices are quite high near the center of Vienna, so we decided to stay on the other side of the Danube, in an area just beyond the UNO-City Vienna International Center. It’s relatively easy to get around on the U-Bahn and we purchased a Vienna Card that gave us unlimited transit rides and discounts to most of the city’s museums. We were thinking that we were pretty smart indeed.
However, what we didn’t realize was that there were two U-Bahn stops with almost the same name, one was Kagran and the other was Kagraner Platz. We got off at Kagran and spent a very frustrating amount of time trying to locate our hotel, asking several people for help, before someone finally figured out that we needed to travel one stop further on the metro.
In the end, the elderly gentleman was very helpful, because we had walked half of the distance between the two stops. He told us to wait for a tram and it would take us where we wanted to be, without having to retrace our steps. I mention all this only because it proves that one should never get too overconfident about arriving at a new city when it comes to public transit systems.
We were ready for a quiet evening after all that adventure, so we went to a restaurant recommended by our hotel, and were pleased that it was right across the street. We entered the pub/restaurant to find a rather smoky place – oh no, Prague wasn’t the only European city to still allow smoking indoors. Luckily, we were shown to a separate room at the back where smoking was forbidden and had one of the best meals we’d eaten in Europe, washed down by some equally fabulous dark beer. Our spirits were definitely on the upswing.
The next day was a Sunday, pretty quiet on the streets, but we headed for an amusement park constructed on an island in the Danube. In the 19th and 20th centuries, long canals were dredged in order to control flooding, and a 27km-long island was formed between the Alte Danau (Old Danube) and the canals. I had read that the Riesenrad, an iconic Ferris wheel was not to be missed. I had anticipated seeing the grand buildings of Vienna, but this was a surprise indeed.
However, when we arrived at the Ferris wheel, we found the amusement park packed with people and a long queue for tickets. It was a Sunday afternoon, so I guess this was to be expected on a lovely autumn day. We learned that Monday was a holiday for some reason, perhaps because it was the day before All Saint’s Day, but that if we came on Tuesday, the Ferris wheel would be open and there would be fewer visitors. The weather was predicted to take a turn for the worse, so I took a few photos of the ride just in case we didn’t get back for a ride.
We spent the balance of the coolish day roaming around the iconic center of Vienna, admiring the striking buildings and riding trams 1 & 2 as they made a circular route around the oldest part of the city, along a path that once housed the city walls. We got a chance to view many of the most dramatic buildings from our comfortable wooden seats on the tram, without having to wear out too much shoe leather.
We stayed late enough in the evening to see the same buildings once again, lit up in all their spendour. It was hard to imagine that they could look even better at night than they did during the day. There were so many museums and art galleries to see, but we were saving ourselves for the following day when we planned to visit a former palace that is home to one of Gustav Klimt’s most famous paintings, ‘The Kiss’.
To our surprise and delight, Monday morning dawned bright and sunny and we headed to an area southeast of the ‘Ringstrasse’ to the stunning Schloss Belvedere (Belvedere Palace). It is considered one of the finest baroque palaces in the world, begun as a summer palace for Prince Eugene of Saxony, a brilliant military strategist, and later expanded to include a much larger palace where parties and major banquets could be held following the Prince’s defeat of the Turks in 1718.
The palace is now home to the Austrian Gallery, and the major works are divided between the upper and lower grand structures. We deliberately planned our visit so that we could arrive at the lower palace, walk uphill through the immense gardens, visit the upper palace to see ‘The Kiss’, and then stroll back down later in the afternoon and see the grounds in the lowering light. Anil wasn’t aware of the plans I had in mind, but he enjoyed the visit just the same.
There were tons of other interesting paintings in the upper gallery but ‘The Kiss’ was the stunner I didn’t expect it to be. It seems that every reproduction that I’ve seen, has added some golden highlights that aren’t present on the original. I couldn’t take my eyes off the painting. It was a much more tender kiss than I expected, and the subtle details were captivating.
I have never read that anyone thought the lovely women was dying, but the subtle blue colour of her face, hands and feet made me fell that she was. If she were at death’s door, it would make the kiss all that much more endearing. However, I would never consider myself an art aficionado, I just know what I like, and know how a painting touches me.
Vienna is the home of the Lipizzaner stallions and beautiful concert halls where the music of Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert and of course Strauss, but we hadn’t made plans well enough in advance to take in any events. We felt very strongly that this was just our first foray into Western Europe and that we were here to get an overview in preparation for future visits. For that reason, I was drawn to an entry in our Lonely Planet that spoke of an artist who ‘abhors the straight line. Enough of the old masters, I was interested in seeing the art and buildings conceived by someone like-minded.
We jumped on the tram once again and headed to an area just east of the Ringstrasse, a lovely residential area tucked in near the Danau canal. I was pleased to see signs directing our way, something we hadn’t seen elsewhere in Vienna. As we approached the museum, I knew by the colourful exterior of the Hundertwasser Kundsthaus that we had arrived at a very special place.
I stopped to take some photographs of the façade of the building, and the large colourful pillars at the entrance. They reminded me so much of the trade beads that I first encountered in Africa and continue to love, but I was unprepared for my reaction to the building and the massive collection of Hundertwasser’s art inside. How could I have lived all my life and not heard of this man before?
We arrived just after 5:00pm and I was thrilled that the museum was open until 8:00pm, because it gave us time to pour over his collection of paintings, building models, stamp and flag designs and the texts about his fascinating life and extensive travels. I felt that this man, who was born around the same time as my parents, and who died in 2000, was decades ahead of his time in terms of his art and his philosophy of life.
We were tired and too hungry to make our way back to the great restaurant near our hotel so we ate dinner at the café in the museum. The atmosphere was lovely, the wine was delicious, but the food was disappointing. Too bad, we didn’t expect to leave with a bad taste in our mouths.
What a difference a day makes. We woke to cold weather, heavy mist and dreariness all around. We lingered over breakfast, wrapped ourselves in our warmest clothes and gave up on the idea of riding the Ferris wheel. There didn’t seem much point when the view from the distinctive cars would be so very limited. We cast around for things to do considering the weather, and settled on a visit to the Globe Museum. Apparently, it’s the only one of its kind in the world.
I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that two people who love to travel so much, would love maps and map making. I have often said that my favourite book is a comprehensive atlas, and knowing Anil would appreciate the thought, I gave him a massive Rand McNally Atlas of the World as an anniversary present a year after we were married. I wrote a portion of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses on the cover page, and I’m as inspired today by the words as I was when I first read them in high school.
The museum is clearly not a hot spot in Vienna, but it was particularly quiet that cold Tuesday morning and that suited us just fine. We poured over the collections, taking in all the various kinds of globes, both terrestrial and celestial, and appreciated the animated display on how different kinds of map projections were developed and how spherical globes were produced by hand hundreds of years ago.
We weren’t hungry enough for lunch after the big meal we had at our hotel, so we just headed to the iconic Demel Café to have a hot latte and a slice of Sacher Torte, the most famous cake in Vienna. The café was lovely, very crowded and the cake was a major disappointment. I can’t imagine what all the fuss is about. It is a specialty of the Sacher Hotel, but we had read in our guidebook that the Demel version is closest to the original, so we steered clear of the Sacher itself.
The weather was very daunting; we weren’t at all interested in wandering the streets in the cold and fog so we decided to head back to the Hundertwasser Kundsthaus for a visit to their gift shop and a look at a nearby apartment building that the artist had designed. I was more than a little put off by the commercialization of the ‘Village’ and would recommend other visitors to stick with the museum and envelope themselves in his philosophy and forget about the souvenirs.
We got a little turned around as we left the museum and headed for the tram. I was off by about 90 degrees, but it seemed it was meant to be. It was necessary for us to walk across a small bridge, devoid of any other traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. We were walking over the ‘Blue Danube’; I couldn’t think of a better way to end our brief visit to Vienna,