The principal purpose of our short trip to Vienna was the opera, enabling me to fulfill a life-long dream to enter the hallowed portals of the Vienna State Opera and attend a performance there. But to our surprise and delight we discovered that the Christmas markets would be open there too. And the city was decked out in all her glittering, brightly-lit glory, ready to receive eager visitors from abroad.
There are two ways to reach the city centre from the airport: the CAT train, or taxi. As the CAT train drivers were having a two-hour strike when we arrived, this wasn’t a possibility. While we were considering our other options, a young man approached me and offered to share an Uber ride into the city centre. This cost €30, of which we paid €20 as there were two of us, which was less than half the price of a taxi. Since the advent of Uber, one wonders how much longer taxis will survive, and the incident proved that it’s essential to have a functioning Uber app one one’s smartphone, saving much time and trouble.
We left our luggage at the Vienna Trend Hotel Astoria, and fortified ourselves with a hearty lunch of goulash soup at Café Hanelka nearby – the resident artist busy drawing portraits in his corner.
Our first site was the magnificent old Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral), an immense Gothic structure towering over the inner quarter and universally regarded as the symbol of the city. It was begun during the 12th century, as can be seen in the Romanesque Riesentor (Giant Gate) and Heidentürme (Heathens’ Towers).Then in 1359 Habsburg Duke Rudolf IV ordered the construction of the Gothic masterpiece that we see today. Most striking is the colourful tiled roof, with rows of chevrons on one side and the Austrian eagle on the other.
Once inside, an excellent English audio-guide with a numbered map drew my attention to details I might otherwise have missed, such as the mischievous self-portrait of Anton Pilgrim, sculptor of the fantastic stone pulpit in 1515.
Salamanders and toads adorn the pulpit railing, represnting the battle between good and evil, and triumph of the former. The spectacular central nave culminates in the Baroque high altar, where a large oil painting depicts the martyrdom (stoning) of St Stephen. To the right of the high altar stands the red marble tomb of Habsburg Emperor Friedrich III, under whose auspices the city became a bishopric, and the church a cathedral, in 1469. He was also Holy Roman Emperor from 1452 until his death in 1493.
The finely-wrought Wiener Neustädter Altar (1447) which stands at the head of the north nave, depicts the life of the Virgin Mary. A detail in the right-hand corner represents the three stages of man paying homage to the Virgin: Youth, Adult and Old Age:
Also attractive is the choir organ, rebuilt in 1991 by the Austrian firm Rieger.
There are many interesting details in this majestic old cathedral, about which many books have been written – on sale in the cathedral shop – and stories told. The surrounding area was once a graveyard, but during outbreaks of the plague and influenza during the 1730’s, Emperor Karl VI ordered it to be closed, and the dead to be buried in catacombs dug beneath the cathedral. As with all these old churches, preservation and restoration is an ongoing and expensive exercise. I was disappointed that there were no concerts taking place there during our visit. Schloss Belvedere was our destination the next morning. Here, after a chilly night, we found the beautiful landscaped gardens covered in a delicate fall of snow. Built between 1717 and 1723, the Palace stands on a slight rise, affording the occupants sweeping views over the city, the sturdy Dom at its centre.
Each magnificent room is richly decorated with marble, frescoes and stucco figures, indicative of the wealth and exquisite taste of the powerful Habsburg Emperors. The centrepiece of this opulent building is the Marble Hall, illuminated by crystal chandeliers and decorated in brown marble, stucco, and trompe l’oeil. On the ceiling is Carlo Innocenzo Carlone’s fresco celebrating the glorification of Prince Eugene (1721-23).
The lower floor displays the Medieval art collection, leading visitors through the development of art during this period. There are also Baroque and Early 19th Century collections, while the highlight of the Neoclassical, Romantic and Biedermeier periods was for me David’s handsome and commanding painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps on The Great St Bernard Pass (1801).
The Belvedere houses the largest collection of Klimt paintings in the world, and here viewers can delight in a number of these jewel-like, erotic golden pictures, including Judith (1901) and The Kiss (1908).
The latter image is reproduced on almost every tourist souvenir imaginable, from espresso cups and T-shirts to paper napkins, frig magnets, spectacles cases, notebooks and porcelain ware. It is as if this painting, too, has become a symbol of the city, along with “Sisi” (Empress Elisabeth), and the ubiquitous Mozartkügeln – chocolate-coated marzipan balls, sold in souvenir shops throughout the city
Mozart spent the last ten years of his life in Vienna, from 1781-91, boldly trying to go it alone as a freelance composer while the age-old patronage system was still firmly entrenched. Although well ahead of his time, he was at first very successful as a performing pianist and opera composer. The myth that he died a pauper has since been disputed; he had monies coming in from his last opera, The Magic Flute, as well as the sublime Requiem. But he was hopeless in the management of his affairs and finances, spend-thrift and irresponsible, and died with debts to vintners and tailors, hatters and glove-makers. The lack of immediate resources meant no money for a fitting send-off, hence the legendary “pauper’s funeral” and “burial in an unmarked grave”. The latter is true; we shall never know where the great composer was laid to rest. But with the new laws imposed by Emperor Franz Josef II – burial outside the city precincts for reasons of hygiene, suggest that it was somewhere on the outskirts of the Old Town. But what does it matter? We have his glorious music as an eternal monument to his genius, which will endure for the rest of time.
An Italian composer inspired by this brilliant composer’s operatic masterpieces was Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), born the year after Mozart’s death, and famous for his love of “wine, women and song – depending on the vintage”. And, as I always advise my students: if you wish to inure an unwilling partner to the visual and aural delights of opera, begin with Rossini’s sparkling comedies (if not a short, sharp Italian tragedy such as Tosca, or popular favourites like Aida, Butterfly or Traviata), but definitely not Wagner! And so I chose to forego Wagner’s knightly tale of Lohengrin, then also being performed at the Vienna State Opera, and booked well in advance for Rossini’s La Cenerentola.
This delightful drama giocoso, based on Charles Perrault’s enduring fairy tale Cendrillon (Cinderella), was first performed at the Teatro Valle in Rome in 1817, when Rossini was only 25 years old. He composed this popular comedy in the wake of the success of The Barber of Seville, the year before.
Before the curtain rose we had ample time to take in the beautiful interior decoration of this opera house, built between 1861 and 1869. Some of the most iconic directors in music history worked here, including Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Herbert von Karajan. Busts of such famous composers as Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart and Haydn, who also spent much of their working life in Vienna, grace the foyer, while frescoes of scenes from popular operas decorate the walls.
While we took pleasure in dressing up for this long-awaited occasion, we found dress styles ranged widely. From ball gowns, furs and diamonds, to jeans and running shoes, anything seems to go these days.
Once our champagne was pre-ordered for the interval, we were ready to behold our first opera in Vienna – and were not disappointed.
This particular production, directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, was set in the 1950’s style, with slightly disappointing minimalist stage design. The Opera Orchestra, conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi, was excellent, with immaculate ensemble playing, and apart from occasionally drowning the singers, was sensitive to their needs. Unusually, Rossini cast his main character as a “coloratura contralto”. The Russian mezzo soprano Margarita Gritskova (30) performed her challenging semi-quaver passages with accomplished skill, while Antonio Siragusa as Don Magnifico (her “wicked stepfather” – a slight variation on the original tale) held his own well. Don Ramiro (the Prince) strained some of the high tenor notes, while Orhan Yildiz as his valet Dandini delighted us with his rich baritone voice. Ileana Tonca (Clorinda, soprano) and Miriam Albano (Tisbe) – the “ugly stepsisters”, impressed and amused with their splendid voices and acting. I loved their gorgeous 1950’s frocks, with floral design and full skirts. An additional comic element, introduced by Herr Bechtolf, was the Prince’s penchant for, and collection of, sassy little sports cars. Most useful were the miniature screens attached to all the seats in front of the audience, on which we were able to follow the subtitles in English – or several other languages, for that matter. It was altogether a thoroughly delightful evening at the opera.
The fabulous Christmas markets are numerous in late November and December, and stationed in many different locations such as the Mariaplatz (between the Art and Natural History Museums), Spittelberggasse, the Belvedere Palace, and of course beside the magnificent old Dom in the medieval heart of the old city.
The biggest, and most impressive of all these was in front of the Rathaus (Town Hall), a Neo-Gothic building dating from 1883. It looks much older, because it was inspired by Flemish Renaissance town halls. It is the crowning glory of the Ringstrasse, the inner boulevard of a pair of ring roads that circle the historic Innere Stadt (Old Town) district of Vienna. This is where the medieval city fortifications once stood, high walls and ramparts criss-crossed by paths that ran in front of them. The walls were dismantled in the mid-19th century, and many large public buildings erected along the Ringstrasse in eclectic historical styles with Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical architectural elements.
Even more captivating than the picturesque Rathaus were the market stalls, with their brightly-coloured displays of mostly handmade wares, both edible and decorative: pretty iced gingerbread Lebkuchen, candies, cakes and pastries, and glittering glass, wooden and tin Christmas ornaments, and useful culinary articles.
All the markets sell much the same thing: woolen hats, gloves, socks and scarves, silk skirts and blouses, beeswax candles in a variety of shapes and sizes, hand-painted cards and signs, scented soaps, watercolours of the city’s popular sites, jewelry, leather-bound notebooks, and aromatic strings of dried oranges spiked with cloves and star anise.
The food stalls gave off delicious aromas into the frosty air: grilled sausages, wines and schnapps, hot dogs, soup served in large white bread rolls, gingerbread, exotic teas, cakes and pastries, and of course spicy gluwein, and hot sweet Apfelsaft for the children.
The following morning we went our separate ways, my husband to the Natural History Museum, and I, for the third time, was drawn back to the vast and sumptuous Kunshistorisches Museum. My principal goal was the Pieter Breughel the Elder Exhibition, time slots of which I was disappointed to find sold-out online. Fortunately, once I was inside, I was delighted to find a place available for me in the 11:00 slot.
To quote the Museum’s website: 2019 sees the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c1525/30 – 1569). To mark the occasion, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna is dedicating the world’s first ever major monograph exhibition to the artist, widely regarded as the 16th century’s greatest Netherlandish painter.
Packed with familiar and famous Old Masters, this museum, unlike the Louvre or the Prado, was never a royal palace, but originally designed as a gallery to hold the fabulous collections of the Habsburgs.
Armed with an excellent and indispensable audio-guide (€5) for the Breughel Exhibition, I hastened through the galleries displaying Renaissance masterpieces (Cranach, Dürer), Flemish Baroque (Rubens), the Dutch Golden Age (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Ruisdael), Italian, Spanish and French Painting (Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Raphael, Caravaggio, Canaletto,) and Spanish, French and English masterworks (Velasquez, Poussin, Gainsborough.)
The Breughel Exhibition was far too crowded – indeed the whole of Vienna was busy that week, so I was grateful for the expert audio-guide which enabled me to focus on the exquisite ink drawings and paintings, sometimes partly obscured by taller visitors, and to note tiny, almost invisible details I would otherwise have missed: the man putting out the fire on a chimney, the riders disappearing into the distance, the woman with the basket, etc.
It was a delight being transported back into the 16th century world of one of the most brilliant artists in Western history, with scenes from the seasons, and lives of Breughel’s people: The Return of the Herd (summer), The Gloomy Day (autumn), the Hunters in the Snow (winter) – the spring painting has been missing for ages, the pair of paintings: the Peasant Wedding and The Peasant Dance, and other well-known works such as The Tower of Babel, Mad Meg and Children’s Games. The latter is both bewildering and charming, packed with dozens of children engaged in over forty games, some of which are still played today. No visit to Vienna would be complete without a visit to one of the famous old coffee houses, of which there are many. Café Sacher tops the list of visitors’ “Must Do’s” when it comes to hot chocolate and confectionery. Here one can sample the eponymous Sachertorte. Demel, at Kohlmarkt 14, is the “opposition”, and this was where we sated depleted blood sugar levels with diet-defying mugs of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, and something to nibble. The master confectioners themselves could be seen bent to their task through glass windows into the kitchen.
I began with two virtuous little sandwiches, but soon weakened, and chose from their wide selection two delectable petit-fours, one a miniature Sachertorte, the other a tiny pink Punschkrapfen (traditional Viennese rum cake).
There are also Café Mozart, Sprüngli and Café Schwartzenberg, among many others. These are the best known, and where visitors queue for at least half an hour for a table.
Be warned about the massive servings in Austrian restaurants. Our delicious but over-filling dinners at Pürstner, Riemergasse 10, were far more than we could manage. One schnitzel would have sufficed for two, as could the pork “chops” (actually two huge steaks) and beef spaetzli.
The cuisine is Germanic, and thus similar in the Low Countries, Germany and Sweden: vast servings of meat or pork, with potatoes and/or root vegetables – those which could survive the harsh Northern climates in days gone by, all served with rich creamy sauce. But times are changing, and it was possible to order vegetables instead of chips, and a green salad as a starter. The veggies and salads at Pürstner were fresh and beautifully prepared.
The desserts were mostly rich, starchy, served with whipped cream, and all home-made. These included Mohr im Hemd (a small nut cake with chocolate sauce), Apfelstrudel, Marmelade Palatschinken (pancakes with apricot jam), Schoko Nuss Palatschinke (pancake with nuts and chocolate sauce), Eismarillenknödel (vanilla ice dumpling filled with apricot jam), and Beerentraum (“Berry Dream”: vanilla ice cream with fresh berries.) The country-style décor is local and atmospheric: animal heads and hunting paraphernalia, peasant antiques and farming equipment, and beautifully painted pictures and Bauernmalerei designs on the walls. The service was fast, friendly and excellent. Highly recommended.
Other highlights in Vienna, for which we had no time, include the Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburgs’ summer palace outside the city centre, with 1441 rooms decorated in the opulent Baroque style and graced with spectacular formal gardens and fountains, the Hofburg Palace, a huge complex that housed the Habsburg family for six and a half centuries and includes magnificent museums, the famous Spanish Riding School with the Lipizzaner horse displays, and the Burgkapelle’s Vienna Boys’ Choir. On a more intellectual note, we chose the Sigmund Freud Museum, at Berggasse 19.
Founded in 1971, this museum covers Freud’s life story and the history of psychoanalysis. In 2003 the museum came under the auspices of the newly established Sigmund Freud Foundation, which then received the entire building as an endowment. It had just been built when Freud moved there in 1891, and it was where he lived for 47 years and produced the majority of his writings. It is also a documentary centre about his life and work.
The museum consists of Freud’s former practice and part of his private quarters. Attached to it is the largest psychoanalytic research library in Europe, containing over 35,000 volumes. The displays include items owned by Freud, his waiting room, and some of his extensive antique collection. Unfortunately his famous couch is now in the Freud Museum in London, along with most of the original furnishings – those he was able to take with him when he left Vienna – after paying heavy dues to the Nazis.
Most enjoyable was window-shopping along the three main pedestrianised avenues: the Kohlmarkt, Kärtner Strasse, and the Graben, dug as a protective ditch during Roman times.
There is so much to see and do this beautiful old city that judicious selection must be made in advance to glean the maximum benefit in the minimum time. But like us, you will find that one visit is not enough, and you will be drawn back to Vienna time and time again, for the wonderful music, the excellent museums, and the stories about the famous composers, writers, painters, philosophers, and personalities like Sigmund Freud. This was the seat of the Habsburg Emperors and Empresses, the epicentre of their Empire. And if not for the culture and history, the legendary hot chocolate and delectable pastries and torte are certainly worth a visit.