Vienna, capital of Austria, packed with Imperial architecture, stunning art collections, white Lipizzaner stallions….and Flak Towers. Famous for Mozart, Beethoven, The Danube, Sigmund Freud and world renowned artists Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. We wandered the city for 4 days with Diane and Brian (Dave’s Mum and Dad) in the early summer sunshine.
Starting in a park. Stadtpark is a large formal garden of two parts connected by a pretty stone bridge and situated on the left bank of the River Wien in the Ringstrasse; the grand circular boulevard which encircles the inner old town. It opened in 1862, was the first public park in Vienna and contains possibly the most photographed monument in the city; the 1921 gold-leaf bronze statue of Johann Strauss II (by Edmund von Hellmer), shown playing his violin standing in the centre of a marble arch surrounded with flowering bedding plants. For many, ‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ composed by Strauss is synonymous with Vienna. There are several places to see the famous Gustav Klimt paintings in Vienna but if you want to see the biggest hitter of them all (‘The Kiss’) then head for the Upper Belvedere Palace. An UNESCO World Heritage site, the Belvedere Vienna houses two Baroque Palaces in sweeping landscaped gardens featuring water fountains, statues and topiary. It’s a surprisingly long walk up to the Palace, (like Vegas, you can see everything is “right there” but it takes bloody ages to reach it); the gardens and buildings cover a huge area. The Upper gallery has a permanent Klimt exhibition including ‘the Kiss’ and ‘Judith’ and if your only prior experience (like me) of seeing these paintings has been as the mass produced images appropriated for everything from pencil cases to tea towels, you will be stunned when you see them in real life. They are huge and genuinely resplendent…a word I don’t use nearly enough but then rarely am I so surprised by something that I thought was so familiar to me. It is impossible to reproduce an image online to capture the beauty of these dazzling paintings and I think personally that when in Vienna they are a ‘must see’. Other galleries in the building feature art spanning 900 years; the Middle Ages, the Austrian Baroque and the Viennese Biedermeier. The Belvedere collection https://www.belvedere.at/enWalking around the winding streets of European cities is always a pleasure especially if the weather is as good as this and the architecture so jaw-dropping. I can’t help but compare the shops back to London. Here many of the shopfronts and contents are trapped in time, old fashioned and dated in the best way. London has lost most of its craft shops, to buy buttons about one of the only places left is a department store, the small shops have been forced off the high street in favour of the online experience. It’s noticeable when you visit other European cities where they have protected their high street culture. Beautiful old shop fronts with wooden sills and curved windows barely exist in London now, they’ve been replaced with homogenised architecture, bland swathes of flat glass frontage which are repeated in most English towns and cities. I wish we hadn’t sacrificed so much of the character in the name of commerce. And the lovely trams rumbling by, occasionally emitting a low screech on their metal rails. Oxford Street in London would be much more fun if it still had trams.Look out for old glass and mirror signs on the corner of buildings, works of art.
Another day, another museum and a massive highlight for me, The Leopold Museum is located in Vienna’s Museumquartier and home to a large collection of paintings by the Viennese artist Egon Schiele. Dead from Spanish flu at only 28 years old, in his short life he was prolific and hugely influential, a major player in the Secessionist period and a spokesman for Viennese Modernism. Boundary pushing and outspoken his paintings were corporeal and sexual; often disturbing, but mostly magical. To have left such an incredible body of work at such a young age; he was a huge loss to the art world. I cannot imagine how far he would have pushed his art. Such rich detail, layers of oil, stark outlines and spiky angular portraits. Shown below are some of my favourites; Schiele’s double self portrait ‘Levitation’ (1915), ‘Crescent of Houses II Island Town’ (1915) and ‘The Hermits’ (1912) (The Leopold Museum). The Museumquartier has several other museums; the Modern Arts Museum (MUMOK), Kunsthalle Wien and an architecture museum among them. An red carpeted catwalk was set up outside the Kunsthalle and we watched whilst having a drink at one of the outdoor cafes whilst models rehearsed wearing avant-garde creations. We ended our day at the beautiful Baroque St Charles Church or ‘Karlskirche’, located on the southern side of the Karlsplatz. We visited here in the evening at dusk and were surprised to see couples dancing in the square. Some would arrive together as dancing partners whilst others would pair up to dance invited by another local. Chairs were set up to accommodate those waiting to dance and many carried bags with their dancing shoes inside. It was such a lovely surprise to see this and we sat together on a park bench in the warm summer evening as the sun went down watching people glide around the stone paving. It was an unexpected highlight of our trip.Completed in 1737, not long after the plague epidemic, the church was built in honour of the patron saint Charles Borromeo, a venerated plague healer. An entrance styled like a Greek Temple portico is flanked by two columns of Roman influence topped by an ornate dome. The highly ornate interior features a wood carved pulpit, a fresco dome and the elaborate High Altar. Try and visit at dusk when the dancers are there or when it’s dark and lit up and hugely atmospheric. Forgoing the hotel breakfasts and because the weather was so good we really enjoyed eating early at the Naschmarkt in Vienna, a hugely popular market, mainly covered, which dates to the 16th century. It’s around a mile long and packed with stalls primarily selling food and features several restaurants. We ate huge bowls of handmade muesli with yogurt piled high with fruit. On our second day after breakfast we walked to the Wurstelprater commonly known locally as Prater, an amusement park based in Vienna’s second district, Leopoldstadt. There’s your usual rides and a Ferris wheel, a very pretty carousel (Merry-go-round) and some gravity defying horrors that I wouldn’t step a foot on but took huge enjoyment watching others risking losing their breakfast. There’s a miniature train running through the park and it’s an entertaining area to walk around for an hour. One of the most ominously fascinating sites in Vienna stands in Augarten Park. Two World War II Flak Towers loom through the trees, giant reinforced concrete fortresses built as gun towers and air raid shelters which could fire up to 8,000 rounds a minute from a 360 degree viewpoint. The G Tower would have been the Gun Tower whilst the L Tower or Lead Tower would have served as a command centre. These days it would be so cost prohibitive to demolish these enormous towers that they remain; a contemporary art gallery was temporarily based in one whilst elsewhere in the city another flak tower has been repurposed as an aquarium called Haus des Meers and located in Esterhazy Park, which sadly we didn’t get time to visit. It’s surreal seeing these massive evil sentries presiding over a public park filled with trees and wildlife with kids kicking around a ball in their shadow…but also cathartic, a reminder of time moving on. Personally I can spend hours looking at concrete Brutalist architecture. There are hundreds of sculptures, gargoyles and statues in Vienna; made in marble, stone and bronze. Some decorating rooftops, or guarding huge elaborate entrances, situated atop fountains or glaring down from cornices. The photographic opportunities are endless and I wish I had taken more and featured more of their detail. The Imperial Hofburg Palace houses The Spanish Riding School known worldwide for the infamous white Lipizzaner horses. Despite the name the school is an Austrian institution, the white riding hall showcases the classical dressage and Lipizzaner training and is open to the public. If you want to visit, be aware that it can sell out weeks in advance. Unfortunately Di and I couldn’t get tickets so my many childhood hours spent wistfully singing the TV theme tune to ‘White Horses’ dreaming of working on a Yugoslavian Stud farm where everyone was helpfully dubbed in to English, were mortally dashed (I got over it). There are afternoon and evening shows, tours and exhibits. To avoid your dreams being crushed here’s the official Vienna Spanish Riding School website https://www.srs.at/en/tickets-eventsIf you know nothing about the Lipizzaner horses, this gives you an idea of what to expect (image copyright Spanish Riding School website).The Kunsthistorisches Museum is the largest museum in Austria built between 1871 and 1891. Another grand facade of ornately decorated sandstone featuring statues and a 60 metre high dome, all built to house the Habsburgs’ vast art collection. It depends on how much time you want to spend in museums, there are so many and only so much of the ‘museum shuffle’ you’d want to do in a short stay, so we were satisfied just seeing it from the outside. I don’t believe in cramming art, it gets to a point where your brain stops seeing it. We visited St Stephen’s Cathedral, a Catholic Gothic wonder standing above its underground catacombs allegedly containing 10,000 bodies. The funeral of former Formula One race driving champion Niki Lauda was held here. Gargoyles, statues, pulpits, acres of stained glass, an impressive organ and 18 altars are all dominated by the High Altar. It is a masterpiece in wood carving, painting, tiling, guilding and stone masonry. Like a museum dedicated to centuries old craftsmanship, the scale and extravagance of it will take your breath away. From one extreme to another, our last stop was the gloriously eccentric Friedensreich Hundertwasser Museum. A huge nature lover, self acclaimed ‘Architecture Doctor’ and advocate of vibrant colour, there’s hardly a straight line to be found in this place and that’s exactly what Hundertwasser revelled in. Born in 1928 he was inspired among others by Gaudi, the Secessionists, Schiele and Klimt. His buildings and art are beautifully bonkers and uplifting. I have a huge book crammed with large colour plates of his work and I love him. Mosaic walls and winding staircases lead you through the building which also includes a cafe and shop.
And as a fan of his work, I’m including some additional examples here. If in Vienna, don’t miss this place. There’s always a lot of other stuff going on at Hundertwasser Museum including exhibitons of other artists and admirably, green projects and schemes dedicated to the environment, something that Hundertwasser would have been especially proud of. We need more Hundertwasser’s in the world today.
4 days in Vienna was a great introduction to the Austrian capital. We walked off some shoe leather, ate wiener schnitzel (pretty much obligatory when in Austria) and saw a hell of a lot. Like anywhere, a few days will never be enough to see everything, but we left feeling educated and enlightened.