Before we visited the city we collectively knew four things about it: Mozart lived there for a time, its coffee houses are still institutions, it was the seat of the grand Habsburg Empire and it is world renowned for its classical music heritage.
Now we know first-hand its scale and grandeur, and the immense proportions of its 19th century public buildings and institutions built alongside and in-between Gothic, renaissance and baroque churches and palaces. We know that the air smells warmly of the shining horses that pull the sight-seeing carts through the historical centre, and of cooked meats and baked breads from the take away booths that sit in glass-canopied kiosks every hundred yards or so. Different languages mingle on the streets from the native Austrian Viennese, eastern immigrant settlers and many global visitors. On the hour hundreds of church bells ring out single chimes or simple scales which mix with the sound of the many trams’ bells ringing their arrival at the next stop.
For the three days we were there, the sunshine dazzled hotly on the vast white marble of the many wide boulevards, including the famous ‘ring strasse’ begun in 1857 and comprising unique social, cultural and scientific institutions such as the State Opera, Art and Natural History Museums, Parliament and City Hall, Stock Exchange and Post Office Savings Bank. In between the public buildings, wealthy Viennese built private town houses and palaces and the whole boulevard still represents a truly imperial city in the heart of a European Empire at the might of its power.
The monthly ‘what’s on’ guide has more than fifty pages of listings covering a range of cultural activity from the grand spectacles of the State Opera and National Theatre performances, headline rock and pop acts at international music venues and openings of major art exhibitions, to smaller intimate concerts in the romantic 18th century music houses, artistic private views and the latest contemporary dance, music or theatre experiences.
An army of young men and women walk around the centre dressed in pig tails and historical dress to promote the many performances of music by the giants of classical music that performed in Vienna – Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, Bruckner and Strauss all having lived and composed music here, now immortalised in statues and street names. The city’s many buskers wear evening dress and are of the best recording quality you will hear this side of BBC Radio Three.
Vienna is also a green city of tree-lined streets and open parkland. In the largest public park at Prater amusement rides including the famous Ferris wheel have provided thrills and spills since 1766. A ride on the wheel early on Saturday morning gave us panoramic views of the spread of the city along the river banks and out to the vine-covered hills of the Kahlenburg Heights and Wienerwald.
The medieval historical centre is easy to spot and dominated by the 449 foot tower of the cathedral, St Stephan built in the 13 century and featuring a massive roof decorated in 230,000 ceramic painted tiles.
The wine villages in the hills produce exquisite young white wine that is drunk in shady courtyards in a popular weekend excursion from the city. We visited Grinzig on Sunday afternoon having navigated two trams, a bus and a steep climb up to the pretty one street village of wineries, churches and restaurants.
Viennese zoomed around in expensive cars and security guards patrolled the attractive and heavily gated villas. It was interesting to see and a pleasure to pay the bill for our two glasses of the highly prized cool green wine which totalled an astonishingly low 3.60 euros. Walking the steep hillside down to the city we were treated to spectacular views of Vienna away to our south.
Food and wine is very much part of the city’s daily life. Arriving each day by 10am we saw that the street vendors were already cooking and selling quantities of hot wurst, kebabs, noodles, pasta and pizzas. We treated ourselves to morning coffee and cake Viennese-style in the historic Central Café where Sigmund Freud and other brilliant minds of the 19 century lingered over dark Turkish coffee and towering plates of creamy and chocolate-filled cakes.
Lunch is either a formal affair in richly decorated restaurants popular with suited business men and women sat with linen tableware under discreet lamplight, or it is enjoyed informally as a picnic in the parks or on quirky public seats in the museums’ quarter. Early evening drinks are had in the ‘Bermuda triangle’ where we joined the office workers on Friday evening for a happy hour beer at just 2 euros a glass and a stones’ throw from the banks of the Donau Canal. Dinner was too expensive an option for us to consider as the grand restaurants and hotels quietly lit chandeliers and discreetly welcomed diners into their heavily curtained entrances.
Vienna is also the city of Otto Wagner. The prodigious architect was at the forefront of modernism at the end of the 19 century and as a town planner and metropolitan railway designer he created a new linear form that heralded Art Nouveau with its straight lines, flat surfaces and floral decoration.
The Karlsplatz pavilions in glass, green painted wood and white marble were a delight to visit amongst the ‘Jugendstil’ buildings of the Wieden district. Afterward we noted the distinctive styling of the train stations along our daily route into and out of the city.
Our aire was newly opened at Perfektastrasse, just yards from a U-bahn connection and a large supermarket. Getting into the city centre was easy once we had mastered the connections at the tube and tram stations and buying a 72 hour travel pass meant we didn’t have to worry about arbitrary ticket machines or conductors.
The pass also gave a discount at the palace of Albertina where we ambled around the state rooms of the Habsburgs admiring the sumptuous colours of the silk wallpaper, tall wooden-shuttered windows and stone-sculptured fireplaces and mantels. We were lucky to see it as just an hour later it was closed for a society wedding and we saw liveried staff carrying in gifts labelled from Cartier, Chanel, Rolex and Prada.
The Albertina is considered to hold the world’s greatest collection of graphic art and downstairs we enjoyed the exhibition ‘from Monet to Picasso’ but were disappointed not to see any of the works by Nuremberg’s Albrecht Durer. His legendary study of a wild hare was everywhere on posters, pencil cases, mouse mats, coffee cups and key rings, but not on any of the museum’s walls. A curator explained that as the painting is 500 years old it can only be shown for three months at a time, every decade or so. I smiled ruefully at a gigantic and lurid green Durer hare crouched at the museum’s exit.
The Hofburg, or Royal Palace has been grandly extended since the 1200s. On Monday it hosted the annual festival of regional produce from Lower Austria. Benches were packed with families and lunching workers enjoying roasted meats, dumplings and sauerkraut served from tented stalls and washed down with beers and wine from independent producers. A bronze Archduke Karl on his towering horse galloped gallantly amongst the proceedings.
We enjoyed a final glass of local Grauburgunder to toast the bewitching city before catching our usual train one final time. Three days in Vienna is simply not enough time to fully explore this wonderful and inspiring city but for a first visit, hopefully to repeat again, it had been a stirring and deeply enjoyable experience.