We were sailing to Vienna along the Danube River in November of 2018. After leaving Passau on the edge of Germany’s Southern Border, we sailed to Linz over the border in Austria and pulled up for the night in preparation for a bus ride to Salzburg the next day. We didn’t have a lot of time to check out Linz but a short visit to the town Square was worth the effort, particularly for the intriguing Plague Column there. Of course, the other issue that a visit to Linz’s town square throws up, particularly when inspecting the town hall (Rathaus), is the ghost of Adolf Hitler. He spent nine years of his life in Linz, particularly in his formative teenage years and he would never forget his time there. There are two issues around Linz’s Hitler legacy that are worth noting, one that actually happened and one that didn’t. The plan that didn’t happen included Linz in Hitler’s dream of the five Fuhrer Cities of the Third Reich; Linz was where he wanted to build a museum of huge proportions along the Danube River which would have included much of the great art that the Nazis had looted from the cities of Middle Europe. Hitler’s other plan for Linz, that did occur, was that he included Linz in his stopping points on his triumphal motorcade into Austria after he had sent in the troops to take over Austria and incorporated it in his new German Empire. On the small balcony of Linz’s Rathuas on May 12, 1938, he declared, “If Providence once called me forth from this town to be the leader of the Reich, it must in doing so have charged me with a mission, and that mission could only be to restore my dear homeland to the German Reich.”
Our boat sailed on from Linz to Vienna overnight and it seemed that over our two day stop in Vienna, the ghost of Adolf Hitler was still dogging our trail. His motorcade travelled from Linz to Vienna in 1938 and on March 14 of that year, the failed Art student who had lived poor on the streets of Vienna as a young adult, arrived in the centre of Vienna. It was here he proclaimed the union of Austria with Germany to cheering crowds in the Heldenplatz, the ‘heroes Square’ which is part of the Hofburg, the old palace of the Hapsburg rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As in Linz, Hitler spoke from a balcony, this one overlooking the Heldenplatz and the crowds of Austrians gathered to cheer and listen around the equestrian statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy; perhaps the greatest Austrian General of the early 18th century. His like was not available in the twentieth century to resist the machinations and the resulting invasion of Hitler.
Like so many European cities, Vienna was a walled city, walls that had protected her for centuries from invasions like that of the Ottoman Turks in 1683, as illustrated by the complex canvas below. With the arrival of gun powder and canons in the shape of Napoleonic forces at the start of the 1800s, city walls were no longer defensible. Like the fate of all old technology, it became a nuisance and was pulled down starting in 1858 and was replaced by a grand boulevard that circled the old inner city of Vienna (Wien). This was called the Ringstrasse (the ‘Lord of the Ring Roads’) and became the centre of a hive of building activity in the late 19th century sponsored by Emperor Franz Joseph I. This old centre of Vienna is now the centre of tourism in the 21st century and was where our bus took us at the start of our two day relationship with Vienna. We were dropped off at the Museum Quarter on Ringstrasse, an area that was meant to be an extension of the Imperial Palace over the road. However the original vision ran out of steam and into the disaster of World War I and so these buildings ended up becoming museums.
Our first stop was the Kunst Historisches Museum, the Fine Arts Museum that sits opposite its twin building, the Natural History Museum. We walked through the stalls of the Christmas market being set up in Maria-Theresien Platz and of course we encountered the large and ornate statue of our old companion, Empress Maria Theresa, on our way to the Museum door. This memorial included many of her regal advisors suggesting this Austro-Hungarian Queen’s success in the late 18th century was due as much to the strength of her advisers as well as her ability to seek and take good advice. The Vienna Fine Arts Museum was all that could be expected of a major European Gallery. We had a guide who chose to approach this huge museum collection by picking the eyes out of it. We walked from Canova’s ‘Theseus defeating the Centaur’ via the extraordinary walls painted by artists such as Gustav Klimt to the Old Masters Rooms where our learned guide showed us a few key paintings such as Raphael’s ‘Madonna of the Meadow’, Caravaggio’s ‘Madonna of the Rosary’ and Vermeer’s masterpiece, ‘The Art of Painting’.
Canova’s ‘Theseus defeating the Centaur’ and Raphael’s ‘Madonna of the Meadow’ . Canova’s beautiful statue was commissioned by Napoleon on his triumphant visit to Vienna. It’s a slow process sculpting a large masterpiece and history waits for no man, even Napoleon as he learnt to his regret. The piece wasn’t finished until 1819 and given that he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and exiled to St Helena until his death in 1821, he couldn’t afford his ‘Theseus and the Centaur.’ To the victor, the spoils, so the sculpture was purchased by Emperor Francis I for his Theseus Temple in Vienna’s Volksgarten.
Our guide then escorted us downstairs to a collection called the Kunstkammer or Cabinets of Curiosities; over 2000 curious valuables collected by the Austro-Hungarian monarchs over hundreds of years. The centre of this exhibition was the golden Salt Cellar by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), not only because of its extraordinary beauty but the fact that it was stolen from the Museum in 2003, the biggest art theft in Austrian History. It was actually stolen by a Museum official who supposedly wasn’t interested in selling the masterpiece but exposing the Museum’s poor security. It was stolen when the museum was surrounded by scaffolding and the thief easily climbed up to the appropriate window and broke in. It was recovered three years later buried in a forest 60kms from Vienna. The display cases today cannot be so easily broken into.
We didn’t have time to visit the Natural History Museum on the opposite side of the Maria Theresien Platz but I was able to do a slow wander past the buiding and admire its ornate façade. While I was pondering the many statues, I noticed that there was a respectful reference to Australia that I didn’t expect to encounter in the centre of Vienna. The design of the façade of this museum was taking a globally view so there were statues that represented the continents of the world. Fortunately or unfortunately we were grouped with America (a bit of a summary of the second half of our 20th century history) and rather than a kangaroo or an emu, our island continent was represented by a beautiful portrait in stone of an aboriginal mother and child.
From here we strolled across the Ringstrasse and headed towards the sprawling collection of buildings called the Hofburg, the old imperial palace and the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The large gate in front of us as we walked across Ringstrasse was the Burgtor, the outer castle gate of the Hofburg. The original gate here was of course blown up by Napoleonic soldiers and the current one was finished in 1824 and the large gilt writing across the front of the gate reads… “Laurum Militibus lauro dignis”, in English, “Laurels for soldiers worthy of Laurels”.
Passing through the outer gate, we found ourselves in the centre of the Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) and our guide took us through the story of the two fine equestrian statues that are placed in pivotal positions in the huge square. She also pointed out the famous balcony from which Adolf Hitler proclaimed the Anscluss that triggered years of suffering for the people of Austria. Our guide spoke of the personal difficulty she faced trying to reconcile subsequent history with the huge crowd that gathered that day, March 14 1938, and enthusiastically welcomed Adolf Hitler to the Hofburg. Clearly many Austrians were delighted at the time by the nationalistic concept of merging the German-speaking peoples of Central Europe; they were not so happy with the consequences of this idea that led to the destruction of large sections of their country as well as so many innocent people.
We would return to the Hofburg on the next morning but on this day we headed out the other side of the palace on our way to visit a couple of other sites in the city before we returned to our Riverboat later in the afternoon. As expected, the centre of Vienna was wonderful as we strolled down Graben Strasse, the most famous street in Vienna. Its history goes back to a Roman Camp built here as well as to another figure from my childhood TV watching years, Richard the Lionheart. This series ran from 1962 to 1965 and loosely told the tale of Richard’s problems with his brother King John, his crusading travels to the Middle East and his eventual imprisonment in Germany. As we came down the Rhine by boat towards Vienna, we stopped at Durnstein and marvelled at the ruined castle on the hill above the town where Richard the Lionheart was held captive. I recalled he was discovered there by his faithful minstrel, Blondell, who attracted his attention by strumming his master’s favourite tune outside the castle walls. The villain of the story was Leopold V of Austria who was outraged by Richard’s treatment of himself as part of the Third Crusade team and had his revenge by capturing Richard while he was travelling home via Austria. The link with Graben Strasse is that Leopold used the ransom money paid for Richard’s release on building the original defensive walls of Vienna along the line of this central street.
Walking along Graben Strasse today towards St Stephens Basilica, you pass Peterskirche on the left as you wander towards the eccentricity that is the Plague Column (Pestsäule) ahead of you. The centre of Vienna is clearly Stephensplatz where the third Basilica of our travels in Central Europe named after St Stephen is situated. It is a magnificent 14th century church combining Gothic and Romanesque features, and has been the centre of Vienna’s religious culture for many centuries. Its most famous burial was that of the first Emperor of the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III. It featured as a part of the gloomy backdrop to the famous 1949 Black and White British movie, ‘The Third Man’. This film tells a spy/love story set in post-war Vienna where the city is divided, like Berlin was, into the four zones of the victorious powers. The war damage to Vienna is evident in many scenes of this film. There is a brass model of the Basilica beside the actual building that gives you a greater perspective on the architecture of this awe-inspiring church.
Our last stop with our guide on our first day in Vienna was happily at a basement bar underneath the gorgeous building pictured on the left. We were happily given a taste of the local white wine. It was clearly a trendy establishment for the locals to celebrate and we thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of the bar tender. We then discovered the real reason we were taken here. The cellars of the bar told a different story. They were where the Viennese retreated during the allied bombing in 1944-5 when the American troops were coming up the Italian peninsula towards Austria and Germany. The bar’s basement was just one Bomb Shelter that was connected by tunnels to a whole chain of basement shelters underneath the centre of Vienna. American planes set off from their Southern Italy bases and by the time they arrived at Vienna, they only had enough petrol left to drop their bombs and hurry back to their bases. Whilst it is never a pleasant thing to suffer regular bombing raids, the events were so predictable that the locals had timetables pinned up in their shelters setting out the various amounts of time from the initial air raid siren, the time to take shelter and the time when it was safe to emerge. Our guide mentioned the most serious incident was when a bomb strike destroyed not only the building above ground but collapsed the ceiling of the cellar and killed 240 Viennese citizens sheltering there. They were unable to do anything else at this time of the war so the site was simply sealed up.
After a great morning touring Vienna, we were then able to retreat for a late lunch at a traditional Viennese restaurant where we able to feast on the local Wiena Schnitzel.
Commercial lists of top sites to see in any city are always a matter of the personal taste of the travel writer so I was curious to note that Lonely Planet’s top site to see in Vienna was the Spanish Riding school, an institution that has been in existence since the 16th century. Its headquarters is housed within the complex collection of palatial buildings and squares that is the Hofburg Palace. Getting a ticket for a dressage performance of these beautiful white Lippizanner horses seemed out of the question as you have to book well ahead for such a visit. However, on our second morning we were able to go and watch the young horses of the squad going through their practice sessions. These beautiful dressage horses were not immune from the trials of World War II after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany. It sounds ludicrous to suggest that control of the riding school was taken over by the German army and the mares were moved to Hostau in the Bohemian Forest to be part of the breeding for the perfect ‘white’ horse! Whether this claim is accurate, the story of the rescue of the Lippizanner horses from Czechoslavakia by the US military at the end of the war in order to protect them from starving refugees as well as the oncoming Russian army is true. The horses were returned to Vienna in 1952. Our guide of the previous day was a big fan of the US General George Patton who ordered the rescue of these horses.
As a travelling couple with time running out, we sometimes have to separate to cover more of the attractions of a city like Vienna. In our last few hours here, Gayle decided to visit the Sisi rooms of the Hofburg while I tried to get a better understanding of the amazing buildings that lined the Ringstrasse. Given the glamour of the story of Elizabeth, the assassinated wife of Franz Joseph I of Austria, it is no wonder that the rooms she lived in while in Vienna are now open for the public to gain an understanding of this quixotic Austrian Queen from the second half of the 19th century. On display are Sisi’s dresses and other personal items telling the story of this Queen who fled court ceremony into her own private world where she is described as developing her own “cult of beauty”; her exercise facilities are on display. Despite her rejection of so much of the life of her husband, her full-size portrait was on the wall of his office in front of his daily work desk where all official papers of the empire were read and signed.
My own quick tour of parts of the Ringstrasse indicated two things. The first is that you need more than a tourist’s two days to see what a great city has to offer and Vienna is one of these. The second is the curse for travellers of the continuous renovations of old cities. The stretch of this circular road containing the Austrian parliament, the Town Hall (Rathaus) and the University of Vienna were very much under maintenance and the hoardings were a disappointing barrier to view these great buildings. Over the hoarding around parliament house I was able to take the shot on the right of the ‘Horse Tamer’ statue in front of the home of democracy in Austria. The Greek style building is meant to signal Greece as the birthplace of democracy and the taming of horses (Rossbändiger) is clearly a symbol of the struggle between the governors and the governed!
Alas we had to rush our last hours in Vienna as we had a bus to catch after lunch to Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic.