The meeting place for our tour was the Monument against War and Fascism in Albertinaplatz. Since we were early (as usual), we took the opportunity to walk around a bit. We found a large fountain that was quite ornate. Of course, most of the architecture and statues that you see in Vienna are quite ornate! I was surprised to learn that, though the buildings here look quite old, most were built only 150 years ago.
While we waited for our tour to start, an American idiot decided to lay on top of one of the monuments in the square (the one with barbed wire). A tour guide came over and laid into him about how inappropriate his behavior was. A house used to be located where the memorial is. It was bombed during the war and the people that lived there were killed; their bodies lie underneath. The stone came from Mothousen Concentration Camp. I wish I could say that the man understood why his behavior was unacceptable, but he and his friend seemed to think it was quite funny. Sometimes, I am embarrassed to be an American…
Our guide started the tour by telling us the history of Austria. The area where we were was originally a Roman Fortress. If you have seen Gladiator, the first battle scene would have taken place here. Austria was known as Osterreich – the Empire in the East.
The Hapsburgs were, of course, one of the dynastys that ruled Europe up until the 20th century. They enlarged the Holy Roman Empire it Napoleon caused it to collapse in the 19th century. The Empire of Austria was established but it was a smaller territory; the Hapsburgs still ruled. This empire collapsed after WWI when the first Austrian Republic was formed and the Hapsburgs were banned from the country. After WWII, the second Austrian Republic was formed. In 1969, the Hapsburgs were allowed to return but are not allowed to bear titles within the country. Those that live outside of Austria may use their titles (there are around 700 Hapsburgs living around the world).
When the Hapsburgs first came to power, they did not have a distinguished family tree. So, they made one up! As a matter of fact, they claimed to be descended from Greek Gods, including Hercules. That is why there are so many magnificent statues of the gods around town – to remind the local people that the Hapsburgs had the right to be emperors.
Austria is a Catholic country; of the 8.6 million that live here, 5 million are Roman Catholic. The second largest religious group is Muslims (700,000), followed by Orthodox, Protestants, and Jews. There was quite a lot of bloodshed in the 16th and 17th centuries between Protestants and Catholics. Our guide was quite pleased the Catholics won.
We were still in Albertinaplatz as she was explaining all of this. The Albertina Museum is one of the most important in the world of modern art.
We were now ready to move on to the Royal Palace. We passed by the St. Augustine Tower which was a private imperial tower (it is currently under reconstruction). The crypt here holds half of the Hapsburgs. The other half are in a church we passed by later in the tour.
The Opera House was built in 1869; the first opera performed there was Don Giovanni. It is a magnificent building, considered the soul of Vienna. Opera season starts in September, so nothing is performed there during the summer months.
Most of the main sights in Vienna are scattered along the Ring Road, which used to be where the city walls were. You can ride a tram along the Ringstraβe rather than wasting money on a HOHO bus. The city is divided into 23 districts. All addresses here start with their district number.
Albert Goring used to live here (brother of Hermann). Albert liked to help Jews to clean the streets. Hermann didn’t much like this, so banished his brother to Vienna. Prior to WWII, 180 thousand Jews lived in Austria. Now? Two thousand.
We continued on to Joseph’s Square (Josefsplatz) where there is a large statue of, you guessed it, Joseph on a horse. Joseph was the son of Marie Therese, the last of the Hapsburgs. She married and became the Queen of Austria. Being a woman, she could not be emperor, but was called the empress. She was the mother of Marie Antoinette.
Joseph was a simple and cheap man, unlike his predecessors in the royal family. Austrians loved to have very ornate and expensive funerals (according to our guide, they still do); Joseph thought that was a waste of money. So, he invented a solution – the economy coffin. It opened up underneath. Bodies were taken to the cemetery in one of these coffins; the body was dropped out the bottom into a mass grave, and the coffin was reused. Mozart was buried in this manner. We visited Central Cemetery the following day; it is well worth a visit if you are in Vienna. It is enormous in size and the gravesites here are really something to see. There are many famous people buried there, including Beethoven. There is a memorial to Mozart but it is not his actual burial site.
We passed by a beautiful library that is part of the palace complex. Across from it, in the corner house, is where the Royal Lipizzan Stallions are trained. It takes 8 years of training before the horses are allowed the perform. And, like the opera, you have to wait until September to see them perform; there are no shows in August.
The private chapel of the royal family was built in the 13th century and mass is still held there. The Viennese Boys’ Choir sings in the chapel for mass, but not during the summers. You must purchase a ticket to attend mass at this church; 11€ is the cheapest ticket price.
The oldest part of the palace was built in the 12th century and is surrounded by a moat. The treasury is located here, but is closed on Monday and Tuesday (we were there on a Tuesday). Contained within are Holy Land relics as well as jewels, crowns, etc.
We crossed the remains of the moat and headed to Heroes Square. Many important buildings are visible from here. The Town Hall looks like a church. The parliament buildings are here, as is the Museum of National History and National Library. Of course, there are also a couple of impressive statues!
Can you spot the balcony where Hitler gave one of his famous speeches? He conquered Austria in 1938. There were 250 thousand people in Heroes Square to hear his oration that promised food and work to the people of Austria. Hitler sent the Chancellor to Dachau; after the war, the chancellor relocated to the US.
The current Chancellor of Austria is only 31 years old and lives in the new wing of the palace.
Time for another big statue! This one is of Franz, the 2nd, the 1st. Say what?! He was the known as Franz II, the emperor who ended the Holy Roman Empire (he was scared that the 7 princes that elected the Holy Roman Emperor would vote for Napoleon rather than him). He then founded the Empire of Austria, becoming Franz I, the 1st emperor of the new empire. So, he is Franz II I (not sure how to write that name). His statue is surrounded by statues of his 4 wives.
We left the palace and stood in front of a Roman excavation. Here is where bodies of soldiers’ mistresses were buried.
We continued down the most expensive shopping street in Vienna. Our guide told us the history of the Sacher torte. A father and son baking team both wanted to have the rights to having their torte known as the original Sacher torte. The café selling the son’s recipe is on this street; the father’s is at the Hotel Sacher. By the way, the father won the lawsuit.
The oldest WC in the city is on Graben (Moat) Street. It costs .5€ to use and is pretty fancy (teak seats).
The ornate statue below is in front of the plague houses. Leopold made a vow to erect this column if the plague ended. There is quite a bit of religious symbolism embedded in it. Notice Leopold’s pointy chin? Apparently, the chin is a by-product of inbreeding among the Hapsburgs.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a symbol of Vienna. St. Stephen was the first martyr; he was stoned to death. The cathedral was built in the 12th century. Its tiled roof is quite beautiful; this was added in 1952. You can climb the spiral steps of the tower (all 343 of them) to see a view of the Swiss alps on a clear day.
Our guide told us about Princess CiCi, a princess that hated being part of the royal family. She was quite beautiful when she was young; she was known for wearing stars in her hair. She did not age well and so one can only find images of her in her youth. CiCi stars are sold around town. The cheapest “authentic” stars start at a cost of around 400 Euros. I am not sure what makes them “authentic”.
We walked by the oldest café in Vienna. Vienna has a wonderful café culture – if you buy one drink, you will never be asked to leave. This is a holdover from when people were very poor and could only afford to buy a single drink. Wienerschnitzel (Vienna schnitzel) is obviously a popular dish here. If you order it, don’t put ketchup on it! Traditionally, you add a squeeze of lemon and eat it with cranberry jam. Goulash soup is also a dish that is found on most menus.
By the time we reached one of the Mozart houses, my back gave out so we left the tour at this point. It was close to being complete, but I just couldn’t stand any longer. I am fine as long as I am walking, but if I have to stand for any length of time, I am in excruciating pain. Tomorrow is another day; with any luck at all, I will be back in touring shape!