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Vienna, the Imperial heart of the long lived Hapsburg dynasty (1278 to 1918,) unbreakable bulwark against the Ottoman advance,  background or major character in innumerable historical novels and spy thrillers, home to Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Kurt Godel Erwin Schrödinger and other super-novas of European intellectual life, has had an improbable effect on me.  Of all the cities of middle Europe, this is the one I thought I would feel most at home in, if only by feeling the vicarious zing of walking in the imagined footsteps of some of them.  I have felt the opposite — a bit anxious to leave, a bit grumpy at the size, the distances, the return, after weeks in cities of more modest scale, to one of immensity.

Vienna BuildingsIt is a city of enormous blocks of buildings, not  in height but in latitude and longitude, some running city blocks long, massive, of square cut, durable stone from quarries near and far.  Some are embellished with friezes and double-size human busts of warriors, thinkers, princess, men on horseback, men fighting demons of their darkest fears, many parked up on pedestals to raise the passing eye not to the glory of God but of empire. At least one woman, Empress Maria Theresa (1740-1780) has a similar honor, high and dark in the platz of her name between the two enormous museums of art and nature.

Major streets are ferociously wide, two or more light-rail lines, pedestrian islands, two to four lanes of traffic, bike lanes. Even minor roads, some converted to pedestrian only, are wide, not small and human scale as in the old towns of Prague, or Split or Dubrovnik where I’ve recently been.

Vienna Street Crossing

In fact nothing seems human scale, except to remind us, of power, enormity, Empire.  We’re not lost in a forest of high rises as in New York or Shanghai.  We can see the sky.  We can see across plazas to the rising glory of St Stephan’s cathedral or the smaller, green dome of the Peterskirche.  We have scape to see the Opera house, and certainly the long, enormous fronts of the Art Museum [Kunsthistorisches] and it sister, the Natural History Museum.

Vienna Stephansdom

The wide pedestrian boulevards, The Graben, The Kartnerstrasse and the Kohlmarket, wrested from automobiles about 30 years ago and glowingly described everywhere as “the perfect place to shop!”  are to my eye hot, unkempt, spotted with tars, spills, and cigarette Vienna Clean Upbutts.  The occasional orange suited street sweeper is unable to keep up, or has other, more manageable duties like emptying the small trash bins.  In early June the gray stone already reflects the heat.  The tourists, us included, stop randomly in the flow of traffic, to examine maps, count change, look bewildered.  Hawkers dressed in costumes from the late 18th century, call out, wave brochures for this Mozart that Strauss.  They are not persistent individually, but they are many.  Our replies in the negative turn sour after the fifth in a five minuet walk.

Vienna KohlmarktAnd shopping.  Let me vent.  Nothing of mom and pop stores, groceries, hardware, even trinkets made at home. “Perfect for shopping” for those who frequent Cartier, Chopard, Tiffany,Wellendorff, Dolce & Gabbana, Diesel , Ferragami, Gucci, Giorgio Armani,  Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Valentino, Etro, Miu Miu and Hermès. Cities need all types, of course, but the ostentation in this mile long U is fabulous in the extreme.  You’d think they could bring in some trees, wash the tiles and find a way to help the poor beggar banging his head against the post all day long.Vienna Begger

The buses and trams are plentiful but the signage is not as clear as those in Amsterdam, where we began our travels.  Or, perhaps it is the determination not to let English take over Austrian, commendable at the first level, but somewhat gratuitous at another.  Bilingual signs, in English and German, are few, either at historic sights or public transportation; the perfect tourist friendly English of Amsterdam transport completely absent. We sit and wait 45 minutes at one stop for a promised Yellow Tram, which only passes us as we’ve picked up and begun to walk again. It has been trivial to get 10,000, indeed 15,000, steps a day registered on our pedometers.

The gardens are on the whole, lovely, greened with lawns, plane and chestnut trees.  On a Friday afternoon, picnics are spread on the lawns in the Burggarten;  the roses in the the Volksgaarten [People’s Park] put say, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park roses, to shame.  The Belvedere, a short tram ride out of city center, is underwhelming, the large formal garden between upper and lower Belevedere in need of water and loving maintenance.

Vienna Rose Garden

On one reflection it all seems odd that Austria, now reduced to a mid-sized European state, the size of the state of Maine in the U.S., has such Imperial display, a bit as if living in a mausoleum to power.  Odder still, that for all its Roman and Greek design, the arches, columns, statuary, it was scarcely 60 years old when the end of empire came.

As with the grand urban design of Haussmann’s Paris, Vienna re-did itself following the great urban unrest culminating in the revolutions of 1848. Riots and arson took place all over German lands, including Austria and its imperial capital.  Metternicht was tossed from power and liberal reforms began.  The rebels were finally defeated by the Austrian army, led by  General Radetzky, with help from the Croats. (It was for him whom Johann Strauss, Sr composed the Radetzky March, perhaps the best known march tune in the world. You know, the one where everyone starts clapping in time.)  Emperor Franz Joseph, moved more conservative than ever, had his architects raze the alleys of the poor inside the walls, tore down the walls, built the RingStrasse as we see it today and from the 1860s to the 1890s had erected the massive edifices — in the style of Rome and Greece– which are so imperious today.

The Cathedrals and churches all have earlier provenance, some as early as the original Graben, then a moat around the walls. St Stephen’s Cathedral began to mount skyward in the 1340s. Saint Rupert’s church is said to have been built in the early 800s.

Franz Joseph I, who took power in 1848, died an old man, 86, two years into the disasters of WW I, which he by his inaction, had a large part in beginning.  After the assassination of his nephew and designated heir to the throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he let his generals decide the conditions dictated to Serbia, home of the assassin, which would prevent its being attacked.  It is said the Emperor was surprised at the bellicosity of the demands, but did not intervene.  War began. Four years and 16 million deaths later, including starvation in Vienna itself,  his empire of some 17 countries, was pulled apart by the Treaty of Versailles, leaving the land mines, as it were, of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro  to explode decades later.

In Mozart’s day, and stay, in Vienna when the old city was still ringed by stone walls, the sense of the human scale was still present.  We know he played and conducted in salons and rooms of the great still present today.  It is in some of them where the intimate and human scale makes itself seen.  We heard a lovely string quartet in one of the many so-called  ‘Mozarthaus’, a room that held 50 at best, but lit with frescoes and music seemed infinite in size.

Vienna Mozart House

Perhaps the biggest surprise, and a lovely, whimsical blow against all the instrumentality was the work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a recently deceased artist of color and design who, among his many pithy manifestos and declarations declared “the straight line is a tool of the devil.”  We came upon his Hundertwasserhaus at the recommendation of a friend, and were stopped in our tracks.  With a well known architect he was given a commission by the city to transform an old factory into apartments for working people — and what a place to live!
Vienna Hundertwasser

He planted the roofs with trees and encouraged them all over the building.  Even in the restrooms he shows his delight in color and shape.

Vienna Hundertwasser 2

The one place I felt more weight and density would have been appropriate was the Monument against War and Fascism.  Situated on the spot behind the grand Opera house where an apartment building was bombed by the allies, killing some 200 sheltering in the basement, it would seem an auspicious site.  It consists of four pieces, opening with a split sculpture called “The Gates of Violence” mounted on rough granite quarried from the infamous  Mauthausen Concentration Camp, and continuing with a large bust of a man bent low over the paving stones,  a tooth brush in his hand, reminding us of the Viennese Jews forced to clean up anti-Nazi grafitti in this way.

Vienna War Memorial1

Further on is “Orpheus Entering Hades,” in which the head of Orpheus disappears into uncut stone, it is said, as a reminder to Austrians of the price of not paying attention as the tide of Nazism rolled over them.  The final piece is an irregular slab with the words of the 1945 declaration of the Second Republic, including explicit language about human rights.

It’s a fine concept and moving for those who stop and examine it.  But for all the power of the individual pieces
Vienna War Memorial 3

it seems dwarfed by the enormous buildings around it, the Opera House and the Albertina Museum.  The four pieces themselves seem a bit lost in the large, white plaza.
Vienna War Memoria 2Given the cost of the war, to the Austrians and Europe at large, something more commanding is wanted.  Buildings all over the city were almost entirely destroyed, including the Opera building, now overshadowing the monument area.   Understandably, but perhaps too easily, it was rebuilt almost as it had been, covering up that chance to leave a physical memorial of what the war actually brought to the fabled streets of Vienna.

For myself, I’d like to see the Monument be brought into a ring of trees, buffering it from the sun, the noise of the traffic and the big shouldered buildings all around. Let the statuary dominate the interior space and place benches and yes, even kneelers, for people to spend a while.

There are other war memorial around the city if one takes the time to locate them. In some ways, those that stab at the heart and conscience most are the small brass squares embedded in the sidewalk in front of doors throughout the city but mostly in the old Jewish quarter.Vienna Bronze Plaque2On them are inscribed the names and dates of those who lived there before they were taken off to concentration camps, to die.  We first came across these in Prague and learned it was in initiative begun in Germany some ten years ago.  Once one becomes aware of them, each sighting is a sharp reminder, in the most necessary of ways, of what was once allowed to happen.And a reminder that is still necessary.

On our first night we witnessed caravans of police vans rolling into several intersections, severely armored men and women getting out and standing in loose rows, allowing pedestrians to file between their ranks but not otherwise distinguishable from stone.  It turns out some right-wing fraternities had announced a march through the old parts of the city.  Others had announced their counter demonstration.

Vienna Police

It’s a walkable city, indeed and despite my resistance to the stone, horizontal and vertical, there is one place I would gladly spend every Friday afternoon for a year and be ready to start again, walking and looking — the impossible, wonderful Kunsthistorisches museum — Art History Museum.  Here the grandeur of the edifice contains and responds to the grandeur of its contents, the marble, the painted ceilings and spandrels and the collection itself, displayed magnificently and generously, with places to sit, text to explicate and quiet to take it all in.

Vienna Kunsthistorishce Gallery 3


To see so many of Bruegel the Elder‘s works all together is worth the price of admission…not to mention the Rubens and Rembrandts and Carravagios….

A museum — a place to contact the muses, indeed.

Related posts here, and here.  A piece titled “Vienna: Trapped in a Golden Age,” by Alexandra Starr, which shares a similar view as the above, is here.

And more of my photos, here.