Vienna, ah yes, Vienna
February 25, 2004
We were seated 36,000 feet above the Atlantic, in an Air France jet headed for Europe. My fiancee and I were going to spend the winter holidays with her family in Vienna. I hoped, too, to discover for myself some of that city’s widely famous charm.
“So, tell me once more why you’re so hooked on Vienna,” I said.
“Well,” said Anneliese, “it’s partly for my happy memories with my family there. But besides, Larry, it’s such a beautiful city ” its music, its ambiance, the whole atmosphere. The shops with beautiful things, that European air that you breathe. And the cafes, the concerts ” that’s the schlag [the whipped cream] on the coffee for me.”
“Do you know what fascinates me?” I said. “I’ve been reading about Vienna in the old days, when Vienna was world-renowned for its composers, for its architecture, for medical research, for writers and artists, and for that famously elegant Vienna lifestyle. I’m fascinated, too, by their Empress Elizabeth ” what a beautiful and tragic woman she was!”
We would be staying at the King of Hungary hotel, small, quiet and right in the heart of the old city, near the Stephansdom Cathedral. Since Anneliese knows Vienna well, she planned to spend the days with her family, then join me for evenings together. During the day, I planned to explore Old Vienna. Even today, I’d been told, much of the color, history and allure of the long-dead Hapsburg Empire lives on, like the echoes of distant Strauss waltzes.
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Since Old Vienna is so compact, I planned to explore on foot. Saying goodbye for awhile to my lovely fiancee, I stepped outside into a narrow street under a gray, drizzling sky and looked about. On the first house on my left, a wall plaque said that Mozart and his family had lived there from 1784 to 1787, perhaps the happiest years in his life, during which he had composed some of his greatest works including “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Other great composers who were born in Vienna or lived there include Gluck, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Johann Strauss (both father and son), Mahler, Von Weber, Richard Strauss, Schönberg and Berg. This outpouring of incomparable melody and music has never been equaled.
Musing on this, I walked a short block before the huge, gray gothic pile of the Stephansdom Cathedral loomed over me, Vienna’s most loved symbol. The walls and towers were intricately carved and crowded with stone statues and spires ” more details than I could take in, even in a slow walk around the cathedral.
The cathedral plaza connected with a broad stone-paved pedestrian mall called the Graben, set with lively Christmas lights, street musicians, and crowded with cheerful shoppers and strollers. I noticed that the Viennese crowd seemed to be quite trim, never obese. On the Graben street level, the surrounding buildings held an array of shops, restaurants and cafes. The upper stories appeared to be apartments.
In the middle of the mall was an indescribably fantastic stone-carved baroque column about 50 feet high, dating from 1693. Baroque is an exuberant remake of the austere classical Roman style ” to which the razzle-dazzle baroque architects added as many statues, urns, ornate window hoods, cherubs, coats of arms, towers and decoration as possible. The Viennese loved this.
After the city had been badly damaged by the Allied bombings of 1945, the Viennese wisely restored Old Vienna in all its baroque splendor. I wish they had banned the plastic advertising signs that clutter one of the greatest cityscapes in the world.
Next, I headed for the Hofburg, the complex of imperial winter palaces. Strolling through Vienna’s narrow side streets, I saw aristocratic baroque palaces that had evolved into apartment houses, their ornate entrances still framed by flamboyant statues and coats-of-arms; I saw contemporary and antique art galleries; antiquarian and modern bookstores; fashionable and bargain clothing stores; deluxe and inexpensive cafes; I saw a crowded, lively street life yet with surprisingly little auto traffic.
Strolling Viennese side streets was a real pleasure.
While passing the Albertina Museum (with drawings by Dürer, Rubens and Picasso), I spotted the Cafe Mozart. Since it was getting on to 1 p.m., I decided to take a break.
Entering, the first thing I noticed was dozens of assorted rich creamy pastries. A waiter took my coat and found me a table in the crowded cafe. The long room was filled by small round-top marble tables set against dark wood-paneled walls. Some guests were chatting amiably with friends, some were reading newspapers, and some were thinking slow thoughts over coffee and a pastry. No one seemed in the least hurried.
The menu listed dozens of coffees, many wines and beers and a short lunch list. I picked the traditional Viennese dish of boiled beef and potatoes with horseradish sauce, and a local beer. Afterward, a mocha coffee with whipped cream. All good.
For the Viennese, a cafe is clearly a sort of second living room where they meet friends, drink coffee, eat, read, play chess and spend as much time as they like. Many old-time cafes were culture-specific, favored by cliques of like-minded artists like Klimt, composers like Mahler, doctors like Freud, or writers like Kafka. A wonderful institution.
Old Vienna was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and it mostly lies within a broad encircling boulevard called the Ringstrasse.
In 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph commanded that the antiquated defensive walls of Vienna be demolished to create the Ringstrasse. On it, he sponsored the Imperial Opera House and the Kunsthistorisches Museum with its magnificent imperial art collection. This broad new circular boulevard now linked Vienna’s concert halls, cafes, theaters, parks, churches, museums and palaces with the seat of imperial government.
Franz Joseph’s multiethnic and multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire included all or part of what we now call Austria, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Italy. But powerful winds of change ” nationalism, democracy and socialism ” began to blow against him. Though he was a hard-working, dedicated and racially tolerant monarch, he was too rigidly conservative to bend.
In 1918, the once-mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. Yet even today, the personalities of Franz Joseph and his beautiful and enigmatic wife, the Empress Elizabeth, seem to pervade Old Vienna.
Tasting new wine
Mathias, Anneliese’s doctor nephew, was going to take us to a wine tavern. These wine taverns, the Heurigen, are another happy Viennese feature and are found in the wooded hills overlooking the city.
Mathias drove us to a Heurigen in Grinzing, an old Vienna suburb. Inside we found plain wooden tables crowded with cheerful drinkers in shirt sleeves. There were whitewashed walls with dark wainscoting, a dark tile stove for warmth, dark wooden posts and beams, a long dinner buffet and much good-humored noise. At our table we found his petite, bright-eyed and lovely fiancee, Petra, and many of his close friends.
A waitress quickly appeared with carafes of the new white and red wine, probably grown right in the tavern’s back yard. We dug into the country-fare buffet of roast pork, fried chicken, sausages, meatballs, dumplings and salads, while Mathias reminisced about his adventures in Aspen, when he visited Anneliese.
Anneliese and I had reserved seats at the Staatsopera, the former Imperial Opera house that Franz Joseph had sponsored in 1869. It was bombed out in 1945, then restored in loving detail by the Viennese to reopen in 1955.
We climbed the Grand Staircase, a superb flight of marble steps that sweeps up from the main entrance. It is embellished with statues of Music and Dancing and reliefs of operas and ballets. To further enhance the mood, we sipped champagne in the foyer, amidst the busts of famous Viennese composers and conductors.
This was a ballet night, and from our box we watched two classic ballets ” “Kadeten Ball,” set to a Strauss score, and “Puppen Fee” ” then a modern ballet called “Duke’s Nuts,” set to Duke Ellington. Great stuff.
Vienna has many opera houses, so the next night we visited the Volksopera, the People’s Opera, a much more informal place that features light opera and musicals.
We were guests of Hannah, Anneliese’s sister, and her husband, Freddy. Hannah was lively, friendly and spoke excellent English; Freddy was a retired merchant marine captain, and with his white Vandyke beard and erect bearing, he looked the part perfectly. We saw “The Merry Widow,” an old Viennese classic by Franz Lehar. The plot was pure fluff, but I had never realized how much glorious melody that operetta held until that night.
Afterward, we went to the Cafe Landtmann, a luxurious old-time cafe once favored by Sigmund Freud. I chose a Pharisäer, black coffee with rum, and a hazel cream tort, while Freddy regaled us with stories of his boating adventures, piloting his ships down the Danube River to the Black Sea.
Schönbrunn was the summer palace of Franz Joseph and Elizabeth. Standing in the palace courtyard, Anneliese and I faced an immense pillared baroque facade, four stories high and hundreds of feet wide, painted in ocher yellow and containing more than 1,000 rooms.
All this was built by Empress Maria Theresa, the formidable woman who ruled from 1745 to 1765, bore 16 children and made Austria a world power. Her quarters were a succession of dazzling rooms styled in exuberant swirling whorls of red, white and gold.
Franz Joseph and Elizabeth
Next at Schönbrunn we visited the simpler apartments of Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth.
Franz Joseph’s office had sober brown walls, brown upholstered furniture, a desk, a wash basin and a huge portrait of Empress Elizabeth at the age of 26. His bedroom, with an iron bedstead, was brown and equally plain. He was said to rise and start work at 5 a.m.
While Franz Joseph refused to compromise on the powers of the monarchy, I have to respect him for his tolerance. He ruled an empire with a dozen nationalities and a crazy quilt of ethnic clans, with Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and a large Jewish population ” but I believe he genuinely worked for each of them to live their own lives in their own way.
Next, we saw the couple’s shared bedroom, an elegant room with blue brocade-covered walls and dark walnut furniture.
“What do you think about Elizabeth?” I asked Anneliese.
“Well, Sisi ” the Viennese like to call her Sisi ” was very advanced in her thinking, very unconventional. Even in those days she was into exercise and dieting, into travel, and she studied Hungarian and Greek.
“She came from a royal family in Bavaria, and Franz Joseph fell in love with her. Sisi didn’t want to be an empress, but she was taken at 16 to fulfill her duty. Consequently she was not that good of a wife to him and traveled and lived separately much of the time.
“Franz Joseph loved her deeply, the Hungarians idolized her, they still do, and you can see the adulation of the Viennese today wherever you go ” in books, movies, plays, souvenirs, everywhere. But she was a free spirit in a very rigid court, a very unfortunate person. Then their only son, Crown Prince Rudolph, killed himself in a very mysterious suicide. In 1898, when an anarchist assassinated her for no reason, I think it was a release.”
“So,” I said, “Franz Joseph lost his only son Rudolph by suicide and then lost his beloved Sisi to an assassin. On top of this, Franz Joseph must have realized long before his death in 1916 that the sun was setting on his ways and his empire. Both their endings were tragic, I think.”
The descent into darkness
In 1918, after Austria’s defeat in World War I, the monarchy was replaced by the Austrian Republic. The new republic went nearly bankrupt and before long was torn apart by civil war between the socialists, the conservatives and the fast-growing Austrian Nazi Party. In 1938, when Hitler marched into Vienna, he was met by cheering crowds.
Aspenite Kurt Bresnitz was then a young man in Vienna. He says: “Until Hitler came in I always thought of myself as an Austrian, and then I found myself to be an Israelite and forced to wear a yellow star. The radios blared Nazi propaganda day and night, and the people believed it.
“The worst part of it was that you lived in constant fear. They would close whole streets and arrest people with a Jewish star. A few might be released, but most were taken to concentration camps. I had a close friend and one day he was gone. I had a girlfriend [a gentile]; she cared for me quite a bit, but she didn’t dare be seen in my company. The Austrian Nazis were worse than the Germans.”
Kurt escaped, but 60,000 Viennese Jews died in the camps. Many Viennese believe that, even with all the empire’s faults, its replacement was something much worse ” a world of nationalism run amok, then Nazism and communism, and then empty commercialism and ethnic cleansing.”
New Year’s Eve
Petra has a tiny summer place up in the hills overlooking Vienna. On this rainy New Year’s Eve her minuscule quarters were jampacked with her friends, Mathias’ friends, Anneliese’s family and a heavily loaded buffet table. The champagne and the New Year’s punch flowed freely.
At the stroke of 12, we rushed outside into the drizzle. First we heard the tolling bells of the Stephansdom Cathedral followed by all the church bells in Vienna. Simultaneously, the sky exploded from horizon to horizon with hundreds of glittering fireworks, including Mathias’ own battery of skyrockets. Then the radio sounded with the beautiful strains of the “The Blue Danube” waltz.
What else could I do but kiss Anneliese, take her in my arms, and waltz her around the terrace in the rain?
Larry Ladin is a trustee and past president of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, and produces “Aspen Profiles” for GrassRoots TV. He has been a full-time Aspen/Snowmass resident since 1996.