The old palaces are filled with riches and lore, and so too are the friendly coffeehouses
WITH MAGNIFICENT Baroque beauty and many more examples of a rich cultural heritage on every corner, Vienna can’t help but remind visitors of the bygone glories of the vast empire of which it was so long the capital.
It’s crucial, in seeking to know all about Vienna, to learn about its Habsburgs rulers, who, from the Imperial Palace and over the course of more than seven centuries, guided Austria to greatness.
It was history we hunted as we began a tour at Schonbrunn Palace – one of Europe’s most beautiful Baroque complexes and part of the Habsburgs’ holdings since 1569.
Tourists flock to Schonbrunn Palace, one of Europe’s most beautiful Baroque complexes.
Their former summer residence is utterly impressive with its ceremonial rooms and magnificent gardens. This was home half the year to Empress Maria Theresa and later Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth.
The palace began as a hunting lodge, explained Jezz, our Thai guide, who’s lived in Vienna for more than a decade.
Theresa and her husband, Francis Stephen (Franz Stefan), set out in 1743 to remodel it as their summer residence, adding the gorgeous gardens in mimicry of the grounds of Versailles outside Paris.
The palace, now a Unesco World Heritage site, contains 1,441 rooms, 45 of which are open to visitors. While most of the design is Baroque, the high ceilings and other interior features follow the Rococo style.
A chart hangs on one wall showing the Hapsburg family tree, on which Jezz traced the imperial dynasty. It was interesting to note how two empresses stood out, rather than any one emperor, as is usually the case in other European locales.
Theresa was the only female ruler of the Habsburg hereditary lands and oversaw the conquest of much of Europe. She was the second child of Emperor Charles VI and came to the throne because there was no surviving brother.
Theresa and her husband Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor, had 11 daughters, including the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, who was to die on the revolutionaries’ guillotine soon after her mate, Louis XVI.
Theresa’s other daughters went on to become the queen of Naples and Sicily and the Duchess of Parma. Among her five sons were two who succeeded their father as Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II and Leopold II. With such lineage it was easy to see why she’s referred to as “the grandmother of Europe”.
Vienna Christmas World on Rathausplatz is a Yuletide delight.
“Her children got married without ever being in love with their spouses, only for political purposes,” Jezz said.
Portraits of Theresa and her husband hang on the lovely Blue Staircase, and in the Round Chinese Cabinet Hall was a genuine surprise – a secret room where Theresa conferred clandestinely with her chancellor. The floor pops up and down.
In the Convention Hall is a painting of tulips, significant as a reminder that in 1771 Theresa introduced the flower buds as a trading commodity, a system that famously became the precursor to stock exchanges. (There was even a tulip market “bubble” that caused havoc.)
The empress championed women’s greater role in society by giving them opportunities to work and by making it mandatory for every child to attend school – and for free, at that. The policy she introduced remains in place in Austria to this day, Jezz said.
From the summer residence to the winter residence, Hofburg Palace, the level of visitors’ amazement isn’t diminished by the change of seasons.
The Habsburgs lived in the Hofburg for more than 600 years, during which time it served as the centre of the Holy Roman Empire.
It boasts the Sisi Museum, named for the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I – Elizabeth, who was known by that nickname. Born into the royal Bavarian house of Wittelsbach, Elisabeth spent her childhood in relative freedom and never got used to the rigid protocols of the Habsburg court.
Hofburg Palace is illuminated by night.
Early in the marriage she was at odds with her mother-in-law, who believed the king’s consort had only one duty – to produce an heir to the throne. The birth of a male heir, Rudolf, improved her standing at court considerably, but her health suffered under the strain, and she often travelled to Hungary to relax. Her affection for that country helped bring about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867.
The death of Rudolf and his mistress in an 1889 murder-suicide was a blow from which Elisabeth never recovered, Jezz told us. She withdrew from court duties and travelled more widely, obsessively seeking ways to maintain her legendary youthful appearance. While in Geneva in 1898, though, she was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist.
These are the stories related in a museum exhibition – her rebelliousness, her escape into a “beauty cult”, her athleticism and her gift for poetry.
There are 300 personal objects on display, from Sisi’s parasols, fans and gloves to her beauty preparations, a milk glass in its own travelling case, and even the original death certificate.
Upstairs are the imperial couple’s private and official chambers. Elisabeth’s fame as the most beautiful queen in Europe is more easily understood in her Dressing Room and Exercise Room, where Jezz said her days began at 6am with a hairdressing ritual that would last at least three hours. She’d go on to do a routine of gymnastic exercises, somehow keeping her coiffure undisturbed.
Belvedere Palace, a particular must-see for art lovers, was the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, who was as successful at collecting art as he was in military campaigns. There are two parts to this architectural jewel – the Upper and Lower Belvedere. The Upper houses one of Austria’s most valuable art collections, with works by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.
Gustav Klimt’s famous painting “The Kiss” is on view in the Upper Belvedere Palace.
In fact it holds the world’s largest collection of oil paintings by Klimt – 24 in all – including two masterpieces from his so-called Golden Period, “Judith” and “The Kiss (Lovers)” from 1908-09, the latter showing the artist and his friend posing as a couple deeply in love.
Three days are definitely not enough time to fully appreciate all that the capital has to share. For us, though, we at least felt fortunate to be there at the start of the winter festive season, with all the Christmas markets appearing in the pretty city squares.
Vienna Christmas World on Rathausplatz next to City Hall is the biggest and loveliest. A huge tree adorned with lights glitters over 150 colourful stalls selling gift items, handicrafts, food, sweets and warming drinks.
As we left Vienna, an early Christmas gift arrived for us. The first snow of the season was falling.
The writer travelled to Vienna courtesy of THAI Airways International and the Vienna Tourist Board.
When in Vienna, eat like the Viennese
TRADITIONAL VIENNESE coffeehouses are famous for their friendly good cheer, a concept known in German as gemutlichkeit. It’s so unique to Austria that it was recognised by Unesco in 2011 as a form of intangible cultural heritage.
You can typically get all kinds of coffee, fantastic pastries and newspapers from around the world. There’s nothing to compare with leisure time spent over coffee and homemade cake at the charming Cafe Central near Hofburg Palace, though the queue to get in can be long.
Cafe Sperl has been a popular dining spot since 1880.
For lunch in a proper Viennese atmosphere, Cafe Sperl on Gumpendorfer Strasse, founded in 1880, is wonderful. The interior is authentic 19th century, even if the pool tables are more recent additions.
Don’t fail to order Wiener schnitzel, the breaded, fried cutlets, and follow that up with unbeatable apple strudel.
IF YOU GO
>> Thai Airways International (THAI) has four round-trip direct flights per week, on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The journey takes about 10 hours.