The Imperial Treasury of Vienna

I arrived in Vienna at some time after 11pm and an excellent set of instructions sent by mobile phone from Grahame got me onto the Metro and across town to a hostel situated right next to the museum district, where I was in my bunk by ten minutes past midnight. Unfortunately, another coughing fit awoke my new room mates and set us off to rather a negative start but otherwise I was very pleased to be so well set up to explore the City of Dreams at last. The only other time that I’ve passed this way, in 2012, I was also travelling around Europe on the railways but gave in to fatigue before even leaving the Wien Westbahnhoff and re-directed myself down the Danube to rest up with friends in somewhere out in Eastern Hungary.

So this time I took a morning off to catch up with my admin and laundry before setting out to the Kunsthistorisches (Museum of Art History – it sounds so much better in German, doesn’t it?) because I knew it would be closed on the following day. But lets have a bit of a look around first, shall we? For most of my life I’ve had a vision of grand palaces and wide, stately boulevards, galleries stuffed to bursting with Old Masters, konditorei displaying positive masterpieces of cream and chocolate and bewigged musicians in breeches and pink satin jackets. Well, that’s just what I found, although I do have to admit that I was smack in the middle of the tourist district and that the latter were not actually giving recitals, just touting for business for the numerous musical performances being put on in various concert halls and churches across the city.

What a spectacle. If it wasn’t all on such a grand scale it would be ridiculous, but I could definitely see the appeal. It’s all remarkably clean and well maintained and the unique “wedding cake on steroids” style of architecture has probably lodged itself in so many people’s imagination around the world that a steady stream of visitors can save up to come here and feel their dreams literally coming true.

As I made my way determinedly around Emperor Franz Joseph’s collection of classical masterpieces in the vain hope of seeing at least the important highlights, a continuous refrain echoed around my head: “why, oh why, have I left this so long?” Gallery upon gallery of the finest works by Rafael, Caravagio, Bruegel and Rembrant tested my art education to the limit as, surrounded by larger than life depictions of scenes from Biblical or Grecco-Roman mythology, I forwent the captions and just let the jewel coloured pigments of the subjects’ robes and the bucolic background landscapes transport me into the Renaissance world. The charming “Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress” by Velzquez bore such a striking likeness to my youngest granddaughter, Rose, that it brought tears to my eyes.

Even the four euro cup of coffee which I was forced to consume after the first three hours in order to keep me on my feet afforded no rest for my eyes. The cafe itself is situated beside the great marble staircase and within the magnificent central dome. Apart from all the decorated pillars and gilded cherubs, every available surface is covered with yet more paintings. Fortunately for me the Egyptology collection does not rival those of the Louvre or the BM and so I was able to move pretty swiftly on through the Antiquities and out into the afternoon sun at last.

I would have liked to have had the opportunity to meet a few Austrian people and chat about what life holds for regular citizens here at the very heart of the EU and right at the centre of the migrant trail. After all, the right wing populist Freedom Party of Austria failed to take power last year by only the narrowest of majorities. I suspect that timing had a great deal to do with this fortuitous escape. Had the result of the elections held a year ago not been annulled due to allegations of fraud, the country might have been swept along with the xenophobic, anti-intellectual rhetoric igniting the UK and USA at the time. However, by the time of the re-vote last December, the destructive machinations of Mssrs Nigel Farage and Donald Trump had begun to alerted the rest of the world to the potential dangers of fact-free campaigning. If the moderate voters of Holland and France got off their backsides to fight for their democracy earlier this year them it was a movement spearheaded by the people of Austrian that got them into the voting booths.

Nonetheless, just a glance at those maps and charts of comparative statistics shows that Austria has welcomed (or been overwhelmed by – depending on who you are talking to) a far greater proportion of migrants than many of its neighbours. This crisis is far from over and I believe that only a sympathetic and supportive attitude from the rest of Europe can keep the moderates in charge here. So, back to my own experiences: an Indian shopkeeper in the underground mall of the city metro apologised for not being able to sell me any paracetamol for my headache because it is only available here in pharmacies. He handed me a bottle of water and instructed me to drink the whole lot, then he sold me fruit and chocolate to keep me going for the rest of the afternoon.

Where did I go next? Some more pavement pounding and then back to the hostel to attempt to catch up on what I had been looking at all afternoon seemed like a good idea. Despite the fact that the only internet connection available was in the foyer, I found no-one to engage in conversation. The youngsters, who seemed to be visiting from all over the world, were all tightly knitted together in groups and some of the lone travellers looked as if they could be ekeing out their last few coins as they looked for work. Alas, my persistant coughing had so allienated the occupants of my all-female dorm as to make any casual enquiries impossible. One did pointedly suggest a visit to the doctor though.

Today I filled up on the free breakfast and set off for another round of museums. Although its exterior appearance is now completely “Viennese Baroque”, the vast Hofborg Imperial Palace dates back more than seven hundred years and contains more “must see” destinations than the average city: most of which I realised I was going to have to leave for my next visit. The Knight’s Hall, the Great Chapel, the library and the world famous Spanish Riding school would all have to yield to the attractions of the Imperial Tresury. I was here to see some serious jewels at last.

From the fabulous 11th century crown of the Holy Roman Empire (sometimes wrongly called Constantine’s crown) to the world’s largest emerald I was spellbound. This was a gemmologist’s dream: a potted history of the great gem deposits discovered over the last thousand years all assembled in one place for me to examine at my ease. Where the rest of the tourists had got to, I didn’t know and didn’t care. They could stuff themselves stupid with patisseries elsewhere if they would only leave me to relish these wonderful jewels unimpeded. Carved rock crystal from antiquity (we still don’t know how they worked it), dazzling opals from the long exhausted mines of Bohemia, huge cabochon sapphires of a sublime, celestial blue: I was transported.

There was, of course, far too much for me to take in in just one visit and I can see quite a collection of reading matter being assembled on my return to England but, if I’ve found the Royal jewels of London or Dresden slightly too ostentatious for my taste, here I was totally awestruck. It may have been somewhat off-message for this particular European Odyssey but at least I have found a foolproof way to overcome illness or fatigue. As Richard Burton used to say of Elizabeth Taylor: “it’s amazing what a few diamonds can do for her mood”.

Categories: Europe

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