Viennese Whirl

Today I commuted into Vienna from my hostel in Bratislava and I must say that I found the Hauptbahnhof mainline station a lot more welcoming in the daylight. A coffee and a quick trip to the information office to discover that Metro is pronounced U-Bahn over here and the city was mine for the day. I know that I’ve said here before how daunting I find Austria’s capital but a late night conversation with another coach traveller where we’d shared how much we had enjoyed Edmund De Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes” convinced me that I must have absorbed more than I’d realised. So I’ve resolved to give it another try.

I headed first for the Baroque splendours of the Schonbrunn Schloss where a “Winter Special” pre-booked ticket took me inside for a full tour of the state apartments. For once the audio-guide was helpful and simple to use but I must admit to listening in to some more gossipy accounts of the Imperial family being given by some of the real life tour guides. The books will tell you that this 1441 room Rococo palace took most of its present form when a royal hunting lodge was re-modelled as a wedding present to Empress Maria Theresa in the mid 18th Century. Nothing, however, could prepare the unwary visitor for the grandeur that they are about to experience. Quite unlike the ostentatious excesses of Versailles or Dresden; a single, unified style demonstrates both quality and restraint, harmonising to produce a beautiful, if opulent, family home.

If I said that food was kept heated in a special closet beside the dining room rather than the more usual aristocratic practice of eating it cold because of the long distance from the kitchens, it might give an indication of the palace’s habitability. Not that the lovely Elisabeth of Wittelsbach, wife of the long reigning Emperor Franz Joseph I, appreciated such comforts. The beautiful and flighty “Sisi” was forever absent from the table because of her lifelong quest to maintain the perfect, slender figure. And that was when she was actually in residence rather than gadding about the continent in search of more informal society. But for her ankle-length hair and her husband’s unfailing devotion, she might have been a sort of proto-Diana, the late Princess of Wales.

Going back a couple of generations the palace is replete with formal portraits of the many offspring of this great dynasty. Maria Theresa brokered royal marriages across Europe for her eight surviving daughters as soon as they were old enough and without any apparent concern for their personal happiness. Only, Maria Christina, the favourite born on her mother’s birthday, exhibits any signs of life through all that powder and paint. A smug little smile hovers about the lips of the girl who got not only the best jewels but also the chance to marry a husband of her own choosing. The sons fared little better than the rest of the female cohort, however, with tragedy following the family down through the generations to the infamous scandal of Mayerling and the final indignity on the bridge in Sarajevo.

Discovering that although I was free to walk the fabulous gardens at my leisure, my ticket did not include a warming visit to the magnificent glass-enclosed palm house, I took the U-Bahn back to Franzplatz only to discover that the Jewish Museum was closed for the Sabbath. Embarrassed by my oversight, I rapidly diverted to the nearby Albertina: home of one of the world’s greatest collections of paintings, drawings and prints. Thankfully a special exhibition of the works of Albrecht Durer kept me so enthralled with its exquisite detail and unmatched execution that I felt fully justified in abandoning Messrs Picasso, Chagal and Munch for the remainder of this visit. There is a reason why these five hundred year old works of the Nuremberg Master can continue to stir our emotions in these days of photo-realism and digital magnification. No camera could ever love the minute detail of a bird’s wing or a wayside flower the way he did.

I think the City of Dreams may be beginning to work her magic on me, perhaps at last overcoming the stereotypical “Concerts and Konditorei” image that has been planted in my mind since my teens. I have never been able to shake the memory of a family friend whose anniversary visit was blighted by the effect that eating so much weinerschnitzel and so many cream cakes had on her diet. A rotund little woman, she never tired off telling us how she had weighed a mere seven stone when she married but seemed to have been fighting an unsuccessful battle to relieve her poor overloaded knee joints ever since. Being now of the age that she was then, I give heartfelt thanks for my sturdy frame and honoured her memory by walking straight past the myriad cake shops and munching on the single apple that I had brought along for my picnic lunch.

Categories: Europe

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