Vienna – a city of palaces

A small city in what is now a small country (modern Austria’s population is 9M) which possesses the legacy of an empire many times its size with a population of over 70M oppressing and oppressed souls. Vienna is really a block of former palaces, now converted into museums, apartments, offices and concert halls, with public housing hugging the ring road around the old city wall and flowing out into the suburbs.

The main feature that struck me was the history that oozes out of every nook and cranny of this city. The opulence of its buildings that the ruling, administrative, and military classes once occupied, the majesty of its statues and arches erected in honour of past kings and military leaders (there is no talk of taking down these statues, despite how brutally colonizing their real-life models were) makes one marvel at the different sensibilities that must have existed during the last 400 years, that are only now being questioned. Severely bombed during WWII and still furiously trying to preserve its palatial buildings with maintenance projects running everywhere, the city is hemmed in by its fortress wall and is now overlaid by a plethora of modern infrastructure: tram lines, dedicated road for trams, bicycles, motor vehicles, even for motorized roller-blades and segways, the subway system, and overland railway stations, with public parks squeezed into whatever space is left.

The city’s diversity is reflected in its street food; the staples are pizza, schnitzel, kebab and schwarma—available everywhere—and indicates its sources of immigration. Our Turkish restaurant server (we found a nice, clean Turkish restaurant close to our hotel and frequented it more than a few times, for it had an extensive menu), herself born and raised in Austria, told us that newcomers today were Serbs and Syrians who live in fixed districts of the city and that integration was rather poor. Cigarette smoke and beggars (mostly immigrants) were encountered in heavy doses before 9 a.m., many of the smokers being women rushing off to work. Vaping and CBD shops were also frequently encountered. Johanne Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are hagiographic pop stars, for many cover orchestras play these two composers’ music in rented palace buildings for tourists such as us. Some even play them as street buskers. The Maria Hilfer Strasse, a walking street, is also a good venue, as it is filled with modern, brand-name shops and historic churches, and  connects the western end of the city to the museum district. If at least one museum needs to be visited (and one could spend a month just visiting museums in Vienna), I recommend the Kunst Historiche Museum, one of two twin buildings facing each other across Heroes Square (more army generals on horses), built by Emperor Franz Josef in 1881 to house the “excess” of art treasures that the Hapsburg Empire had accumulated over the years; the collections of Dutch, Flemish, German, Italian and Spanish paintings are mind boggling. I had to rest my brain for the rest of the day after that one visit.

A drive past the Strauss’ fabled Vienna Woods into the Wachau Valley (a day trip) is a must in order to visit the medieval village of Durnstein in the middle of wine country, and for a cruise down the Danube to visit the Melk monastry. The Benedictine monastry at Melk is a garishly opulent structure, preserved as a UN heritage site, and is a repository and library of Austrian history rather than a cloister for its handful of monks (15) and the school for 900 students still housed within its walls.

The grandeur of the Holy Roman Empire and its subsequent evolution into the Austro-Hungarian Empire is brought home with a visit to Schoenebrunne Palace on the outskirts of Vienna. The Roccoco style palace fans out in front of you, and then climbs a hill at the back to a belvedere on the summit about a kilometre away, with magnificent botanical gardens, children’s playgrounds, a maze and labyrinth, a zoo, a giant fountain, and robotized lawn movers roving around the grounds keeping everything manicured. The main royal personages showcased at the palace are: Empress Maria Teresa who built the palace to its current proportions from the hunting lodge it previously was, her grandson Franz Josef who misguidedly started WWI due to the assassination of his cousin, and his unhappy but beautiful wife Elizabeth (Sissy) who was also assassinated in Geneva. One gets to tour the royal apartments and catch a glimpse into how these royals lived. I wondered who the prisoners were: those who lived inside the gilded cage or those who lived without? The anger of the proletariat is obvious when looking upon this opulence and wondering how so few could have had so much. No wonder so many anarchists were bred at the time to take out the monarchy one by one, until  megalomaniacs like Napoleon and Hitler completely put paid to these colonial empires only to try and construct their own.

I’m glad I visited Vienna (and later Budapest), for my interest in the history of the Holy Roman Empire and its derivative offshoots, an interest that had been stoked by an earlier visit to Czechia  and Poland, finally came full circle for me and I got the entire muddled picture. Perhaps the ideal circle trip should include all these four countries in one go—but allow a couple of months for a detailed study—there is a lot here!

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