Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Just see the pictures, or read some drollery too: Touring through Vienna is like traveling through time. But, you aren't sent backward; you are hurtled forward. Everything you have ever heard or seen of Vienna is from long ago: Mozart, Strauss, the Austrian Empire, assassination, invasion, occupation, liberation. But the overwhelming feeling of the city is modernity mixed seamlessly with the antique, even quaint surroundings. Vienna exudes the same quality that defines the view to mid-town Manhattan, looking south from Central Park. Your eye can't avoid the contrast: in the foreground trees and grass; in the distance the heights of mid-town. Here in Vienna, you literally feel the passage of time. Standing at the gates of Belvedere-Garten, you're likely to see an ultra-modern Viennese trolley swish quietly over the streets. The architecture in StephanPlatz ranges from Medieval to Bauhaus. The continuity between old and new is so seamless, yet so vivid, you practically feel the centuries rushing past. It is as though you can see all 8 centuries of Viennese history simultaneously. As usual, Caitie did an extraordinary amount of planning and booked us into the finest hotel in Austria -- the Hotel Imperial. Our rooms were well-appointed to the point of absurdity. I don't think we really needed the curtains for the already extraneous lighting over the bed . The hotel had a similarly luxuriant lobby, in full baroque style. The best part of the lobby are the private sitting booths , and the wait-service, who will bring you anything from the Cafe Imperial. The Cafe is located in the ground floor (Austrians, Germans, and Swiss insist on calling the lowest level ground, and the next story the first floor). The orginal center of Vienna (Wien in German) had walls. Sometime in the 1800s, the denizens of Wien decided that the walls, while decorative, served no purpose (much like the tasseled pillows provided by the Imperial Hotel). So, the walls were razed and replaced with the wide avenues of the RingeStrasse. The RingeStrasse provides a remarkably convenient and intuitive means of navigating the central district of the city. It also makes for a nice walk . Near to the Hotel Imperial is the Kartner Ringe, which is the section of the RingeStrasse that intersects with Kartner Strasse. Kartner Strasse is sort of the 5th Avenue of Vienna, loaded with shops and cafes, ultimately leading to the most famous square in Vienna -- StephanPlatz. StephanPlatz is home to St. Stephen's Church, which began construction in the middle ages and has pretty much remained under construction since. The most drammatic work happened in the 1950's following the devastating fires that decimated St. Stephan's during WWII. The collision and new and old is particularly vivid in StephanPlatz, where you can see the reflection of St. Stephan's in the ultra-modern office building recently added to the square . The top floor of the new building is home to the quintessential Euro bar, Do&Co. The roof of the church is supposedly modeled after a persian rug, and is rendered in colorful ceramic tiles . The real treasures are inside. For a few Euro, you can take the extended audio tour, and hear some preety elaborate tales of the church's construction . My personal favorites are the self-portraits of the master builders that originally created the cathedral. Hidden like Easter eggs in the baroque details, the portraits of now anonymous craftsman appear to carry the weight of St. Stephen's on their shoulders or peak out from behind false windows . You could say it is baroque graphitti. St. Stephen's has two towers, a north (has the bell) and a south (taller). The south tower is currently under construction, but you can take an elevator to the top of the north tower, which affords a view of the whole city . Caitie dubbed the North Tower trip the "tour of all spatial phobias". You must first squeeze into a ludicrously small and hot elevator. For some unknown reason, this tiny device was upolstered with leather on the interior. I suppose the idea was to make it comfortable, a sort of vertical couch (yup, that is a double Freudian pun, and yes I have been planning it for a few days), but it just reminded us of a coffin. Claustrophobia? check. You also make this lovely trip up with at least 10 other passengers, who are, of course, sweaty close-talkers. Agoraphobia? Check. Next, the tiny elevator opens abruptly to a grated platform, providing a perfect view straight down to the plaza. Acrophobia? Done. Finally, you climb steel stairs (lightening crossed my mind, and at this point my feet and hands were sweating so profusely I was sure my sandals would fly off and through the open staircase) to a open platform. Vertigo, thanks. Finally, as if to remind you that gravity will send you crashing down, there is an elaborate display of the St. Stephen's bell, and a recounting of how it fell through the church during the WWII fire . More amazing, the original bell was cast from the melted-down remnants of Turkish Canon's from the failed Turkish siege of Vienna. Safely descended and decompressed, Caitie and I had a few libations at Do&Co before venturing further. Our next stop was the StadtPark (City Park), where Johann Strauss debuted his now famous compositions. J. Strauss is immortalized in sculpture and his musical genre of choice is immortalized in kitschy signage and sophmoric jokes . It being the 200th anniversary of Mozart's birth, and J. Strauss being Vienna's favorite son, it was easy to (temporarily) forget Herr Beethoven, but he too has dedicated statuary . On our way to the Imperial Palace, we ran across this literal collision of architectural movements: . On the plus side, the Austrian Imperial Family enjoyed the world's finest homes . On the downside, they were pretty much all assassinated. In 1914, Franz Ferdinand, the then Crown Prince of the Empire, was assassinated, providing the flashpoint for WWI. The actual car and blood-soaked cape of the prince are on display in a Viennese museum. Unfortunately, Caitie found a trip to see those artifacts too unsavory. Instead we toured the Imperial Palace itself. We strolled around the palace, starting with the greenhouse and visiting the Imperial apartments where Franz Ferdinand's father and mother lived. The apartments are chock-a-bock full of antiquities, which are not to be photographed. My personal favorite were the giant (14-20ft tall) fireplaces, which were enamled and were fed from hidden hallways that ran between the walls of the Imperial apartments. This way, wood chips, soot, and dirty laborers were kept out of the Emporer's presence.