Resplendence of the Ringstrasse in Vienna…
Sunlight dazzles on the calm waters of the Danube flowing through the city’s suburbs. You can almost hear the strains of the most famous waltz ever written, ‘The Blue Danube’ by Strauss. Well, hardly a waltz, more like Austria’s second national anthem. The aura of Europe’s cultural hub unveils itself gradually through broad boulevards, aristocratic architecture, glorious greenery and luxury hotels housed in old palaces. Missing your gown and tux?
Ringstrasse: Ring of resplendence
Start with the grandiose Ringstrasse, Vienna’s most epic public construction project generously commissioned by Franz Josef in the mid 19th-century. The 5-kilometer long, tree-lined horseshoe-boulevard circling the inner city, sports an ensemble of showpiece buildings for aristocrats, including Parliament and State Opera House, splendid parks, an array of museums. Chauffeured-driven diplomats in sleek black cars and awestruck foreigners in smart tour buses traverse the elegant roadway. But you’re imagining Vienna from another century…horse-drawn carriages, noblemen in top hats, the protection of a beloved emperor and the pride of citizenship of a powerful nation. There’s endless drama in the eclectic mix of diverse styles, revived motifs (inherently neo-classicist) in every building but, if time is a challenge, focus on these five spots on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Take this loop.
1. Karlsplatz: Just a trailer
The modest-size of the Karlsplatz (Charles Square) its compensated by the glory of an ornate super-sized, green copper dome. The overt splendour of the Karlkrische (St Charles Church) proclaims its significance. This was Charles V’s grateful homage to the heavens when the Great Plague subsided. Moorish elements, inspired by sacred architecture in Spain combine with a Greek-temple like portico to create an unexpected jumble of influences, yet there is an inexplicable balance. Two ‘Pillars of Hercules’ in marble with spiral friezes (so like the Roman Trajan’s Column) accentuate its Byzantine-like dome. To the right of the church, a simple plaque commemorates the great Venetian composer, Antonio Vivaldi, who died in Vienna and was buried here. More than anything else, Karlkrische has a strong, commanding presence. And this is just a trailer of the majesty that lies in store.
2. MuseumsQuartier: Art attack
The baroque facade of the former imperial stables is a complete contrast to the unusual cubic structures inside the complex that house modern art museums. Choose the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien) for over 9000 contemporary art pieces…paintings, photography and sculpture from classical modernity, cubism, futurism and surrealism to pop art, fluxus and nouveau réalisme. Play Rorschach-like experiments trying to interpret the polka-dotted question-mark face with a single eye and large teardrop. Or marvel at the photo-like quality of Hanns Kralik’s “From my window of 1930”. The vintage 1908 poster of Kaiser Jubilee by Ferdinand Ludwig Graf is endearing…was it even an art piece when he drew it? Outside, in the Haupthof courtyard, melt into the energetic and inspiring vibe on a comfy beanbag under the late morning sun. A quick doze, then?
The seeds of culture addiction have been planted…and when you reach the Museum of Fine Arts and its counterpart, the Natural History Museum, you’re want both…but settle at one. The stone sculpture of a baby elephant with cute button-eyes wins your favour…and by the time you exit, your brains are overflowing with information on neolithic tools and dinosaurs. Nice!
3. Heldenplatz: Stage for history
You’re at the Palace Complex, so pause at the Burgtor, one of the original gates surrounding the fortifications of Vienna from 1660 to read the inscription LAURUM MILITIBUS LAURO DIGNIS MDCCCCXVI (Laurels to soldiers worthy of laurels 1916). The middle archway, once a privileged entryway for the emperor’s carriage in imperial times, is public thoroughfare now, so march freely through. Here, in the monumental Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), the whiff of the ancient Austro-Hungary regime still hangs in the air, even after 100 years of the Empire being dissolved.
Size up the high balustrade of the Neue Burg, now the National Library. One day in 1938, the Nazi flag had converted the balcony into a stage for Adolf Hitler to address more than 200,000 Austrians and declare his former homeland as part of the Third Reich. Freeze in the layers of history, get caught in a whirlpool of evolving identities and be lost in the waves of time.
Tour the exemplary European baroque architecture inside…3-meter high magnificent frescoed dome, marble sculptures, mighty columns and natural light flooding in through the ceiling. The Grand Hall, laden by wooden bookshelves dressed with gold-plated wood carvings, rises to heights of almost 20 metres. Stuffed with over 7.4 million items including ancient texts written on papyrus, maps, paintings, manuscripts, rare books and photographs. Having an urge to read?
4. Michaelerplatz: Of exalted guests
Take a regal lunch break. Indulge at Cafe Hofburg in an Inner Courtyard outside the Imperial Apartments. How about grilled ham sandwiches and Kaiserschmarren ‘Hof köchinnen Art’, (sweet omelette pancake, served with stewed plums and apple puree)? Paper napkins with a dignified crest emblem, elegant silverware that clinks heavily, and poised waiters in black suits? Yes, please!
Steps away, at Michaelerplatz, face the neo-Baroque entrance gate to the Habsburg imperial palace, and its oldest part (Alte Burg). The white curved building is graced by a green copper dome, elaborately gilt-embellished like a royal crown. Under your feet, you can see excavations of 18th-century housing, medieval cellars and Roman buildings…from the times the city was called Vindobona. Layers of history, one on top of the other reaching as far down as 9-meters below the ground level. The Habsburg Palace, the winter palace of the Habsburg family since the 13th-century has 18 groups of buildings, 19 courtyards, and 2,600 rooms spread over a massive 60 acres. Spare a few hours. (Read my post on Habsburg Palace)
5. Kohlmarkt: Coal to couture
From Michaelerplatz, stroll down Kohlmarkt, Vienna’s most luxurious shopping street, which had humble beginnings as a charcoal market. International jewellery brands like Cartier, Chopard, Tiffany and Wellendorff showcase glittering gems where court-appointed jewellers were once housed. Take in the drama of Romanesque columns, baroque stuccos of cherubs, graceful sculptures on entrance portals, elaborate stone fountains and engraved reliefs. Distinguished composers Haydn and Chopin had once lived in houses around here. Study the H&M store where a former court menswear store used to be. Transitions!
Peek into the 200-year old Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery, Demel, where Empress Elisabeth used to order her sweets. The famed Sachertore stands out like a diamond from the decadent display. Only two places claim to make the true Sachertorte: Hotel Sacher and Demel. Authenticity guaranteed. Can you miss a slice?
Head for the highlight of the area. The 12th-century Gothic cathedral, Stephansdom with pointy spires, tall windows and a diamond-patterned tile roof in blue-white-yellow. The story goes that composer Ludwig van Beethoven finally confirmed his deafness when he saw birds flying out of the bell tower when they tolled, but did not hear the bells. Catch the reflection of the medieval cathedral in a modern glass-and-steel building opposite. Traces of the past always remain in the present…and that is the undisputed law of the universe!
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