Another overnight journey from Munich and we were in Vienna. Here, too, we had booking in a pension which was somewhat away from the core of the city. But there was good connectivity by public transport. It was a comfortable hostelry run, again, by an elderly lady but much less forbidding than the one in Munich. The room rent again included continental breakfast which was nothing other than a croissant with a blob of butter, a boiled egg and coffee.
Vienna is capital of the Republic of Austria and, as perhaps is well known, it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I in 1918. The Empire was ruled by Habsburgs, an old and very influential family which had provided monarchs to various countries of Europe, so much so that when several countries of Europe went to war in 1914 the so called Allies and Central Powers had many distant cousins fighting against each other. The name Habsburg was taken from the castle in Switzerland which the family used to own.
Apart from its political importance, the city is known by various names acquired by it because of its distinctive flavours. It is known as “City of Dreams” because it is the birthplace of the first psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud and “City of Music” because of its musical reputation given to it by musical legends Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven. It is also known for its architectural wealth. From a medieval and baroque city, it changed into a city of architecturally rich ensembles in its historic core. The 19th Century Ringstrasse ringed by magnificent structures makes it an architectural paradise. Its Celtic and Roman roots gave it a headstart and has since brought it a long way to make it a city of architectural magnificence where one finds medieval side by side baroque and Greek revivalist along with Secessionist.
We had two days and two nights here. The first thing we did was to hit the Hofburg complex – the palace that was built over centuries. Imposing and architecturally fascinating, numerous architects added brilliance to the complex over centuries. It is a massive area where are located the various royal residences, the Imperial Chapel (Hofkapelle or Burgkapelle), the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), Museum of Fine Arts (Kunsthistorisches Museum), Austrian National Library (Hofbibliothek), the Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer), Austrian National Theatre (the Burgtheatre), the Spanish Riding School (Hofreitschule), the Imperial Horse Stables (Stallburg and Hofstallungen). Every bit of it is worth pouring over. The awesome collection of jewels and crowns in the Imperial Treasury has a spell-binding effect. It is simply not possible to cover everything during a brief visit, the scale of things being so massive. We wandered around in the area taking in the splendor of the Habsburgs who added an enormous amount of substance to the Complex.
Eventually, we walked into the Museum of Fine Arts to take in a bit of art. The museum faces another museum that of Natural History with a similar façade across Maria Theresa Platz. Maria Theresa was the only female ruler (1717 to 1780) of Habsburg family who had a long rule but was generally considered a bigoted ruler. That is, however, beside the point. Both the museums are massive structures and architecturally similar – rectangular in shape topped by octagonal domes. These were opened in 1891 on the Ringstrasse mainly to enable the public to see the formidable collection of Habsburgs. We saw many paintings of legendary Baroque painters like Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Raphael, Bruegel, Rembrandt, etc. These names we had come across long years ago while reading English fiction but had never had the occasion to see their works.
Coming out of the Museum we wandered around in the Ringstrasse where some magnificent structures had been erected in a planned manner during the late 19th Century. Walking around the Ring, as it is generally called, along Ring-Kai-Ring – a tram service that runs in opposite directions right around the Ring, we reached close to the inner city, gazing at the beautiful buildings. These were reportedly damaged during the World War II but have since been impeccably restored. The walk left one craving for more but we tore ourselves away we were running out of time.
The last day we had kept for a visit to Schonbrunn Palace, one of the most important architectural, cultural and historical monuments in the country. About 8 kilometres away, Schonbrunn used to be the Summer residence of the Habsburgs. Named after a spring - the name of the Palace means “beautiful spring”- it used to be the recreational hunting ground of the royals. The Palace in its present form was built and remodelled by Maria Theresa in 1740s. The longest reigning Austrian emperor Franz Joseph was born here and he died here too, at the age of 86 during World War I. Habsburgs lost their empire, anyway, after the First World War. With the establishment of the Austrian Republic, the Palace has remained as a museum.
While the Palace, with around 1400 rooms is a very impressive sight, the Gloriette is more so. It was the last building that was constructed as a look-out point for the garden in front. It used to have a dining hall where the Habsburgs used to take their breakfast. Now there is a cafe functioning in it. The Palace has been kept in original condition. The baroque structure and gardens are tantalisingly beautiful. A tour through the authentically furnished residential and ceremonial rooms of the Imperial Family and the labyrinths of the gardens are an experience that hardly ever can be forgotten. The lavish furnishings, the furniture, the gold and silk drapes, the crockery – all were indicative of the extraordinarily opulent life style. The intricately decorated floor-to-ceiling walls are captivating.
As the sun was dipping down after a fairly long and tiring visit to Schonbrunn our time in Vienna was coming to an end. I felt we did not do justice to our visit as the place needed a longer stay to see and imbibe. Nonetheless we had to move on and headed for Sudbanhof, the city’s southern railway station that we had to go to take the train for Venice – another journey through the night.