My wife and I had visited Vienna for just about three days once earlier, around a couple of decades ago on a shoestring budget. We rushed around doing the sights, visited palaces and museums, went around in circles on the trams of Ring-kai-Ring, and wandered through the maze of narrow cobbled streets in the Old Quarter, flanked by quaint centuries-old baroque structures. We came away not quite satiated; always had that compelling desire to go back and experience it more fully. We did just that just a few years ago. Today, Vienna has become one of the most liveable cities of Europe and no wonder it hosts hordes of tourists.
Keen on a room with a kitchen-counter because of our cardio-vascular condition, my wife, surfing the net, hit on “Rothensteiner Heritage Appartments”. Offering “transfers”, (sumptuous) breakfast and a (early-bird) discounted tariff, it was a bargain that we couldn’t resist. Situated on the Neustiftgasse, just a short walk away from what is popularly called the Ring – the heart of Vienna – it was indeed a heritage outfit. A baroque structure, as most Viennese buildings are, it was erected when Vienna was forging away from its core in the 1870s.
Inevitably on the day of our arrival we headed for the Ring, or the Ringstrasse as it is formally known. A few minutes walk brought us to the Maria Theresa Platz – a garden of immense proportions dotted with delicately carved statues erected at eyelevel. An imposing statue of Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled over Austrian Empire in the 18th Century, however, dominates the garden. On either side of her are two massive almost identical structures, the Museums of Natural History and of Fine Arts, their architecture described as “outrageously flamboyant modernist”. The Fine Arts Museum has numerous sections and has kilometres of corridors housing most of the collection – from Egyptian antiquities to works of great artists like Titian, Rembrandt, Raphael, etc. – of Imperial Hapsburgs. It is almost in the same league as Louvre of Paris but not quite as large.
Coming out of the garden we landed up on the Ring, a leafy enormously wide boulevard with streetcars shuttling back and forth on its central verge. The Ring is like a horseshoe, circling the Historic City Centre, a World Heritage Site, with the Danube at the far end with the St. Stephan's Cathedral at its centre. It was laid out when Emperor Franz Joseph I ordered in 1857 demolition of the wall around the old town to make way for a circular boulevard. Responding to the Emperor’s call architects from all over Europe adorned it with a variety of new buildings in architectural schools of the distant past, giving birth to a style known as “Eclecticism”.
Officially opened in 1879, the Ring is f our kilometres long and sixty meters wide, lined with trees and buildings. Each part of the Ring carries different names and has something imposing along its length. Some of the impressive structures are the Parliament, called the “Parlament”, the Rathaus or the City Hall, The Burg Theatre (the Court Theatre), Votivekieche or the Votive Church . Two massive parks – the Volksgarten (the Peoples’ Garden) and the Burggarten or the sovereign’s personal garden – are also along the Ring. While the two gardens are of enormous proportions, the Burggarten has a Mozart monument where every evening is a musical evening. Alongside, is a worth-seeing museum of butterflies. We ended our trek of the first evening at the incredibly beautiful Opera House. It captivated us just as it did earlier; this time, however, it was more impressive, having been recently restored.
The centrepiece of the city is the St. Stephan’s Cathedral, and that is where we headed the next morning. On the way young men in period costumes buttonholed us, pushing tickets for concerts at Hofburg Palace . Having neither the money nor the inclination we begged off. Then there it was, under restoration, in all its splendour. Built during the Gothic era, St. Stephan's is one of the chief Gothic buildings in Europe . Towering majestically over the center of the city, its spire is Vienna's most identifiable landmark.
The plaza in front, Stephanplatz, is a pedestrianised area is a cheery place with fashionable shops and numerous cafes. Nearby is Graben, one of the oldest streets of Vienna . Built on a moat of Roman times and filled up around 1200 AD, it was a flour and vegetable market until the 17th Century, but today a street of smart shops housed in baroque-era structures. It has the Plague Monument, erected at the end of the 17th Century to commemorate the passing off of the epidemic.
Off Graben is the Kohlmarkt, once a coal market but now a shoppers’ paradise, that leads to the semi-circular imposing façade of the Hofburg Palace, A town within a town, the Imperial Palace, the favourite residence of the Hapsburgs, was enlarged over the centuries, its core having been built around 1220. The Palace’s Imperial Apartments, the Imperial Treasury, etc have been converted into museums displaying the riches of the dynasty. There are collections of porcelain and silver, arms and armour and antiquities and much, much more. The Spanish Riding School located in a part of the Palace, again a baroque creation of architect Erlach of the 18th Century, is where one can see the finest exposition of dressage on those beautiful white Lippenzenar horses.
Tired after a long walk we came back to Stephanplatz only to plunk ourselves on chairs in a sun-drenched café. It was an ideal place to linger over a cup of Viennese coffee, watch the roadside carnival and sooth our tired legs. An institution in Vienna , cafes have a history of their own. While retreating after a fight in the 1 th century the Turks left behind large quantities of coffee beans. The beverage became so popular that it gave its name, “café”, to the establishments that served it. Black and strong, with or without cream, coffee is served in its several variations, each delectable and of a pick-me-up sort.
Next morning as we walked to the Ring the drone of two helicopters flying in tight circles made us a little wary as we used to see such a pair circling over Kabul, and then strafe the neighbouring villages during the soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Only these, apparently, were not armed. Mystified, we walked on. The mystery soon resolved itself as we hit Heldenplatz. With a great collection of people and music blaring; the atmosphere was festive. Then we saw on giant screens the progress of a marathon. While children played around the giant air-filled synthetic dolls, the adults were either busy monitoring the progress of the Vienna Mrathon or in sipping coffee or beer in cafes that had miraculously come up in shamiana-like enclosures on the neighbouring lawns.
A small fleet of cute little toy-like cars manufactured by Mercedes-Benz and Swatch had been put out for display. Named “Smart Car”, these are two-seater lightweight petrol city-coupe designed for easy manoeuvrability in congested city-centres. Their electronically managed engine prevents emission of pollutants and saves on fuel, doing a hundred kilometres in little more than four litres. At Rs.12 lakh, however, they don’t come cheap.
On our way back we went head-on into what turned out to be an annual flea market. Temporary shops had come up on the street, vehicular traffic having been suspended. We, too, joined the swollen crowd. Household goods, from clothes, utensils, to crockery, you name it were on offer. As we were looking at some jackets I heard somebody hollering the familiar Punjabi “haan-ji”. Turning around to look for the source I saw an Austrian lad on top of a table smiling and gesturing at me saying “haan-ji, haan-ji”. Climbing down from his perch he sauntered towards me. He said his best friend at school was a Sikh from whom he had picked up the word. Later we saw several Sikhs had set up temporary eateries serving barbecued meat and chicken, along with kebabs, naans and other Indian delicacies. Fond of the stuff, the Viennese surprisingly kept them terribly busy despite their delectable (and our loved) shnitzel available all around.
The Indian culinary presence is seemingly strong with not only “Indische” restaurants but also with Indian spices, pickles and heat-and-eat parathas, roties, etc. Even Indian spiritual presence is noticed in numerous bookshops displaying its esoteric volumes.
Known for its Baroque buildings, Vienna has two remarkable specimens of this 17th and 18th Centuries architectural style in Belvedere and Schonbrunn Palaces . The two Belvedere Palaces were designed by Hildebrandt for Prince Eugene of Savoy, a military strategist. Both the Palaces – the Upper and the Lower Belvedere – have been converted into museums of art. These had closed by the time we arrived but they overwhelmed us, as they would anyone with the classic, stately and imperial aura that they exude.
Named after Schoner Brunnen, a fountain discovered in the 17th Century, the Schonbrunn Palace was earlier a hunting lodge. During Maria Theresa’s reign the Palace was used as a summer residence. Situated on an elevation, it gives a fine view of Vienna . Only 45 of the 1200 rooms of the Palace are open for viewing. The crystal chandeliers, the priceless tapestries and furniture, adornments of lacquer and porcelain are worth seeing. The Guest Apartments are among the most luxurious in the Palace. The Coach Room has an interesting display of a collection of coaches from 17th, 18th, 19th Centuries including those of Napoleon, his empress Maria Louise, and of Emperor Franz Joseph. Extravagant harnesses and trappings and a gilded and ornate coronation were most interesting. The Palace and the gardens area UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, once conducted by our own Zubin Mehta, held a free concert on the Schonbrunn Palace grounds as a gesture of welcome to the ten new European Union members. The extensive grounds overflowing with people had the100-odd pieces orchestra far away on the dais. We took a vantage position at the back, near the entrance. One from a group of beer-guzzling Viennese young men got talking to me. When I happened to tell him my nationality, he gave an ear-to-ear grin and said “huh, Sonia Gandhi!” She had supposedly Arenounced the top job of India only the day before.
While speaking of architecture one cannot help mentioning the rebellion against the established styles. The “Secessionist Movement” of the 19 th Century against the “eclectism” exemplified by the structures around the Ring yielded its most enduring example, the Secession Building with its golden cupola. The other prominent signs of rebellion were the building designed by an Austrian painter, Friendensreich Hundertwasser, whose colourful Incinerator erected along the Danube Canal has become a Viennese landmark. The Hundertwasserhaus, a cheap apartment block sponsored by the City of Vienna and completed in 1985, is so popular with tourists that a museum and a gourmet restaurant have come up around it. Fifty apartments built by him have avoided the monotony of housing estates with sloping roofs and hanging gardens.
The last sight on our itinerary was the Museum Quartier. O ne of the largest cultural complexes in the world, it splendidly combines Baroque walls – which once enclosed the Imperial Stables – with contemporary architectural design. Apart from museums, it has halls for cultural activities, shops selling curios and knick-knacks and several cafes.
A marvellous “Earth from Above” exhibition of massive weatherproof blow-ups was on. Mounted in the enormous open space along Museumstrasse, approximately fifty evocative photographs taken by Yann Arthus-Bertrand from helicopters from the height ranging from 30 to 3000 metres were on display showing “man’s imprint and assault” on his environment. Photographs of climate gone berserk, damaged coral reefs, polluted rivers and mindless urbanisation evocatively brought home the havoc that we have wre aked on our beautiful planet. Two photographs from India, one of an unhygienic slaughterhouse of Delhi and another of carpets being washed in UP, were depressing. Unfortunately the exhibition is not slated to come to India. Perhaps, we do not have the wherewithal to mount such an exhibition.
At the end a word on the city’s transport system would be in order. Vienna has an incredibly efficient, dependable, ever enlarging and integrated public transport system comprising the underground, omnibuses and trams. A single ticket for a specified duration allows virtually seamless use of all the three modes, something that we are yet to accomplish in this country. Cycling is another way of getting around; in fact, the city administration encourages it by making available bicycles on a nominal deposit. Our hotel-mate, Charles Weekes, had brought his folding bike from across the Atlantic. A superannuated like me, he would go around on his bike even outside, out to the nearby wine-country.