My Next Dance is a Waltz

Vienna’s reputation is for sophistication, culture and class and it really doesn’t disappoint. It is the most magnificently imperial city in Europe. The centre of the former great Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire it retains the opulence of architecture and culture of that golden era. Most of the imposing architectural structure of the empire remains despite a bombarding during World War II. The ultraconservatives of Vienna, whatever about their other shortcomings, at least prevented the encroachment of ugly apartment and office complexes and preserved the city’s majesty in the process.
The Danube Valley has been inhabited for thousands of years. It has always been a place of strategic significance and so many different armies (including the Goths, Huns, Turks and Vandals) have passed through here on their marauding ways across Europe.
The city was initially founded by Celts on a land spur into the Danube and called Vindomina or ‘white place’. In 15 BC it came under Roman control until the attacks of the Barbarians and Slavs weakened that great Italian empire. The next great rulers were the Babenburgs, a royal Bavarian family, installed as rulers when King Charlemagne took the city in 976 AD. They ruled until the Habsburg dynasty arrived and then Vienna truly began to shine.
Champions of the Catholic Church the Hapsburgs were Holy Roman Emperors from 1428 to 1906 and profited greatly from this clerical association. Some strategic and political marriages between cousins also aided their expansionist philosophy. These intermarriages weren’t popular with the church and the Pope was paid a special alimony. The downside of interbreeding was the protruding lip that ran in the family – look for it in some of the statues about town – and a degree of inherited stupidity. At its peak during the reign of Charles V, the Habsburg Empire spread from Iberia to the Benelux countries, to the Balkans and even to the Americas.
Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sisi were the great celebrity Habsburg couple. Franz Joseph was responsible for how modern Vienna looks today as he commissioned most of the architecture and knocked down the fortifications that created the elegant ring boulevard (Ringstrasse). Vienna’s city centre (Innerstadt) lies inside the Ringstrasse. His wife Sisi was not a typical Habsburg empress and didn’t fit too well into Viennese Court life. A poetess and most accomplished horsewoman, she also suffered from bouts of depression and quite severe anorexia. She frequently exercised to the point of exhaustion. In later life, she became quite political and to the consternation of her in-laws and Viennese high society was quite Republican. She also travelled alone extensively, which was unusual for the time. She met a tragic end when fatally stabbed by anarchist Luigi Luchani while boarding a steamship at Lake Geneva.
Franz Joseph’s sons also died tragically. Crown Prince Rudolf shot his mistress and then committed suicide at the Hunting Lodge in Mayerling. The Viennese tabloid press still miffed at the restraining orders from the emperor all those years ago still occasionally mention the scandal. Archduke Francis Ferdinand’s death triggered World War I when a Serb nationalist assassinated him in Sarajevo.
The great Habsburg edifices built in the late 1800s dominate Viennese architecture. They mimic historical styles with palaces and museums built in a Renaissance style, government offices and the Rathaus (town hall) built in a classical Greek style and churches built in gothic or baroque style.
The great Habsburg palace, the Hofburg, is a sprawling set of buildings. The oldest part dates from the 13th century, but it was added onto in different eras. A tour of the imperial apartments and the Treasury to see the crown jewels are the highlights.
The two Habsburg palaces just outside the city centre are architectural marvels. Schonbrun, built to rival Versailles, was the Summer Palace even though it is only three miles from the city centre. The highlights of this former hunting lodge are the magnificent gardens, the view from the Gloriette on the hill (worth the climb even if you are leg weary), and the baroque zoo, which is the oldest in Europe. It was Sisi who suggested the distinctive yellow colour and did the current sumptuous interior design.
Two palaces separated by a sloping garden filled with sculpted sphinxes form the Baroque Belvedere. The lower palace is the home for a collection of 18th century Austrian baroque art. The upper palace features more modern Austrian artists including glitzy golden Klimts (his famous Kiss is here) and the more sombre works of Schiele and Kokoschka. These three were part of the Secessionist movement as were the architects who designed the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) buildings you see dotted about Vienna. The most famous is the Secessionist Art Museum, which with its cupola of golden laurel leaf looks like some great pagan temple (some locals call it the “cabbage head”).
The Catholic Church is still the largest city landowner. St.Stephen´s cathedral (Stephansdom), consecrated in 1147, is the Innerstadt centrepoint and the grandest religious building. The high gothic “Steffl” spire, the city symbol, has recently been shockingly adorned with adverts for a local bank. The Bishop of Vienna claims he needs the money. It has ruined the photogenic view of the church even when you look through the glass of the Haas house opposite in the city centre’s only concession to modernist architecture.
Vienna is museum crazy and heaven for buffs of things artistic, historical and antiquarian. The Museum Quarter was converted from the old Habsburg riding stables. Its modernist architecture is hidden behind the old baroque facades. The White cubed Leopold Museum, modernist Kunsthalle and Museum of Modern Art (Mumok) are particularly rich in artistic works. Outside the Museum Quarter, the Albertina is probably the most famous Viennese art museum with its Michelangelos, Rubens, Durers and Picassos. In the Museum Quarter there are even museums to Esperanto (that defunked European language) and to smoking (Tabakmuseum). The latter is presumably full of those who have tired of boycotting Irish pubs.
Vienna is synonymous with music and Strauss waltzes. The father and son Strauss provided music for the great Viennese balls that culminate in the famous Opernball during the ball carnival in January and February. The Blue Danube is the most recognized number even if it is overplayed. Many famous composers flocked to Vienna in its heyday, including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Haydn. The Viennese Philarmonic Orchestra remains one of the most renowned and respected in the world today. Maximilian founded the Viennese Boys Choir in 1498 to perform concerts and during masses. The lads with the angelic voices have been wearing their sailor suits since the 1920s. Every Sunday and on Holy Days they perform in a chapel at the Hofburg.
A night at the opera is the most aristocratic of Viennese nocturnal experiences and it is pricey. If you don’t fancy it you could do no worse then spend an evening in a wine tavern (heurigen). While seated at an outside table or in a rustic interior you might catch some local folk songs or oompah music as you eat and drink to your heart’s content.
The Austrians love horses and the pinnacle of equine breeding to them is the Lippizaner. This breed is a mix of bloodlines that originated from Andalucia. They were bred first in Lippizan in Slovenia, but nowadays the major stud is near Graz in Austria. The magnificent white Lippizaner stallions, black when young, are trained in classic dressage, which supposedly dates from the ancient Greeks. Performances are in a large baroque hall adorned with chandeliers. It is a formal prancing horse ballet to classic music and is probably an acquired taste and better if you understand the nuances. Tickets are expensive and it gets booked out so it does have a following.
Shopping experiences in Vienna range from splurging in the chic fashion boutiques to foraging for a cheap bargain at the Naschmarkt depending on the weight of your wallet. Every Saturday the food market at Naschmarkt expands into a flea market with all kinds of treasures, bric-a-brac and out and out tacky rubbish on display or for sale. Many of the sellers have the look of Slav or Romany about them. It is fascinating for peoplewatching even if you don’t spend any money on a rare Russian camera or piece of piece of potentially valuable crockery.
Viennese food is not all just about Schnitzel, and there is a variety of International cuisine on offer in the city. Traditionally Schnitzel is a breaded veal escalope and the larger the one you eat the better. It usually served with potato salad. The Austrian national dish is boiled beef and bland. Other traditional offerings include various sausage or dumpling dishes.
Coffeehouse culture in Vienna has been strong since the Turks brought the brown bean to Austria when they laid the city to siege but failed to capture it. Traditionally at the centre of social and intellectual life and frequent visitors included some great resident thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Trotsky.
There is usually an array of coffee options, including mélange (with hot milk), mocca (black), kleiner (coffee with cream), einspanner (mocha with whipped cream), fiaker (mocha with brandy), and kafee Johann Strauss (large mocha with whipped cream and apricot brandy). The girth-inducing pastries are a necessary accompaniment. From apfstrudel to sachertorte (chocolate cake) they are sure to satisfy the most hardened sweetness aficionados.
Coffeehouses range from ultra-salubrious to the more down at heel places frequented by Bohemian types. The waiters don’t always seem too friendly, but are occasionally witty in German according to a local. Visiting a coffeehouse is a very traditional activity for Viennese of all ages and incomes, but the high rents in the city and the low turnover of clients is forcing many of them out of business. Some patrons will stay for hours and nurse a meagre mélange or two.
The Prater Park is a funfair with a huge ferris wheel with great views if you can stand heights. Part of the famous The Third Man film is set on the ferris wheel and Harry Lime (Orson Welles) famously compares the people below to ants. Graham Greene, the author, visited bomb-ravaged Vienna in 1948. He was relatively uninspired until he met a British Intelligence Officer who told him about the police who patrolled the sewers and the black market in Penicillin that formed the basis of his book. There is a tour of sites used in the film (
If the Habsburg era was the golden time for Vienna and Austria, then World War II was its darkest hour. From the Anschluss (annexation) with Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1938, Austria became the Ostmark or Eastern March of the Third Reich. The Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) on November 9th marked the start of the atrocities and thousands and thousands of Viennese Jews were sent to the concentration camps and ultimately murdered.
In recent years, Austrians have admitted officially to being complicit in war crimes, but the ugly spectre of anti-semitism still lurks in some sectors of Austrian society. Kurt Waldheim, ex-President and former UN Secretary General, lied about what he did during the war. He was a Nazi collaborator and acted as an interpreter and intelligence officer for the German army. The ultra right wing Freedom Party of Jorg Haider, an anti-semite who once denied the holocaust, still has minority support. Most locals find Haider and his politics disgusting and the erection of Holocaust memorials in Vienna stand testament to this. Rachel Whitehead’s highly innovative sculpture of a library of unread books in Judienplatz is particularly poignant, The Memorial Against War and Fascism on Albertinaplatz was also a milestone in acceptance of culpability. Symbolically, part of it has recently been partially daubed in red paint and it seems to have been enhanced.
Vienna has survived the glory of a golden age of a great empire and the shame of the great tragedy of the Holocaust. Now Vienna, with one eye on the past, looks forward to a future at the centre of the new Europe.

Conor Caffrey is a travel writer and photographer.


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