Eastern Europe Part 5: Slovakia and Austria

image_pdfimage_print

Eastern Europe

Part 5 – Slovakia and Austria -A Velvet Revolution, a Velvet Divorce and A Narrow Escape from the Hammer and Sickle

September 16, 2008

Dateline:  Bratislava, Slovakia

Latitude at Bratislava 48.8 degrees North, 17.6 degrees East

When dreaming of vacationing in exotic locales, the name Bratislava, Slovakia seldom sets anyone to salivating over their travel brochures, and any expectations one may have are, well, low. We motored up the Danube a good part of the night and awoke tied up at the pier in the same driving rain we had experienced the day before, which did nothing to adjust our notion of how lackluster this port of call was likely to be.  Despite our preconceived notions of a drab city, with more of those row–upon-row of drab Communist bloc era structures, we set out to seek the charms of the city with our umbrellas and our limited expectations, and we were quite pleasantly surprised at what we saw.

Bratislava's Old Town

Bratislava’s Old Town

Slovakia is sort of perceived as the ugly step-sister in comparison to her Cinderella sister nation, the Czech Republic. These two countries once comprised Czechoslovakia in the same post WWII negotiations that gave us Yugoslavia. (i.e., after the break up of Austro Hungarian Empire (AHE) there were all these loose countries floating around and they were sort of arbitrarily joined up.)  And so a country formed with Czechs and promptly commandeered by the Russians as a Socialist Republic after WWII. When the Soviet Union began to self-destruct in 1989, they had what was termed the Velvet Revolution to break away from the USSR (meaning no blood was shed and nobody got hurt). Fortunately these two countries more or less liked each other, but both agreed they should be two countries, not one, so in 1993, Slovakia had the Velvet Divorce with the Czech Republic and each country became an independent nation. In the custody settlement, Slovakia ended up with the smaller piece of

Bratislava's Town Hall

Bratislava’s Town Hall

the pie in terms of land and resources, but apparently there was some historical precedent for these boundaries so everyone decided to get over it. The Slovak language is a separate language from that of the Czechs, but is so closely linked they can mostly understand each other.  The population is mostly Catholic, as is the case in the Czech Republic so they didn’t have the normal things to fight over as did the Balkan countries. Slovakia shares borders with Hungary, Austria, Ukraine and Czech Republic and Poland. Bratislava is  only 35 miles from Vienna, making them the closest neighboring country capitals in the world.  They use the Slovak Koruna (SKK) as their currency and there are 20.5 SKK to the US dollar. They also have their own word for the Danube, which is the Dunaj.  They have been in  NATO since 1993,  and in the EU since 2004. Neil Boortz would love it here since they adopted a 19% flat tax and business is booming here.

An Old City Gate - Bratislava

An Old City Gate – Bratislava

Of course the Romans  were here (no country left unconquered), as well as the Celts, but they didn’t leave a lot behind in terms of structures. The town gets its name from a Slavic leader who arrived in the 5th Century whose name was Bratislav.  The heyday of the city was in the medieval period starting around the 900’s. A university was established here by the Hungarian King, Mattias Corvinus in 1467.

 

 

A Rainy Day in Bratislava

A Rainy Day in Bratislava

When the Ottoman Turks invaded and occupied Hungary, the Hungarian royalty set up residence in Bratislava, and 15 kings were crowned in the local Cathedral of St. Martin.  It was referred to as Upper Hungary at the time. It remained the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom until the end of WWII in 1918. It only has 450 thousand people now since many of the younger generation have fled to better paying jobs in western countries.  The whole historical area is area very small and walk-able. It is quite charming with wide tree lined streets, cobblestone lanes and a blend of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, all within ancient city walls. What was the walled city today is called the Stare Mesto which translates as Old Town.  The rain did lift momentarily and we saw across the river the awful Soviet Renaissance housing (called the Petrzalka) that we have come to recognize, but fortunately the skies opened up again and our view was restricted to our small storybook village.

The Creeping Peeping Tom - Bratislava

The Creeping Peeping Tom – Bratislava

One thing that we found delightful in the city was the quirky bronze sculptures scattered around in the Stare Mesto. My personal favorite was one of a man in a hardhat, ostensibly a city sewer worker peeping out of manhole cover lifted above his head, apparently trying to look up ladies’ dresses. One sight we missed was the Bratislava Castle (which they call the Bratislavky Hrad). It was said to be worth the climb up to it if only for the fabulous view, but since it was raining so hard, you could barely see past your umbrella, we decided to save the energy. It is rather squat and square and later when we found out it had been restored by the Communists, we had to wonder  if it were squat and square before they started.  We also missed seeing the Church of the Sisters of the Order of St. Clare, one of the oldest Gothic buildings in the city. They were a very poor order which relied on begging (and thus their nickname the “Poor Clares”). They were forbidden to build a steeple on top of their church, so in a rather bizarre move,  they built one on the side wall instead.

We did see St. Michaels Tower (called the Michalska Veza) which is actually the gate to the Old Town. It is part of the medieval fortifications and you can still see the remains of the moat and bastion.  A statue of St. Michael himself is on top of the tower. We also saw from the plumbing end, a medieval potty. We stood on a walkway that was once a moat and, and per the instruction of out guide, looked up to the tower above. Directly overhead (about 30 feet up) was a ledge projecting out from the parapet, and cut into the ledge was a perfect oval opening, which we were told was the launch site for human waste for members of the royal household. Of course in those days, anything released would have landed in the moat, but it was still a little disconcerting. I would think it would definitely a deterrent for invading armies to plunge into the moat in order to scale the walls.

A Carving Inside the Cathedral of St. Michael's

A Carving Inside the Cathedral of St. Michael’s

We also visited the Cathedral of St. Martin which was the site of the many coronations of Hungarian Kings while the Turks had control of Hungary. It is small, but beautiful. It was started in 1221, completed over two centuries and finally consecrated in 1452. Some chapels were added on in 1729-1732. Unfortunately, during the Communist era, a highway was built right outside the front door, but they’re doing the best they can today to keep it preserved.  This same freeway separated the Bratislava Castle from the old town. Hopefully one day the Slovakians will do away with the freeway, but it would be really hard since it’s the access to a modernist bridge (called a “most” in the Slovakian language) across the Danube linking the old town to the Soviet era hulking monstrosities across the river. We are told on a clear day, you can see beautiful mountains in the distance, but all we see is a sea of umbrellas.

Bratislava's Old Town Tour Busses

Bratislava’s Old Town Tour Busses

The city’s main square, called the Hlavne Nam is surrounded by the Old Town Hall and a mix of restaurants, shops and cafes, with small cobble stone streets and pedestrian promenades radiating out like spokes on a wheel.  Many of the old Renaissance style buildings have been restored and are quite beautiful. We also got to see an 18th Century Palace that now serves as the mayor’s office. It was here in 1805 that Napoleon and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire signed a peace treaty following the Battle of Austerlitz, near what is now the city of Brno in the Czech Republic. We didn’t go inside, but we did have a chuckle at the name. It is called the Primalcialny Palac which translates as the Primate’s Palace. We decided they apparently don’t use the word “primate” to describe gorillas and other great apes.

The wind continued to blow and Sharon and I bought some wool gloves to keep our umbrella hand warm, but you had to be very careful with how you tilted your umbrella or risk taking off over the Danube like Mary Poppins.  We stopped in at a small pub for some fortifying beverages (wine and Irish Coffee). We learned that the greeting, “good day” is  dobry den,  pronounced like it looks with the accent on “doh”.  Although this was a crappy day weather-wise , we didn’t have that on our phrase sheet and so we stuck with dobry den or dobry rano which is good morning. Our most often used Slovakian phrase was Nazdravye (also used in the Balkan countries) which translates as “cheers”.

We got a recommendation for lunch at the pub where we were taking refreshment in response to our request for typical Slovakian food. We were sent a few blocks over to the very cozy Slovenska Restaurant. Sharon had goose which she pronounced “interesting” and Gary had Our Old Mother’s Sampler, which proved to be a platter full of a lot of local favorites, mostly carnivorous fare which Gary pronounced delicious. Gary’s meal included Haslusky, Slovak dumplings made of potato meal, flour and egg. Stu and I had more ordinary fare – so ordinary I can’t remember what it was.

Hviezdoslavovo Plaza

Hviezdoslavovo Plaza

As a side note, our restaurant was  located near the U.S. Embassy on a wide tree-lined pedestrian avenue, with fountains at both ends called the Hviezdoslavovo (I don’t have a clue on how to pronounce this one, but if you ever find yourself in Bratislava and have need of the US Embassy, you may need to learn to say it – or an easier method would be to ask a taxi to take you to the Slovenska and walk the two blocks on your own). The embassy is in an old (looking) building beautifully restored, but the bullet proof glass portico erected after 9/11 more or less spoils the old town ambience.  We noted with interest the armed guards strictly enforcing the no photograph rule, while across the street was an internet café where you can use Google Earth and see everything there is to see, right down to the guard’s shoe laces.

We slogged back to our ship in the continuing rain to get ready for the evening festivities which included the captain’s cocktail party. I would very much like to come back to Bratislava on a nice day and maybe then I could come up with a better name for it – Bratislava, even on a cold, wet blustery day just sounds too drab for such a charming little city.

September 17, 2008

Dateline: Vienna, Austria

Latitude at Vienna  48.12 degrees North, Longitude 26.22 degrees East

Because Bratislava and Vienna are so close together, we took our time to very slowly motor up the river to our dock on the Danube on Vienna’s east side and for the first time in 17 days, we were in a “Western” country. However it very narrowly escaped falling behind the Iron Curtain,  the fate that befell so many of it’s neighbors.  Austria has 21 million people, with close to 2 million living in Vienna, the capital of the country. The city has 23 districts, including the famous 2nd district which was the site of one of the first Jewish ghettos in the world.  The word ghetto has since come to mean slum, but in those days it was borrowed from the Venetians who first established the idea of segregation. Sixty thousand Jews died in concentration camps during WWII, but another 170 thousand escaped. Old Vienna is surrounded by the Ringstrasse – a series of connected streets that form a circle around the city. It is bounded by the Danube to the east and the Vienna woods in the other three directions, with the foothills of the Alps due west. There is a canal running through the city (called the Danube Canal) which is where the Danube used to be before it decided to change course centuries ago, as the Danube has been wont to do.

Vienna, which calls itself the City of Music is home to 1.7 million people. The music here is classical, and it is said that even the cab drivers listen to opera and sing along, although the ones we had seemed to be singing along with either Martha and the Vandellas or Elvis, so opera singing cabbies may be  just chamber of commerce propaganda. However, the city is quite genteel, noted for its opera houses, theaters, palaces and museums. Of particular note are the traditional Viennese coffee houses (kaffeehaus) in German. German is the native language here and they have a word they use to describe life in the city which is “Gemutlichkeit”, which roughly translates as “comfy, cozy and easy going”.

The Vienna Opera House

The Vienna Opera House

As for classical music, just about everyone who was anyone, wrote and performed in Vienna – Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, as well as the world famous Vienna Boys’ Choir. The Habsburgs, who ruled Austria for over 600 years were ardent music lovers and many family members were talented musicians in their own right and they created an environment for music to flourish, by sponsoreing promising musicians and appointing a Royal Composer. Haydn and several others held this job which included being responsible for the dress, conduct and rehearsals of the musicians in the orchestra. They would compose melodies, especially for their patrons, and in the case of the emperor, it was often played only for him. One of the emperor’s ditties composed by Hayden was actually perverted to a large degree into the Nazi Anthem. It was changed from a soft melody into a bellowing, faster paced and more militant “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” which roughly translates as Germany, Germany, superior to all of y’all. Another such composer was Mozart who was whiling away his time in Salzburg as composer to the Archbishop. He was labeled a “wunderkind” (whiz kid) and was performing as early as the age of 6 years old. Once he was “discovered” he was brought to Vienna in 1871 and performed a number of times for Empress Maria Therese and Emperor Joseph I. Mozart was dismissed from the archbishop’s staff and later reported that he was “fired by a kick in the arse by the archbishop”, but he was glad to be fired since he wanted to get to the major league of music which was happening in Vienna. Mozart’s music was very contemporary and non-traditional and he was not very well received at first. In fact Emperor Franz Joseph reportedly said that Mozart’s music is “tough meat for my Viennese, but they must learn to chew”.

Perhaps the most irascible of all the “Viennese Classics” was Beethoven who was considered ill-tempered, eccentric and haughty. He had been a student under Mozart and Haydn and was really disagreeable, but the emperor and nobles paid to keep him in Vienna. To quote the emperor in addressing Beethoven:  ”Thou art what thou art, but princes are a dime a  dozen” or something to that effect. He was basically saying that there is only one Beethoven so he’s to be allowed a lot of leeway in the personality disorder department. Beethoven also became profoundly deaf, which did nothing to improve his disposition. Nevertheless, he continued to write music and communicated with others by writing in “conversational notebooks”. The last of the “Viennese Classics” was Schubert, who was born the 12th of 14 children and died at the age of 31, but still managed to write over 1,000 works, mostly chamber and piano music. Apparently he got along with Beethoven better than anyone else since he asked to be buried next to him. We listened to Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz while we gazed at the river, but it still looked a gray, even under a brilliant sun. Of course The Gray Danube Waltz just doesn’t have that same panache. And another thing, speaking of names, Strauss actually means “ostrich” in German, which is another reason not to get too literal or try to translate everything to English. After all, it’s hard to take a composer named Ostrich too seriously.

The Viennese still do love their music and even with two full orchestras and two full scale Opera Houses, with a third under renovation, the events are usually sellouts. These are still some of the hottest tickets in the world with many performances offering Standing Room Only,  if you can get in at all. A striking example of the citizens’ devotion to their music, occurred on April 2, 1945 when Vienna was being bombed by the Allies in advance of the Russian troops marching toward the city from the East. Hitler had given the order that Vienna was to be defended to the last man and there were anti-aircraft towers (some still visible today) blazing away. At the Opera House, however, a performance was underway and no one left their seats, even as the bombs fell around the city, until the fat lady sang there at the end.

Of course the Romans  were here and in the First Century A.D. and they defended this area from the Teutons and Slavs, and Attila the Hun himself, who fortunately for the Viennese, died before the city could be taken and the Number 2 Hun in Charge apparently lost interest. The Turks also failed to take Vienna, another stroke of good luck since they tended to tear down all the good stuff and use the stones to build mosques. The Hapsburg dynasty ruled here for 600 years, and often succeeded in keeping their power through arranged marriages. For example, Emperor Franz managed to suck up to Napoleon by giving him his daughter Marie-Louise in 1810 to replace the Empress Josephine, whom he divorced due to her infertility. Franz figured Napoleon would not invade his father-in-law’s country and Austria became a French client state (not quite an equal, but not a conquest either) and this worked pretty well until the battle of Waterloo and the Napoleon’s death in 1821. The Habsburgs continued as rulers of the Austro Hungarian Empire, despite a series of revolutions until WW1 when unfortunately for them, they sided with the Germans and lost much of their turf in the 1918 Armistice. Modern day Austria (they call it Osterreich) was formed at that time, but they again had the misfortune to be annexed by Hitler’s Germany in 1938 in what was called the Anschluss, and thus again found themselves on the losing side of a world war.

In 1945, the Russians marched into Vienna and forced the Germans out. Fortunately the other Allies also marched into Vienna and it was determined that Austria should be declared a victim, not a German ally. Further, the Russians agreed to an election to establish a new government, confident that the Communist Party would be elected. They had a rather nasty surprise to find they were not the elected party and refused to have elections in any other countries they occupied, and thus as the Iron Curtain descended,   Austria had the good fortune to be on the other side.

Schonbrunne Palace - Home of the Habsburg Dynasty

Schonbrunne Palace – Home of the Habsburg Dynasty

This morning we had a tour scheduled of the Schonbrunn Palace (pronounced “Cham bron” with the accent on “cham”, ( there are supposed to be two dots over the “o”). As we drove from the Danube, our guide Edith showed us an example of a  landmark gone amok.  It was the former home of the composer Johann Strauss, but the house currently suffers from the misfortune of having a McDonalds on the lower floor. It seems to be a travesty, but perhaps those burger euros enabled the saving of the whole building. The Schonnbrunn was the summer palace of the Habsburgs and is only a short distance from the city, but of

 

The Gloriette of the Schonbrunne Palace

The Gloriette of the Schonbrunne Palace

course in the horse and carriage days, it was probably considered a “getaway”. It is quite grand with formal gardens stretching from the palace to the horizon. There is a dramatic pavilion up on a hill in the gardens behind the Schonnbrunn called the Gloriette, which translates as “little glory”.  The palace itself is sort of a mustard color, not French’s plain, but more Gray Poupon. It’s name means “beautiful fountain” and is derived from a spring discovered on the site prior to its being built by then Emperor Matthias. The palace was started in 1692 and was finished in 1700. It was a simple structure then (relatively

 

The Gardens at Schonbrunne

The Gardens at Schonbrunne

speaking), but it was only under the reign of Maria Therese that it was completed as it is today (1744-49), with 1,441 rooms which included 390 used by the Emperor and his court and 139 used for kitchens where food was prepared for roughly 1,000 people a day. The Schonbrunn was built with the intention to “out-Versailles” Versailles and they more or less accomplished it. It is bigger than the Vatican and the rooms are so lavishly decorated, it’s almost overwhelming. The palace was used by successive emperors until the abdication of Karl in 1918 in the aftermath of WWI. It was heavily damaged in WWII, but has been beautifully restored – maybe not all 1.441 rooms, but enough to wear you and your shoes out walking through them. The Schonbrunn was a constant financial drain on the royal piggybank and quite often fell into disrepair while the Habsburgs were warring with the French, which seemed to happen every decade or so for about 200 years. Maria Therese and Joseph gave their daughter in marriage (or rather negotiated their daughter in marriage to the King of France) hoping for a strong and peaceful alliance, but that ended rather badly, especially for their daughter and the French King (who happened to be Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI respectively) and then the next emperor and empress tried that gambit again with Napoleon, and of course things ended badly again.

Another interesting period of history in Austria was the reign of Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth, who was much beloved by her subjects and given the nickname Sisi (which they pronounce “Sissy” as in sister). She was a teensy thing, 5’7” and barely 100 pound – likely anorexic, but no one knew what to call it then – they just used the term “delicate”.  She supposedly drank the blood of oxen to strengthen herself and she certainly needed her strength since she had a very tragic life. Her only child and heir to the throne, Rudolph, committed suicide at the family hunting lodge called Mayerling, after shooting his mistress,   Baroness Mary Vetsera .  Sisi withdrew from court life and traveled abroad constantly, often  in disguise. She was killed in Geneva in 1898 by an Italian bent on attacking a member of European royalty.

The Albertina Museum

The Albertina Museum

We had free time so we strolled around Albertina Square to admire the modern sculpture, (or maybe “see” is a better descriptor than “admire”) since you had to study it a bit to figure out what was going on. The central themes seemed to be sex, torture, combat and childbirth – and consequently nobody portrayed looked like they were having any fun – not even the sex part. We strolled along the Graben (a pedestrian only business street) in search of lunch. “Graben” means “moat” in German, and the street is so named since in medieval times when Vienna was a walled city, the moat was where the street is now. Key features of the street are the so called Plague Pillar built in 1687 to commemorate victims of the plague and the “Stock Im Eisen” which translates as “Stick in the Iron”. This strange site is comprised of a tree trunk in which hundreds of nails have been stuck into the wood. As the story goes it was intended to be a masterpiece of art by a local locksmith who created it with the help of the devil. It’s not too artistic in my book, but it does demonstrate that in the olden days, people had way too much time on their hands. Unfortunately restaurants are not one of the businesses on this street, but we found a young man dressed up as a stein of beer who was hawking a particular restaurant a few blocks away. He directed us there and we had a delicious lunch.

St Stephan's Cathedral

St Stephan’s Cathedral

We did some more strolling after lunch and took in St. Stephan’s Cathedral, named after Stephen, who was stoned to death by the Romans and became the first Christian martyr. Its main spire towers 137 meters over the city and is called the “Stephansturm” (Stephen’s Tower) , but the locals call it “Der Steffl” for short. The original structure was built in the 12th Century and was destroyed by fire in 1258. It was rebuilt in Romanesque style, but over the centuries it underwent more and more gothic style changes, with the current cornerstone laid in 1359, and towers erected in 1433 and 1455. The cathedral has a giant organ called the Riesenorgel (which actually translates as Giant Organ) with 4 keyboards, 125 registers and 10,000 pipes. The cathedral tower houses one of the largest bells in the world called the “Pummerin”. It was shattering in a bombing raid during the last days of WWII when the roof of the church was also destroyed, but it was recast and the cathedral was restored.  The Pummerin can be heard all over the old part of the city and is truly a joyful noise. We did observe the cathedral could use a good power wash since the grime of centuries has collected on its walls, but because it is sandstone and relatively soft, gentle cleaning is required to  avoid the risk of having a gargoyle or two being blown off their roof-top perch.  An interesting note – many of the Habsburgs are buried here in the catacombs, but their hearts are buried in one of the church’s chapels – a tradition we had heard of in countries previously visited on this trip, but the idea still takes a little getting used to. One of the major Crusades was launched from this cathedral and a special pulpit commemorates the one in 1430, but like the others, it too failed. Those Turks were pretty tough customers in their day.

The Mozart Caffehaus

The Mozart Caffehaus

We had some time before we had to go back to the ship so we decided to sample one of the famous Viennese Coffee Houses – in our case the Café Mozart just beside the Staatsopera (or State Opera House). We were bedazzled by the elaborate pastries, such as the Sacher  (pronounced Sah-hair accent on “sah”) Torte, which is a confection of chocolate sponge cake served with apricot jam or cream)) from the famous hotel bearing  the same name as the torte. There is a bit of a “torte” feud that continues to simmer between the Sacher and another coffeehouse, which claims Sacher stole their recipe and tried to

The Hotel Sacher

The Hotel Sacher

disguised it by putting raspberries instead of lingon berries (blue currants) in the cake. The kaffeehaus (there are more than a thousand of them in Vienna) emerged in the 18th and 19th century as meeting places for artists, student and intellectuals – and now the common tourist can be found there as well.   There are 10 times more variations than Starbucks has, plus you can have booze in it too, if that suits your fancy. And speaking of fancy – the typical kaffeehaus is every bit as tricked out as the Opera House itself – crystal chandeliers, velvet chairs, brocade drapes, damask table cloths and napkins, silver tableware, and gilt everywhere.

In the late afternoon we went to a concert hall called the Kursalon where many classical composers and famous conductors have worked, Johann Strauss (a.k.a. John Ostrich) conducted his own compositions here many times and a new dance was introduced based on his music called the Viennese waltz. In this case, it is better to call it by the English name – in German it was called the Wiener Walzer. Even if you pronounce the “w”s like “v”s, it still is far from musical to the ear. The dance was actually quite scandalous at the time since it involved dance partners actually touching each other, of all things. We heard sort of the “biggest hits” music from Strauss and Mozart, waltzes, marches, polkas and ballets, plus a couple of “movements” from major concertos, as well that as 3 arias which were beautiful , but blessedly brief. My favorites were the well-known  Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss and Eine Klein Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) by Mozart. And I must say classical music does sound better in a room with a chandelier and gilt chairs.

 

September 18, 2008

Dateline: Vienna, Austria

The Naschmarkt

The Naschmarkt

Today we had the morning at leisure so we strolled around the Open Air Market called the Naschmarkt (pronounced “nosh” market and thus we supposed the Upper Midwest expression of having a “nosh” or a snack) came from this word. There were over 150 vendors selling spices, fresh produce, bakery goods, meat, wine and all sorts of gourmet delicacies. We made a few wine purchases and then had a mug of heisse schokolade mit schlagober (as unappetizing as that sounds,  it actually was delicious  hot chocolate with whipped cream) to take the chill off since it has grown increasingly cooler as we made our way up the

The Golden Cabbage

The Golden Cabbage

Danube. We had the occasion to pass by the building the locals refer to as the Golden Cabbage. It is actually named the Jugendstil or Secession Building and was built in 1897. As I understand it, it was an artistic movement in which the artists of the day were rebelling (or “seceding” if you will) from all the “ism”s that had emerged in the art world such as Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism and so forth. The building was intended to house their works which are very strange indeed. We understood the “cabbage” adorning the top of the building is one of the least bizarre of all the oddities on display. We left those “artworks” unexplored and moved on.

Vienna was also home to Sigmund Freud , Billy Wilder, Hedy Lamarr and Peter Lorre – and in the late 19th, early 20th century, it was also home to an untalented painter who left Vienna in disgust, after the city’s art critics failed to appreciate his work or take him seriously. They would take him quite seriously several years later in quite a different light, however, since the would-be artist who was twice turned down for admission at the Art Academy in 1906 and 1910 was named Adolf Hitler. I guess he was even too weird for the Jugendstil – or perhaps not weird enough which is a scary thought.

We saw no operas, nor did we tour this Opera House, particularly since no lesser a man than Emperor Franz Joseph felt it was inferior to the one in Budapest. Even so it is interesting. Despite holding over 300 performances a year, it still operates at a 47% deficit. Taxpayers pick up difference, and supposedly the taxpayers do not mind doing it since  opera supposedly brings a lot of tourists to Vienna.  There was a bit of scandal surrounding the Opera House – so much so that its principle architects chose to skip the grand opening. The local people declared it an eyesore, finding fault with the design of the building. They ridiculed it, calling it such names as the Sunken Box. They apparently wanted a grand staircase (even those backwoods  Budapest opera-goers  had sense enough to have  a grand staircase). It was declared to have a “total lack of style”. Supposedly the Emperor approved all the designs, but all the blame for the monstrosity fell on the hapless architects and the Emperor led the court in criticizing the structure. One architect reportedly committed suicide over it and it is said the other died of a broken heart. Ugly or not, it had taken 8 years to build (1861 to 1869) and had consumed a small fortune. As time passed, I supposed the Viennese decided an Ugly Opera House is better than no Opera at all , and they eventually came to look fondly upon its squatty contours and started vying for invitations to the very exclusive Opera Ball held annually. They did have a unique opportunity to remedy the ugly building issue since an Allied bomb and subsequent fire gutted it in 1945, but they chose to rebuild it exactly as it was, only with a few modern conveniences such as modern electric lighting.

The Votivkirche

The Votivkirche

We took a leisurely stroll around the city on the Ringstrasse, stopping to admire the Hofburg Palace from a number of view points, and we also took in the Rathaus, which is what they call the City Hall. It a is a huge gothic structure, built in 1872-73 and looks almost indistinguishable from a catherdral, but has a clock tower in lieu of a cross. We also admired the Karlskirch (Karl’s Church) – a beautifully domed baroque church built in 1716. We particularly liked the Votivkirche with its lacy steeples and Gothic curlicues everywhere. It is actually considered New Gothic since was built in 1879, long after the original Gothic was in vogue. It was built in 1879 as sort of a “thank you” of sorts to God for sparing the life of Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian after a failed assassination attempt. Of course another assassination in 1914 on another Archduke named Ferdinand was successful and the result was a world war instead of a cathedral.

They do have literally dozens of very fine museums here, but we chose a different route for the afternoon – a tour called Spies, Lies and Allies, and a decidedly minor museum, both of which are based on the movie, The Third Man, which is set in Post-WWII Vienna and is considered a classic. The movie was made in 1948 and starred Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles. There are many famous settings from the movie you can still see today, including the Prater (fairgrounds) with its giant ferris wheel , and of course the sewers of Vienna where there was an “ edge of your seat”  chase scene long before Steve McQueen ever hit Hollywood. Supposedly Orson Welles refused to enter the sewers and since he was a key figure in the pursuit, he had to have a double stand in for him. He was supposedly afraid he would get a bacterial infection and it caused a 3 ½ day delay in shooting. They reportedly used a lot of shadows in the scene because they couldn’t find a believable double. We learned that they had to cut a scene with the heroine in her pajamas since that was considered way too racy.

Our tour did not include the cellars, but instead focused on key sights and events from 1945-48 in post-war Vienna.  After extensive Allied bombing, the Russian Army drove the Germans out of the city in early  1945 and once peace was declared, the City of Vienna was divided into 4 sectors with each of the major Allied Powers governing one section. The Viennese were very glad to see the other 3 Allies show up to control to some degree the brutality of the Russian soldiers, who  were raping, looting, and murdering at will. The Allies decided that the only way to protect the citizens from the Russians was to have all jeep patrols have one soldier from each of the 4 occupying countries. The Austrians say the Russians were interested in three things – watches, bicycles and women – not necessarily in that order. A large flea market of sorts (i.e. Black Market) sprang up where today’s Naschmarkt is.  There the Viennese could go and buy back things that the Russians had stolen from them – assuming they had any money left after the Russians came to call.  There is another Viennese saying regarding a memorial to the Russian soldier with one arm raised, erected shortly after the peace agreement. Question: Why does the Russian soldier have his arm up in the air? Answer: If he put it down, he would lose all his watches.

On the Grounds of the Hofbrau Palace

On the Grounds of the Hofbrau Palace

Our tour began downtown at the Hofburg Palace, the winter home of the Habsburgs which was even larger than their summer palace, the Schonnbrunn. It seems at the Hofburg, each succeeding emperor added his own wing to the palace for his private residence, along with whatever structures were required to house his hobbies and interests (art museums, conservatories, concert halls, theaters, as well as the indoor riding arena for the Spanish Riding School complete with chandeliers and frescoes. This continuous construction kept people employed and the monarchy broke, while creating a

 

The Spanish Riding School

The Spanish Riding School

monstrous palace. This building took place during the reign of the Habsburgs (over 600 years) although they more or less stopped the building craze after 1908.  At this point, the palace had 18 wings, 54 staircases, 19 courtyards and 2600 rooms. And of course there is the treasure chamber which today houses priceless goodies thanks to the foresight of someone minding the store at the palace in 1938 when Hitler showed up. The bulk of the treasure was moved to empty salt mines near Salzburg which is why they are still around today. We stopped at the Hofburg to see the balcony where Hitler gave his famous “Anchluss”  (meaning political union) speech to an estimated  350,000 people  in 1938. He declared that there is no more Austria –  it would henceforth be incorporated into the Third Reich.

The Hofburg Palace as Seen from the Ringstrasse

The Hofburg Palace as Seen from the Ringstrasse

Today the Hofburg is a combination of government buildings,  plus libraries and museums. In 1945-48 it was the site of official handover of control of the city among the 4 Allies. Each power governed for 4 months and then it was turned over to the next. Each country had its own headquarters. The Russians got first dibs since they got there first and took over the fanciest hotel in town which was the Imperial. The bar and lobby of the Imperial became literal hotbeds of intrigue as all four countries supposedly spied on the other three, but the Russians were the one they all mistrusted so that’s where a lot of the spying took place. The Brits didn’t do badly for themselves since they took over the Sacher Hotel downtown although with all that bombing, it was quite down at the heel at the time. The US took over the Bristol hotel, rather modest digs, but in keeping with the desired low profile.

The Cornerstone of Freedom

The Cornerstone of Freedom

The Russians learned of the treasures hidden in the salt mines and ordered all of it to be sent to Russia. Fortunately the other Allies blocked this move, and American soldiers were deployed to Salzburg to physically remove the treasures and guard them. The Russians put a big statue of Stalin outside their HQ, but the Americans chose a very insignificant pedestal (about knee-high) with a small plaque, today called the Cornerstone of Freedom. The Americans were using the National Bank Building as their HQ and the monument is still there, but Stalin’s statue is long gone. Austrians who were around at the time report their memories of those bleak days. They reported “The Russians gave us wormy peas to eat. The U.S. GI’s gave us corned beef in tins and chocolate so of course we favored the Americans”. The Russians had agreed to a national election, certain that the Austrians would vote their way, but that did not happen. It could be that the corned beef and chocolate trumped the wormy peas (and of course the Russian atrocities really tipped the scale.

The American HQ for occupation was across the street from an infamous Nazi Jail – it is believed that thousands of people were beheaded there at the hands of the Nazis – mostly resistance fighters and their families. Nazis thought that including the families in the executions would be more effective at keeping people out of the movement. Then the Russians came and it was hard to tell whether they were worse or better than the Nazis, but the timely arrival of the Good Guys – American, British and French kept them more or less in check.

An Old Projector in the Third Man Museum

An Old Projector in the Third Man Museum

From the prison, we traveled about 30 minutes to the Third Man Museum which has 3 sections. The first was comprised of historical items from 1945-48 including uniforms, newspapers, civilian clothes, and sundry items. The second room was movie memorabilia including the zither used to create 55 minutes of zither music soundtrack. In the third section we actually saw some footage on an ancient projector of the movie itself. We resolved to get a DVD of the movie and see the whole thing since we were all too young to see it when the movie was released.

Although we spent 2 days in Vienna and were busy just about every minute, there was much we had no time for. So for next time we plan to do several things, including a visit to the Spanish Riding School, (Spanische Hofreitschule) also called the Winter Riding School (Wintereitschule). The Spanish part of the name is in reference to the Spanish style of riding that was adopted by the school.   It is housed in a palatial baroque building (no coincidence since it is part of the Hofburg Palace) in a structure completed in 1735. It has a great hall with 16 Corinthian Columns and the only clue that you are not in a palace chamber is that the floor is dirt – since this is where the riders and horses perform. The riders wear period costumes from the era of Emperor Karl VI who began breeding the Lippinzan horses. They are a cross between Arabian, Neapolitan and Andalusain breeds and they are born black, turn white as they mature. They were good in everything from battle to horse ballet, since they could be trained to rear up at the appropriate moment and strike with their hooves, which certainly unsettled the opposition. They get their name from the emperor’s stud farm called Lipizza which is in present day Slovakia. They are remarkably intelligent and strong, but very few in number.  General Patton is credited with saving them during the Allied Occupation where they were at great risk since there were literally thousands of starving people

Vienna has a plethora of museums and we certainly did not do them justice.  In addition to the requisite art and history museums, they have a fireman’s museum, a transportation museum, a technology museum, and a clock museum just to name a few. There was even a taxi museum called the Fiaker (fiakers being the horse drawn open carriages that served as taxis in the 1800’s).   The museums, as many as there are, are vastly outnumbered by the churches – really old, really beautiful churches –  that we didn’t do justice to either. And I really want to see the royal treasure – those crowns and scepters and so forth and I’d also like to hear the Giant Organ play in the cathedral. However, we are leaving Vienna tomorrow morning with still much music unheard, many museums not visited, many treasure not ogled, and many tortes not tasted. We’ve put Vienna on our list of places to re-visit.