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Thursday, 14 March 2013 13:01

So Much to See Vienna

Written by  Phyllis Meras

I always like Vienna, but I can never stay long enough. There are too many museums to visit; too many palaces to see; too many stunning churches and thought-provoking historic sites, too much music to hear, too much good food to eat. How does one choose?

I arrived by train from Zurich, Switzerland, using a Eurailpass. Traveling by Eurail from country to country has always seemed to me to be the easiest, most pleasant way for a sightseer to go. 

The cherry trees were blooming pink along the Lake of Zurich as I set out. As the train climbed into the mountains, snow began to appear. First it was in patches near St. Anton, and then, at higher elevations, the birches were bowed under it. Having left Zurich in the late morning, I was in Vienna seven hours later. After enjoying a Wiener Schnitzel dinner and a good night’s sleep at the four-star, 144-room, Falkensteiner Hotel am Schottenfeld, I was eager to see the Vienna I had not yet seen, and, of course, old standbys I have seen and loved. It was about a 20-minute walk to the city center from my hotel.


Museums and much More

This is a Gustav Klimt year in Vienna, the 150th anniversary of the birth of the famed Secessionist-Art Nouveau Viennese artist. His paintings and drawings and memorabilia are on display everywhere.

At the Upper Belvedere Palace, is the world’s largest collection of Klimt works, including his renowned paintings The Kiss and Judith. At the Wien Museum, some 400 of his sketches and erotic studies, his smock and death mask are on display until mid-September. Until Aug. 27, his letters, as well as his art, can be seen at the Leopold Museum. Other letters and documents about him are at the Kunsterhaus until Sept. 2, and until mid-September, Klimt aficionados will be able to get an eye-level view of his Beethoven frieze from a specially constructed platform at the golden-domed Vienna Secession Building, erected in the 1890s as a showplace for avant-garde art.

Because I had never been there, I chose first to visit the Belvedere Palace. It consists of two palaces, the Upper and Lower Belvedere, built by Prince Eugene of Savoy, a conqueror of the Turks in 1718. Its elegant terraced gardens, statues of sphinxes and other mythological beings, lacelike wrought iron and its water cascades, together make up what is considered Austria’s finest example of a
Baroque garden.

Next, I went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. From another specially created platform, I viewed a Klimt mural, done when he was still a painter in the naturalistic style. Exploring further, I saw works of Peter Bruegel the Elder, Durer, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck,Caravaggio, Raphael and Bellotto, among others. This extensive collection is one of Europe’s richest. In December, its Kunstkammer Chamber of Art and Wonder, with more than 2,000 statues carved from ivory, wood and rhinoceros horn, centerpieces of rock crystal, porcelain and glass, is to be reopened after a decade. Among its highlights will be the salt cellar that Benvenuto Cellini hammered from gold foil in the 16th century.

In the Hofburg, the ruling Hapsburg’s group of palaces and gardens for more than 600 years, I visited the Albertina Palace with all of its drawings – some of them Klimt works; others by his Viennese contemporary, Egon Schiele. There I saw Cezanne Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael drawings as well.

At the Jewish Museum on Dorotheengasse, I saw Andy Warhol’s portraits of Jewish geniuses of the 20th century, and a “Welcome to Hollywood” exhibit of Jewish emigrants to the United States who made their mark in the American film industry. En route, I visited the Dorotheum auction house, started by Emperor Josef I in 1707 as a pawnshop to help the poor. It is now one of Europe’s largest auction houses, holding about 600 auctions a year. There, I admired cases of amber jewelry, china, silver and floors of paintings. 

In need of sustenance, I left for the nearby Café Hawelka, one of the city’s notable old-fashioned cafes. Posters decorate its walls and it is a bit on the shabby side, but the Viennese love it just because it has remained unchanged. Had it been a proper mealtime, Viennese friends told me later, I could have had a sardine or herring sandwich at Trzesniewski’s, also on Dorotheengasse. 

I found my way to Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), which is hardly difficult to find with its 45-foot high spire. Originally a 13th-century Romanesque structure, much of it was destroyed in World War II. It was later reconstructed with donations from across the country. Outside, the Giant’s Door on the west side is one of Austria’s finest Romanesque works. Inside, there is much Gothic, High Gothic and Baroque sculpture. Afterward, I window-shopped along the pedestrian-only Graben.

Not far away, I visited the Kaisergruft, where from 1633 on, the Hapsburg rulers of Austria were buried. Like all crypts, it is a gloomy place, but I visited the monumental tomb of the 18th-century Empress Maria Teresa and her husband, Franz Stefan. Also there are the flower-bedecked tombs of Franz Josef I and his wife, the ill-fated Empress Elizabeth (Sisi), who was the victim of an assassin. In a tomb beside them lies their son, Crown Prince Rudolf, who committed suicide at the family hunting lodge, Mayerling, with his 17-year-old lover, Maria Vetsera. 

The Imperial Apartments in the Hofburg, are filled with memorabilia of Sisi, and Franz Josef, and Maria Theresa’s golden summer palace of Schonbrunn has wonderful gardens.

I passed costumed young men and women urging me to buy a ticket for a musical evening in this city of Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Haydn, the Strauses, Mahler and Schonberg, and its great opera house.


Where to Stay

With an eye to future visits, I stopped to see the new 183-room Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom ( at Praterstrasse 1. It takes its name from the cathedral, but its colors, too, reflect the Stephansdom with all rooms decorated in either black, white or gray, the roof colors of the church. The hotel’s 100-seat restaurant serves French and Austrian cuisine. The hotel’s designer was French architect Jean Nouvel, who also designed the Institut de Monde Arabe in Paris and the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi. A hotel dedicated to contemporary art, there are five colorful kaleidoscopic ceilings above the lobby and restaurant. Situated just above the Danube Canal, some rooms overlook it, others have an outlook to the cathedral. Another highlight is a 20,000-plant vertical garden.

I also went to visit the Hotel Daniel (www.hoteldaniel,com) that opened in November at Landstrasser Gurtel 5, near the Belvedere Palace. It is designed to appeal to the young and trendy, and offers simple rooms for under 100 euros. It emphasizes a “laid-back” approach to travel (including bicycles and Vespas to rent on the premises). Its high quality bakery is a neighborhood attraction.


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