Vienna Waits for You

Vienna Waits For You is of course the title of a 1977 Billy Joel song. When he was about 8 years old, Billy Joel’s father left him. In 1971, when Billy was 22 years old , he tracked his father down and went to visit him in Vienna, Austria.  That visit was the source of the lyrics of the song.

Ironically, in July of that same year ( I was 16-years old), I accompanied my parents and my Aunt Doris Gage on a six-day trip to Austria where we made Innsbruck our home base.  Vienna is nearly 500 kilometres east of Innsbruck, and most of our day trips took us west, north and southbound, so I didn’t get to visit the city that was the source of much of the music I’d been playing on the piano for the previous seven years.  I vowed that I would one day I return to Austria and visit Vienna.  Little did I know it would take me almost 50 years to get back, but Vienna did indeed wait for me.

As was the case almost every day on our river cruise, Mary and I awoke shortly after 6 AM and began to get ourselves ready for the day. Turning on the TV in our cabin we noted that temperatures were going to soar on this Saturday July 6th, with highs expected between 95 and 100 degrees fahrenheit (35-37 celsius). Mary reminded me to lather on the sunscreen!

We had a little bit of time between breakfast and our morning coach tour, so we sat down and read over some of the Vienna-centric handouts we’d been given.

I was particularly interested to read about Vienna’s café society. In North America it seems we have a coffee-shop on almost every corner, and they range from the trendy (Starbucks) to the everyday (Dunkin Donuts and Tim Hortons). However, in Vienna, it is described as being “a complete sensory experience”.

I grew up in a decidedly British household where a pot of tea was always on. While I enjoy the occasional cup of coffee, I am tea drinker to this day. Mary on the other hand loves coffee, and was very much looking forward to checking out one of the coffeehouses on Viking’s list.

First things first though. We had a tour booked for the morning that was described as “an Essential Overview of the City”, and armed with the map below, we were ready to go.

Our tour departed from the Lif’s docking position at 9:30, and the agenda for the morning included a 45 minute coach-ride; a 75-90 minute walking tour; and then 45 minutes of free time before catching the coach back to the ship.

Our coach wound its way throughout the streets of historic Vienna, with our tour guide pointing out the history of the buildings along the Ringstrasse – a road described by Vienna Tourism as “a gracious boulevard laid out on the site of the old city walls – lined on either side with imposing palaces, elegant public buildings, and grand residences“. I’m more than a touch cynical when it comes to reading tourism “puff pieces”, but there wasn’t an ounce of hyperbole in that description.

The stock photo below was taken during the winter months before all the trees are in bloom, otherwise there would be no way to show the magnificent row of buildings in a panoramic view like this.

Our driver pointed out various buildings of significance, but Mary and I realized the only way we would really get to see them would be to explore on foot (which we did after the tour…but more on that in a bit).

Our motor tour concluded with a stop in front of the museum quarter, and as we disembarked we could already feel the day beginning to heat up, even though it was only 10 o’clock in the morning. It was going to be a hot one.  While milling about beside our bus, we noticed a group of musicians dressed in traditional Austrian folk costumes. They were waiting as their instruments were being offloaded from the bus in front of ours.  We didn’t know it at the time, but we were to encounter them and a number of other bands all over the city that day.

As we began the walking part of our tour, the first important building our tour guide pointed out to us was the Kunsthistorisches Museum (pictured below). The building was established between 1871 and 1891 by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, and it is the largest art museum in the country.

It was to our left as we stood looking at the statue of Maria Theresa, the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions, and that statue stands in the centre of Maria-Theresuen-Platz surrounded by several museums. In the picture below, you can see the MuseumsQuartier sign directly behind the statue. Known locally as the MQ, it is home to a range of installations including the Leopold Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, a state-of-the-art dance centre, and numerous studios and exhibition halls. Mary and I casually strolled through the MQ during our free time later in the day, and it was clear this area could easily consume 2-3 days of someone’s time if one so desired.

Leaving Maria-Theresuen-Platz behind us, we crossed a wide boulevard and walked toward the stone-gated entrance to Heldenplatz, a large public space in front of the Hofburg Palace. The Heldenplatz is historically significant in that it was here on March 15, 1938, Adolf Hitler announced the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria into Nazi Germany.

The outer castle gate we walked through is all that remains of the fortification walls that once encircled the Hofburg Palace. Once through the gate, the Hofburg Palace was on our right, and we could see two equestrian statues that had been inaugurated in the mid-1800’s.

The statue on the left (above) commemorates Prince Eugene of Savoy, considered to be one of the most successful military commanders in modern European history. The statue on the right is of Archduke Charles of Austria. He was a commander and reformer in the Austrian army in the late 18th/early 19th centuries and was recognized as one of Napoleon’s most formidable opponents.

Hofburg Palace itself is the former principal imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty rulers and today serves as the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria.

It was built in the 13th century and expanded several times afterwards. It was designated as the imperial winter palace as Schonbrunn Palace was the summer residence (a number of people from our cruise visited Schonbrunn in the afternoon – one of five optional tours available).

Our group continued to move through the grounds of Hofburg Palace which in total is made up of 13 different buildings, all interconnected in one way or another. The picture below is of the Swiss Court which is in the centre of the complex and contains the oldest parts of the palace.

These oldest sections of the palace include a gothic chapel, dating from the 15th century, and the treasury which holds, among other things, the imperial insignia of the Holy Roman Empire and of the Empire of Austria. The Court Music Chapel is located inside the Court Chapel and is where the Vienna Boy’s Choir traditionally sing mass on Sundays.

Exiting the rear of the palace grounds we passed the entrance to the Spanish Riding School, home of the world famous Lipizzaner stallions.

Mary was a champion horse rider growing up in southwestern Ontario, with expertise in Dressage, Jumping, Western, and Rodeo events. Seeing a performance of the Lipizzaner stallions would have meant as much if not more to her than last night’s music concert had meant to me. Sadly, July and August are the only months of the year when the horses do not perform as they are on a “summer break”. I promised Mary a return-trip to Vienna one day so she could see these magnificent animals, and given the title of this blog post, I absolutely believe we will come back.

Emerging from the dark passage in front of the riding school, we found ourselves in Michaelerplatz, a star-shaped plaza at the rear of Hofburg Palace. In the centre of the plaza we were delighted to find and listen to the musicians we had encountered earlier that morning and we tapped our feet and moved to the sounds of traditional Austrian folk music.

The next 30 minutes saw our group wind its way through the streets of Vienna’s main shopping district where we encountered row after row of high-end retail shops. In what was largely a vehicle-free part of the city, our guide was leading us to the final stop on our walking tour – Stephansplatz – home of the spectacular St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna, and it stands on the ruins of two earlier churches. The present-day church was consecrated in 1147 and dedicated to Saint Stephen, an early Christian martyr who was stoned to death for denouncing Jewish authorities. The churches’ tower stands 446 feet tall and is the highest and most dominant point of old Vienna’s skyline.

As we edged away from our guided tour in front of the church, we were surrounded (accosted?) by tour-selling hustlers, school groups, casual tourists, and of course, other tour groups whose walkabouts had ended in the same place as ours. There was a swarm of activity directly in front of the entrance but we knew if we didn’t brave the crowds and go inside, we’d start walking in another direction, and probably not come back this way.

The interior of the church is pretty spectacular, and the first focal point is the distant High Altar. It was built over a 7-year period between 1641 and 1647, and it represents the stoning of St. Stephen. We followed the crowds as they shuffled past six different chapels on either side of the churches’ nave, and before leaving I tried to capture a reasonable image of the high domed ceiling. I’m happier with the picture of the organ and stained glass window on the right (below)

Exiting the building, Mary and I decided that rather than a catch the tour bus back to the ship, we would spend the afternoon in Vienna and make our own way back to the ship in time for dinner. We set out walking and we covered a lot of ground.

As I mentioned earlier, our wandering took us back through the MuseumsQuartier, and we also made a point of stopping in at Vienna’s famed Opera House. We visited several gift shops along the way (The Spanish Riding School and the Opera House among them), and also took note of statues of various famous people like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer and statesman who is considered by many to be one of the greatest novelists of all time. His name is mentioned in the same vein as Plato and Shakespeare by literary scholars around the world – pretty heady company.

Without a doubt, our favorite part of the afternoon was a visit to the Demel coffee and pastry shop, one of the coffeehouses that had been singled out in the Viking handout.

Whoever wrote that a visit to a Viennese coffehouse was “a complete sensory experience”, was not exaggerating in any way.

Demel is located quite close to Hofburg Palace, and for much of the 19th century, it served as the Imperial and Royal confectioner. It features creatively designed windows like the one above, and the one below, all designed to entice passersby, and it seems they succeeded with Mary and I.

Mary ordered a Franziskaner (small espresso with warm milk and whipped cream ), while I endulged in a lavishly decorated Café Latte. The mid-afternoon deserts were to die for…..oh my gosh, they were so good.

Sitting outside and enjoying our “treats” and people-watching all the while, was only part of the Demel experience, for one has to go inside the shop to fully appreciate this Viennese institution.

Upon entering the shop, we were met by a staggering display case full of tantalizing pastries and sweets. How on earth does one pick just one?

Then, we followed a few other customers toward the glass-walled kitchen at the back where master bakers were at work.

The inside of Demel is like a palace – all marble floors, chandeliers, and glass-mirrored walls, and the all-female staff are in black dresses with starched white collars. I could see how easy it would be to make this an everyday stop if I lived in Vienna. Wow!

Our afternoon stroll became one of those “adventures” where Mary or I would take turns saying “lets just walk to the next corner, and if there’s a U-Bahn stop there we’ll hop on it for a short ride back to the ship. The only problem was that the meandering route we took never really brought us close to one. So, we just kept walking, making sure the we covered as much of the Ringstrasse as possible.

By around 4:30, we were both running out of battery juice in our cell-phones, and just before mine died completely, I memorized a walking course (thanks Google maps) that would take us back to the landmark that Program Director Leonard had pointed out to us the night before – St. Francis of Assisi Church, better known by the locals as the “Mexico Church”. The square on which it is built is called the Mexikoplatz, named for the fact that Mexico was the only country other than the Soviet Union to protest against the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany during WWII.

By the time we got back to the ship (around 5:30), we were hot and tired, although we had thoroughly enjoyed our day in Vienna. According to my trusty Fitbit, we had walked a staggering 17.5 kilometres (almost 11 miles). That is not really a big deal for us, as we regularly walk at least half that distance 3-4 times a week. But in 96 degree heat, we definitely overdid it, and Mary ended up with 3 nasty blisters on one foot, “injuries” that would nag her for most of the rest of the trip. She never complained and just soldiered on, never missing a beat. I love my wife.

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