New Discoveries in Vienna

I have been to Vienna several times: once as a student, once with our children on our sabbatical, once travelling by train in central Europe (a trip which included Prague, Kraków and Budapest), and now a week for a conference. In the past, my focus had been the great historic monuments of the city: the magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of the city with its tiled roof and view from the tower; Schönbrunn Palace and gardens built by Maria Theresa in the mid-18th Century and emulated by Louis XIV at Versailles; the Hofburg Palace with its treasures of the Austrian-Hungarian empire; and the Kunsthistorisches Museum with its Bruegels and other art masterpieces. Vienna is an eminently walkable city, and dozens of important and imposing buildings border the tree-lined boulevards built when the city walls were demolished. Where the buildings were damaged during the war, as were the Staatsoper and the Burgtheater, they have been restored to former glory.

On this trip, however, I was determined to fill in some gaps. We had been to the Baroque Belvedere park but never the Upper Belvedere Palace with its breathtaking Gustav Klimts, Claude Monets and other masters. The Albertina Gallery was the creation of Duke Albert, the consort of Maria Theresa’s favourite daughter, the Arch-duchess Maria Christine, and is housed in the Hofburg Palace where they lived. The gallery is featuring a show which illustrates the history of their art collection, and puts their masterpieces (including Albrecht Dürer’s “Hare” and a host of other famous works) into context. The new show is a gem, intimate and personal, but evocative of the entire European scene of the era.

And then I had heard of the royal Lipizzaner horses at the Spanish Riding School formed by the Hapsburgs in the 16th Century. A colonnade I entered opened onto the stables in the Hofburg complex and, right there, were the lovely white horses with their heads sticking out of the stone stalls arranged around the courtyard. A friend had suggested that I see their distinctive dressage show which is world-famous in horse circles. The show held in their Winter Riding School (built from 1729-1735) was not available, but their morning training session was. I joined hoards of other tourists to watch the riders run the horses through their morning exercise routine; groups of five horses for a half hour each. Two levels of seats encircle the arena, interspersed between stone columns, and placed so that it is impossible from the first gallery to see the horses immediately beneath, and it is impossible to see the horses at all from the second gallery without standing up the whole time. The only seats with a decent view of the entire arena were those at the ends which are very expensive. It was worth the visit, if only to convince me that I will never attend a show there.

A friend who has studied European art and architecture had lent me her guidebook and an itinerary describing where to find examples of distinctive Viennese style. She suggested the turn of the century Jugendstil Secession Building, with its “Beethoven Frieze” by Gustav Klimt which I will have to see in more detail another time. She also directed us to the Austrian Post Office Savings Bank, the Postsparkasse built by Otto Wagner between 1904 and 1906, with its modern Secession styling and distinctive aluminum details. By the time we found it, my husband and I were not speaking. Her itinerary also led us to the Spittelberg pedestrian area where original 18th and 19th century houses line narrow streets among enticing restaurants, tiny boutiques, and the birthplace of painter Friedrich von Amerling, now converted into a community center. Restored in the 1970s, the area has become a café scene teeming with people at night. We were there at noon, and many of the restaurants did not open until 4:00. We did find one, however, where we had an excellent meal, the service was outstanding, and the waiters most hospitable. Visiting during off hours has its advantages.

To reach the area, we cut through the Museum Quarter, which we learned is “one of the largest cultural centres in the world.” It is a new complex of museums, theatres, shops, studios, and a children’s activity centre built into the original baroque imperial stables or added as striking modern contributions to the domain, as is the Museum of Modern Art (“mumok”) and the Leopold Museum. The massive courtyard of the Quarter is “furnished” with deep blue reclining wooden couches where people were sleeping or resting or enjoying food and drink from the stalls on the periphery. We knew nothing about this Museum Quarter until we ventured upon it by accident. It occurred to me that our finding it on the last day of our visit was a good omen. When there is more to explore, another visit to Vienna will be required. And so the bucket list renews itself.

P.S.: Finding Vivian Maier, which I reviewed in my post of April 1, 2014, is playing at Hot Docs in Toronto at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, and 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. If you haven’t seen it, you may like to catch it.

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