Waltz along the Blue Danube ... Vienna
Updated: Jun 5, 2022
Historically and through the present, Vienna is a glorious city to waltz within. While right now we are literally grounded as the pandemic continues to stare us in the face, at some point, this too shall end, and you may find an opportunity to visit Vienna. When you do, you will find much to see and do there. Guidebooks expound on many sites in Vienna, including St. Stephen's Cathedral, the Staatsoper Opera House, The Mozarthaus, the Albertina Museum, the Kunsthistorisches (Art History Museum), and the Prater. But for now waltz along with me, figuratively, as I take you to some fabulous sites within Vienna, which may not be on your radar screen.
Let's start with Gustav Klimt (one of my favorites!)
On my most recent trip to Vienna, I made it my mission to see as many Gustav Klimt masterpieces as possible. Knowing that he was an Austrian artist, specifically from Vienna and a prominent member of the Viennese salons, I was in the right place. I love his art because it brims with passion and sensuality. He was a rebel, a playboy, and a romantic, with much eclectic style. I started by visiting The Belvedere. This is a historic Baroque building complex that houses the Belvedere Museum. The Belvedere is a bit off the beaten path from Vienna's city center, located southeast about 3.5 km. The Upper Belvedere houses a permanent collection of Klimt paintings, including his famous 'The Kiss' (1907) and 'Judith' (1901). This was unarguably the highlight of my trip! His art was far ahead of its time. It portrayed more eroticism and sexuality than what the Austrian imagination at that time was accustomed to or would accept. Hence, it was not particularly well-received by Austrians during his lifetime. Klimt is considered a Symbolist artist. He painted abstract patterns influenced by Japanese art which was a popular movement at that time ... noted as Japonism (think of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera 'The Mikado" (1885) and Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904) both written at congruent times). Klimt is most known for his luminous, gilded works which he painted in his "Golden Phase." His use of gold leaf was influenced not only by his admiration of Byzantine art upon visiting Ravenna, Italy, but also harken back to his father's work as a gold engraver.
The Secession Building is a building that houses Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze which is a monumental wall painting that is one of Klimt's most iconic works. It was painted by Klimt in honor of Beethoven in 1902. This is an impressive work that covers three sides of one room. The Secession building housed many exhibitions put on by the Vienna Secession group at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Secession movement, led by Klimt, was a new movement formed by a group of artists, painters, sculptors, and architects in 1897 and was closely related to the Art Nouveau movement. They resigned from the traditional Association of Austrian Artists and protested against the artistic styles of the official art salons. They felt that artists in the traditional art salons had a commercial interest and thereby did not let art truly bloom. In other words, they protested against those who painted for profit at art's sake.
The Burgtheater is Austria's National Theater, rebuilt in the late 1800s. It is a purely German-speaking theater. Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst Klimt, and a friend Franz Matsch were commissioned to paint the ceiling frescoes of the opulent grand staircase. This was his first public commission and a major step in his career. Guided tours in English are available through this gorgeous 19th c. building.
All three of the above buildings are very well worth your visit if you are interested in viewing Gustav Klimt artwork. An interesting aside, in these days of the current pandemic, is that Klimt died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu, which we have heard much about in recent weeks.
When hunger pangs set in...
Not far from the Burgtheater is a fantastic Viennese coffee house dating to 1873, named Café Landtmann. This patisserie is a charming period-style coffeehouse. You will stumble upon many such historic café options as you walk throughout the city. Such cafés played an integral part in shaping the Viennese culture, where ideas were exchanged, art shared, and time consumed, but only the coffee was on the bill! They were the public living rooms of Vienna! Mozart, Freud, Mahler, and Klimt, among many, all hung out in them. Stop by Café Landtmann and try one of their numerous delicious offerings such as the classic Sacher Torte, a Mozart Torte, a Weiner Punsch Torte, or a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte with a cup of rich smooth Viennese coffee.
If you are desiring a quick, savory bite then consider stopping at one of the many Würst kiosks dotted throughout the city center. They serve many different types of würsts (sausages), some stuffed with cheese, some spicy, and others mild. Try them alongside delicious Vienesse mustard, hardy bread, and sauerkraut. They also offer a wide selection of German beers. One particular kiosk that we regularly frequented is located immediately behind the Staatsoper Opera House and is called Bitzinger Würstelstand Albertina. It is adjacent to the large fountain at the base of the Albertina Museum.
When ready for dinner consider tasting delicious Weinerschnitzel with parslied potatoes and cucumber salad. Authentic Weinerschnitzel is a thinly pounded veal cutlet that is breaded and pan-fried. While most restaurants throughout the city offer this Viennese specialty on their menus, many offer it as a pork cutlet instead, including the popular and commercialized Figlmüller located in the city center and listed in most tourist guidebooks. For a truly authentic experience we visited a small tavern frequented by the locals, named Gastwirtschaft Schilling, which served a veal schnitzel. This restaurant was certainly off the beaten path and even lacked English menus, but was well worth our effort. We finished our meal there with a delicious, warm apple strudel.
A couple of Imperial stops
Visit the Spanish Riding School in the Hofburg Palace. Except for the two months of July and August, the Lippizaner Stallions can be viewed at the Winter Riding Arena as they display their refined Dressage techniques. Their lineage traces back to the 16th c. in Iberia. At that time both Spain and Austria were ruled by the Habsburgs. Arabian horses, originally brought to Spain by the Moors in the 8th c., were crossbred with Iberian horses. The resultant "Spanish horse" was the perfect combination of elegance, intelligence, and strength. They were transported to Lipica (in modern-day Slovenia) in the late 16th c. by Archduke Charles where an imperial stud farm was established. An interesting historical sidenote is that the Lippizaners ended up as POWs in WWII, confiscated by the Nazis and taken to Hostau, Czechoslovakia. At the termination of the war in 1945, The American soldiers, under the direction of General Patton in a mission termed Operation Cowboy, took possession of these Lippizaners to prevent them from slaughter by the hungry Russian Army. In 1955 they were ultimately returned to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. The Hofburg Palace now houses a group of Lippizaner stallions that put on world-famous performances in their baroque Winter Riding Arena. Tickets can be purchased for these performances.
Another stop of Imperial interest is the Schönbrunn Palace. This baroque structure was originally built as a hunting lodge for the young Crown Prince Joseph I in the early 1700s. After his death, it was ultimately acquired by Maria Theresa who transformed it into the center of court and political life. A rebuilding project ensued and it became a palatial summer residence, which from 1745 onward was occupied every summer throughout her life by the imperial family. This beautiful palace contains many staterooms, private residences, and exquisitely manicured gardens that can all be toured.
If you can manage it, then a trip to Vienna is not to be missed. While a spectacular city on its own, it can also be coupled with visits to nearby Prague, Salzburg, or Budapest, each about 3 hours away. I have coupled Vienna with the latter two, on occasions, and both made for incredible trips and memories!