In search of Strauss

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August 30th 2008
Published: January 11th 2009
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For once on my travels my bank account is not the main victim - instead it's currently my feet which, after two days being stomped all around Vienna in little ballet pumps, (stupid I know) are protesting enough that a change of shoes is desperately needed.

So what do I change into? Trainers? Sensible walking shoes? No, I choose brand new flip flops that have not yet been worn in to traipse the length and breadth of the Austrian capital for a third day. A highly unintelligent choice that I was unfortunately regretting as soon as we had got off the metro and marched to the Hofburg.

Fortunately I managed not to bleed all over the inside of the Hofburg (an insult that would surely end in me being ignobly removed from the imperial apartments) and found that there were a surprising amount of places to perch in the museum without actually destroying any priceless relics of the oldest imperial dynasty in the world.

The rather reasonably priced ticket included entry into the Imperial Silver Collection, the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum. Always good to get value for money although everytime I go abroad it makes me so angry at how much most of the stuff in London costs (although can't argue with all the free museums and galleries!) One word to sum up the Imperial Silver Collection (a museum that I initially thought would be rather dull - I mean, who wants to look at someone's dinner plates) and that word is... PRETTY!

I've always had a bit of a fascination with shiny things (probably having had a previous life as a magpie) but there was truly an obscene amount of gold on the table decorations. One of the dinner services (made for a mere 40 guests) contained 4500 pieces!!

I honestly haven't the faintest clue how that is even possible. One would think that that combined with the rather stupendous Milan table centre piece, a huge mass of gold that can be stretched to a length of thirty metres, would actually break the table it was sitting on!

All the glittery pretty things did start to get slightly boring after the tenth room piled high with priceless tableware so we sort of rushed through the final rooms to go onto the Imperial apartments. Got to love their style - the Austrians certainly know how to do ridiculous wealth tempered with taste. Amazingly the gold-encrusted apartments managed not to look completely ostentatious and tacky.

The Sisi mueseum was certainly interesting although the Empress herself still strikes me as being as singularly strange individual. Genius idea of refusing all photographs and portraits after the age of 35 to ensure she is only remembered as young and beautiful though! Several of her portraits, including the truly stunning three by Winterhalter, have been put on display in what used to be her private rooms along with crystal reconstructions of her jewellery collection.

Elisabeth disliked the strist etiquette that governed her life as Empress of Austria and her reaction to the constraints of the Viennese court was to take refuge in the cult of her own beauty, obsessive dieting and sporting manias. Her original 'fitness equipment' was also on display - I think what we would term today as a gym bunny!

That combined with a diet fixation bordering on anorexia and the belief that slabs of raw meat on her face would keep her skin young and fresh certainly makes her one of the more unusual characters in royalty!

She was also obsessed with her thick, ankle-length hair, the care of which took up two to three hours a day. Once a month her hair was washed with a mixture of egg-yolks and cognac, a procedure that occupied a whole day. Poor servants!

The Austrian obsession with Sisi is incredible though. I know the majority is for the tourists but you can barely go into any shop in Vienna without seeing her face plastered onto every imaginable object. You can even buy replicas of her famous star jewellery (hideously tacky yet also something I was very tempted to buy!)

The Hofburg was to be followed by a picnic in the Stadtpark after finding the Strauss statue. Not the most impressive building in Vienna yet something we had not managed to fit in in our previous visit to Austria several years ago and it looked a reasonably short walk on the map. Famous last words. We were very much mistaken about how long a walk it was.

First we got lost on several sidestreets as the very (un)helpful map decided not to put street names on, only bizarre abbreviations which I am sure make no sense to any but the

Table settings in the Hofburg museum
people who originally compiled it. Secondly, trams go very fast! Something I learned after almost being run over several times. At least the Viennese seem to respect traffic lights - something not always guaranteed in Europe (or anywhere else in the world for that matter.)

I stopped where the park SHOULD have been (I swear someone decided to be vindictive and remove the Stadtpark and transplant it elsewhere. Either that or the makers of the map where just plain wrong) and gave up ownership of the map as I was in desperate need of water, a sugar fix and any excuse to stop battering my poor injured feet.

The others pointed out that we were only a block over from the park (so maybe my map-reading skills weren't that horrendously bad, just a little confused) and we trudged on and collapsed the second we reached grass (which, incidentally, was right where the Johann Strauss monument was.)

Had our picnic lunch and took photos of the statue which was very pretty if much smaller than expected (I remember having exactly the same reaction to the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen.) After that welcome respite (and the victory of having conquered the truly incomprehensible city map) we decided to be lazy enough to take the metro to Karlsplatz (an amazingly ornate and whimsical building for a metro station) to visit Karlskirche.

In 1713, one year after the last great plague epidemic, Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, pledged to build a church for his namesake patron saint, Charles Borromeo, who was revered as a healer for plague sufferers. An architectural competition was announced, in which Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach prevailed over, among others, Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena and Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt.

Construction began in 1716 under the supervision of Anton Erhard Martinelli. After Fischer's death in 1723, his son, Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, completed the construction in 1737 using partially altered plans. The church originally possessed a direct line of sight to the Hofburg and was also, until 1918, the imperial patron parish church.

As a creator of historic architecture, Fischer united the most diverse of elements. The fa├žade in the center, which leads to the porch, corresponds to a Greek temple portico. The neighboring two columns, crafted by Lorenzo Mattielli, found a model in Trajan's Column in Rome. Next to those, two tower pavilions extend out and show the influence of the Roman baroque (Bernini and Borromini). Above the entrance, a dome rises up above a high drum, which the younger Fischer shortened and partly altered. In short - it was very pretty.

We stopped outside first for pictures of the reflections in the pond in front of the cathedral although I was more intrigued by the number of tandem bicycles in the vicinity (very random) as well as the drunk time traveller slumped over his beer glass in Regency fashions (I am assuming he was one of the guys that keep intercepting us trying to sell us tickets to various operas and concerts - Vienna's full of them) although I personally prefer my theory of drunken time traveller.

The ambitious, creative design of the Karlskirche combines architectural elements from ancient Greece (the columned portico), ancient Rome (the two Trajanesque columns), and contemporary Viennese Baroque (the dome and towers).

The green copper dome rises 236 feet high, making it a major landmark on the Viennese skyline. The design of the church was never imitated and it was always regarded as something of an architectural curiosity.

But this gives it great interest among the more conventional Baroque churches of Austria and it is a rather magical sight, especially when illuminated at night. Certainly the most surprising feature of the church are the great columns of the facade, designed in direct imitation of Trajan's Column in Rome with a Baroque touch at the top.

The reliefs depict scenes from the life St. Charles Borromeo. The interior of the church is much more conventional than the exterior, with High Baroque decoration. The vault frescoes depict St. Charles Borromeo begging the Holy Trinity to end the plague in the Vienna along with the angels burning the Bible of Martin Luther.

Perhaps the most interesting thing inside the actual church would be the massive structure of scaffolding reaching up into the inside of the dome - complete with lift! Only the second ever Cathedral I've found with a lift inside it (the first being in Quito and actually to enable visitors to get to the restaurant so that one kind of made sense!)

The scaffolding was apparently due to the fact that a team of artists were in the process of re-painting the frescoes that cover the entire expanse of the roof, dome and cupola - rather them than me frankly. God knows how long that's going to take them although what progress they had made seemed to rather good (illustrated by the fact that I couldn't tell the new paintings from the originals!)

Kind of spoilt the sense of calm and serenity you usually get in churches but it was amazing to be able to see the ceiling up close although I highly doubt it would go down well if someone suggested doing it to the Sistine Chapel!

The lift was fine but once up there, to know only thin slats of wood were holding you suspended 235 feet above a marble floor was rather off-putting! It was ok if a little creaky and disconcerting. In the centre of the entire construction was a spiral staircase leading right up to the top of the dome - with a giant sign limiting the number of people allowed on it to ten.

I got halfway up but soon hurried back down after a group of about twenty Japanese tourists decided to start climbing up altogether - completely ignoring the weight restriction and shaking the staircase to a worrying level. Made it back down to (semi) safety to try geting photos of the frescoes before heading back down to the much more secure cathedral floor.

As we came out of the lift a sign had been put in front of it (obviously just to stop any more people going up as it was nearly closing time) saying 'Lift out of order' in three languages - not the most reassuring thing to see when you've just been using it! Absolutely gorgeous cathedral despite having seen a ridiculous number already - I know it was once the centre of the Holy Roman Empire but the number of churches in Vienna is slightly ridiculous!

We got the metro back to the hostel and decided to spend the evening sampling traditional Austrian fare in er... an Iranian restaurant. Slightly random choice but the food was very good. Just slightly hard to hear yourself think as there was a wedding party going on next door at full blast.

The flight wasn't until midday the next day so we even managed to fit in a little more sight-seeing at yet another cathedral (whose name is completely escaping me) but still very pretty. I remember Vienna as being a truly beautiful city on my first visit several years ago so it was good to be able to return for a more leisurely visit and explore it a little more. The only question is: where next?

Additional photos below
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On the way down in the lift
Long way upLong way up
Long way up

The rather scary contraption we ascended!

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