Walking the capital

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August 28th 2008
Published: January 25th 2009
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We arrived in Vienna yesterday, took the train and taxi to our hostel and made ourselves right at home. The hostel is actually university accomodation rented out for the summer, with a couple of extra beds squeezed into each room. The rooms are still very spacious and comfortable and we have the added advantage of a communal lounge with table tennis, internet and TV as well as free run of the uni kitchens!!
We did an early shopping trip this morning followed by a late breakfast in the kitchen. We set off for the nearest metro stop and began a 'stroll' around the captial.
Vienna is a beautiful city. Founded around 500 BC, Vienna was originally a Celtic settlement. In 15 BCE, Vienna became a Roman frontier city (Vindobona) guarding the Roman Empire against Germanic tribes to the north. During the Middle Ages, Vienna was home to the Babenberg Dynasty, and in 1440 CE, it became the resident city of the Habsburg Dynasties, then it eventually grew to become the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1804 it became the capital of the Austrian empire and later the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite being at the centre of the Austrian Civil War in 1934 and having 10 years of foreign occupation at the end of the Second World War Vienna has survived as the capital of Austria. It's population of almost two million enjoy the 'second highest quality of living' in the world and the city is known for its beautiful architecture, fine arts, theatres and musical heritage.
We began the day with a visit to St. Stephen's Cathedral or 'Stephansdom' as it is in German. The cathedral is built in a mixture of gothic and romanesque styles and stands on the ruins of two previous churches. The church was dedicated to St. Stephen and so was oriented toward the sunrise on his feast day of 26th December, as the position stood in the year that construction began. Built of limestone, the cathedral is 107 metres long, 40 metres wide, and 136 metres tall at its highest point.
We walked around the exterior, saw the horse drawn carriages and briefly flirted with the idea of seeing the city in style before opting for the cheaper idea of continuing our tour on foot. The outside of the cathedral is ornately decorated. The richly coloured, pattern roof is 111 metres long and made of over 230,000 glazed tiles. An 18th century Baroque statue showing . Francis under an extravagant sunburst, trampling on a beaten Turk stands in the pulpit on the cathedrals exterior. This was the original cathedral's main pulpit until it was replaced by Pilgram's pulpit in 1515. It was from this pulpit that St. John Capistrano preached a crusade in 1454 to hold back Muslim invasions of Christian Europe.
We went inside the cathedral to look around but as ever it was packed with tourists and the metal gates kept us from going in further. We walked on to Peterskirche. St. Peter's Church is built on the ruins of many previous churches. The current building was begun by Gabriele Montani in 1701 and it's construction continued under Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt from 1703 onwards. By 1722, most of the building was finished, and in 1733, the Peterskirche was finally consecrated to the Holy Trinity. We spent some time exploring the truly breathtaking interior with its ornate golden churubs and angels and beautiful painted frescos. I was slightly disturbed, as I strolled past the elaborate shrines in the church, to notice some dead bodies lying in glass cases beneath the statues and paintings. These skeletons are apparently the remains of two martyrs from Roman catacombs, which were donated by Cardinal Kollonitz in 1733 and placed in the church.
We walked on to the Hofburg by which point we were tired and in need of a tea break. We found a suitable cafe nearby and sat sipping tea with an amazing view of the palace. Afterwards we stopped for a quick photo shoot by the fountains and statues on the outer walls. We saw the famous Spanish Riding School horses going past and followed them as they disappeared inside. We excitedly rushed to find a timetable of performances only to discover there were performances on just before we arrived in Vienna, and there are more performances to follow after we return to England, but nothing while we're here.
We walked round to the front of the Hofburg and onto Theresa-Platz, named for the empress.
Maria Theresa was the Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, and a Holy Roman Empress by her marriage to Francis of Lorraine. Maria Theresa was the only woman ruler in the 650 year history of the Habsburg dynasty and had a huge influence on Austria. Maria Theresa helped initiate financial and educational reforms, promoted commerce and the development of agriculture, and reorganized the army, all of which strengthened Austria's resources. She supported breakthroughs in medicine and set an example to her people by having all her own children inoculated. She out-lawed the use of torture in prisons and the burning of 'witches', and replaced the death penalty with forced labour (although capital punishment was later reintroduced). In 1772 Maria Theresa founded the Imperial and Royal Academy of Science and Literature in Brusselsand in 1774 introduced compulsory education. In addition to being an influential leader she was also a dedicated wife and mother. She was one of the few women of her time who married for love and she brought up 16 children among whom were Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette) and Leopold II. Fredrick the Great of Prussia said of Maria Theresa 'She has done honour to the throne and to her sex; I have warred with her but I have never been her enemy.'
We arrived in Theresa-Platz which is dominated by a large statue of Maria Theresa. Standing opposite on each side of the platz are the two museums: the Naturhistoriches Museum - Natural History Museum, and the Kunsthistoriches Museum - the Art History Museum. We headed for the Natural History Museum. I remembered it having an amazing collection from my last visit to Austria a few years ago and was keen to explore it again. On my last visit I spent almost three hours in the museum... I think this time we surpassed that! The Natural History Museum is unique as it was specifically built as a museum and the design reflects this. The exterior displays statues depicting personifications of the various continents of the world while the interior rooms are covered with paintings and carvings reflecting the collection housed in each room. The vast collection is displayed in thirty-nine rooms and a domed hall. The building was designed by G. Semper and K. Hasenauer and completed in 1881, while the collection was founded by Francis I, Maria Theresa's consort, who opened it to the public in 1765 and then in 1889 transferred it to its current location.
Among the highlights of the exhibits we saw are the 'Venus of Willendorf', an oolitic limestone carving of a woman, which was unearthed during the Wachau railway construction in 1908 and found covered in thick red ochre. Thought to date from around 24,000-22,000 BCE the Venus of Willendorf has become an icon of prehistoric art. I was however disappointed to notice that 'Fanny' was not on display this visit. Nicknamed after the ballerina Fanny Elssler, the Venus vom Galgenberg as it is also known, is a small statue of a woman made from amphibolite and dates back 32,000 years.
Another highlight had to be the famous 'gem bouquet'. Maria Theresa presented the bouquet to her husband as the founding object of the precious stone and mineral collection. Made of 761 variegated stones with 2,102 diamonds and silk leaves, sitting in a vase of rock crystal the bouquet is stunning and the detail of the flowers and insects is incredible. The decoration of the Gem Room is a perfect example of how the museum's architecture is in harmony with the objects on display. The walls are decorated with eleven paintings (mostly works by the landscape painter Eduard Peithner von Lichtenfels) while the sculptures by neo-Baraque sculptor Rudolf Weyr portray figures representing various metals and minerals. Many of the sculptures bear the planetary symbols found in alchemists' secret teachings.
I was also impressed by the huge 15 metre high leg bone in the Saurian Room!
We eventually ended up in the cafe upstairs and ordered apple strudle to share before crossing over to the Art History Museum across the square. Having spent over three and half hours in the last museum we agreed to make this one a quicker visit. The Kunsthistorisches Museum opened in 1891 and its collections range from Ancient Egyptian and Greek and Roman Antiquities to the Collections of Medieval Art to the splendid Renaissance and Baroque Collections. A large Picture Gallery includes paintings by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt. Similarly to the Natural History Museum, the Art History Museum has themed rooms. I particularly liked the Ancient Egyptian room as the walls are painted to look like the walls of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings or something and certainly makes a fitting backdrop for the artefacts housed in the room.
We sped around the museum in about an hour and a half. It may have been a speedy tour but we did manage to visit every room, with a couple of breaks on the way. I'm not sure what the member of staff thought when she found us all collapsed on the grand staircase trying to work up the energy for the next floor! We left the museum and judging by the range of postcards available had missed a few treasures. I was disappointed to realise we'd missed the Holbein portrait of Jane Seymour in one of our hurried trips through the rooms of the picture gallery, but we all agreed we were all far too tired to go back into the museum to try and find it. We relaxed in the gardens of Theresa-Platz for a time and sat by a beautiful water fountain of a water nymph.
We eventually walked out onto the street and followed the directions in the guide book to explore a bit more of the city. We walked past the parliament building, a Greek Revival structure by architect Baron Theophil von Hansen built in 1874 to 1883 and onto the Rathaus, a very pretty building which acts as the seat of both the mayor and the city council of Vienna. Designed by Friedrich Schmidt (1825-1891), the Rathaus was erected between 1872 and 1883. A large stage and seating area was being erected outside for some kind of arts film festival - we made use of the seating for another rest and incidently had a good view of the Burgtheater. We continued our walk until we reached the Votvkirche, which had unfortunately closed shortly before our arrival. The Votive Church was built on the suggestion of Archduke Maxmillian in gratitude for the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853. The church was designed by Heinrich Ferstel and built between 1856 and 1879. We walked around the outside of the church which is covered in elaborate carvings before finally deciding to call an end to our walk as our feet were worn out, most places seemed to be closing and the sun was getting ever lower on the horizon. We trapsed back towards a metro stop and headed home to our hostel where we promptly all collapsed on our beds until we got hungry enough to want to walk to the kitchen.

Additional photos below
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25th January 2009

Well that beat 'A' level history in class!
What an amazing first day in Vienna. This could be the start of your first travel book. I'll just have to go back to Vienna now with your guide! Glad you made it back to the Natural History museum. It's one of those hidden treasures of Vienna
8th February 2009

Some lessons in history!
I swear I never listened to my history teacher back when I was still in school..........but I have been reading up on your blogs and been appreciating all the historical trivia. Thanks for the lessons! Keep writing.
8th February 2009

Glad you enjoyed it... I have to admit I probably spent more time on the blog than any history essay I was given in school!!!
8th November 2013

We are thinking about going to Vienna
Glad we took the time to read your blog. Great information.

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