Vienna came into its own, when the last Ottoman siege of Vienna failed in 1683. The bakers of Vienna celebrated the victory by baking a crescent shaped bread, giving birth to the croissant. Vienna soon emerged as an important cultural centre of Europe, and its’ pre-eminence as a centre of western classical music continues to this day. The Vienna State Opera or Staatsoper as it is locally known, is rivaled only by the La Scala of Milan; housed in a grand neo-Renaissance building, it stages a staggering 50-60 operas every year. Operas, music concerts and balls are central to Vienna’s cultural life. Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, is just round the corner from the Staatsoper.
It wasn’t until 1857 that Emperor Franz Josef removed the fortifications surrounding Vienna, and replaced them with the Ringstrasse, the ring road around the Innere Stadt or old city. Grand baroque buildings line the Ringstrasse, where cars, cyclists and pedestrians co-exist in perfect harmony. The historically rich Innere Stadt is a haven for pedestrians because the vehicular traffic has been kept to a minimum. Stephansdom, the Gothic cathedral, is in the heart of the city, and in close proximity to the Hofburg palace complex, as are the homes of Mozart and Beethoven, now serving as museums of their famous residents. The Judenplatz Museum located in the Jewish Quarter, stands on the site of a synagogue, which was ordered destroyed in 1421.
The Kaiser apartments and Sisi’s section of the Hofburg palace complex, is an interesting peep into the lives of the last important Habsburg ruler and his wife. The Germanic work ethic of Franz Joseph shines through the organization and furnishings of his apartments, while the chambers of his wife Elizabeth, popularly known as Sisi, reflect her obsession with fitness and maintaining a narrow waistline. The Spanish Riding School is part of the Hofburg complex, but separate tickets have to be bought to see the spectacular show. White Lipizzaner stallions pirouette in the air and carry out complicated maneuvers of dressage to music by Strauss; the riders, resplendent in their imperial uniforms, add to the pageantry.
However, it is the baroque Schonbrunn, the summer palace of the Habsburgs that is breathtaking. This former hunting lodge is located in the suburbs of Vienna, and was restored to its present glory after the siege of 1683 was lifted. It became the centre of court life during Maria Theresia’s rule, and it is here that the six-year old Mozart performed for the empress in 1762, jumping into her lap and planting her with kisses. Its opulent and gilded chandelier rooms hosted the monarchs of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon that were assembled here to carve out the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15.
The Belvedere, on the other hand, is close to the city center, with gardens inspired by Versailles. It was built for Prince Eugene of Savoy, an Austrian hero, for conclusively defeating the Turks in 1718. It houses the great Austrian artists of the Secession movement, including Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, rebel artists who broke away from the tradition of neoclassicism at the fin de siècle. The sensuality of Klimt’s The Kiss, his most famous and well recognized painting, created a stir in the straight-laced Viennese society of the time.
The Elmayer Dance School is the ultimate institution for learning the Viennese waltz, ballroom dancing and etiquette. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire unraveled at the end of the 1st World War, a young cavalry officer, the son of a Field Marshall, broke the conventional norms for an Austrian aristocrat by founding a dance school. It was housed in the stables of a house just across from the Hofburg. Thomas Elmayer, his grandson, now heads this institution, a bastion of the traditional Austrian culture, and was kind enough to grant an interview. He is deeply involved with the organizing of balls in Vienna, and his school takes a lead role in training dancers for its opening ceremonies. Professor Elmayer is in great demand by companies for holding workshops and classes in etiquette. His concern is that with the changing demographics of Austria and a high birth rate amongst the immigrants, the Austrian culture and traditions will slowly vanish.
In the same neighborhood is the Judisches Museum, which showcases the history of Jews in Vienna from their first settlements in the 13th century in Judenplatz, to their apogee in the second half of the 19th century, when their wealthier members built beautiful mansions on the Ringstrasse. Interestingly, Sigmund Freud, the most important member of this community, gets no mention in this museum, although his house in Vienna has been converted into a museum, and has become a right of passage for those interested in the father of psychoanalysis. Freud, unlike other Jews, managed to save his skin and went into exile in London after the Nazis invaded Austria in March 1938.
Old Vienna, unlike other European cities, is concentrated in a relatively small area; with good planning and conservation it has retained the old-world charm of the capital of what was once a great central European empire, stretching from France in the west, to Russia in the east, and up to the Balkans in the south.
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