Today was cold, gray, and rainy in Vienna. But since it was also the only day I had to tour the city, I hit the streets early bundled in my winter coat and sheltered (somewhat) by my travel umbrella. It turned out to be a fitting day for a (Viennese) funeral.
For someone interested in history, architecture, and cities, being in Vienna for only one day on your first visit can be as frustrating as being a kid in a candy store with a very strict parent. There are only so many things you can choose. Luckily, my friends Jim and Janet (they of the great Western trip itinerary) had steered me to a wonderful (and relatively inexpensive) little family hotel that sits astride the St. Stephansdom and Hofburg districts of the city. These are the names for the medieval city and the imperial city respectively. So I could jump back and forth with ease and, in the course of a day, see 4 of the best churches in the city while also spending an hour with Mozart and another long stretch in the State Room of the National Library – a truly magnificent space. Plus I got to walk (and walk) lots of streets.
I began by heading over to St. Stephansdom (see picture above), the cathedral that is in the heart of the city and anchors the medieval town. It is an impressive building, both inside and out, but I noticed police lines outside the church and limited access on the inside. To cut to the chase, today was a state funeral at St. Stephansdom for Dr. Helmut Zilk, a former mayor of Vienna. I got to watch some of the changing of the honor guards and even walked through with the mourners in the morning to get a better view of the altar. But it meant that access to the cathedral was limited all day. I’m heading back over later tonight to see if I can get in for another look, but I saw enough today to whet my appetite for that return visit.
I had hoped to climb the south tower and get the famous view of the Vienna rooftops, but I quickly shifted plans. I went through an open door into a small street and suddently found myself face-to-face with the apartment building where Mozart lived for four of his most productive years and wrote the Marriage of Figaro among other works. In 2006 this museum had a major make-over and now has a very lively interpretive program in spite of the fact that it has very sparse furnishings. It was moving to think of being in the same space where Mozart’s musical genius did some of his greatest work, and I wish that my son Andrew could have joined me. (He loves the movie Amadeus, which does get some mention here – mostly to correct the story.)
Afterwards, I made a stop at Peterskirch (or St. Peter’s Church) which sits directly in front of my hotel. It dates from the early 18th century and it contains (from the description in my guidebook) an “eye-catching pulpit by the sculptor Matthias Steindl.” I included the photograph as the second one in this post. I was challenged all day on photographs, due to the very dark weather and the less than perfect light that made indoors. Nonetheless, I hope you’ll see some of the richness of the detail. (And speaking of photographs, I want to come back here with my daughter Claire. I took about 150 photos today, but everyone I took I tried to think about how Claire would look at the composition. She would love this city – as much for the fashionable shopping district as for the photography opportunities! If you want to see some of Claire’s work, check out A Few Classic Photos from our western trip.)
By now, it was time for lunch. So I walked a bit and found a nice little cafe where I could have some risotto and wine while resting my weary legs. Candice and I share a love for good food and often talk about great little cafes. She would have loved this one. (Can you tell I enjoy traveling with my family?!)
Suitably fortified, I ventured forth to check out the imperial side of Viennese history and toured the Hofburg palaces. I loved the statuary (doesn’t this guy above look like he’s ready to belt it out of the park!) but the real highlight was the Pruksaal, or State Hall.
What a magnificent space! My poor photos won’t do it justice, because they didn’t allow flash photography and I was working off our little inexpensive digital camera. Nonetheless, you’ll get a sense of this space, which is filled with statuary and lined with books. (Check on the link above to see a photograph of the State Hall taken by a real photographer!) I wanted to stay there for hours, but knew I had to press on.
My plan was to get back to St. Stephansdom by 4 p.m., when the sign said it would re-open to visitors. But as I walked by I saw that the funeral was still going on (more about that in a minute), so I headed down to see another fantastic church, Jesuitenkirche, and visit my first Viennese catacomb. This church (pictured below) was built in the 1600s and my guidebook says that the Jesuits – leaders of the Counter Reformation – were “not afraid of making a statement.” I’ll say! Even in the very dark light (which lightened somewhat as the eyes adjusted), it was easy to see that this was a stunner. I also took a trip down into the tunnels below the church into the crypt. Because the light was so poor, I’ve included this rather ethereal photo of the organ – one of several beautiful instruments I saw during the day.
Finally, I headed back to St. Stephansdom Cathedral to wait out the funeral. Given Andrew’s experience as a cathedral chorister, I knew all about the security at state funerals and also knew they could run long. But this one turned interesting.
On the side of the cathedral they installed a big screen TV. So I joined thousands of Viennese to watch the end of the funeral. And what a treat. The former mayor of Vienna (who lost a hand in a 1993 letter bombing) was taken out to the strains of the Vienna Philharmonic playing Strauss waltzes. What a way to go! The sound was great, and as the waltzes ended the big bell in the North Tower (pictured on the big screen as well) began to toll. So those of us in the street got to hear the bell live AND on video at the same time. It was great, and I got to hear some Viennese music that was “almost live” on my first visit.
I still have some time tonight to tour. (In case you’re wondering, I posted this now to 1) get it on while I still had my 24-hour window available on the T-Mobil Hot Spot and 2) to rest my weary bones for a while.) I’ll probably put up a few final pictures sometime over the next couple of days, but I hope you enjoy these in the meantime.
More to come…