Culture, art, heritage, music and wine; Vienna is all packaged into one. Home to musical geniuses such as Mozart and Beethoven, the Austrian capital is an assemblage of refined architecture and artworks all across the city.
Once the pivot of the mighty Austro- Hungarian empire, Vienna became its pet show-and-project, the capital of capitals, the insignia of its enduring power and – by the late 19th century – it is powerlessness, too. Vienna’s grandiose disposition is at once beautiful and self-conscious. You realise that many of the older generation Viennese took the fin de siècle and everything that followed it as a personal affront. They uphold centuries of traditions – patronage of classical art, finicky desserts and a determined absence of irony, with a firm sense of ‘if we ignore it, it didn’t happen.’ For tourists, it is a novel experience, a bit like stumbling through a chasm in time and becoming an interloper where you, too, can pretend that drinking coffee is of great consequence.
Young Vienna, meanwhile, is intent on an image overhaul, which has led to slow approaching wave of deconstruction and minimalism. Five years, give or take, and Vienna might head London’s way seamlessly fusing old and new. Until then, it is ‘before after’ quality makes for a unique holiday combination.
The cityscape and architecture
Passing through Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse, a grand road encircling the inner city, upholstered largely in architecture of startling opulence, it is important to remember that it was specifically designed to make you feel out of your depth. Originally it was the site where old walls of the city stood. First as bulwarks against invading turks and eventually as a show of the empire’s supremacy over the Viennese people who mostly lived beyond them. It was under the liberal reign of Emperor Franz Josef that the barriers were torn down and the area developed into a sprawling, well appointed street of capital baroque styling that would still encircle the old city, but now also integrate the people.
Riding trams one and two along the popular boulevard is a good way to get your bearings of the prestigious first district, the address of most of it’s note worthy attractions. What makes the multilane avenue distinctive is its symbolism of a new era or liberal and secular ideals, and the gradual loosening of the rigorous chains of aristocracy. Still, the Viennese predilection for selfaggrandisement prevailed, and the Ringstrasse turned into a pageant of ostentatious architectural styles and cultural venues to be seen at. There’s the Flemish-gothic Rathaus (town hall), the neo-gothic Votivkirche church, the attic-style parliament building, the neoromantic Vienna state opera building, the neo –Baroque imperial court theatre (now known as Burgtheatre) – all of which appear to follow the bigger with more curly bits and yes shiny school of building design. Large historic squares, countless monuments of Habsburg greats and rambling parks complete the regal jamboree.
Museums and the art scene
Vienna’s many world-class museums contain within their walls some of central Europe’s milestone art collection especially from the 19th century, a period of unprecedented cultural renaissance. Paramount in Viennese art history was the Secessionist movement, championed by a group of artists, including the symbolist icon Gustav Klimt as a mouth to conservationism told well by their progressive moto – ‘ to every age it’s art, to art it’s freedom’. The majestic Belvedere palaces in the third district, a feat of Baroque architecture, are also museum of Austrian art that have the world’s largest collection of Klimt’s work, including his piece de resistance The Kiss that embodies the artist’s signature combination of ornamental technique with frank eroticism.
But it is Klimp’s younger contemporary, the idiosyncratic Egon Schiele, enfant terrible of Viennese modernist art, whose work holds visitors raft. The Leopold Museum inside the MuseumsQuartier, a hip art complex of Baroque and modern architecture displays the largest and most dynamic of the artist’s compelling paintings. Most startling are his grimacing self portraits, often hyper erotic and almost unbearably visceral. Unsurprisingly, his short life was dogged with controversy before he died of Spanish flu at the age of 28, three days after his wife succumbed to the disease.
For old masters, the Albertina Museum bordering the Imperial Palace, is a must visit. It’s spectacular repertoire is made up of over 50,000 drawings and one million prints – Rembrandt, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Raphael and Monet as well as the Schiele and Klimt are all here.
What is interesting to note about the city is that it hasn’t exactly followed the natural order of the old gently giving way to the new. Rather, the two square off, with the old digging in it’s heels and refusing to be phased out, and the avant grade doing all it can to throw off it’s patrician reputation. So while the inner city is largely a tribute to the empire’s heyday – with imperial architecture redolent with spires, columns and statuary, horse drawn Fiaker carriages, antiquated culinary establishments and dowagers carrying their noses in a sling – areas like Wieden, the bohemian fourth district, are committed to being the antithesis to the centre’s classicism. They throb with art galleries, concept restaurants, trendy shopping streets and gypsy flea markets. The hyper cosmopolitan Naschmrkt is a 1.5 km stretch of open market crowded with hip eateries and hundreds of stalls selling an intoxicating variety of spices and organic produce from all over the world.
Near the market a few structures, including the 19th century Secession building are beautiful specimen of the decorative art Nouveau or Jugendstil style of architecture. This was the exhibition space for artists like Gustav Klimt, who in early traditions of sticking it to the man, started the 19th century Secession Movement in protest of conservationism in art. Mariahilfer Strasse, which straddles the 6th and 7th districts, is a labyrinth of luxury stores, international brands and al fresco restaurants, while a contemporary Indie atmosphere characterises the nearby Lindengasse Street, a watering hole for a few artists, eco warriors and hemp fashion designers. Schon Schon an uber chic restaurant cum hair salon cum fashion boutique on Lindengasse, starkly contrasts the velvet and brocade salons of the first district. The restaurant has a single table which seats about 20 people intended to foster conversation and new acquaintances.
Popular for wine
Vienna reveals in it’s distinction of being the only major metropolis in the world with an extensive wine region, i.e., 700 acres of planted vines since as far back as the middle ages within it’s city limits . And the culturally rich way to sample the local wines is from within the toasty interiors of a rustic Heuriger, a traditional Austrian wine tavern, where vintners serve only the most recent year’s vintage.
At the same time Vienna’s wine industry is quickly pulling on a young, urban avatar, with a new generation of wine growers considering exotic grape varieties while simultaneously reviving the traditional ‘Gemischter Satz’, the indigenous wine made from several grape varieties grown in the same vineyard. Viennese wines,formally considered inferior quality but new refined, have made their way to upscale restaurants and bars across the city.The musical heritage
No city has been home to as many musical giants – from Mozart and Strauss to Beethoven and Schubert – as Vienna has in course of it’s unflagging three century opera tradition. Years of upheaval, wars, famine, the decay and fall of empire, and the Viennese still gussy up to be in the presence of great music because smooth sailing or not, the show must go on.
Centuries on, it is with much the same fervour as modernism steadily chips away the past, that woman in high heels and sparkling cocktail dresses with their arms around men in sharp threads and pomade, alight the steps of the 300 evenings a year in Vienna State Opera. It is possible to partake in the musical feast even if you are not carrying formal trousers because it has come out onto the streets – all the Baroque bastions of imperial supremacy and military are now stunning set pieces for hundreds of outdoor concerts. Other genres like jazz, pop, rock, electronica and world music have, over time, ferreted their way in and been assimilated into the city’s musical repertoire. During summers, the city vibrates with musical festivities of every kind – rare chance to see Vienna with it’s tie loosened and shirt tails hanging out.