Thursday, May 26th 2016
We have made a short visit to Vienna, the capital city of Austria, spending two nights here and the days that include them, discounting the time spent travelling. As our stay was so short, we could not expect to explore Vienna thoroughly but just to grab a few impressions that might or might not encourage us to come back for a longer period.
I do not speak German, nor does Tigger. Despite this, we had no difficulties travelling around the city, visiting museums and galleries or transacting necessary business in shops, restaurants and the hotel. Practically everyone we approached spoke English, at least well enough for the purpose and often very well indeed. In fact, people seemed to take a certain pleasure in talking to us in English, engaging us in conversation beyond the immediate needs of the particular situation. Many public notices were in both German and English (and sometimes French) and on public transport, all announcements, other than those just stating the name of the next stop, were in both German and English.
What we call ‘Vienna’ the Austrians call ‘Wien’. We may approximate its pronunciation in standard German as ‘veen’, rhyming with ‘seen’ and ‘mean’. In the local Austrian dialect, the pronunciation may be slightly different but my lack of German disqualifies me from further discussion of that.
The Eurostar has not yet reached Vienna and so we reluctantly took to the air. We took off from Heathrow on BA flight BA0702 at 11:40 am and touched down at Vienna at 14:55 local time, which is an hour ahead of UK summer time, i.e. the duration of the flight was 2 hours 15 minutes.
As the airport is on the outskirts of the city and our hotel was in town, we chose the lazy solution and boarded a taxi. The journey was quite long and by the time we had included a small tip in addition to the stated fare, we parted with €50 (about £40 or $56). We made a firm decision to find other means by which to return to the airport!
On reaching our slab-fronted hotel, called the Exe Vienna Hotel, we found the staff welcoming and fluent in English. Vienna was enjoying something of a heat wave and so the room’s air-conditioning was welcome. Wifi was provided free for the duration of our stay – something that other more pinch-penny hotels might like to take note of.
We had been given brunch on the aeroplane but that had been just a snack and so we set out to look for a more substantial repast. Across the road from the hotel we saw the Cafe Monaco and went in to take a look. There we made a startling discovery: there were ashtrays on the tables!
It turns out that in 2009 Austria passed a law under which smoking is banned in public places, as is the case in Europe generally. However, cafes and restaurants, and their customers made such a fuss about this, claiming it would destroy Vienna’s ‘cafe culture’, that they were exempted until May 2018, ostensibly to give them time to prepare. Establishments that convert to the smokeless regime before the deadline will receive a bonus relating to their expenses in setting up smoking and non-smoking areas.
We just had coffee here and them resumed our ramble through the city, looking for interesting sights and, of course, something to eat.
We eventually took a chance on a Turkish restaurant that we discovered. I failed to note the name but according to my Qstaz travel recorder it was in Freidmanngasse. It had an open courtyard which was quite pleasant in this warm weather. Turkish eateries provide a handy refuge for vegetarians in difficulties as their menus contain many items suitable for vegetarians and even vegans. Also, I have a special fondness for Turkish tea.
We set out to ramble more or less at random, photographing anything that caught our attention. Unfortunately, when describing the things we saw I am at a disadvantage because online they are mostly described, if at all, in German. As an additional obstacle, Google Street View is banned in Austria, it seems, making it difficult for me to check the exact locations of places and buildings as an aid to finding out about them.
The above photo shows, partly hidden by a railway bridge, the Catholic Church at Breitenfeld, the latter word being the name of the parish it serves. Catholic churches are numerous in the city, unsurprisingly as Catholicism has always been by far the largest religion in Austria. In Vienna in 1951, Catholics counted for over 80% of the population but since then the situation has changed with the numbers of Catholics declining and the numbers of those not committed to any religion increasing commensurately. It is difficult to say what the current situation is because the Austrian census has not included a question on religious affiliation since 2001 but it seems likely that the trend has continued.
We worked our way west across the city and reached a large square called Stephansplatz or, as we might call it in English, St Stephen’s Square.
Stephansplatz is really just the flat surface that surrounds Stephansdom also known as Domkirche St Stephan or, in our way of expressing things, the Cathedral of St Stephen. The above picture shows the façade containing the main entrance. The black (blank) areas bottom left and right are the result of my combining three photos that had not originally been taken for that purpose and therefore did not fit together quite as well as I would have liked. Still, it gives some idea of the view.
The Cathedral was commissioned in 1137 and dedicated to St Stephen in 1147. Building was not finished after a mere decade and work continued through expansion and reconstruction into the 16th century. Maintenance and repairs continue to the present day as cathedrals tend to be time-consuming and expensive to maintain.
There are many decorative and commemorative features around the exterior of the building, added at various dates.
Outside stands this bronze model of the Cathedral though I was unable to determine who made it and when.
One of the facilities provided in Vienna for tourists are the horse-drawn carriages. There are stands for these at various places in the city and one beside the Cathedral.
The carriages are called ‘fiakers’ (from the French ‘fiacre’). The drivers make some attempt to dress in a uniform but many fail more or less completely. There are several companies running fiakers which take passengers on a tour of the city.
If you let your eye follow the horses’ tails downwards, you will see behind each a tan-coloured bucket-shaped object resting on a support. Its purpose is, not to put too fine a point on it, to catch anything that might be ejected from the horse’s rear end. Notwithstanding this hygienic arrangement, the air carried a very noticeable stench of horse dung. I have no idea how much it costs to take a tour in a fiaker as we preferred to continue on Shanks’ pony, if you forgive the pun.
Looking down Goldschmiedgasse, we saw a green-domed structure which looked interesting.
A closer view reveals it to be Peterskirche, the Church of St Peter. The Baroque-style parish church was built in the early decades of the 18th century (1701-33). It is quite hard to photograph as it is very compact (having been established on a relatively small site) and is hemmed in by buildings all around it.
On the outside of the church there is a plaque in relief. This represents the supposed founding by Charlemagne in AD 800 of the second of the three churches to have existed on this site. It is by Rudolf Weyr (1847-1914) who created a number of Vienna’s neo-Baroque sculptures.
We walked along a street called Graben which apparently means ‘trench’ though it doesn’t seem particularly trench-like. One of the more famous monuments found here is the Pestsäule or Plague Column. It commemorates the Great Plague epidemic that struck the city in 1679. A wooden column was raised when the epidemic ended and the permanent monument in marble was commissioned in 1683. The latter is nominally ascribed to Paul Strudel but contains the work of several sculptors.
This is Leopoldsbrunnen (‘Leopold’s Fountain’), which took its name after Leopold I ordered the two fountains in Graben to be decorated with statues of St Leopold and St Joseph, respectively. They were sculpted in stone by Johann Frühwirth (1640-1701) who had also made the wooden forerunner of the Pestsäule mentioned above. The current versions of the saintly statues, installed in 1804, were made in lead by Johann Martin Fischer (1740-1820). The original stones sculptures are now lost.
The second figure beside St Leopold is a putto and the saint is looking at a document showing a drawing of the Klosterneuburg Abbey which he founded. My favourites details, though, are the two lion heads acting a water spouts for the fountain.
At the eastern end of Graben, we found this ornate doorway with the sole word ‘EQUITABLE’ above it. It turns out that the building to which it belongs was constructed in 1887-91 for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States and named the Palais Equitable. Founded in 1869 the company was finally bought out by AXA in 2004. I am not sure why its Vienna HQ would have a French name. Then again, why not?
Friday, May 27th 2016
Today is our only full day in Vienna and we therefore need to make the most of it. We have planned to make three visits today, which should fill up our time nicely but without overburdening ourselves.
Our first destination was in Feldmühlgasse, over in the western side of the city. We arrived too early but that enabled us to have breakfast in a branch of Bäckerei Schwarz nearby. We had come to visit what is still called ‘Klimt Villa’ because the artist Gustav Klimt lived in a cottage on the site from 1911 until his death in 1918. A later owner built the present villa on top of Klimt’s house and studio, so the artist would literally not recognize it as his home if he could return. Officially called Klimt Villa Wien, the house is now open to the public.
Not knowing what to look for, we had some difficulty finding the house in Feldmühlgasse but were shown it by a postman who had mail to deliver there. The villa opens at 10 am and as we were early, we had to wait. All was quiet with no sign of activity within and when the clock ticked slowly to 10 am and the ticked on past it, we began to wonder whether we were on a wild goose chase. Then a young man appeared on a bicycle, somewhat flustered to find people waiting to be admitted. He let us in and we could explore.
The exhibition occupies both the lower and upper floor, which is slightly ironic in view of the fact that Klimt’s cottage was a single-storey building.
We were somewhat bemused by the exhibition, not being sure whether anything we could see really had anything to do with Klimt. Stuck in a corner was a tiny porcelain bath. There was no notice saying that Klimt ever used it and I doubt whether he did.
We saw a reconstruction of the artist’s studio and another room, presumably his living room. As for the authenticity of the decor and furniture, I can only quote the Website:
The original rooms of the last atelier of Gustav Klimt in the Feldmühlgasse, Number 11 in Hietzing were identified after scrupulous investigations and were restored to their historical condition – right down to the wall colors and surfaces. We wanted to revive the atmosphere and décor that must have prevailed in the studios from 1911 to 1918. Furniture reconstruction in the waiting room and studios was carried out with reliance on photos by Moriz Nähr and available samples of furnishings (for example, carpets). In other rooms of the atelier, various media – old newspapers, etc. – provide information about significant models and “clients” from this period of Klimt’s creativity.
There were paintings and sketches of Klimt on display though all were reproductions and it would not be reasonable to expect otherwise since the original works have all been bought up by museums, galleries and collectors.
The young curator who had admitted us was helpful and spent some time with us talking about Klimt and the house. I intend no disrespect to him in saying that we were somewhat disappointed by the visit. Perhaps we had expected too much.
We returned towards the centre again and emerged at the station at Karlsplatz. We stopped off in the attached cafe for iced tea, our stand-by drink in hot weather.
The station, then part of the Stadtbahn and now the U-Bahn, was designed by Otto Wagner and Joseph Maria Olbrich as an example of Jugendstil architecture. Dating from 1899 it also has connections with the Vienna Secession Movement, about which there will be more later.
In the nearby Resselpark, we admired the monument to composer Johannes Brahms. It was made in 1908 by the Austrian sculptor Rudolf Weyr (later Rudold Ritter von Meyr), mentioned by me yesterday in connection with Peterskirche. Though Brahms (1833-97) was German, and born in Hamburg, he spent many of his productive years in Vienna.
Beside Karlsplatz stands the great domed Baroque Karlskirche or Church of St Charles. Designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723), it was completed, after his death, in 1737. After the last of the plague epidemics, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI commissioned the church and dedicated it to St Charles Borromeo, revered for giving aid to plague sufferers in Milan in the 16th century.
In front of the church is a large ornamental lake in which stands a sculpture. Entitled Hill Arches, it is by Henry Moore and was created for the square in 1973.
Our second visit was to this beautiful and striking structure with its remarkable golden dome. Much criticized when it was built in 1887 (designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich) it is now regarded as one of Vienna’s most treasured buildings. It is called the Wiener Secessionsgebäude or Vienna Secession Building. and was built as an exhibition hall for the Vienna Secession group of artists, one of whose prominent members with Gustav Klimt.
The decorative scheme and the whole design have much in common with the Art Nouveau movement though the Secessionists were a distinct group working with their own ideas of art and design. The building bears the legend Ver Sacrum (‘Sacred Spring’) which was the name of the art magazine that the group published between 1898 and 1903 to ‘publicize their programmatic ideas about the integration of different media and an art imbuing every aspect of life with aesthetic value’ (Museum information board).
In the climate-controlled basement of the building is a large mural by Gustav Klimt. It is known as the Beethoven Frieze and is Klimt’s attempt to render Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony through the medium of paint.
The Secession movement emphasized Gesamtkunstwerk – art works in mixed media – and as well as painting and sculpture influenced literature, printing, graphics, architecture and design. Its impact is still felt today. For more information, see, for example, the Wikipedia article, Vienna Secession.
The Secession Building operates partly as a museum of the Secession movement and partly as a gallery of modern art. During our visit, work by three artists, Oliver Laric, Gerald Domenig and James Lee Byars, was on show. To be honest, none of this made much of an impact on me but one work brought an echo of Klimt’s Frieze. You see it above. It is by Oliver Laric and is a Photoplastic (I think that is an artifact in plastic made by scanning a 3D object) of a sculpture of Beethoven made by Max Klinger in 1902.
Above is Laric’s set of sphinxes for comparison.
The above picture shows the entrance to the Vienna Secession Building. The gallery was busy with people coming and going all the time. It was only as we were leaving that there was a brief moment when I could capture the entrance without people in the way.
Tigger had done her research and found that there were three vegetarian restaurants in Vienna. A choice of three was pretty good and more than we usually find. Our experience, however, proved why you should not count your chickens (even vegetarian chickens) before they hatch. We found two of the restaurants closed and when we entered the third we were asked snootily whether we had reserved and then turned away as we had not. I wasn’t too unhappy about this as the place was obviously ‘posh’ with prices to match. In the event we found an ‘ordinary’ restaurant nearby where we were amiably received and advised as to what items on the menu were vegetarian.
And so to our third visit of the day which was to the Wien Uhrenmuseum. That’s Clock Museum to you and me; well, to me, anyway. This, for me, was the highlight of our visits, fascinated by clocks as I am. The Uhrenmuseum has a large collection (about 1,000) of clocks, watches and other horological devices dating from the 15th century to the present day. Viennese timepiece manufacture is of course a special subject within the whole. The display is organized in time order, subdivided by type of device, so you can, in a sense, wander through time, something which is rather appropriate in a clock museum.
The museum building was opened in 1921 and was built on medieval foundations. It is vertical rather than horizontal (bad news if you find stairs difficult), being spread over several floors accessed by delightfully squeaky stairs and creaky swing doors.
How do I give you a good portrait of the museum? The answer is that I cannot. I think this would need a lavishly illustrated and professionally written large-format book. Ho hum. I will just show you a few items that caught my eye, though these can in no way be considered ‘representative’ of such a large whole. If you love clocks, just go to the Uhrenmuseum!
Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral) has a magnificent tower but the tower has no clock. Not today, anyway. The fourth and last clock was removed during refurbishment in the 19th century. The above wonderful piece of machinery is the movement of that last clock and was installed in 1699. It was the first of the clocks to possess a hand to indicate minutes. Previous clocks had only had hour hands.
Many clocks are lavishly decorated and as well as telling the time, they were intended to decorate the home and show off the owner’s wealth.
This curious piece of work is an astronomical clock showing the time, planetary positions and the calendars of different faiths and cultures including the new calendar introduced in France after the French Revolution. The label says it resembles a winged altarpiece though to me it looks rather like a priest in vestments with arms spread out. Either would be appropriate as the man who made it was a Catholic priest.
Decorative clocks often show movement in addition to that required to keep time and play chimes. This gallant military gentleman on his steed does not move as far as I know apart from his eyes, hence the type-name ‘moving-eye’.
If clocks can contain art work, then art can also contain a clock! It is common for clock faces to be painted in patterns or to show a picture but those of which the above is an example are a cut above that. They consist of a painting, usually in oils, done by a professional painter, in which there appears a clock. The clock in not an artifact of paint but is a real working clock. The scene depicted above is a somewhat fanciful view showing King Charles I of England, accompanied by sundry other persons, just before his execution.
This is obviously a traditional wooden cuckoo clock. Unfortunately, I neglected to record any details about it so I do not know its age or provenance. It is a beautiful example of the kind, though, with little objects carved from wood placed among foliage all around the clock. I just wish I could have heard the cuckoo’s voice.
Incidentally, while some clocks were in working order and showed the time, those that were not working were all set to a time of 10 past 10. It is traditional in the clock industry to set still clocks to this time. I am not sure of the reason though I have heard it said that with the hands in this position, the clock seems to smile!
On the way back to the hotel, we passed in front of a well known and very fine building with a green dome, built 1729-35. It is the famous Spanish Riding School, Spanische Hofreitschule in German. I have ridden on horseback twice in my life (and I was thrown on the first occasion), so I am clearly not one to talk about equestrian matters. To learn more, see here and other online sources.
This is one of the sculptures in front of the Riding School. It’s by Rudolf Weyr and is entitled (with variations according to who translates it), Power on the Sea. I couldn’t begin to analyse it and explain the parts though I am pretty sure that the figure lower left is meant to be Neptune.
We returned to the hotel for tea and a rest and later decided to go out for a tram ride. There was a tram route that passed in front of the hotel which made it all the more convenient. We got off the tram at the terminus at Scottentor U-Bahn station, looked around a bit and took some photos.
My last photo of the day was this distance shot of the Neo-Gothic Votivkirche (Votive Church) completed in 1879. It’s called the Votive Church because it was built as a votive offering to the deity for saving the life of Emperor Franz Joseph when the latter survived an assassination attempt by Hungarian nationalist János Libényi on 18 February 1853. (It would look better without the massive advertising hoarding in front of it.)
And so (as Samuel Pepys might have said but didn’t) to the hotel and bed. Tomorrow we return to London.
Saturday, May 28th 2016
Our flight home was not until 14:10 but the airport is at a distance from the town and we needed to be there in time to complete the usual tedious formalities such as checking in and going through the baggage and person search. After our experience with the taxi (the ride itself was pleasant enough but the fare was expensive), we sought other means travelling to the airport.
On Thursday, we had bought a 48-hour ‘travel card each. This gives you unlimited travel on buses, trams and underground trains in the city. As is usual in European countries other than the UK, you have to ‘validate’ your ticket before use. This involves poking it into a special machine which stamps the date on it. This means you can buy tickets in advance and validate them just before your first use on public transport, maximizing the period of validity. Our travel passes could be used during the 48 hours following the moment of validation. We reckoned that we could use them on our explorations of the city and perhaps also to travel to the airport, saving the taxi fare. Nearly, but not quite.
Let me say a word about public transport in Vienna. We found it excellent. At least, we found the railways and trams excellent, as we did not actually use any buses. Both of us like trams and were pleased to find there is an efficient tram service in Vienna though it doesn’t cover the whole city. A remarkable feature of public transport in Vienna is… no ticket barriers! We travelled by rail and by tram, hopping on and off, and never once did we have to show our tickets or use them to pass a barrier of any kind. Is this because the Viennese are very law-abiding and few people dodge fares? I don’t know. I’m sure this wouldn’t work in London where fare-dodging is a matter of concern.
For all I know, our plan of using our travel passes to get to the airport might have worked if we had studied transport maps and found out the necessary public transport routes. Instead, though, we decided to take the special airport train called the CAT. This runs from the train station to the airport and the trip takes just 16 minutes.
We packed our bags and checked out of the hotel simply by handing over our electronic door keys. Unlike France and Belgium, there are no local taxes to pay on top of the hotel bill. Then we walked up the road to the tram stop and boarded the tram for the last time.
At the railway station, we found our way to the CAT, which is in a separate area of its own. There is a long entrance area rather like the check-in section of an airport, with people sitting behind desks. It was very quiet and there were very few travellers. It was not clear what we were supposed to do so we asked at one of the desks and they indicated where we should go, and where we would find ticket machines.
We bought our tickets from one of the machines (these can be operated in English, of course) and went down onto the platform to wait. A couple of mainline trains ran past on other tracks and then the CAT arrived. It was a smart modern train with comfortable seats and plenty of room for baggage. After the train had started, we realized we should have validated our tickets but had forgotten to do so. In the event, it didn’t matter. An inspector came by and checked our tickets and that was that.
At the airport, we thought about getting coffee and perhaps having something to eat. Although we were well ahead of time, we decided to check in straightaway. As a result we got good seats, together this time. We chose seats near an escape door as you get more leg room in exchange for agreeing to open the door and throw it out in case of an emergency landing.
We then proceeded to the baggage check, thinking that, as at Heathrow and other UK airports, there would be shops and cafes in the waiting area. Mistake! Having been checked, we found that all we could do now was to proceed to our departure gate and then sit on the hard seats and wait. The only facilities available were toilets and a coffee machine. The toilets were fine but I did not manage to make the coffee machine work.
We had rather a long wait until staff arrived and began the long, slow process of preparing the gate for our departure. Then suddenly, all was movement and we were stomping along the tunnel to the aircraft.
Did I say I don’t like flying? Actually, that’s not exactly true. I think flying is a wonderful thing and I often watch gulls and other masters of the air and wish I could do as they do. I imagine gliding through the cold air with the wind whistling in my ears and seeing the world spread out below me. What a marvellous experience that would be. It’s flying in commercial aircraft that I don’t like. For all the cheesy smiles and expressions of welcome, you are herded like cattle and packed in like sardines. My knees are jammed against the seat in front (heaven help me if the occupant of that seat decides to recline it) and my legs and back begin to ache as I wriggle and fidget, trying to find a position that is not excruciatingly uncomfortable.
Happily, there were no delays even though we had to take a slightly circuitous route avoiding France where there was an air traffic controllers’ strike. (When are air traffic controllers in France not on strike?) After a two-hour flight we touched down at Heathrow and I could release my legs from purgatory.
We followed the crowd through doors, up and down stairs and along seemingly endless corridors until we at last debouched into the baggage reclaim area. I am told that this long pilgrimage through the wastelands of the air terminal is not really necessary but is a deceit practised on air travellers to give the baggage handlers time to bring the luggage from the plane and load it onto the carousel. I do not know whether that is true.
We next found ourselves in the passport queue. In Vienna, my passport had been scrutinized by an officer who had had some difficulty with it. As he muttered and ran it through the reader again and again I began to worry. Was there something wrong with my passport? I was already imagining myself sitting in a prison cell and being visited by someone from the British Consulate when he brusquely snapped my passport shut, handed it to me and indicated that I should move on… which I did, though feeling slightly unnerved. At Heathrow, the British passport controller was a pleasant fellow who bade me good day and asked how I was. Having returned the compliments I asked whether there was anything wrong with my passport, as they had had trouble with it in Vienna. “Nothing wrong with it,” said he. “It’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s quite new. Welcome to the UK!”
More corridors to negotiate, and then we passed through the Customs Hall. No one detained us here and suddenly we emerged through a doorway into the noise and bustle of the terminal. We ran the gauntlet of people waiting for friends and relatives or waving cards with other people’s names on them and headed towards the sign indicating the Underground. That familiar icon in blue, red and white and red, more than anything else in the airport, tells you that you are home again.
The train rattled through the tunnels of the airport terminus, then out into the open air and then into tunnels again as we reached central London. The journey did not seem as long as it sometimes does and soon we were arriving at King’s Cross. We left the tube here and climbed the stairs to street level and made out way to the bus stop. We caught a 73 bus for the last short section of our journey.
It would not be fair to judge Vienna on such short acquaintance. We enjoyed exploring the city and visiting the Secession Building, the Clock Museum and even Klimt Villa. We admired the public transport system and enjoyed riding the trams. The people we dealt with were welcoming and helpful and seemed to enjoy talking to us in English. All in all it was a good experience. Will we ever go to Vienna again? I would not like to say no but, on the other hand, there are many other places to see, a longer list than we can ever exhaust.