Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Visit to Vienna, Dec 14th -16th

The weekend prior to our Portland family (Renee, David, Jack and Jane) visiting us for Christmas, we scheduled a trip to Vienna.  We left from Geneva on Friday morning and arrived in Vienna around 12:30.

We had hired a guide to give us a two-hour tour of the historical part of Vienna, on Friday afternoon, so we had a quick lunch before meeting up with her.

Our first stop was this plaza with a wall in the fore ground and background. The wall was built during the 13th century to protect the city. When the wall was built, the two walls in the picture were actually joined together, making the wall over 100 feet wide. The wall was almost 4 miles in length. The picture below shows the circular area where the wall was built.  It is called Ringstrasse (the Ring Road) and it surrounds the old city of Vienna.

In 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (more on him later) ordered the demolition of the city wall. The Ringstrasse and the planned buildings were intended to be a showcase for the grandeur and glory of the Habsburg Empire.

The solid white ring inside the purple ring indicates the Ringstrasse.

Our guide Martha, on the left, is telling us about St Stephens Church.  During our two hours with her she provided has a lot of information of the old city of Vienna.   As we have said before, we find it quite advantages to hire a guide when we only have a limited amount of time to spend in a city.

St. Stephen's Cathedral
It is said to be one of the greatest Gothic churches in Europe.  It is located in the center of the city. St. Stephen's is the most important religious building in Vienna.  It is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna.
Construction was started in 1359, but in 1511 construction in the Gothic style ceased and all additional construction was in the Renaissance style. 
During the 18th century, the cathedral was decorated with Baroque altarpieces - the panel of the main altar shows the stoning of its namesake St. Stephen, the first martyr of Christendom.
During WWII the cathedral sustained heavy damage due to Allied bombings.  According to Martha, after the war,     every major city provided the materials to repair the cathedral, so all Austrians feel like they are part of the cathedral.
The cathedral is built of limestone, it is 350 ft long, 131 ft wide, and 445 ft tall at its highest point. Over the centuries, soot and other forms of air pollution accumulating on the church have given it a black color, but it is currently undergoing a restoration project to returned it to its original white color.

The Pestsaule (German for plague column).

It is one of the most well-known and prominent pieces of sculpture in the city.
The Great Plague of Vienna brought the imperial city to its knees. Death toll estimates ranged from 12,000 to 75,0000 people. The killer is thought to be the same Bubonic Plague that raged first in the 14th century, and came back again, in the 17th. All across Europe, outbreaks of disease crippled towns, but Vienna, as a trade cross-road was perfectly placed for a true epidemic.

The Viennese Plague is notable for some of the first modern approaches to controlling the outbreak. While still wildly feared and treated largely with a mixture of religious speculation and leeches, city doctor Paul de Sorbait made the first inroads on sanitation measures to control the spread of disease. The Brotherhood of the Holy Trinity created special plague hospitals to care for the infected, and deal with the bodies of the dead - most of which were burned outside of city limits in giant plague pits. Not great, but an improvement on the "just leave them there and don't touch them" approach.

The 69 foot tall tower was erected in 1693 in the place of a simpler column, that was erected during the plague, by the Brotherhood. The figures at the base represent the triumph of faith over disease, while the mid-portion of the sculpture is dedicated to coats of arms and a praying figure of Emperor Leopold I - who, it should be noted, must have been doing that praying from a distance, as he fled the city during the outbreak. 

It is topped by golden cherubs and other religious figures.

The Vergilius Chapel.

In 1973, during excavation works for the U-Bahn station (Vienna’s subway system) a medieval chapel was discovered 40 feet under current ground level next to St. Stephen's Cathedral.

In the early 13th century, a small church dedicated to St Mary Magdalene was built above ground. Historians are not sure when the underground chapel was built, but it lay directly under the church and a vertical shaft connected the two buildings.

The Magdalene Chapel was destroyed by fire in 1781 and was not rebuilt. The Virgilius Chapel survived with hardly any damage and provides an excellent glance into the world of the Middle Ages.
Today there is a white mosaic (see next picture), near St. Stephen's Cathedral, showing the outlines of the Virgilius Chapel. 

Outline of the church that was below ground.

Hofburg Palace
It is located near Vienna’s city center.  It has housed some of the most powerful people in European and Austrian history, including the Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1526 to 1918. It currently serves as the official residence of the President of Austria. It was the Habsburgs' principal winter residence.
The palace complex is quite large, boasting some 2,600 rooms; it has been modified and added onto consistently after the first building went up in 1279. The palace faces the Heldenplatz, which is one of Vienna's most historical squares. It was here, for example, where Adolf Hitler announced the annexation of Austria to Germany, which occurred in 1938.
Other important rooms include the Treasury which contains some of the most impressive jewels anywhere in Europe. Among the sparkling exhibits is a priceless imperial crown, dating back to 962, that is encrusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. Hitler stole it in 1938, but the American Army eventually returned the crown to Vienna.
Next to the Treasury is the Imperial Chapel, and it is here where the famous Vienna Boys' Choir performs. They sing at Sunday Mass between the months of September and March.

Also housed in the palace is the Spanische Reitschule, or Spanish Riding School. This is where the Lipizzaner stallions, for the last four centuries, are trained and hold performances.

Emperor Franz Joseph at Age 23.

One of the most famous Habsburg’s to reside in the palace was Franz Joseph I who ruled the Habsburg dynasty from 1848 to 1916.  He reigned longer than any of the other Habsburgs.

In 1853, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the domineering mother of 23-year-old Emperor Franz Joseph, preferring to have a niece as a daughter-in-law rather than a stranger, arranged a marriage between her son and her sister Ludovika's eldest daughter, Helene.  Although the couple had never met, Franz Joseph's obedience was taken for granted by the archduchess.

When he met Helene, they did not make a connection, however, he was instantly infatuated with her sister Elisabeth, known as Sisi, who was only 15 years old.  He did not propose to Helene, but defied his mother and informed her that if he could not have Elisabeth, he would not marry at all. Five days later their betrothal was officially announced. The couple was married eight months later in Vienna on 24 April 1854.

Franz Joseph was troubled by nationalism (the desire for political independence) during his entire reign. He concluded The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 (lasting from 1867 to 1918), which granted greater autonomy to Hungary, hence transforming the Austrian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian Empire under his Dual Monarchy. (A Dual monarchy occurs when two separate kingdoms are ruled by the same monarch, follow the same foreign policy, exist in a customs union with each other and have a combined military but are otherwise self-governing).
On June 28, 1914, the assassination of the heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the youngest brother of Franz Joseph) at the hands of Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, resulted in Austria-Hungary's declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia, which was Russia's ally. This activated a system of alliances which resulted in World War I.
Franz Joseph suffered three major tragedies in his life; In 1867 his brother, Maximilian I, the monarch of the Second Mexican Empire, was executed by Benito Juarez, who sought to restore Mexico as a republic, In 1889 the suicide of his son, Crown Prince Rudolf and in 1898 the assassination of his wife, the Empress Elisabeth
Franz Joseph died on November 21, 1916, after ruling his domains for almost 68 years. He was succeeded by his grand-nephew Karl, but two years later, after defeat in World War I; the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was dissolved, thus ending the long reign of the Habsburg’s.

Elisabeth of Austria - Age 20

At 5 feet 8 inches, Elisabeth was unusually tall (she was taller than her husband); even after four pregnancies she maintained her weight at approximately 110 pounds for the rest of her life. She achieved this through fasting and rigorous exercise.

She also practiced what could be called a true beauty cult, but one that was solitary and prone to bizarre, eccentric, and almost mystic routines. Daily care of her abundant and extremely long hair, which in the time turned from the dark blonde of her youth, to chestnut brown, took at least three hours. Her hair was so long and heavy that she often complained that the weight of the elaborate double braids and pins gave her headaches.
After the death of her only son in 1889, she never recovered from the tragedy; she sank ever deeper into melancholy. Within one year, she had lost her mother, her father, her sister, and now her son. After Rudolf's death she dressed only in black for the rest of her life.
In 1898, despite warnings of possible assassination attempts, the sixty-year-old Elisabeth traveled incognito to Geneva, Switzerland. She stayed at the Hotel Beau-Rivage, where she had been a guest the year before.
At 1:35 p.m. on Saturday, 10 September 1898, Elisabeth and Sztaray, her lady in waiting, left the hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch the steamship Geneve bound for Montreux. Since the empress did "not like processions," her servants had already been ordered to leave by train for neighboring Territet, a city just south of Montreux.
They were walking along the promenade when the 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni approached them, attempting to peer underneath the empress's parasol. According to Sztaray, as the ship's bell announced the departure, Lucheni seemed to stumble and made a movement with his hand as if he wanted to maintain his balance. In reality, he had stabbed Elisabeth with a sharpened needle file that was 4 inches long (used to file the eyes of industrial needles) that he had inserted into a wooden handle.  She was pronounced dead at 2:10pm
An autopsy was performed the next day, they discovered that the weapon, which had not yet been found, had penetrated 3.33 inches into Elisabeth's thorax, fractured the fourth rib, pierced the lung and pericardium and penetrated the heart from the top before coming out the base of the left ventricle. Because of the sharpness and thinness of the file the wound was very narrow.

After we completed our tour of the palace, we headed for the Christmas Markets.

The next few pictures were taken at the largest and oldest Christmas Market in Vienna.  A Christmas market was held here as early as 1772.

The next three pictures show the Christmas decorations on three of Vienna's major streets.
Christmas decorations on Kohlmarkt Street. Many of the upscale stores are located on this street.

Decorations on Graben Street.

Decorations on Habsburger Street

Vienna State Opera House.

The weather on Saturday was mostly drizzle, however, it was not as cold as it was on Friday.  

Our first stop was the Opera House.  We thought we could take a tour of the building, but it was closed.

We went back to St Stephan's Cathedral in order to climb the bell tower to get a better view of the city. The next three pictures were taken from the bell tower.

The High Altar in St. Stephen's Cathedral.
The High Altar was built over seven years from 1641 to 1647 as part of the first refurbishment of the cathedral in the baroque style. The altar was built with marble from Poland, Syria and Tyrol. 

The High Altar represents the stoning of the church's patron St. Stephen. It is framed by figures of the patron saints of the surrounding areas, Saints Leopold, Florian, Sebastian and Rochus, and surmounted with a statue of St. Mary which draws the beholder's eye to a glimpse of heaven where Christ waits for Stephen (the first martyr) to ascend from below.

The Wiener Neustadter Altar, located in the left chapel of  St. Stephen's.

The altar was ordered in 1447 by Emperor Frederick III. Frederick ordered it for the Cistercian Viktring Abbey (near Klagenfurt, about 200 miles SW of Vienna) where it remained until the abbey was closed in 1786 as part of Emperor Joseph II's anti-clerical reforms. It was then sent to the Cistercian monastery of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (founded by Emperor Frederick III) in the city of Wiener Neustadt (located about 40 miles south of Vienna) and finally sold in 1885 to St. Stephen's Cathedral when the Wiener Neustadt monastery was closed after merging with Heiligenkreuz Abbey.

The altar is composed of two triptychs (Greek for three-fold), the upper being four times taller than the lower one. When the lower panels are opened, the Gothic grate of the former reliquary depot above the altar is revealed. The panels are opened here and show gilded wooden figures depicting events in the life of the Virgin Mary. 

Its restoration begun on its 100th anniversary, in 1985 and took 20 years, 10 art restorers, 40,000 man-hours, and €1.3 million (equal to $2.1 million in today’s US dollar) to complete, primarily because its large surface (1,080 square feet).

Roman Ruins on Michaelerplatz (St. Michael’s Square).

Pictured above are oldest remains, which were uncovered in the early 1990’s, in front of the Hofburg Palace. It’s the base wall from a 2000 year old Roman house. These excavations help bring to light how progressive the Romans were when they first built the city. Not only did they have a heated floor, but the walls of the house could be heated as well. Located behind a clear piece of protective plastic (not visible in the above picture), is an example of Roman interior decoration; green vines painted on the wall, which helped to fill the room with color.

St. Peter's Church

The oldest church building (of which nothing remains today) dates back to the Early Middle Ages, and there is speculation that it could be the oldest church in Vienna.

This church was replaced with a Romanesque church by Charlemagne around 800. This church burned down in 1661 and was given only makeshift repairs. The decision to build a new church was taken up with the arrival of the Fraternity of the Holy Trinity of which the Emperor Leopold I was a member. He had taken a vow to rebuild this church when Vienna was ravaged by the plague in 1679-1680.

The construction of the new Baroque church was begun around 1701 and was completed by 1722. The design was inspired by St Peter's Basilica in Rome.  The new church was the first domed structure in Vienna. Due to the confinement of available space, it was built in a very compact form, with its oval interior housing an astonishing amount of space.
The church will seat 400 people.  It is 160 ft long, 66 ft wide and 186 ft tall.  The outer height of the dome is 177 ft.

The High Altar in St Peter’s.

The altarpiece portrays the Healing of the Lame by St. Peter and St. John in Jerusalem.

Vienna Christmas Market.

At the traditional Vienna Magic of Advent, the Rathausplatz (the square in front of Vienna's City Hall) becomes a shining fairytale land. The 150 or so sales booths offer Christmas gifts, Christmas tree decorations, sweets and warming drinks. The trees of the surrounding City Hall park are festively decorated and radiate in a sea of lights. 

"Merry Christmas"

Vienna's Beautiful City Hall, with the Christmas Market in Front.

Palais Auersperg (The Place on Auersperg Street).

We decided that being in Vienna requires us to attend a concert.  So, Saturday night we went to this palace to hear The Vienna Residence Orchestra, reported to be one of the best orchestras in Vienna, with famous opera singers and ballet performed in period costumes. 

They preformed music mostly from Mozart and Strauss.  The concert lasted almost 1 1/2 hours, but they were so good that the time just flew by.

On Sunday, prior to heading to the airport to catch our flight back to Geneva, we stopped to have a hot drink and a treat.  Paula had a Cappuccino and I had hot chocolate, which was served in this large pitcher

Paula had the traditional Apple Strudel and I, the chocolate lover, had what was called the Imperial Torte.

Legend has it that a kitchen apprentice created the Imperial Torte in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph I on the occasion of the Hotel Imperial's opening. Though the recipe is a closely guarded secret, so much can be revealed: fine milk chocolate first melts on the tongue accented by the delicate bitterness of almonds, while marzipan and cacao cream complement perfectly the irresistible creation.

 Thus, our short trip to Vienna come to a close.


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  2. Hi there,

    My name is Emily, I work for a UK TV company called Hat Trick. I am currently making a BBC panel show and would like to use your stills of the waiter with the pepper grinder. You can email me at to discuss this further. Thanks very much

    Emily Pickthall
    Assistant Producer
    Room 101
    Hat Trick Productions | 33 Oval Road | Camden | NW1 7EA

  3. Hi there,

    My name is Emily, I work for a UK TV company called Hat Trick. I am currently making a BBC panel show and would like to use your stills of the waiter with the pepper grinder. You can email me at to discuss this further. Thanks very much

    Emily Pickthall
    Assistant Producer
    Room 101
    Hat Trick Productions | 33 Oval Road | Camden | NW1 7EA