Vienna – the Center of Europe: A mighty emperor and his noble entourage

My Austrian friends that have shown me so much around my own home town, Basel, are now taking me to Austria. Under their knowledgeable guidance I set out to discover Vienna.

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My “old” perception of Vienna as a peripheral town – and now I understand why the Turks attacked Vienna twice – this would have been strategic for conquering Europe

Somewhat Vienna had always been peripheral in my perception: It was located close to the Eastern border of a small country – Austria – and this border in addition was the impermeable Iron Curtain until 1989. Though I knew that Vienna was the main seat of the Habsburgians that we, the Swiss, fought against in the 13th, 14th and 15th century – a long time ago. Though I knew that the Habsburgians provided emperors  to the German Holy Empire for about 400 years. Though I knew that in today’s Vienna you find famous theatres, opera houses and museums, white dancing horses and famous coffee houses selling “heavy” sweets. And – yes – though I knew this joke about Crown Prince Otto von Habsburg who is accredited of having said: “A football match Austria-Hungary – interesting – and who is the opponent?”.

Yes, I know that Vienna must have played an important part in history, but nevertheless during my lifetime it was the rather peripheral capital of Austria, a country not much larger than Switzerland.

Now I understand better. It becomes obvious when seeing the historical center of Vienna. The Habsburgians resided in the Hofburg which is a huge castle that has grown over the centuries and that is the ostentatious manifestation of imperial power. Around the Hofburg I discover a cluster of luxurious baroque styled palaces that the noblemen built to be close to the imperial center of power. The streets here are narrow, but not as narrow as in the medieval centers of towns such as in my home town Basel. I immediately fall in love with the charm of the Vienna city center (or district one)with its palaces, coffee places and k&k court providers (k&k Hoflieferanten).

The Turks knew, how important Vienna was as a gate to Christian Europe and attacked it twice, in 1529 (they gave up, when the winter started) and in 1683 (they were defeated by an allied army led by King Sobieski from Poland). Austria was then able to expand gaining possessions from the Ottomans (also thanks to Prince Eugen of Savoy) and Eastern Europe (Galicia). It became one of the European Great Powers – still continuing to provide emperors to the Holy German Empire until 1806. They continued to be the emperor of Austria and the king of Hungary (k&k stands for Kaiser – emperor and König – king). However after having lost the battle of Königsgrätz in 1866, the Austrian emperor never became emperor of the new German Nation now excluding Austria. Instead it was Wilhelm II from the Prussian family of Hohenzollern who took over and became the last emperor of Germany.

After the Second World War, Vienna became this city close to the Iron Curtain, now cut off from their former hinterland. Today the international flavour is back in Vienna and we hear al lot of slawic languages and also Hungarian.

Yes, I immediately fall in love with the charm of this city center with the castle, its palaces, coffee places and k&k court providers. Let us stroll through the district one.

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The imperial Hofburg of Vienna is celebrating the “eternal emperor” Franz Josef I

The “eternal emperor” with his characteristic  sideburns is now omnipresent in the Hofburg, as it has been a hundred years ago that he died after having reigned for almost 70 years.

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The neighboring Albertina is named after Duke Albert of Saxen-Teschen. We visit the luxury rooms (Prunksäle) – and they are luxurious, indeed.

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Emperor Franz-Josef hated that servants permanently followed him to ask, whether he wants to drop this or that – he just invented “silent servants” and dropped this or that on them. Very practical.

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Amongst Albert’s private collection I find the “Hare” by Albrecht Dürer. I have grown up with a copy of this hare – great to see the original. You can see every single hair of his fur and almost would love to take one of them with you as a souvenir.

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The Albertina in addition hosts an exhibition from pointillists to impressionists and also Picasso. Well curated and well worth a visit.

In the imperial library I almost get lost: So many books and ladders leading to the tops of the shelves!

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The library hosts an exhibition about the life and reign of emperor Franz-Josef. He was a handsome young man who had to take over the empire at the age of 17. He married Sissi – a dream couple at the time. But he lost her and his son, the crown prince – very sad. He loved nature and I like this portrait of him hunting.

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The lush palaces around the Hofburg

It is great to stroll through the narrow streets around the Hofburg and see all the palaces of the noblemen that wanted to be close to the center of power. Some of the palaces are reflecting in the glass facades of more modern buildings.

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We visit the Kinsky palace. This is the gate…

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… and the decoration inside.

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The Kinsky palace hosts auction exhibitions.

Located on a hill outside the very city center we visit the Castle Belvedere. It is the palace of Prince Eugen who around 1700 fought many victorious battles for the Austrian emperors, also against the Turks. Inside the upper palace there are exhibitions of sacral art, of impressionists and – also here – portraits of emperor Franz-Josef. The pond is covered with life jackets installed by the Chinese artist Wai-wai.

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Prince Eugen has selected a beautiful place for his Belvedere – the view of Vienna is great, indeed, with the Stephansdom and the Kahlenberg.

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The lower palace Belvedere is reflecting in the pond.

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Culture and K.u.K. court providers

Around the Hofburg are theatres (famous is the Burgtheater) and opera houses – the name of Franz-Josef is again omnipresent.

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The imperial court was an economic factor as it needed many services such as tailors, butchers, this K.u.K. Court Barber…

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… or the famous K.u.K. Hofzuckerbäckerei or Chocolate Provider Demel – his chocolate looks enticing.

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Note that in Vienna the puff paste around Apfelstrudel is almost inexistent – it is very, very thin – Demel knows how to prepare it.

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There are so many cosy coffe places in the city. This one of them, Griensteidl.

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Where the citizens live

The “normal” citizens live outside the former city walls – and, when wealthy, they live in huge appartments. This is such a house – and they have added a modern apartment on top.

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Sommerfrische

In summer, the emperors, noblemen and wealthy citizens loved to stay in the mountains and at the lakes. This habit is called “Sommerfrische”. Well – you can really refresh yourself at places like this – the Mondsee near Salzburg.

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