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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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!


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.



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.


We visit the Kinsky palace. This is the gate…


… and the decoration inside.



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.


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


The lower palace Belvedere is reflecting in the pond.



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.


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


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


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


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



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.




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.



Two Swiss – discovering the history and stunning scenery of Innsbruck

Tyrolia is a great destination for ski touring – Mario takes us to Praxmar near Innsbruck

With our mountain guide from the Bernese Oberland, Mario, we travel to Praxmar near Innsbruck. We stay in the comfy and friendly Alpengasthof Praxmar and share dinner for several evenings at this beautiful table.


I join the team for two ski tours – towards the Lampsenspitze – this is the view from the top…


…. and to Zischgeles – this is a foto that shows us shortly before reaching the saddle with the ski depot.


Thank you, Mario, for having provided me with these fotos.

But then – I feel my Achilles tendon – I had strained it too much, when doing cross country skiing. Well, there is always something else to do: It takes half an hour by car to get to Innsbruck, and this is a town with a lot of history in a stunning alpine setting. Something new to discover. Niklas joins me.

The Alpgasthof has a handy map, gives us hints for our excursion and organizes a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide, Elisabeth Grassmayr. I buy “Innsbruck – der  Stadtführer” by Monika Frenzel (Tyrolia Verlag). The “Stadtführer” is my primary source, along with the input of the tour guide and of Dr. Google.


Innsbruck is strategic on the way to the Brenner pass and, belonging to Tyrolia, became part of the Habsburgian possessions

Already in Roman times, Innsbruck (Oenipontum and nearby military post Veldidena – today Wilten) was a stopover on the way to the Brenner pass across the Alps. In the twelfth century Innsbruck was in the hands of the Bavarian counts of Andechs. Later the counts of Tyrol took over (hence the name “Tyrolia”), and in 1363 the dukes of Habsburg inherited Tyrolia. In 1420 they moved their Tyrolian residence from Meran to Innsbruck.


Rendez-vous with German emperor Maximilian I – also well-known to me from Switzerland

Around 1500, the German emperor Maximilian I used Innsbruck as his second residence.

I have “met” emperor Maximilian before. I know him from the Swabian War (Schwabenkriege). He lost the battle at the Bruderholz and the battle of Dornach near Basel in 1499 and had to definitively give up the original Habsburgian family possessions in Switzerland.  But outside Switzerland Maximilian was able to strengthen the position of the Habsburgians paving the way for his grand-son Karl V (later the sun would never set in Karl’s empire and Habsburg’s policy to arrange political marriages had become famous).

Now I had another rendez-vous with Maximilian in Innsbruck, as he is very present until today. To show his power, he built the “Goldenes Dachl” (“little golden roof”). It overlooks the main street (Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse). Whoever crossed the bridge and headed for the Brenner had to pass by under the Goldenes Dachl. Maximilian used the loggia to watch festivals or tornaments.


Maximilan’s grand-son, Frederic I, built the Hofkirche in memory of his grand-father.


Maximilian had planned his cenotaph as a memorial for the Habsburgian family. Its completion took 80 years, until 1584. It is the major attraction in the Hofkirche.


Maximilian is not buried here. This sarcophagus is empty (hence called “cenotaph”). A bronze statue of Maximilian kneels on top. Reliefs around it show scenes from his life. 28 bronze statues mourn around the cenotaph. They are either relatives (e.g. his wives and parents) and ancestors (e.g. king Rudolf I) or leaders that Maximilian admired (e.g. king Arthur). A detailed description of the “black men” (Schwarze Mander) is on the Website “The World of the Habsburgers“. Renowned Renaissance artists, among them Albrecht Dürer, participated in the work.

Our tour guide knows  every black man (and woman). As she points to Rudolf I, the first Habsburgian to be elected king of Germany (1271), I can proudly add that  my home town Basel was on good terms with Rudolf. He was just besieging Basel. The citizens heard that the duke outside their walls had become king and opened their gates. Rudolf’s wife Anna von Habsburg is buried in the cathedral of Basel, with little son Karl.

There is more to see in the Hofkirche: An old organ from the late 16th century, the tomb of Andreas Hofer (who fought to free Tyrolia from Bavaria in the early 19th century) and the silver chapel wth the tomb of Ferdinand II and his wife Philippine Welser.

Maximilian completed the Hofburg (Imperial Palace) around 1500. It was a gothic castle with a famous tower that was covered with emblems. In the 18th century Maria Theresia had the castle rebuilt in the baroque style. Principal magnet for visitors is the giants hall with paintings of the large family of Maria Theresa (she had given birth to 16 children). My guide knows every family member. She also takes me through the rooms – the tables are set for superb dinners and the sofas and chairs have been renovated based on faded examples found on the attic. This video gives an overview. And here is a foto of the Imperial Palace with the Northern Chains (Nordkette).


Maria-Theresa was the last Habsburgian. She married Francis from Lorraine. Today she is also present in Innsbruck: The “new town” centers around the “Maria-Theresien”-Strasse. In Innsbruck, her second son, Leopold (later Leopold II) married Maria Louisa of Spain, but a few days later Maria Theresa’s husband, emperor Francis, died.  Maria-Theresa was very, very sad. The triumphal arch at the end of Maria-Theresien-Strasse shows the wedding of Leopold and the death of Francis. Our tour guide still feels sorry for Maria-Theresa.

Today the “new town” area is great for shopping in all the arcades and in the old palaces that turned into shops. Roof top bars and restaurants provide a great view of Innsbruck stretching along the Inn and squeezed between the gorgeous mountain chains.


Maria Hilf picture (Maria Help) – a guest present from the duke of Saxony in Dresden to Leopold V, when he was bishop in Passau

The “Maria Hilf” picture by Cranach and its history made a great impression on me. Cranach’s Maria Hilf (Maria Help) picture is integrated on the altar of the baroque dome of Innsbruck.


“Maria Hilf” is an almost protestant painting – Cranach was a good friend of Luther’s and he painted Maria in a natural way – without a nimbus. How did this painting end up in the strongly catholic town of Innsbruck? This is the answer: Archduke Leopold V was bishop in Passau. When visiting the duke of Saxony in Dresden around 1600, he was given the “Maria Hilf” picture. He first took it to Passau, but when he became archduke of Tyrolia, he left a copy of “Maria Hilf” in Passau and took the original with him to Innsbruck. It is now adorning the choir of the dome of Innsbruck (very small). Usually there is a silver altar around Cranach’s “Maria Hilf”, but during fasting times, the painting around it is revealed – as it presents itself now.

Our tour guide gives me a copy of the “Maria Hilf” picture – in the dome it is so tiny that I could not discern any details.

Maria Hilf

And the tour guide showed me many houses in the city that are decorated with a copy of Cranach’s painting. An almost protestant painting made its way into a catholic stronghold. I enjoy seeing this – it gives hope.


Strolling through the old city center

It is a pleasure to stroll through the old city center. The Rokoko Helbling house dominates the Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse near the “Goldenes Dachl”. It once belonged to a rich merchant.


Across the Helbling house the Town Tower (Stadtturm) dominates the city line, next to the old townhall.


In the narrow Kiebachgasse we find the traditional restaurant “Weisses Rössl” (white small horse) where we enjoy Apfelstrudel and Palatschinken.



I read that the word “Palatschinken” is said to come from the Latin word “Placenta” or “cake”.

Later I come back and have a Blunzengröschtl (potatoes roasted with blood sausage and cheese, served with a cabbage salad). I first frowned a bit, but then found that it does not taste bad at all.



Innsbruck is surrounded by mountains – real mountains, about 2500m high!

While strolling through the city of Innsbruck, I hear the sound of heavy ski boots banging on the pavement. I look up. Yes, there is a skier going by, helmet on his head, boots at his feet, carrying skis and poles. His friend is not so noisy. He is a snow boarder with soft boots, helmet on his head, snow board under his arm. Others come in sneakers, while the ski boots hang over their shoulders. We are in the middle of a town of 130’000 inhabitants. What are the skiers and snowboarders doing here?

Well, Innsbruck is surrounded by real mountains, about 2500m high. Skiing areas are just above the town, to the north (Nordkette) and to the south (Patscherkofel). Other valleys such as the Sellraintal and the Ötztal are not far.

As the sun comes out, we can see the Nordkette just above the “Goldenes Dachl”. Our tour guide confirms, it takes her half an hour to go skiing there, and when there is snow in Innsbruck she can ski down into the garden of her house. She skis practically every day. I hear that students ski during their lunch break and then join the lessons again not taking off their ski boots. I am impresssed. I have always dreamed to live in a town that is so close to skiing opportunities…



Around – and above – Innsbruck

By car we drive south to Igls and see the Bergisel jump with Zaha Hadid’s viewpoint and restaurant.


Above Igls there is the Patscherkofel ski area. No wonder that Innsbruck has been selected for Olympic Winter Games – even twice, in 1964 and 1976.

We get onto the Brenner motorway and have to pay two Euros for about 5km, until we reach the main motorway of the Inn valley. Not everything is cheap in Austria…

To the north there is a cable railway that takes passengers from the city center to the Hungerburg (literally “castle of hunger”). Zaha Hadid has been here as well, as the train station shows (Basel has refused to build her proposal for the Town Casino).


At the Hungerburg train station I find a great view of Innsbruck with the river Inn and with the mountains in the south of the town…


… and a teleferic that leads up to this ski resort in the Northern Chain (Nordkette).



A stunning scenery…

Skiing high above a city… on the Website the scenery looks gorgeous. I may come back just to experience that – and then, in town in the evening, I can dive into the culture of Innsbruck that has played an important role in European history.