The ‘World’s Most Livable City’ was as one would expect; the striking architecture, regal palaces and amenities lend a beauty to Vienna that few other cities could hope even to compete with. Marry this with the compact proximity of the most notable monuments, almost all of which are clustered around the city centre, and it also becomes one whose defining features are within reach.
The first night there I visited Stephansdom, the church that is arguably the most famous monument throughout Austria. St. Stephen’s cathedral is a beloved landmark that has been around since the 12th century, and it represents one of the finest examples of the gothic mode of architecture. Though it was damaged by bombing in WW2, its restoration was successful, and presently it has become a symbol of hope, a testament to the country’s ability to come back from the ruins of conflict.
The next day I sought out the Belvedere, a baroque palace built for a Prince with ties to the Habsburg monarchy, the rulers of Austria. Eugene of Savoy had recently completed a series of wars against the Ottoman Empire, a campaign which ended successfully. The proceeds from his victories were channeled into the development of the complex, which has been around since the start of the 18th century, and is now open for public view. As such, housed in lower Belvedere is a musuem whose chief attraction is ‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt, the artist at the head of the secessionist movement, but more about that later. I am not overly fond of art, but I appreciate masterworks all the same. If only for what it represents, the expression of an emotion present in us all, this is one.
As for the palace itself it was divided into upper and lower Belvedere, in their time the former had been the orangery while the latter had constituted the palace stables. These were on either side of the well kept gardens lined with shrubs and fountains among other things. The extent of the garden verged on superfluity and led one to question what you could actually do with it all. Tourists walked about in their droves, caps and hats on under the sun, and yet all of them still failed to take up any meaningful amount of space in the expanse of that path. It was unnecessary, but definitely a nice problem to have. In truth, I found it charming and it must have seemed that way to many over the centuries. I suppose it appealed to me so much I wanted it for myself but no matter, as with everything we want it would have bored me after a while. It must have been the same to those that lived here, it likely became commonplace to them. We lust over it only because it is beyond our experience to live in a place like it and human nature wants what it can’t have. It’s all a matter of what you’re used to.
Karschirche, St. Charles church, was built in the wake of the plague epidemic by those who survived to show gratitude toward providence. While many lives had been lost, they felt they had been shown mercy. As such, they named it after the patron saint of the fight against the plague who they felt had interceded on their behalf. After a competition between architects that wanted to build it was won by Johann Fischer von Erlach, the man who set forth the inital plans for Schonbrunn Palace, construction was completed over two decades later, though the finishing touches were applied by his son after his death. The baroque masterpiece complete with a dome and roman columns, which apparently represented the saints qualities of steadfastness and courage, was finished in 1737. Outside were statues of angels while inside various paintings were placed across the walls and a cupola with frescoes was above.
The Secession building was built by artists that rebelled against the fine art institutions of Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. Gustav Klimt was at their helm and sought to encourage artistic independence in a time when he saw mediocrity on display. ‘Radicalism’ was then to champion only the very best and most worthy artworks, rather than the ones painted by those best known. Artistic freedom was for him necessary in the creation of masterpieces, but the critics in place placed constraints on what could be done and preferred certain styles over others. As a result, Klimt broke from the recognised institutions and set up his own exhibit, where art could find free expression. As such, inscripted on the prologue to an exhibition here were the words ‘To each era its art, To art its freedom’.
The National history museum of Austria, called the Kunsthistorisches Museum, was the last item on the itinerary for the day. Perhaps as a result, there was less time to take it all in than I would have liked. In the end I managed to see just about everything, but so briefly that I could almost be said not to have seen anything at all. I was in such a rush walking around the many exhibitions that I rarely stopped in one place for more than a few minutes. When I did I quickly read the descriptions of whatever it was I was neglecting to really look at. I took pictures though and I suppose that accounts for my inability to remember what I never saw. The relics of the past surrounding me reminded me that no matter how long ago they were made the course of history extends far beyond our experience as a race, so that all our memories cover no space of time in the grand scheme of existence. That’s what I like most about museums; they set into perspective how insignificant we really are and leave us in awe of the fact so that, realising nothing matters, that therefore nothing is in our way, we can begin to make our marks on history, if only our own.
Schloss Schonbrunn was built as a summer residence for the Habsburg family and is among the most historic monuments in the country, having consistently been a popular attraction for tourists since it was opened to the public in the 1950s. At the cafe I treated myself to some red wine whose effects wore off too quickly for my liking. While the various rooms of the palace were crowded with people on guided tours, and therefore oppressive, the interior was easy on the eye. Despite this, the rooms themselves were relatively dull when held up to the palace gardens, which were brimming with life that was variegated and in bloom. A great deal of plants and flowers populated the lawns and the red and white ones were arranged in such a way that various streaks across the grass were made to resemble the Austrian flag.
Hundertwasserhaus was created by the artist to celebrate nature and encourage us to live in line with it, rather than ignore our roots. The aim of the house is then to help us rediscover the longing we have for a life in harmony with nature, of which we are inextricably part. Though we have evolved and gradually mastered our environment so that we can live away from nature, it is still important for our wellbeing. Merely seeing a plant can calm us down because of what the same sight had meant to our ancestors; signs of life and therefore sustenance. When it comes down to it we remain animals, and no amount of metropolitan living will undo our attachment to nature. Returning to it then keeps us from dissembling, from lying to ourselves about that need. The concrete jungles we live in, filled with moving metal, are alien to our primitive consciousness and absurd in the light of our species experiences till now, while nature will forever make sense. Perhaps that is why we are so depressed, we run away from what we are used to in order to surround ourselves with lifeless objects that do nothing for us, corporate jobs that keep us in debt, and grey buildings in which we while away the best part of our lives. Ironically, we reject our needs for green paper whose origin is the very thing we are missing.
The Hofburg was the main imperial palace in Vienna when the Habsburgs had been in rule and is now the workplace and residence of the President of Austria. It was first opened in 1279 and has since undergone many developments and expansions. Consequently, the grand complex of buildings presently takes up a substantial area of the city centre. The growth of the dynasty had meant successive emperors added to their content. Swiss gates near the entrance are a nod to the guards employed by the monarchs in the 18th century. The Austrian national library housed here possesses historic manuscripts of inestimable worth. The parks surrounding the palace, called the Burggarten and Volksgarten, are now where parts of the palace had previously stood before Napoleonic troops blew them to pieces. Though malice had been intended and enacted, that destruction nevertheless led to beautiful public gardens now.
The hidden gem in this lively city was Prater, a colourful fairground that could satisfy any adrenaline junkie. One of the more extreme rides teased you by slowly rising to the top and coming to a standstill for a while when it reached there, in order to make the sudden dramatic drop that much more pronounced. The feeling as it plummeted was almost beyond expression; your body just does not have the time to adjust, it is filled with so much adrenaline that you are robbed of the time to think and understand what is happening over those few seconds of intense sensory experience. It is fear in its purest form so why the feeling of excitement? We detest fear, yet run toward it when we see pretty lights. Predictably, this contradiction has explanation in nature. Our primal selves are unused to a peaceful environment in which we are rarely at risk. We then seek out thrilling experiences precisely because these rides offer us controlled fear, an adrenaline rush without our being in danger, which puts us in mind of our past. Paradoxically, these metal cages spiralling around steel beams, which if we are being logical it makes no sense to strap ourselves into, are loved by us because our natures are still used to a more chaotic life, where the physical sensations of fear were familiar. As such we look to regulate it so that we can fully live out the emotion of fear, which we experience in a less obvious way in modern society. Unsuprisingly, this thrill-seeking is a uniquely human phenomenon. Perhaps facing our fear satisfies us because that sense of control, though illusory, gives us a hold on an emotion prone to running riot in a world that has changed rapidly, while in a biological sense we have lagged behind.
Vienna deserves its reputation as one of the most affluent and livable cities. The transport in general presented no problems and once you got to the centre of the city there was no shortage of things to do. The vast expenditure of those in power in the past has meant that the city is the epitome of decadence. The grandeur of the capital and the opulence betrayed by its many regal buildings make it unforgettable. You would do well to imagine a place more beautiful.