The last time I was in Vienna, Tom Cruise was here making a “Mission Impossible” movie and my daughter, Mary, and I, along with hundreds of other onlookers, watched one evening as he ran (repeatedly) across the top of Staatsoper, the famous Vienna State Opera house, doing take after take of a stunt scene. I still haven’t seen the movie with this now-famous scene, but John and I will be in the Vienna State Opera House tomorrow night for the opera, Rigoletto.
There is so much to love about Vienna
So many palaces, primarily the Belvedere and the two Habsburg palaces including the Hofburg in the center of the city and Schonbrun, the court’s summer home a few miles outside of the center. In addition, there is St. Stephen’s Cathedral, multiple notable art museums, a remarkable classical music culture, and lovely restaurants and coffee shops featuring famous dishes including Weiner Schnitzel and Sacher Torte, a local chocolate cake.
It’s ridiculously easy to get around here, thanks to Vienna’s remarkable transportation system of buses, trams, and subways that run on a virtual honor system. We spent $17 each for a week-long pass, good for all modes of transportation, and all we have to do is have our pass with us – no turnstiles or cards to punch. We’ve ridden on the system all week and no one has checked our pass yet.
Downton Abbey, step aside for the Habsburgs
It’s impossible to experience much in Vienna without learning something about the Habsburg family who ruled much of Europe for centuries, creating a nighttime soap-worthy family history along the way. One of the more famous Habsburgs, Maria Theresa, was the only woman ever to rule the empire. She reigned as Holy Roman Empress from 1745 to 1765. With her husband, Charles of Spain, she had 16 children, ten of whom survived to adulthood, and was such a strong ruler that her rival, the Prussian emperor, said of her “When at last the Habsburgs get a great man, it’s a woman.” She expanded her empire, while keeping peace, by strategically marrying her children off to rulers in other European states, most notably her daughter Marie Antoinette who came to an untimely end in the French Revolution. Oh, and she also found time to completely remodel and expand Schonbrun.
Fast-forward about 80 years, and Maria Theresa’s great-great grandson, Franz Josef ascended to the throne in 1848 and, six years later, married his sixteen-year-old first cousin, Elizabeth, known as Sisi. Sisi, considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, was consumed with maintaining her 20-inch waist and caring for her ankle-length hair. She was miserable most of the time due to friction with her domineering aunt/mother-in-law and her dislike of life in the royal court. Today she would have been diagnosed with anorexia, body dysmorphia, social anxiety, and depression. Her only son and heir to the throne, Rudolph, died in what appeared to be a suicide pact with his mistress. Later, Sisi was murdered in Geneva at age 61 by an Italian anarchist who, bizarrely, had intended to murder someone else as a political statement but, at the last minute, decided to murder Sisi, who happened to be visiting Geneva at the time. Franz Joseph was heartbroken after suffering the losses of his son, his wife, and also his brother Maximilian who had, at the urging of his wife, accepted an opportunity to become the King of Mexico, only to be executed there just two years later.
Franz Joseph spent his last years as a workaholic, arising at 3:30 a.m., putting in 14 to 16-hour days engaged in affairs of state and spending several hours a day in audience with his subjects. He died in 1916 during World War I and was succeeded by his great nephew, Charles I, who became heir to the throne only after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an act that triggered a turn of events leading to WWI. The nephew, Charles I, was forced to “renounce participation” as a monarch in 1918 at the end of WWI. He died in 1922 at the young age of 35 while in exile on the island of Madeira. As he died, his last words to his wife, who was pregnant with their eighth child, were, “I love you so much.”
Nighttime soap material? I think so.
On a lighter note, a visit to a heuriger
Vienna is clearly so well-loved by so many people that some of their stronger-draw attractions, such as all of the Old Town and Schonbrun Palace can be Disney-esque in the size and nature of the crowds. Looking to get away from the mob scene for a while, we decided last evening to visit a heuriger, which is a wine tavern, often with outdoor seating and near the vineyards. A heuriger is permitted to serve new wine under a special license. Most heurigers also offer food for sale, buffet style, in addition to the wine.
Getting to Weinhof Zimmerman, the heuriger we chose, took some effort. We rode the subway, then a bus, then walked an additional ten minutes to get there. It took a little over an hour. The travel to get there turned out to be a lot of the fun, with the refreshing experience of seeing people and neighborhoods away from the hordes of tourists in the city center. The heuriger itself was a real treat. We had concerns that we might be trading in one type of tourist excursion for another, but when we arrived, there was nary a tour bus in sight. In fact, there was a very small crowd at the outdoor tables and most of the people appeared to be locals. We had a lovely evening tasting the wine and enjoying the scenery of the beautiful, terraced vineyards.
A morning at the Albertina
This morning we visited the Albertina (art) museum, the former palace of Albert and Maria Christina, hence the name Albertina. There were two excellent special exhibits: Monet to Picasso and Rubens to Makart, the latter a special exhibit of art from the Princely Collections of Lichtenstein in celebration of the Lichtenstein tricentennial.
Top 10 experiences in Vienna
- Seeing Rigoletto at the Vienna State Opera – it isn’t until tomorrow night, but seeing a favorite opera at one of the world’s great opera houses – how can we miss?
- Touring Schonbrun, the opulent summer home of the Habsburg family on a beautiful day
- Finding the cozy and delicious Ofenloch restaurant (open since 1704) on a side street near the city center on a chilly, rainy day and having a delicious lunch
- Lovely evening at the Wienhof Zimmerman heuriger amidst the beautiful, terraced vineyards
- Wandering the streets in the neighborhood of Mariahilfestrasse where our Airbnb is located with its shops and restaurants
- Enjoying a mélange (basically a cappuccino) and a slice of Sacher Torte (local chocolate cake) in the historic Central Café a café formerly frequented by Freud and, later, Trotsky
- Touring the Hofburg (Habsburg Palace) with its colossal silver and porcelain collections and grand apartments
- Taking a tram ride all the way around the city ring
- A walk in Stadtpark (City Park) on a beautiful spring evening with its statues of Vienna’s musical luminaries through the ages
- Shopping in the historic Naschmarkt, an open-air market here in Vienna since the 16th century which is five minutes from our Airbnb
One month on the road
Yesterday, May 2, marked one month since we left the United States. In that time, we have visited Portugal, France, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. We’ve seen a bunch of things and had great meals. We have walked 177 miles, or about 6 miles per day. And we are having a ton of fun – thanks to all of you who are following our journey!