POSTCARD FROM BAVARIA
Part 1 – Vienna
Maps present a landscape, but writing about a place re-represents a place as it was experienced, the feel of a place as it registered in one’s muscles and bones. If we experience space as an idea, we experiences places through sensory impressions – the seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted. Here, then, are distillation of my memories, from Vienna to Salzburg, from Bavaria and Munich to Cologne.
Vienna is a ghost of glory past. This city of a dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors, of Maria Theresa’s many children, a gaggle of Strausses, of Brahms and Freud, still wears the trappings of empire, but now presides over a shrunken and politically insignificant Austria. The city is a melting pot, a residue of the old empire, filled with people whose grandparents came from Hungary, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Romania. A capital that once controlled the lives of 60 million people, the city now governs a country of less than 8 million. Still, the palaces and the cathedrals, the wide boulevards and art filled museums maintain the illusion that this is a place of power and glory.
SchØnbrunn, the Hapsburg summer palace, resplendid with its ochre walls (the color so favored by Maria Teresa), was the first stop on our itinerary. While I could appreciate the effect its gilded rooms and art filled walls depicting heroic battles has on the visitor, I was more impressed by the manicured acres of gardens culminating in the Glorietta at the top of the landscape, as well as the heroic fountains that, unfortunately, were turned off at the time of our visit. On the sun filled day, as we looked about the palace, it was easy to imagine the coaches of the nobility disgorging ladies in ball gowns and gentlemen in satin breeches and waistcoats, making their way into the palace, as strains of a Strauss waltz came drifting through the flower scented air.
Miki and son Peter can only be entertained for so long looking at ancient splendor before their demands for culinary satisfaction have to be satisfied. We made our way back to the center of the city, and resorted to our oft tried and always successful way of finding a good place to eat. Miki stuck her head inside a hair salon we were passing, and asked in her best German (pretty good after 13 years of attending a Deutsche Schule in Santiago) if the gentleman knew of a good place nearby for lunch. Indeed, the owner was more than happy to direct us to Boiste’s Beisl, located only a block away. He insisted we tell the restaurant proprietor that he had recommended us to him, and we would receive especially good treatment. This promise turned out to be true, and Miki was able to enjoy the first of what turned out to be many of her Wiener Schnitzels (breaded veal cutlet) of our trip. (Her insistence on ordering the same dish after finding one she likes, and refusal to venture beyond her first success, has been a source of much discussion between us, but I’ll spare you further details.) A Beisl is a uniquely Viennese tavern, sort of a cross between an English pub and a French brasserie. Ours was filled with stuffed animals and an obvious hunting motif. A marmot and a fox peeked over Peter’s shoulder during our meal, while various game birds festooned the walls and rafters of the place. The food was delicious, the price reasonable, and we all left with that self-satisfied glow that the ever-present Apfelstrudel endows on those that consume it.
As it was a sunny and balmy day, we chose to spend the afternoon wandering through Stadtpark, soaking in the rays on one of the many park benches, kept company by elder, well dressed couples partaking of the same inactivity, watching young mothers push baby strollers filled with pink cheeked cherubs amidst the swirling russets and golds of the fall leaves. A gilded statue of Johann Strauss stood beside us, appropriate for a musician whose stature at the time rivaled the greatest of our current rock stars. (It was said that so many ladies demanded locks of his curly dark hair that he was forced to give them clippings from his equally curly haired dog. His concert in Boston was a sell-out with 50,000 attendees!)
Many of our group chose to attend an evening concert of Mozart and Strauss, while Miki, Peter and I decided to walk through the city. There is something special about walking near sunset and taking pictures of the old part of the city, of ancient buildings with their long histories, their brilliant complications, their tragedy and sorrow. You can’t get a real feeling for a city without walking its streets, getting attuned to its rhythms, watching its people going about their daily business.
Vienna at night takes on a new character. Green-tinted lights illuminate the Hofburg, the giant complex of buildings built over 640 years that was the Hapsburg imperial palace. Stephanplatz and St. Stephan’s Cathedral are similarly lit up, as is the gothic confectionary of the Rathaus (city hall) and the nearby Votive Kirche (built in gratitude for an assassin’s missed bullet.) Street performers fill Stephanplatz, despite the half -hearted attempts of the local police to shoo them away. A young man plays a soulful gypsy tune on his violin, followed by a Mozart favorite. I leave some coins in his jar, grateful for his talent.
There are innumerable places in Vienna worthy of comment, but I’ll restrict myself to two. Belvedere means “beautiful view.” And this is exactly what awaits you if choose to visit Belvedere Palace, the showplace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Rejected by Louis XIV of France as being too short and ugly to be in his service, the young prince threw in his lot with the Hapsburgs, who were desperate to find anyone willing to fight their mortal enemies, the Turks. Eugene turned out to be a brilliant military genius, and Belvedere was his reward for services performed for the crown. The wrought iron gates in front of the palace make for a popular Kodak moment. The top palace overlooks Baroque gardens, flanked by two sphinxes. The panoramic view encompasses the lower palace at the far end of the gardens, as well as the towers of St. Stephan’s cathedral in the distance.
Hundertwasser was a Viennese environmentalist and painter. His Hundertwasserhaus is a complex of 50 apartments built by the government as subsidized housing in 1980. Each window in the house is different, painted in various colors, creating a checkerboard mosaic. With its curving walls and irregular contours (he claimed that “straight lines are godless”) the place is reminiscent of many of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona, though lacking in his architectural flair. I was told that nearly all the original inhabitants got fed up with the novelty and moved out. The current occupants have to contend with a constant stream of tourists snapping photos of their home.
Next: From Baden to Salzburg