Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Viennese Whirl

I had really enjoyed Simon Sebag-Montefiore's hugely entertaining and informative three part series - Vienna: Empire, Dynasty and Dream, last December on BBC4, which was all about the intrigues and exploits of the powerful, wealthy Habsburg empire, and the repeated invasions and reinventions of the wonderful city of Vienna. And having worked with so much gold leaf of late, I've also had something of a crush on the work of Viennese resident Gustav Klimt.

And so it was I found myself in the fair capital of Austria on an artistic pilgrimage.

Like Rome, Vienna - or the Innere Stadt (Inner City) at least - is an ideal, easily walkable city. Even the furthest tourist sites just on the outskirts are an easy half hour to forty five minute walk. The only time I used public transport was to get to and from the airport, but on a future visit would like to take the tram tour of the Ringstrasse which skirts the Innere Stadt.

The U-Bahn, (underground system) threw me out at Stephansplatz, the very heart of the city, and location of Stephansdom, the imposing and wonderfully decorative gothic St Stephen's Cathedral. That tiled roof is so pretty and the main thing that I remember from my last visit to Vienna. It is a tribute to the city (and perhaps Divine intervention?) that this building has stood watch over Vienna and borne witness to the city's fires, Turkish, German and Russian invasions, and the plague, and still survives to tell the tales.

Stephansdom and the surrounding square were undergoing renovations at the time of my visit, so the building and surrounding area weren't looking their best. Below is a painting of the cathedral in 1832 by Rudolf van Alt, which I saw whilst visiting the Belvedere palace.

I took so many pictures of the magnificent interiors of the churches in Rome on my visit there earlier this year, but due to lack of space didn't post many. The interiors of the churches in Vienna are equally extravangant and ostentatious in their decoration, and easily rival anything found in Rome. My personal favourite was Peterskirche, nearest to my hotel, and a haven of peace and tranquility from the luxury shops and rampant commerce that surrounds it.

Just near here is the curious Pestsäule (Plague Column) below, a monument to Vienna's deliverance from the plague that devastated the city in 1679.

Passed these two on the way to the Hofburg Palace. Wrong nationality and city surely!

The Hofburg palace is a grand and imposing complex of buildings which includes a butterfly house. I had breakfast in the deserted square here each morning, and enjoyed watching the odd Viennese worker pass through on their morning commute as I made my plans for that day. The Hofburg was home to Austria's rulers from the 13th century and now houses a variety of museums which exhibit the accumulated wealth of the Habsburgs.

Controversially, directly opposite the Hofburg Palace is the Looshaus (below), a building by architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933). Loos is famous for being an influential architect, whose book Ornament and Crime advocated smooth and clear surfaces in architecture in contrast to the lavish ornamentation then in vogue, and very much in evidence on most neo-classical Viennese architecture of the period. This includes the very decorative Hofburg Palace facing down the much plainer Looshaus!  Emporer Franz Josef intensely disliked Loos's strictly functional modernist gem when it was completed in 1911, so much so that he ordered all the curtains of the Hofburg palace windows facing the Looshaus to be pulled, and used a different entry/exit to the palace to avoid seeing the highly offensive Looshaus. Critics described the Looshaus as 'a house without eyebrows', as a reference to the lack of window detail, and all work on the Looshaus had to stop until Loos agreed to add the window boxes seen on the facade today.

Today the Looshaus is a bank which has exhibitions about the controversially 'naked' nature of the building on the upper floors.

Also of interest architecturally, are these Adolf Loos' loos on Graben near Peterskirche and next to the Pestsäule. Loos designed the public toilets in the Jugendstil (art nouveau) style, and in keeping with that style employed lots of curvy, whiplash lines on the wrought ironwork and doors. It's wonderful that they have been so well preserved and are still in use today.

A very stylish place to spend a penny!

One unexpected delight of being based where I was, was going after breakfast to watch these beauties being led out for training. They are the Lipizzaner horses of the world famous Spanish Riding School (Spanische Reitschule), based just at the side of the Hofburg palace. The white Lippizaner stallion breed can be traced back to 1520 when Ferdinand I imported the horses from Spain for the imperial palace. The horses are trained to perform complex steps and dances, and take their name from Lipica in Slovenia where the stud was established. It was a pleasure to be able to get this close to them.

The presence of horses is felt all over the city with these romantic carriage rides.

But the real horsey legacy of Vienna is found in the Museum Quarter, an interesting collision of Baroque and avant-garde architecture in what was once the imperial stables designed by Fischer von Erlach in 1725. The complex includes five spaces dedicated to art, including the Leopold Museum, and MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art), the dark basalt stone edifice below, and fabulous lime green seats for lounging. The complex attracts a young trendy crowd, and is imaginatively decorated, and rightly pays homage to to its equine legacy.

 But enough of the (ahem), long faces, and horsing around.

 Carl Moll - Naschmarkt 1894

Food, as in any nation, is a big part of Austrian culture. Vienna has a long tradition of coffee houses. At present, with the popularity of all things Scandi we have had the Danish concept of hygge pushed on us in the UK. It was good to experience the Austrian equivalent - Gemütlichkeit (cosiness and languid indulgence) - first hand. As a word it doesn't quite trip off the tongue as smoothly as hygge, so won't catch on in a similar way despite it being the same concept. 

On my first evening I ate at the Naschmarkt (food market, above), just outside the Innere Stadt, it is really good value for tasty food and a good tipple. The Naschmarkt consists of a lovely strip of restaurants and bars, as well as more typical, mundane market stalls selling household goods etc. There are also odd little religious spaces where traders can go to worship between making sales.

One of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip was indulging myself in the long Viennese tradition of coffee houses, and so it was I got my Gemütlichkeit on. First stop was at a branch of Aida which was like a cross between a 1950s American diner and a traditional Viennese coffee house. I tried and loved the traditional apfelstrudel but sadly didn't get to try the famous Sachertorte. After this it was a cake and coffee free for all, and I got my Gemütlichkeit fix wherever, and whenever I could.

I was eager to sample the national dish and on my last day I finally ordered the Weiner Schnitzel and really enjoyed it.

During my city walkabouts I encountered the Stadt Park and these large, interesting statues by artist Franz West. There were four of these strange sentinel heads standing guard over a bridge to the canal of the river Danube.  

This is a piece of mine from a few years ago based on Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz which is in a private collection in Dubai.

In the Stadt Park itself was this tree with the most amazingly textured bark. It was like an elephant's skin. There was also the famous gilded statue of the waltz king himself  - Mr Johann Strauss.

More gilding can be found across town outside the Parliament building on the partially gilded imposing statue of Pallas Athena keeping watch over the city.

I found Vienna to be exactly as I remembered it and more. It is the most beautiful city, and no surprise that the Innere Stadt (old city) is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. It really does pay to look up as you wander the streets as you will be rewarded with the sight of some amazing decorative architectural details. The Viennese are really friendly, welcoming and helpful, and I was really surprised at how clean and litter-free streets were. This visit was an amazing artistic and architectural pilgrimage - more of which I will share in future posts - and the superb coffee and cake were an added bonus. There were a few things I didn't get to see on this trip, but now I have rediscovered Vienna I definately want to return again. Very soon.

 Goodnight Vienna.