Congratulations to Vienna, Austria, for having won the crown again as the city with the best quality of living in the entire world, according to Mercer’s 2010 Quality of Living Survey, released May 26, 2010. This gives Vienna the prestigious supreme ranking two years in a row. Of course, the Viennese have felt this way for centuries.
The virtual heart of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, Vienna served as the seat for the Hapsburg Dynasty and some of history’s most celebrated monarchs. The Hapsburg’s beautiful summer residence, Schönbrunn Palace, is just one of the hundreds of majestic splendors that grace this imperial city.
The entire Historic Centre of Vienna is designated as a Unesco World Heritage site. If walls could talk, they would speak volumes about the rich and famous glitterati who strolled about from café to café: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Haydn, Mahler, Schönberg, Freud, Lenin, and Trotsky – and, of course Emperor Franz Josef and the entire Hapsburg imperial family.
We just had to take in the splendor that is Vienna; missing out on it would be a crime.
We left our peaceful home on the Italian Riviera and drove north on the turnpike to the Milan airport. Although our Alfa Romeo can exceed 200 kph, the Ferraris and Lamborghinis, which are plenteous on the Riviera, left us in their dust.
We checked in at Air Berlin, who offered flights for 6 Euro per person (plus taxes) for a non-stop flight to Vienna. Flight HG8823 took just a little over an hour to cross the Alps and land in the beautiful city on The Danube. Many people choose to fly into nearby Bratislava, Slovakia, when RyanAir is having one of their one-cent sales, however, the Bratislava airport is about a half-hour away from Vienna.
Vienna reigns imperial for tourism and conventions. On May 20, 2010, Vienna won the first place award from the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) for an astonishing fifth year in a row.
Upon arrival at the Vienna airport, while waiting for our luggage to appear on the carousel, I walked up to the tourist window and purchased 72-hour transit passes. There is a 1.8 Euro supplement to get inside the city limits, as the airport lies in the purlieu. The three-day pass costs only 13.6 Euro. There are two trains at the airport going uptown. The CAT is an express train, but it takes almost the same amount of time when using the free trains which are valid on a 72-hour pass (S8 and U4).
Before getting on the train, we stopped at one of the little grocery stores inside the transit corridors to buy beverages and snacks for our stay. Diet Coke is called Coca Cola Light in Europe; Cheetos, Doritos, and Fritos are quite rare to find, but chocolate cakes are abundant.
At Wien Mitte, we changed to the U4 subway toward Hütteldorf, and in two stops we arrived at Karlsplatz. Exiting by the café at Kärntner Ring, the escalator rose to the street exactly in front of our glorious hotel, The Bristol. http://www.bristolvienna.com
The five-star luxury Hotel Bristol is one of the most exclusive hotels in Vienna, hosting famous guests like President Teddy Roosevelt, Giacomo Puccini, and The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The most sumptuous suite is named after Edward, Prince of Wales. This perfectly situated hotel lies in the heart of Vienna, across the street from the Opera House and kitty-corner to the world-famous Sacher Torte café.
Our room was heavenly. Two chandeliers flank an even larger chandelier over the bed, all which are immaculately clean and polished. Rays of light cast through the crystals reflect a million colors of the spectrum. The entertainment system includes CDs of classical composers, by symphonies which sound heavenly on the Bose speaker system. The 42” flat-screen television is also wired into the sound system. The walls were covered in a burgundy silk damask with an imperial crest motif.
Walking to the rooftop balcony, we saw the State Opera House and heard the bells ringing joyfully at the nearby cathedral. The openness reminded me of the view in Roman Holiday when the Princess visited the reporter’s penthouse. The all-marble bathroom has two giant etched glass windows, into which pour natural sunlight, giving an airy, open feel. The shower curtains are made from white Battenberg lace, and the towel holder warms the bath towels for a decadent, cozy snuggle.
On the rooftop patio, a round table with chairs rest on the pink and grey granite flooring. Inside the room is an overstuffed chaise longue with richly-textured occasional pillows. Heavy silk draperies in rich burgundy layered in front of royal blue draperies precede delicate sheers that danced in the breeze as the gentle winds soughed through the French doors.
A welcome platter in our room was laden with Viennese chocolates, apples, and grapes. Complimentary bottles of Römerquelle water from Edelstal in Burgenland captured the purity and naturalness from sparkling streams running through the Carpathian Mountains. Five oversized, freshly-cut yellow and burgundy roses scented the room, providing a natural, light aroma with formal garden stateliness.
We met Diane Naar, author of several guidebooks on Vienna, at the front portal of the Opera House. She gave us a richly-personalized, private tour of Vienna, with emphasis on its imperial historicity.
The Opera House was the first building Emperor Franz Josef built for his people after razing the ancient city walls that were no longer needed. In its 2,000-year history, many outsiders wanted to capture this pearl on the Danube, so fortifications were built to protect it from invasions. But by the 19th century, the Habsburgs believed it was time for the city to expand in regal majesty. It took nine years to build the French Early Renaissance-style Opera House, and after it was finished, townsfolk began to whisper that it looked a little bit too much like a railway station.
Emperor Franz Josef, upon hearing the comments, said, “I guess it does look a little bit like a railway station.” The architect, Eduard van der Nüll, was so distraught by the emperor’s comments, he shot himself, and the interior designer, August von Siccardsburg, died two months later from a coronary. Ironically, on March 12, 1945, the British dropped a bomb on the Opera House because they mistook it for a railway station.
Next door to the Opera House is the Sacher Hotel, home of the most decadent chocolate cake ever created, the Sacher-Torte. After a night at the opera, statesmen, divas, conductors, nobility, and the glitterati would go to the Sacher Hotel for Tafelspitz (Emperor Franz Josef’s favorite Viennese beef dish), champagne, desserts, or night’s rest.
Photos of famous guests line the walls of the Hotel Sacher’s lobby: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, Leonard Bernstein, Jessye Norman, and all the famous stars who appeared at the Opera House, which, by law, must have performances at least 300 days per year.
Anna Sacher acquired autographs of famous guests to her hotel, which are embroidered onto a linen tablecloth. In the center of the display is the signature of Emperor Franz Josef, who was a regular visitor, along with his entourage of military brass. http://www.sacher.com/
Novelist Graham Greene penned “The Third Man” while sitting at the Café Mozart in 1947. His novel was turned into the film noir starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. Part of the classic film was shot on the sidewalk seating of Café Mozart, steps from the Sacher Hotel. Anton Karas wrote the film’s “Harry Lime” theme song, which rose to international prominence during the 1950s. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrwzKbg0my0
The next palatial building on our walk contains the venerable men’s tailoring establishment, Wilhelm Jungmann und Neff, who supplied fabrics to all the aristocracy of the 19th century. http://www.feinestoffe.at/feinestoffe_eng.html
Most of the buildings in this area were built after the walls came down in 1857, but one of the structures remained intact because the Hapsburgs built a palace on the bastions. The Albertina Palace http://tinyurl.com/2fuxte6 houses one of the world’s finest art collections. The palace takes its name from the collection’s founder, Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen (1738-1822), a son-in-law of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa von Habsburg (1717-80). In a major exhibition scheduled for autumn 2010, the Albertina will present around one hundred of the most beautiful drawings by Michelangelo.
Strolling down the Augustinerstraße, we arrived at the ancient Church of St. Augustine, constructed in 1339. Here is where imperial marriages were performed, including the wedding of Archduchess (and future Empress) Maria Theresa in 1736 to Duke Francis of Lorraine, the wedding of Archduchess Marie Louise in 1810 to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France, and the wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph in 1854 to Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria. http://www.augustiner.at/wien/
Maria Theresa was one of the most fascinating women to grace Vienna. As empress, she banished serfdom, and opened public schools. To further diplomacy, she married off her children to the crowned heads of Europe. One of her particularly well-known daughters was Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France.
Franz Schubert composed and conducted his “Mass No. 1 in F Major” in the Church of St. Augustine, and Anton Bruckner’s Mass in F Minor had its world premiere in the church. At 11:00 am on Sunday mornings, free concerts are performed for the Viennese at the Church of St. Augustine. One of the best conductors in the world, Franz Welser-Möst (born August 16, 1960) who is currently the music director for the Cleveland Orchestra, is one of many artists featured at the free concerts. http://www.clevelandorchestra.com/about/welser-most-bio.aspx
In September 2010, Welser-Möst will become the musical director (Generalmusikdirektor) of the Vienna State Opera. http://www.wiener-staatsoper.at/Content.Node2/en/index.php
Fifty-four of the Habsburgs’ hearts repose in the Herzgruft (Crypt of the Hearts), a small room off St. George’s Chapel, at the Church of St. Augustine. Most of the Habsburgs were devotedly religious, and felt very close to the church. In fact, the Church of St. Augustine is part of the larger complex known as the Imperial Winter Palace (or Hofburg). http://www.hofburg-wien.at/en/home.html
The last emperor, Charles I (father of Otto von Habsburg), was praised by the Roman Catholic Church for putting his Christian faith first in making political decisions, and for his perceived role as a peacemaker during the war, especially after 1917. Charles was beatified in 2004, and may possibly be canonized as a saint in the not-too-distant future.
Hofburg means “court castle,” and the Hofburg complex has some 3,000 rooms. The Hapsburgs ruled Vienna for 640 years (27 generations) and during their reign, built 17 additions to the imperial structure.
In the heart of the courtyard one sees the Wiener Hofkapelle (court chapel), famous for its Sunday morning performances by The Vienna Boys Choir.
Located in another section of the Hofburg Palace is The Schatzkammer (Treasury). Here we saw the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, often depicted anachronistically on paintings of Charlemagne. Since the Holy Roman Empire had no specific geographical boundaries, but was rather a confederation of German principalities and states, The Imperial Crown embodied the very essence that was the Empire. Accompanying the Imperial Crown were hundreds of other Habsburg heirlooms, like crowns, orbs, scepters, ermine robes, and fabulous jewels, such as the 2,680-carat emerald, Das Smaragdgefäß. The Imperial Regalia are exhibited at the Schatzkammer — officially “until there is again a Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation.” The Imperial crown has been worn by all Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire since Konrad II. Konrad II was my 31st great grandfather, so the sight of such revered artifacts was truly one of the highlights of my entire life. http://www.khm.at/en/treasury
Outside the palace is Michael’s square. This is the place to hire a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride. Occasionally, we saw pink carriages; these are associated with cookies called Manner-Schnitten wafers. Manner is the official purveyor of wafers for St. Stephen Cathedral, and on every cookie package is a blue image of the church. Viennese love to eat these sugar wafer cookies with their fancy Viennese coffees. http://www.manner.com/en/index.php?lang=1&idp=1
Beneath Michael’s square are ancient Roman ruins. We took a peek into an excavation revealing Roman walls, dating back to the first century, when Vienna was known as Vindobona.
Michael’s square is named for adjacent Michael’s church, where Mozart’s (unfinished) Requiem was played for the first time at Mozart’s memorial service. Count Franz von Walsegg commissioned the Requiem from Mozart, then falsely claimed authorship upon Mozart’s demise. Although actually completed by a third composer, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, the Widow Mozart spun webs of deceit to ensure she received all the royalties from its publication. The Requiem was later performed at the funeral masses for Joseph Haydn and Frédéric Chopin. The religious work has a colorful past.
Walking down the street toward the Candyland neighborhood of Vienna, we noticed the impeccably clean walkways. Streets in Vienna are washed every night, and there is no tolerance for graffiti. For the Viennese, cleanliness is next to Godliness.
Down the block is the Demel K. u. K. Hofzuckerbäcker (Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery). Empress Elizabeth loved to indulge in the sweets made by Demel, especially candied violets which Demel delivered directly to the royal court at the Hofburg. Taking a delightful break, we sat down at the Demel to sample chocolate cakes and iced coffees. I could have sampled the confectionaries for hours – everything was heavenly.
Kohlmarkt is the Rodeo Drive of Vienna. Here, we saw Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Chanel, and Armani, just to name a few of the great fashion houses. At the far end of Kohlmarkt is Julius Meinl am Graben market, the culinary epicenter and premier address for Austria’s gourmets and connoisseurs. The finest ingredients and materials from all over the world are offered on three floors of ubiquitous decadence and unparalleled atmosphere. The extensive array on offer includes more than 16,000 delicacies, among them 400 kinds of cheese, breads, rich Viennese coffee, the world’s finest chocolates, caviar and truffles, and the rarest wines found in Europe. One of the top five restaurants in Austria, Meinl’s Restaurant, sits on the second floor, offering a sumptuous panoramic view of the Graben. Chef Joachim Gradwohl holds many titles and received bushels of awards, most recently he was voted “best chef of the year.” http://www.wieninternational.at/en/node/965
Viennese baked goods are to die for. According to legend, crescent rolls were invented in Vienna in 1683 to celebrate the defeat of the Turkish siege of the city, in reference to the crescents on the Turkish flags.
Ludwig van Beethoven loved to stroll through Vienna eating baked goods. His favorite hangout was The Black Camel http://www.kameel.at , a restaurant, wine shop, and patisserie, which dates back to 1618. In the spirit of Beethoven, I took a sampling of pastries drizzled in chocolate, and pondered the genius of the composer who spent so many days dreaming up symphonies in this very spot. At Milchgasse number 1 is the site where Mozart first lived in Vienna. As a boarder in a private home here, he “compromised” the landlady’s daughter, and thereafter had to marry Constanze Weber. The scandal was the inspiration for his 1782 opera The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Just around the corner is St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the most important house of prayer in Austria, and the religious seat of the Holy Roman Emperors for hundreds of years. The Romanesque church was completed in 1160, and celebrates its 850th birthday in 2010. The cathedral has always been the most desirous location for weddings, christenings, and special occasions. It is depicted on the Austrian 10 cent Euro coins and on the packaging of the Manner-Schnitten wafer cookies. http://www.stephansdom.at/dom.htm
Mozart never lived more than five minutes’s walking distance from the cathedral, which he attended every day. For ten years (1784-1787) he lived at Domgasse 5, known as Mozarthaus. During this time he was as famous as a modern-day rock star; fans would rush to him at any sighting. He slept only five or six hours per night, and the rest of his time was spent pursuing his passion. His years in Vienna coincided with the reign of Emperor Joseph II, one of Mozart’s fans. Mozart dressed like the nobility and spent his money lavishly. For Mozart, Vienna was one huge party experience that lasted ten years without stopping.
No visit to Vienna could be complete without visiting the Hotel Sacher to taste the decadent Original Sacher Torte. In 1832, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich wanted a spectacular dessert for some very important guests.
Sixteen-year-old Franz Sacher invented the chocolate-marmalade cake for his Prince, much to the delight of visiting dignitaries. The cake was an immediate success, and is now Vienna’s most famous culinary delight. After long and arduous samplings of numerous Sacher Tortes, I declare that Hotel Sacher’s recipe is the best on the planet.
Napoleon seized Vienna in 1805, and although he spent six months in residence trying to figure out ways to improve the city, he finally decided Vienna was so perfect there was nothing that could possibly be better. He fell in love with the city and spent all his time eating delectable pastries, drinking the finest wines, and attending world-class concerts.
All the gemütlichkeit that is synonymous with Vienna is evident in every corner, every nook and cranny of this imperial city. It’s no wonder she has been re-crowned “The best city in the world” for 2010.
Visit Dr. Anton Anderssen’s web page at http://www.Hartforth.com .