To understand just why Austria with a total population less than that of London has such a magnificent city as Vienna, you need to have a wee look at their history.
At the height of the Austro Hungarian Empire, the population was around 53 million people, and covered parts of Italy, Slovenia, Hungary and Austria, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, parts of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and parts of Romania, Ukraine and Serbia. This massive Empire had the money to invest in Vienna. It became the centre of culture, and residents included Mozart, Beethoven, Freud, Klimt and many other famous people.
Today their legacy is a city where every building is grand. Even the most mundane buildings, say an apartment block, have to have eagles soaring up on the roof, and decorative stone work over the entrance. All this explosion of style and grandeur started with Empress Maria Theresa, and carried on under the long reign of Emperor Franz Josef 1 who died 100 years ago in November 1916, as the First World War tore apart the Empire.
We flew into Vienna’s Schwecat airport from where regular fast dedicated trains take you into the centre (or you can take a local train at half the price but they are not so frequent). Emperor Franz Josef 1, in 1857 decided to demolish the city walls (originally built using ransom money which we paid to them to release Richard the Lionheart – see earlier article in this series) and create a wide circular boulevard, the Ringstrasse, on which so many splendid houses, palaces, the opera, parliament, and so, were built. Our hotel was the Grand Ferdinand. This is on the Ringstrasse, so is convenient for everything with trams running past the door. It has a roof top restaurant and a swimming pool up there too! Superb luxury.
The tram system, and the underground (which is mostly above ground!) make getting around easy. The best thing is to buy a Vienna Card – see here. As well as giving free access to public transport, you receive a booklet with loads of discount vouchers inside. These are very useful, for example, there is a historic tram which runs round the Ringstrasse past the Opera, Hofburg Palace, Parliament building, the Rathaus (town hall) and so on – every half an hour from 10 in the morning to 5.30, your card gives you one Euro off the price of 8 Euros. The tram has an audio visual multi media commentary as well. There is also the traditional hop on hop off buses.
Having welcomed tourists for so many years, the choices are many and well organised. You can have a Segway tour, or an elegant horse carriage (there seemed to be a great many of these!) a Danube boat tour, or just a walking tour. We found ourselves hopping on and off trams and the underground a lot; it was easiest and simple to navigate. Everywhere signs and information are in English which helps us considerably.
Using the "underground" we went to the station Schönbrunn Palace. From the station it is easily seen, well marked, and you can just follow all the other hundreds of tourists, past the long line of tourist buses. This gave us a feeling that we would be crammed in with thousands of others – but we needn’t have worried – the Palace is about the size of Keith! There are over 1,441 rooms. The grounds are massive, and from the back of the Palace stretch away into the distance where there is a rocky fountain place, and beyond that even more to explore. We spent a day here, and had to go back again the next day to explore the stables part, with an exhibition of Royal carriages including that of Empress Sisi. Yes, there were innumerable tourists there, but it is so big, so well organised, that you do not feel cramped or crowded. The whole place is just awe inspiring. In the grounds there is also a zoo (the oldest in the world), a desert experience house, orangery, and so much more. Take good walking shoes and allow a minimum of one day!
Once back in the city centre, we wanted a snack, and saw many people at any of the Bitzinger stands dotted around the city. Eating from a kiosk in the street may seem a bit "down market" – but the Bitzinger stands are special, and very popular. Of course they sell a great variety of sausages (Austrians seem to live on sausages) including thin ones about 18 inches long. It was an experience to be eating standing at the counter area of the stand, drinking their good beer, (tea and coffee available also of course) together with local folk. You can also buy packets of the chocolate wafers "mannerschnitten" which are another famous Vienna delicacy. See www.bitzinger.at For desert we went to the famous Eis-Greissler. They have two shops, open from 11 in the morning till 11 at night, with a steady stream of locals queuing to buy their superb ice creams – another insider tip.
One evening, we went to Huth. They have two restaurants and claim to be the first to invent the Wiener Schnitzel, and will give you a recipe. By now, we had learned that the Austrians don’t do things by halves; they eat and drink with gusto – so we just ordered a main course, and right enough, it was as much as we could eat. The Wiener Schnitzel was far above anything you can imagine – excellent quality. It was not cheap, but then, we only had the one course – to follow we naturally wanted a good cup of tea, and what a surprise, they serve Brodies of Edinburgh tea, and give you a wee jug of cold milk too. While in Austria several people wondered why we were leaving the EU – not wanting to get into politics, I always told them it was because we didn’t want to join with people who are genetically incapable of make a decent cup of tea – but Huth come very close.
Another day we took the underground again to the Schönbrunn stop but turned right for the short walk to the Technical Museum. This contains an incredible collection of items, and lots of interactive parts to keep children busy, and railway locomotives and carriages (which was what I wanted to see of course). It also has a carriage that was built for Empress Sisi, and she used it, together with a day saloon coach (which has not survived) when she travelled all about the Empire and beyond – and also had her favourite horse accompanying in a horse wagon too! Once again – Empress Sisi – you cannot get away from her and her husband Emperor Franz Josef 1 – as told in the previous article published here.
The Hofburg Palace has the Kaiser apartments, the silverware collection, and the Sisi Museum – another place that will take a day to fully go round and explore. As with all these splendid places, you come out dazed by the majesty of it all, and need to sit a while to absorb it. Across the road from the exit was a Starbucks – so we went in to sit and have a cup of tea – disaster – they had run out of tea bags – unbelievable! They showed no inclination or initiative to nip out to a shop and buy some, so we gave up and left.
Vienna has the world’s most famous and listened to concert every New Year’s day – if you want to go, save up your pennies and book at least 2 years in advance. Music is important to the Austrians, and there are concerts on somewhere in Vienna all the year round. The waltzes of the Strauss family are world famous, and the elegant waltz and swinging music is heard everywhere. And then there are the art galleries – we ran out of time – must go back to see some of the master pieces that they have. There really is so much to see. There is even a torture museum which children seem to love, but Mrs. Smith declined a visit to it. The famous Lipizzaner white horses can be seen at the Spanish Riding School, and I could continue to list the vast number of attractions that are all within easy distance of the centre. The tourist office are very well organised, and will help you with anything that you need. One thing is for sure, there is something for everyone in Vienna – it is a "must see" destination – at least once in your life, and you will most probably be like us – come away feeling that you simply must return and see some more, and sample the richness of Imperial Austria.