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Rick Steves

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Embracing Modern Vienna's Dynamism

Posted: 07/09/2012 7:00 am

I've been in Vienna for 36 hours and, with all I've learned, I feel as excited as a kid sorting through his candy after trick or treating.

I met a new guide named Gerhard Strassgschwandtne, who not only boasts seven consonants in a row -- that's some kind of record-- but also runs Vienna's "The Third Man" Museum, dedicated to a classic movie with a cult-like following that's set in bombed-out, spy-ridden Vienna of 1945.

Gerhard is passionate about history in all its marvelous complexity. Chatting with him, we imagined Vienna's city wall back when the Austrian capital was the fifth largest city in the world. The core of the city was contained in a hulking, three-mile-long ring peppered with 2,200 cannons. The artillery was aimed across the 500-yard-wide "shooting fields," as the stretch of land beyond the city wall was called in the 18th century. Napoleon destroyed much of the wall in 1809. It was replaced with only an iron fence -- easy to shoot through but hard to shoot at. It seemed strong enough in the mid-19th century, as the greatest foe of "modern" governments was considered to be mobs of people in the streets.

It's summertime, and the city's museums are busy with students enjoying summer-camp-type activities. Austria provides a special kids' summer pass -- unlimited train travel anywhere in the country all summer long for young students for about $50.

As I update my Vienna guidebook, I'm discovering lots of sightseeing news. The Kunsthistorisches Museum, the city's answer to the Prado and Louvre, is reopening its ground floor "Habsburg Kunstkammer" (or Chamber of Wonders) in 2013 to show off the lavish curiosities the emperors gathered to impress their friends. Also in 2013, Vienna will have a new Biedermeier exhibit in the City Palace of the Liechtenstein family.

For a rare bit of Prague-like ambience in Vienna, stroll through the charming Spittelberg district. Vienna's population exploded from 1880 to 1910. Most of grand architecture and apartment flats that shape a visitor's impression of the city date from this period. The Spittelberg district, just a 15-minute walk from the Hofburg in the city center, offers a rare enclave of pre-1880 Vienna.

Music lovers come to Vienna on a kind of pilgrimage to see the houses of composers who lived and worked here. The homes of Schubert, Brahms, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart all host museums -- but they are small, forgettable, and pretty spread out. For the best music history experience, I like the Haus der Musik (www.hausdermusik.at) which honors the great Viennese composers with lots of actual historic artifacts on one fine floor. Vienna is still a thriving capital of classical music, with three local opera companies (including the world-famous Vienna State Opera putting on 300 performances a year). Its glorious music venues offer a total of 10,000 seats which are generally sold-out every night. (Even so, they run at a deficit -- so they're subsidized by a caring government, the general populace, and lineup of corporate sponsors.)

Stepping into St. Stephen's Cathedral, I was invited into a new elevator to visit an attraction that just opened -- the Cathedral Treasury (€4, daily 10:00-18:00, includes a fine audioguide). The substantial treasures of the cathedral were ignored in the nearby (and outmoded) cathedral museum. So they were moved into the church, filling an -- until now -- inaccessible space high above the nave on the west portal wall. The visit includes the "Portrait of Rudolf IV" (the earliest realistic portrait in German art), precious relics, and commanding views of the nave.

Next, I popped into the Augustinian Church, where Sunday Mass is performed with a wonderful orchestra. There's a Neoclassical memorial by Canova to Empress Maria Theresa's favorite daughter, Maria Christina; next to it is a chapel dedicated to Charles I, the last Habsburg emperor, who ruled from 1916 to 1918. He's on a dubious road to sainthood pushed by Habsburg royalists who worship here. His required miracle: The varicose veins of a Brazilian nun were healed after she prayed to the emperor.

Vienna is great for both art nouveau and early modern buildings by architect Otto Wagner, who played a big part in shaping the urban landscape. Wagner's Postal Savings Bank (built 1904-1907) overlooks the Ringstrasse (a.k.a. the Ring) with a facade that looks as secure as a safety deposit box. Its slinky angels atop the roof proclaim a new age made with a new metal -- aluminum. The plain, marble-sided panels with their aluminum bolts remind us of Wagner's belief that, "What is impractical can never be beautiful."

Stepping inside, you understand the value this bank had for the new working class. It offered workers an unintimidating way to save their earnings in a combination post office/bank, rather than in some palace for elites. Its form follows function everywhere, as "necessity is the master of art." With white and gray efficiency, the aluminum fixtures are simple yet elegant. A glass roof lets in light, and the glass floor allows light into the basement. The strong, geometric elements dignify the technological -- and celebrate it as cultural. Wagner -- like his angels on the roof -- was heralding a new age. Facing this masterpiece across the street is the Kriegsministerium (the former ministry of war building). Its style is Neo-Baroque Historicism; it's actually a few years younger than Wagner's building, but it's way behind the times -- fighting against modernity.

Many things in Vienna are named after Karl Lueger, the mayor of the city before World War I. A century later, his legacy is being reconsidered. While he did much to modernize Vienna, he's now seen as an anti-Semite -- a demagogue who was admired by a young student in Vienna named Adolf Hitler. Lueger, while being a strong leader, was also a right-wing fearmonger. The city has just decided that a stretch of Vienna's elegant Ringstrasse named for Lueger will be renamed for the university instead.

The U.S. may be hot this week, but Americans aren't sweltering alone. The entire world is feeling what is delicately called "global climate change" in order not to offend the people who refuse to accept the reality of global warming. While the Dutch raise their dikes, the Viennese are also preparing for a warmer reality. As older people suffer most from the stifling heat, the city is providing more shady places with benches and public mist machines.

There are big, shiny, new water dispensers popping up with reminders to be sure to hydrate. It's good advice for locals and tourists -- young and old alike -- as scorching summers become our new norm. Vienna is gearing up for more sweltering summers as fancy new water dispensers are placed at key points around the city.

Even the weather points to the inevitable conclusion. This isn't your father's Vienna and it definitely isn't your Grandfather's either.

 

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