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Saturday, 31 August 2019

Austria: A Land of Scenic Beauty and Historic, Medieval Towns

Written by Roger Marks
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My first trip to Europe forty years ago started with a group tour to Vienna and then on to other countries in Europe. I fell in love with the totally intact old city and vowed one day to return to explore Vienna in more depth and see the rest of the country. This year my wife and I finally did that. While Austria is a relatively small country by size (around the size of the State of Maine), it is definitely one of the crowning jewels of the many spectacular countries throughout Europe. It has so many distinctive regions with charming towns and villages perched along its rivers or nestled in lush green valleys within the Alps.

I spent several months planning the three week trip, which included calculating travel distances by car particularly in the mountainous region, identifying several unique sites off the beaten track as well as those on the tourist trail and booking hotels and tickets to performances. We visited in May where we only encountered rain for an hour or so on a few scattered days and were able to avoid the summer crowds and easily secure restaurant reservations at the last minute.

We spent our first three days in Vienna and stayed at the Park Hyatt, formerly a 100-year-old-plus building that was once the headquarters of the Austrian Hungarian Monarchy Bank. It is a luxury hotel opened in 2014, very centrally located within the old town with the hotel situated on Vienna’s oldest square—Am Hof—with charming old buildings surrounding the square and within easy walking distance to our favorite Viennese pastry shop, Demel (although we managed to sample pastries at many fine shops in Vienna and throughout the country), dating back to 1786. It was here that Emperor Franz Joseph I would write love-letters about the large variety of treats. Among our favorites was the apple strudel piled high with whipped cream, Sacher torte (a classic desert of chocolate cake layered with apricot preserves) and hot chocolate with more whipped cream. Needless to say, I recommend deferring this trip until one is not on any diet as the cafes are simply too tempting and too delectable to pass up!

As my wife is a clinical psychologist, a must-stop was the Freud Museum which served as his residence between 1891 to 1938, before he escaped Austria to London after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. The museum contained five rooms of memorabilia including the waiting room with its authentic furniture. We also walked around the University founded in 1365 and considered the oldest university in the German speaking world. Our hotel recommended the Ofenloch for traditional Austrian food set in a historical setting, and founded in 1704. The food was good but even better was the charming atmosphere.

The next day we visited the Schonbrunn Palace (the Hapsburg summer residence), easily accessible by train. Of the 1,441 rooms, 40 are open to the public. Two rooms in particular are famous—the Hall of Mirrors where six year old Mozart performed for Empress Maria Theresa in 1762 and the Grand Gallery where, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna danced at night after carving up Napoleon’s collapsed empire. We also walked the gardens surrounding the palace.

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We visited many parts of the central old city including the Rathaus (City Hall), built in 1872, and the Burgtheater (the National Theater built in 1874 in Italian Renaissance style with an opulent interior). Perhaps what we enjoyed most about Vienna was walking the streets and old plazas and viewing the architecture. Kurrentgasse is a beautiful street lined with 18th century houses. Michaelerplatz in front of the Hofburg Palace is one of Vienna’s most historical squares and now the site of an excavation revealing Roman layers of the past. We visited St. Stephan’s Cathedral where Mozart was married in 1782 and where his funeral took place in 1791. We took the elevator inside the Cathedral to the bell tower and this provided spectacular views of the city. We visited nearby Peterskirche, considered the best example of church Baroque in Vienna, built around 1702. We had dinner at the Goulash Museum, which I recommend skipping. We saw a lot of street advertising for this restaurant and that should have been a red flag as the higher quality and more popular restaurants don’t need to advertise.


On our third day in Vienna, we attended a 9:15am Mass in the chapel at the Hofburg and listened to the Vienna Boys Choir. On this particular day the music performed at the Mass was from Haydn. The Choir has existed since 1498 and today consists of about 100 boys between the ages of 10 and 14. During the Mass, the choir is hidden from view but can be seen after the Mass is over for a brief appearance. After the two hour Mass, we immediately attended a performance at the Spanish Riding School located in another part of the Hofburg. For the last 300 years the Lipizzaner horses have been performing to the sound of baroque music in a ballroom that is a crystal-chandeliered stable. The horses are descendants of a Spanish breed which is a cross between Spanish, Arabian and Berber horses. Tickets for both the Mass and the Riding School were purchased on-line two months in advance of the trip.


Following these performances, we took a tour of the Hofburg Palace to view the Imperial Apartments (consisting of eighteen luxurious state rooms) and the Sisi Museum (consisting of 5 rooms displaying many of the treasured possessions and jewels of Empress Elisabeth), the Silberkammer (displaying the silver collection and tableware), and the Schatzkammer, which was the Imperial Treasury with an elegant display of royal crowns and relics. Afterwards we went to Mozarthaus which is the only still-existing abode in Vienna where Mozart lived. The Museum did not have much to show and could easily be skipped.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 02 October 2019

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