We felt it an appropriate start to the Great Idea of Empire to be picked up from the train station in a convertible Jaguar, driven to what would be our personal apartment for our stay, then driven out to John’s home in the countryside for dinner on the terrace. I felt like an Empress anyway. John introduced us to some great Viennese beer and mayonnaise, and we spent a lovely evening in the company of him and the impressive Mango, his colorful parrot.
On our first full day in Vienna, we lunched at Smutny’s and enjoyed traditional Austrian fare that we couldn’t pronounce and that stained our faces with its delicious sauces. Then we trekked out to Schonbrun Palace—the summer home of the Hapsburg monarchy. It was delightful to see where Marie Antoinette spent the summers of her childhood in juxtaposition to seeing Versailles in Paris where she spent her adulthood. The palaces are strikingly similar in several ways. Although Versailles is more opulent, both palaces are constructed with the same yellow-colored stone and boast magnificent gardens in which you truly could while the day away. The emperor typically moved court to Schonbrun sometime after Easter and spent the entire summer there.
Schonbrun Palace was an example of the power and prestige Vienna once saw. As John told us—Vienna was set up to rule an empire of 60 million people, and today it is the capital of a country of 6 million. You would think Vienna would be “too big for its britches,” that its empirical nature would tug and stretch at its more modest, modern-day seams, but it is a city that retains its sense of majesty and models its restraint in the same breath.
After we returned to the city center inside “the ring,” we went to cafe Sacher to enjoy one of Vienna’s culinary inventions—the Sachertorte. The cafe had an upscale and elegant atmosphere—the cake itself left a little to be desired. (Those Belem tarts just haven’t met their match yet).
Afterwards, we wandered around getting the feel of “our” new neighborhood. We visited St. Pieterskirsche. The rain drove us into St. Stephen’s cathedral with its parti-colored tile roof. We grocery shopped at Spar. Later on we hit Vienna’s streets once more to have dinner at Vienna’s open-air film festival at the Rathaus, or city hall—yes, that is its name, however ironic (or appropriate, as John says). We ate Chinese food while watching an Italian opera film with the speaking parts spoken in German, sitting at a cafe table in front of one of Vienna, Austria’s churches. It was one of those uber European moments, and I imagine the blend of cultures and peoples are something the Hapsburg Empire was used to with an empire that stretched from Bohemia to Tyrol to Venice and on and on.
My favorite day in Vienna started with a trip out to the Spanish Riding School at the Hofsburg Palace to see a showing of the Lippizaner stallions. Although it was more of a practice than a formal exhibition, it was fascinating to see this Imperial breed of horses. We got to watch two carriage exhibitions—one with “ Emperor Franz Josef” and his “wife.” But my favorite part was seeing the babies, who are born a dark chocolate brown that fades into grey in adolescence and finally into the characteristic chalky white of the adult pure-breeds. They really were majestic creatures, especially when running at an open gallop.
We decided to catch a guided tour (in English!) of the Hofsburg Palace, the seat of the Hapsburg government. We first toured the Sisi Museum dedicated to Franz Josef’s wife, Empress Elizabeth. She led a rather melancholy life, feeling constrained and imprisoned by the strictures of Imperial life, and eventually was assassinated in Geneva by an anarchist. We saw the actual file that he impaled her with—gruesome.
Next we saw the Imperial Apartments. They were designed in very similar fashion to the palace at Schonbrun with white lacquered walls and gold leaf wainscoting, which surprised me because I thought the point of a summer retreat was to have a bit of variety. Those royals. We learned that the Emperor was a modest man. He slept in a simple iron frame twin bed, as did his wife, and he declined having a modern bathroom installed for himself. He took his job as emperor quite seriously, accepting general audiences twice a week from high nobility in their black coats to poor rural people clad in their regional costume. His most-used room was the Imperial office where he would stay at his desk reading his papers until 4 a.m. sometimes. We did learn of one bit of extravagance in this otherwise prudent ruler—the Imperial family would eat 10-19 course dinners (and do so in 45 minutes). Apparently when the emperor laid down his knife and fork the course was officially over.
The Hapsburgs are one of the great examples of empire in history. In fact, Franz Josef’s grandfather was the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. (Maybe empire is genetic?) After such an Imperial morning, we had more of a relaxed afternoon eating ice cream at John´s favorite place and visiting the Jesuit church. Filled with rose and green colored marble, the church is stunning and inviting in a way that the cold plain white of other marble is just not. The columns spiral up in a corkscrew pattern instead of standing perfectly erect—rather like the way most of us find God—going round and round in ever higher circles instead of strictly straight up. The whole place was rather fanciful and awe-inspiring.
At the close of the day, we were able to meet up with John again, and Susanna, and her son Christian. We ate at the very chic Do & Co on the top floor of one of the edgy, modern buildings on the Stephensplatz in the very middle of the city. Over a sumptuous meal, we chatted about many things, including Alabama football and possible strategies for building up the Ramsey Empire :0).
It was hard to say goodbye to such a lovely setting and lovelier company, but 11:30 rolled around and demanded we part ways.
On our final day in Vienna, we went to a couple of stores on our last jaunt through the lively pedestrian thoroughfares and met up with John who took us out to one of the newest additions to his own little empire o’ fitness. He insists that “empire” is an exaggeration, but we saw him pour the same attention to detail and personality into the newest project that Franz Josef must have poured into his. We left John to his club and took a blustery stroll to the Belvedere Palace which was filled with rooms of older art with a modern art installation superimposed in, on, and around them in just the way empire seems to grow and thrive—taking the new elements and integrating them with the old, valuing and respecting both on their own terms.
We bade farewell to John and Vienna and Empire and began the transition to Salzburg and the Great Idea of Music.
More to come on climbing hills, feeling alive, and listening to the sound of Mozart´s music later.