Vienna Woods

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In Wienerwald

In Wienerwald

Gate at Heiligenkreuz

Chapel Gate

(click on any photo to enlarge it)

TODAY WE TAKE A FORAY FROM OUR VIENNA HOTEL to Wienerwald. No, it’s not the world’s wurst theme park; it means “Vienna Woods,” the famed countryside where Austrian aristocrats and now, a wider swath of citizens, have resorted for R&R for centuries. Our first stop there, in the middle of the region, is the medieval Cistercian monastery called Stift Heiligenkreuz, the “Abbey of the Holy Cross.”

This is the Cistercian order’s second-largest monastery, and has been continuously active since its founding in 1133 by Margrave Leopold III of Babenberg, whose son, Otto, decided to become a Cistercian when studying abroad in Paris. He asked Dad to build him a monastery, and voilá!

Our Group

Our Group

Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem (really sounds like a local, doesn’t he?), is said to have received a relic, a piece of the “true cross,” during the 12th century. (Baldwin, by the way, was a leper). In 1182, he made a gift of the object to Duke Leopold V of Austria, who, after six years, gave it to the Heiligenkreuz Abbey, where it is still on display. By the way, Leopold was the character who captured and detained Richard the Lionheart on the latter’s return from the Crusades. For this, Leopold was excommunicated. He’s buried here, in the late Gothic Chapter House of the Abbey.

Heiligenkreuz Choir

Heiligenkreuz Choir

THE MONKS at Heiligenkreuz are well-known for their Gregorian Chant; they boast (er, they humbly offer) a best-selling recording of their singing, and they chant their liturgy at the abbey’s collegiate church five times a day. In fact, they see this officially as their chief mission.

The Abbey’s web site offers a link to a YouTube video about their album: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=MLFN-RVpLtk&feature=related.

The 12th century Romanesque naves and transept of the Collegiate Church prompt many whispered oohs and ahhs. The intricately-carved 13th century Gothic wooden choir holds panels depicting Biblical scenes. Do they need another bass voice here?

Moses with Horns

Moses, with Horns

At one end stands a sculpted Moses, tablets in hand, with horns on his head—like Michelangelo’s sculpture. The horns come from the mis-translation of a Torah passage from Hebrew into Latin in the 4th century. Above the panels, there’s still more: lifelike carvings of people and putti.

Heiligenkreuz Organ

Heiligenkreuz Organ

The baroque organ, with its fasces of pipes topped with ornate capitals and trumpeting angel figures, leaves one begging to hear it.

The Altar

The Altar

The altar, with its brightly-lit crucifix is impressive too for the refreshing space around and above it; it’s not physically or artistically crowded, but set off for undistracted attention, as it would need to be, given the other distinct attractions with which it shares this cavernous space.

Chapter House Ceiling

Chapter House Ceiling

The abbey’s Chapter House is graced with frescoes and a circular, stained-glass window recent enough to paint the floor before it with soft, colored light (older specimens don’t). It holds the graves of thirteen Babengergers—the counts and dukes of Byzantine origin who ruled Austria before the famous Habsburgs.

Chapter House

Chapter House

The last of the Bs was the appropriately obscure Duke Frederick the Quarrelsome (couldn’t take that guy out anywhere without his picking a fight with some herdsman, tavern owner or haberdasher!).

Sure enough, his quarreling led him to the battlefield, where he lost his last argument in 1246, extincting the Babenberg line.

Fountain House

Fountain House

The abbey’s passageways hold more, intriguing treasures. One leads past a 13th century Fountain House, used as a washing room until halfway through the 16th century. Its lead basins are encrusted with colorful mineral deposits from its water.

Anointing Jesus' Feet

Anointing Jesus' Feet

Down the passageway and around the corner, not far from the church entrance, one encounters two large wooden duo statues. One depicts Mary Magdalen anointing Jesus’ feet with her precious perfume. The other shows Peter protesting Christ’s washing of the disciple’s feet.

Now and then, we are reminded that Heiligenkreuz is a working, occupied abbey, and not only a museum, as one or more of the young, crisply-dressed monks walk by on their purposeful way somewhere beyond the public spaces we tour.

Trinity Column

Trinity Column

OUTSIDE, in the main courtyard, stands the ornate, early 18th century Column of the Holy Trinity—which depicts the Assumption of Mary, who makes it the celebration, it seems, of a quartet. On this side of the Atlantic, we rarely see the likes of this intricate stone and gilt monument of figurines, plaques, and symbols.

Baden Spa

Baden Spa

NOW IT’S OFF TO BADEN, the mineral-pool spa haven whose name means, what else, “bathing;” or, if you prefer a verb, “have a bath.” But we don’t have time enough for that. We’ll take a stroll through town, peruse the flea market, slurp some good ice cream, and head back to Vienna for more sightseeing (or, in our case, rest).

The thirteen warm baths in this resort town are naturally infused with sulphate of lime, the substance from which they principally derive their bragging rights. The establishments that house them range from traditional to spanking-new Olympic-size swimming pool digs. A tram line runs straight here from Vienna, making it convenient, and not too time-consuming for a Wiener to take a day’s spa holiday.

Homage au Touriste

Homage au Touriste

As with most resort towns, the locals enjoy a love-hate relationship with tourists; don’t really want to live with ‘em; absolutely can’t live without them. Here, they gently vent their annoyance in the form of a life-size, bronze statue of a photo-snapping tourist, lens pointed at the nearest pool spa’s windows. Of course, I point my camera at the statue and snap its photo…

Baden Quartet Column

Baden Quartet Column

During our stroll through town, we find another of those less-unique-all-the-time monumental towers in the middle of the town square. Like the one in the abbey courtyeard, this one’s also dedicated to the Trinity and Mary, and comes surrounded by an apparently recently-installed, intermittent street-level fountain, the kind we find in the middle of some New York City playgrounds.

Rathaus

Rathaus

We chuckle at the classic municipal building across the square, labeled “Rathaus.” It’s city hall; we admire the town’s apparent candor.

AND WE SEE PLAQUES amounting to “Beethoven Slept Here” signs. One Rathausgasse building, No. 10, sports a plaque claiming that the composer lived there in 1821, 1822, and 1823, working on his Ninth Symphony. Our guide tells us there are many such plaques because Beethoven was thrown out of more domiciles than one could count; how many landlords would be fond of housing a petulant musician who had to play loudly enough to feel the music, since he scarcely could hear it?

Beethoven Slept Here

Beethoven Slept Here

Baden’s extensive, varied and colorful flea market lays claim to a distinction few others ever have possessed for us: we really weren’t tempted to buy a thing! One reason was the relative modernity of most of the wares; another might just have been the draconian baggage limits the airlines impose within Europe’s borders. We are bound to a single, 44-pound bag each for five weeks in four climates.Hurrah!

Et Tu, Vienna?

Et Tu, Vienna?

BACK THEN FROM THE WOODS AND BATHS to Vienna and its classic Hapsburg beauty.

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Wind Turbine

Wind Turbine

DRIVING ACROSS THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN BORDER, one enters Pinwheel Kingdom: hundreds upon hundreds of three-winged wind turbines whirling in asynchronous, near-menacing, choreopathy. Dispersed across scores of miles of flat farmland, they impose a nebulous 1984-ish aura on the landscape. These modern windmills have all the charm of a clown hopping on a pogo stick through a Victorian parlor. Could this be a massive, not-so-subtle Mercedes Benz ad campaign? Then it ends, and our eyes find the ground again. But no, more of them appear in the distance, a stationary troop of white, upside-down, three-pointed pizza cutters.

Gang of Wind Turbines

Gang of Wind Turbines

We express relief later in England that the rolling hills of Northumberland have escaped this defacement; a resident there responds with concern that a turbine farm proposal there may gain ground…

A Street in Szentendre

A Street in Szentendre

We drive through the region called the Danube Bend on our way towards Vienna, and spend two midday hours in Sentendre (from “Saint Andrew”), a town noted for its shops and artistic attractions.

Margit Kovacs

Margit Kovacs

Here, we take in the Margit Kovacs ceramic gallery. Kovacs, a noted artist and native of the area, was truly amazing for the scope and variety of ceramic sculpture and decorative items she created—ranging from religious and symbolic figures to household art and pottery. These span several genres. One comes away saying, “I had no idea you could do that with clay!”

In Szentendre

In Szentendre

In Szentendre, we peruse the many crafts shops for table linens and finally find a few with the dimensions we want. Some of the wares presented are elaborate, colorful, and costly—the work of fine folk artists. The narrow, cobblestone lanes are characteristic of the villages, towns, and even the cities of the wider region.

Restaurant Staff

Restaurant Staff

For lunch, we make an extended stop at a traditional restaurant and bakery in Neszmely. Here, the proprietor who greets us reminds me strongly of my late Lithuanian uncle Vytautas, who married my Estonian aunt Virve.

Caution: HOT!

Caution: HOT!

Our guide has told us that the staff at this establishment, built around a deep, wood-fired oven and decorated with traditional farm and kitchen implements on its walls, will teach us to make strudel! And so it is. First, they demonstrate, and then we imitate, mixing the flour, oil, water, and other ingredients into dough, rolling it into a ball in a wooden bowl, and then throwing it repeatedly, like a baseball, into the bowl to compact it. It sits and rises.

Just Like Mom's!

Just Like Mom's!

When it’s ready, it is rolled and stretched, incredibly, to postcard thinness, to more than cover a medium-size, square table covered with a flour-sprinkled cloth. The hanging sides are trimmed off and the dough is covered with poppy seeds and sweet, pitted cherries before the whole thing is rolled up and laid into a pan, like a boa constrictor without head or tail, and slid into that hot oven to bake. The result, eaten after goulash and papadom-like bread, is quite good. The soft cheese-filled version the restaurant has made is even better.

Vienna Building

Ornate Facade

Lunch over, we dodge the rain to return to our coach and, before long, roll into Vienna. Our coach follows a grand boulevard lined with imperial buildings housing museums and surrounded by large, public parks. We will not visit any of these, opting instead for other chosen attractions, including the more distant Schönbrunn Palace and its royal apartments. We have arranged to meet our friend Jen, who lives and teaches in Vienna, for dinner. Our bags are delivered to our room at another well-placed and well-appointed hotel just in time to prepare to meet her.

Ich Bin Ein Wiener

Ich Bin Ein Wiener

Jen gives us a quick orientation to the Vienna subway, and we travel a few stops to emerge near St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a short walk down cobblestone-studded pedestrian malls and narrower side streets to our recommended restaurant. What do in inhabitants of Vienna (Wien) call themselves? Wieners! The way they say it, it’s a three-syllable word beginning with a “V.” It’s said that President Kennedy, when he visited divided, communist-era Berlin and said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” actually said, in the culinary slang of the day, “I am a jelly doughnut.” One might be grateful he didn’t make a similar declaration in Vienna…

Mutant Ninja Wieners

Mutant Ninja Wieners

We pass a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles  statuary in a square (how many years out of currency are they now? Surely they didn’t just get to Vienna?).

Bridge Deco

Bridge Deco

Vienna widely bears the marks of Empire—in obvious, prominent places, as well as in obscure and unexpected spots. Along an avenue filled with pedestrians this evening, we look up to see a covered, third-floor bridge connecting two buildings across a side street. The bridge is decorated with a massive imperial-looking coat of arms.

Ornate Vienna Facade

Ornate Vienna Facade

Given all the prominent Hapsburg imperial history here and throughout Central and Eastern Europe, it is a wonder that in no restaurant could we find a Hapsburger anywhere on the menu. We did ask. Surely someone, unless prohibited by law or the threat of litigation by heirs and assigns, has exploited this golden branding opportunity!

Cafe Central

Cafe Central

We find too long a queue at our chosen restaurant to persevere there. Moreover, we find a second choice shuttered; it is Ascension Day. The apparently well-known Cafe Central, offering both a hearty meal for Jen and Viennese desserts and coffee for our smaller appetites (Neszmely’s goulash and strudel were filling) is defiantly open, and will do nicely. As I am a fan of Stouts and similar dark ales, I order one and find, to my surprise, that it is also sweet, without a hint of hops. Yes, the waiter says, in this part of the world, they generally are that way.

Side Street near Opera

Side Street near Opera

Jen, her always-notable smile undiminished, tells us that she has accepted a full-time teaching position at her school for the coming academic year, further establishing her in Vienna and more solidly providing for her needs. Her German seems impeccable to this auslander, and that impression is reinforced by the fact that it is the subject she teaches. Tomorrow is a work day and the school year is drawing to a close, so Jen cannot linger longer. The subway delivers us back to our hotel.

Vienna State Opera

Vienna State Opera

THIS MORNING, our local tour guide takes us to the grand State Opera House and to Schönbrunn Palace. The Opera’s classic exterior and opulent, gilded interior befit its premiere reputation and its always-ambitious production schedule.

Opera Ceiling

Opera Ceiling

West Side Story

West Side Story

Our visit coincides with a stage crew rehearsal for West Side Story. Scenic elements passing on and off the screen include the familiar Manhattan skyline and wooden New York City rooftop water tanks. So far, yet so near. The emperor, if Austria still had one, could see Hell’s Kitchen clearly from his gilded box in the back of the theater.

Emperor's Box

Emperor's Box

Scenery Trailer

Scenery Trailer

Outside, we find a crew rolling a specialized truck trailer through an attached garage looking something like a self-operated car wash with closing doors at both ends. It will be emptied of its scenery for the next production on its way through. The opera changes productions frequently and may receive and dispatch several trailers in a day.

Opera Cafe Mural

Opera Cafe Mural

The peripheral chambers of the Opera are not all decorated in Rococo gilt. While the front reception rooms feature composers’ busts mounted in gilded niches, the Cafe features Cubist murals. In a long gallery of paintings to one side hangs a colorful portrait of a bespectacled Gustave Mahler.

Gustave Mahler

Gustave Mahler, Director

Mahler was Director of the State Opera—a position that tends to be thankless in this most musical of all cities, with its population of assertive cognoscenti, purported and genuine. One of the noted composer’s reforms as Director of the Opera was institution of the now-accepted rule that latecomers should not expect to be seated until the Act they would interrupt has ended. For this, he reaped the ire of outraged aristocratic dilettantes, but prevailed.

Schönbrunn Palace Gates

Schönbrunn Palace Gates

SCHÖNBRUNN PALACE is Austria’s Versailles or Peterhof. Extensive tracts of the interior are restored or were kept in wonderful condition. Only one bomb landed in the gardens (which look as if they still need considerable restoration) during the second World War. Again, no photography is permitted in the royal apartments, so we’ll have to remember, while you imagine.

Back of Palace

Back of Palace

This palace has multiple thrones—and why not? And, like other imperial palaces, it has exquisite four-poster beds. There’s a truly huge one here, for Empress Maria Theresa, the historic imperial name heard everywhere throughout Central and Eastern Europe, who bore sixteen imperial children. Not all survived, but those who did, she married off throughout Europe to extend Hapsburg power. One of them, Marie Antoinette, she placed in the royal court of France, where the latter memorably advocated the consumption of confections and quite lost her head.

Garden Statues

Garden Statues

Also prominent in these parts was Sisi (Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1837-1898), a Duchess from Bavaria, who never was a stay-at-home type. Wedded to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph when she was 16, she loathed Vienna but tolerated her husband. She effectively abandoned both, along with her children, passing most of her time traveling through the rest of Europe.

Palace Carriage

Palace Carriage

America, of course, having rebelled against royalty and having eschewed nobility, lacks anything comparable to these palaces and their trappings. It’s a kind of guilty pleasure, I suppose, for a Yank to savor these digs and their trappings, and to pity all the fussing about to which these folks sentenced themselves. Still, the craftsmanship the royals commanded and fostered is exceedingly impressive and highly inspirational. The design, materials, scale and workmanship of the architecture, fine arts, and decorative arts these aristocrats commissioned is worth plenty for the inspiration of us mere mortals. It’s good that populism didn’t destroy all this, and that respect for its creators (speaking of craftsman at least as much as of patron) has sparked restoration of palaces and other grand buildings across Europe.

Synagogue Excavation

Synagogue Excavation

AFTERNOON AFFORDS US OPPORTUNITY to seek out this city’s Jewish museum, which we disappointingly find closed for renovations. A sign refers us to a branch location, where we find a smaller and more focused exhibit of earlier Jewish history in Austria, built around the excavated ruins of an old synagogue. An animated viewing of a 3D model of the old Jewish Quarter adds pizazz to the exhibit.

Jewish Identity Project

Jewish Identity Project

In the ground-level gallery space, we find a current exhibit of the city’s Jewish Identity Project, a novel collaboration that solicited requests for portrait photography of Viennese Jewish individuals, and an explanation for each request. Both the requestor and his/her subject were photographed; both photos and the written request were reproduced in the exhibit and in its memorial volume. This project recalls the related musings of our friend Annie, grasping for definition of a similar, prospective project, so we send her a photo and a link.

Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

Outside this museum sits a somber memorial to the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945. With the main museum closed for renovations, their story is not being told today.

Our group has dinner together at a traditional Viennese restaurant. We are a diverse group of twenty-four from all over the USA, led by a Spanish tour manager. We much enjoy one another’s company, and it seems there’s not a clunker in the crowd.

Concert Hall

Concert Hall

AFTER DINNER, we are transported to a concert venue, where a small string and wind orchestra, appearing under the name of the Vienna Residence Orchestra, a pair of opera singers, and a pair of ballet dancers has been assembled to entertain us and a hall full of other foreign nationals. Apprehension that this is a second-string tourist-entertainment pick-up band quickly dissipates, and we savor the Mozart, Strauss, the vocalists and the dancers. All acquit themselves excellently, particularly the expressive and athletic young ballet performers. It is impressive how few instruments one really needs (in the hands of skilled, collaborative musicians) to do justice to the Mozart, Strauss, and Lizt we hear tonight. Of course, no photos are allowed during the performance…

Concert Stage

Concert Stage