Good coffee, music and art can be found in the historic capital of Europe’s largest empire. Wandering through Vienna’s Sisi Museum, I was surprised to learn that in 1853, Austria was once the largest empire in Europe, stretching as far as Lombardy and Venice in northern Italy to what was known as Bohemia, Hungary and most of Eastern Europe.
The Sisi Museum celebrates the life of Vienna’s Empress Elizabeth (affectionately known as Sisi 1837 – 1898). Sisi, a Bavarian Princess captured the heart of Emperor Franz Josef and became Austria’s Empress.
Her good looks helped her attain royal celebrity status equivalent to the celebrity of Princess Diana of Britain, right across Europe.
Like Diana, Sisi also shunned the public eye. Her personal belongings are displayed at the museum, where there is a walk-in reconstruction of the luxury state-railway carriage used by Sisi during her travels across the Empire.
The extravagance of the era is evident as I walked through her lavishly decorated private chambers at the Imperial Apartments in Hofburg Palace. Sisi’s ladies-in-waiting were chosen for their ability to keep up with the Empress during her brisk daily walks. In the main salon, the rings and wall bars she used during her punishing work-out routines, hang conspicuously amidst the plush velvet furnishings.
Palaces and museums
While much of Vienna’s old-world charm emanates from its buildings and its architecture, the 1,441-room Schonbrunn Palace stands out among the stately buildings. Completed in 1713 and inspired by Versailles, Schonbrunn is a beautiful but much smaller version of the French palace. Summer home to the Hapsburg emperors, Schonbrunn played a key part in Austrian history.
Six year-old Mozart performed a concert in the palace’s Hall of Mirrors, and Napoleon once stationed his headquarters in its elaborate rococo-style apartments. Empress Maria Theresa held ceremonial balls, lavish banquets, and extravagant receptions during her reign.
Today, the extensive gardens, which were once only enjoyed by nobility, are open to the public. There are elaborate fountains, imitation Roman ruins, tropical greenhouse and formal flowerbeds. The annual summer Mozart Festival is held at the Schlosstheater (Palace Theatre), where it is said that Marie Antoinette once appeared on stage.
The Lichtenstein Museum was set up by the royal family of Liechtenstein and based around the private collection of an art-loving Hapsburg prince, Albert von Sachsen (1738-1822). Among these works are sketches for paintings and delicate etchings of Rubens’ children which show a more intimate side to the artist known mostly for his bold, sweeping canvases.
There are eight enormous paintings inspired by the Roman Emperor Decius. Peter Paul Rubens did most of his sketches by hand, and had an army of assistants that turned them into large format oil paintings.
The Albertina Museum hauled out of storage dozens of Rubens rarely displayed and fragile drawings that count as some of his most beautiful and important works. Going to Vienna and missing the Albertina, would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Louvre.
The Albertina is one of the most significant museums in the world and is home to the famous graphic collection of Duke Albert von Sachsen-Teschen. It contains almost 70,000 drawings and more than one million graphic prints from the late Gothic period to the contemporary.
House of Music
At the House of Music’s virtual conductor programme, I picked up the baton and conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on a giant screen in front of me. At first, the musicians tried to follow my lead to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, led by the first violinist they soon interrupted me and proceeded to boo me off the stage.
The US$55-million six-story complex has a bewildering array of multimedia software that makes music heard, seen and felt throughout various experience zones. The halls dedicated to Vienna’s celebrated composers accentuate the incredible phenomenon of talented musicians that originated from this part of the world: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Mahler and the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. There were pages from Haydn’s daily journal, a handwritten letter from Mozart to his father claiming “My desire and hope is to earn honour, fame and money.”
Today, Vienna’s music scene still thrives on the popularity of that era. There are free outdoor concerts all over the city. I sipped on Viennese wine and food from the multi-cultural stalls outside the Vienna Town Hall, while watching opera and orchestral performers on a giant screen. Just a few blocks’ away, the Vienna Mozart Orchestra (dressed in historic costume) performed a Mozart orchestral performance at the Musikverein Golden Hall.
Nearby, the State Opera House, a grand building constructed during 1861-69, and one of the world’s top five opera venues presents a different performance every night for 10 months of the year. The State Opera House also holds Vienna’s annual Opera Ball in February each year where 200 graceful young debutantes (usually the daughters of rich and titled Austrian families) make their debut into Viennese society, a tradition that Emperor Franz Josef started in 1877.
Museums and Concert Halls aren’t the only place soak in Viennese culture. Many of Vienna’s coffee houses retain their 19th century ambience. According to legend, coffee first came to Vienna in the 17th century, when a Turkish army tried to unsuccessfully invade the city. While in a hurry to retreat, the Turkish commanders left behind sacks of mysterious green beans, which the Viennese initially assumed, was fodder for the Turkish camels. Fortunately, they discovered coffee and started the Viennese Coffee-drinking ritual long before the world ever heard of Starbucks.
The coffee houses served as a place to meet friends, close business deals and discuss politics. In intellectual circles, coffee-drinking was regarded as an aid for clearer thinking and intelligent discussion. Each coffee house developed a regular clientele and an individual style of coffee. Today, every Viennese has their favourite coffee house and is very selective about the type of coffee they drink. As Johann Strauss’ early compositions were first played in coffee houses, many of today’s traditional coffee houses still feature regular Strauss recitals.
When ordering a coffee, the proportion of coffee, milk, cream or whipped cream is specified by an individual name for each drink and the coffee menu extends way beyond the cappuccino. For many Viennese customers, the favourite is Melange – half-milk (usually steamed) and half-coffee, with an optional dollop of whipped cream.
There is a good choice of two to five-star hotels, centrally located. The Ambassador Hotel, is a traditional five-star hotel.
The Sisi Museum is at the Hofburg Imperial Apartments.
Haus der Musik.
State Opera House Opernring 2, Wien Staatsoper. Tickets for a Mozart historical costume concert in the Musikverein Golden Hall range from 35 – 72 Euros.
Austrian National Tourist Office