As it turns out, Vienna is the beating heart of Austria, and quite literally, the center of central Europe. Austria is landlocked on all sides by Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia. Many borders for a relatively small country. Many Americans may not know exactly where it is, but they know at least one Austrian: California's former Govenator, and more recently, Sacha Baron Cohen's latest incarnation "Bruno". And most people probably know that "The Sound of Music" was set in Austria.
Vienna was put on the map in the 13th century when the Hapsburg family came to power. This dynasty lasted well into the 20th century ruling the country for over seven hundred years. The town that grew up along the banks of the fabled blue Danube River became a center of power and wealth in the 16th century which transformed it into a splendid Imperial city and center for the arts.
In 1740 Austria's most famous monarch took the throne and ruled for forty years. Empress Marie Therese built many of the palaces and cultural buildings that define the city. She had fifteen children during her long reign. By all accounts, she was a sensible administrator and a tireless governor. During the birth of her fifteenth child, she famously continued signing papers and carrying on with matters of state right the way through the birth of her daughter Marie Antoinette - who of course went on to be the last Queen of France and cause celebre of the French Revolution.
During the rule of Marie Therese, Vienna became the musical capitol of Europe, and remains to this day the most important city in the world for classical music. Marie Therese nurtured the talents of a boy genius named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as his contemporary, Joseph Haydn. With the arrival of Ludwig Van Beethoven in 1790 Vienna became home to the world's first musical super star. Beethoven's funeral was attended by over ten thousand people. A first of its kind. Johann Strauss took credit for introducing the waltz to the world, and Johannes Brahms created some of the world's most enduring romantic classical music. All of these musical legends were children of Vienna.
Freddie and I arrived in Austria just two hours after taking off from London, and the sleek double-decker speed train whisked us in the center of Vienna in only sixteen minutes. I couldn't help but think just a hundred years ago this journey could have taken a month. My first impression of Vienna is that she is a grand old dame. Her immaculate baroque buildings line the boulevards, and her manicured parks are tranquil and perfect. It's a classy place. German is the first language here, and many of the ageing residents still wear hats and have a fondness for purple. There is also a younger, edgier vibe surrounding the old town, and many business types are to be found in the abundant cafes and bars. No one seems to be in much of a hurry and the city comes across as a really nice place to be.
The first day we made our way around the Ringstrasse. This grand boulevard circles the old town and brings you past Vienna's most splendid buildings. Charming old electric trams travel in both directions around the circle, as well as out and away from the center. We stopped at the magnificent Karlskirche; a gigantic, richly decorated church that was dedicated to the eradication of the Black Plague. Freddie and I climbed to the top of the ornate dome on a rickety scaffolding that caused Freddie to break out in a cold sweat.
We stopped at the city's grandest hotel, the Imperial, for a coffee and their world famous apple strudel. Now I'm not big on desserts, but this stuff is to die for! We continued past the neo-Renaissance style Opera House, home to Vienna's over the top high-society balls held through the winter months, then onto the Hofberg Palace where the president lives and finally onto the giant, imposing Gothic town hall, with the unfortunate name of the Rathaus. The huge towers of the Rathaus overlook the central meeting point of the city. People gather in the square to eat, drink and be merry in their German way. There are all kinds of food stalls selling staples of Austrian cuisine: schnitzels (flat breaded veal), dumplings, goulash, many kinds of sausage and of course those gorgeous pastries. I loved the food in this city. All very German, all washed down with strong beer or sweet white wine.
Later in the evening we sampled some of the city's gay bars. Mostly small, pleasant establishments that ranged from high class to downright odd and quirky. This beautiful city does not exactly have the reputation for having an exciting night life. That said, it suited me right down to the ground.
The next day we were joined by our friend Nando and we continued our exploration of the city. We stopped at the Belevedere Palace, which was home to Prince Eugene of Savoy who was credited with kicking the Turkish out of Vienna in 1683. They have made their way back since then, I can confirm. The grounds of the Belevedere are laid out in the French style with formal gardens, cascading fountains, and multiple statues. A grand and splendid setting in which to spend a few hours. Then it was up to the island in the middle of the Danube to experience the wide open green space of Danube Park and to see the headquarters for the United Nations in a huge, sprawling modern complex separated from the old city by the clear blue waters. We stopped for a drink at one of the lively riverside bars and I had a chance to put my feet in the legendary river, which is Europe's second longest.
After a few drinks we got very giggly and had a good laugh at the some of the German names and signposts in the city. We came across a square called Dumbasstrasse, and much to our childish amusement we realized that the German name for Vienna itself is "Wien" and its inhabitants are known as "Wieners". After all the intake of arts and culture, we needed a little comic relief. We strolled back into the old town, drank a few more glasses of Riesling and had another pleasant, if uneventful, night out on the town.
The final day began with a massive buffet breakfast at the hotel, and then a nice long walk to burn it off. We made our way to Vienna's most famous landmark on the outskirts of the city. The Schonnbrunn Palace was the former summer residence of the Imperial family. It was built in 1696 by Leopold I, but it was later expanded by Marie Therese who proclaimed it to be the most beautiful place on Earth. Interestingly, the Schonnbrunn Palace was also a favourite place of Michael Jackson. He paid many visits here and had an enormous statue of himself erected on the top of a nearby hill in the mid nineties. The locals thought it was in bad taste and promptly had it removed. I can see why it appealed to Jackson. It is a storybook place, so picturesque, so over-the-top and so manicured that it defies reality. The strict symmetry of the baroque architecture is softened by acres and acres of gardens, statues, and ponds, a zoo and a hedge maze. At the bottom of the hill lies the magnificent Palm House that was added in 1882 to house a vast collection of exotic plants. The crowning glory at the top of the hill is the Gloriette -- a neo classical arcade that provides a sweeping view of the vast gardens below. It now houses an elegant cafe, a perfect spot for a coffee and strudel.
In the warm late afternoon it was time to head back into town. We took it at a slow pace to enjoy the beautifully preserved historic buildings once again. We rode the sweet bell-clanging tram and then the speed train back to the airport. Leaving Vienna was like saying goodbye to a new friend, knowing it wouldn't be long before we would be together again.