My journey through Prague at an end, I caught a train to Vienna, the second last famous European city I was to visit on my travels. From the moment I arrived at Vienna’s former Südbahnhof I was struck by the city’s quiet yet elegant demeanour. Most cities I’ve visited are imbued with their own particular brand of noise. Vienna seemed unusually tranquil for a major European city.
I struck out for my accommodation, ‘B&B Astroverein’ located just ten minutes from the train station and within easy walking distance of the city centre. Astroverein would turn out to be one of the most eccentric yet likeable places I’ve ever stayed at.
I was greeted at the allotted address by Dr Wolf Dietrich, an elderly gentleman wearing a bowtie who beckoned me inside to meet his wife Marcella. Walking through the apartment, I noticed each generously proportioned room was lavishly outfitted with voluminous draped curtains, over-sized vases, large gilded mirrors and artworks, heavy furniture, plants and mismatched lamps. Thick carpets, bookcases brimming with books, chandeliers, delicate ornaments, ornate fireplaces and dogs also seemed to fill every room.
![bed](/ftpupload/UserImages/images/Flamboyant Viennese accomodation.JPG "")
Dr Dietrich explained that he is a retired art historian and archaeologist and Marcella is an astrologer (hence the countless books). The couple speak five languages, are actively involved in Vienna’s cultural life and regularly organise events which celebrate Austria’s rich historical heritage.
Introductions over, Dr Dietrich helped me carry my bags to my room which, surprisingly, was located at another entirely separate yet equally flamboyant apartment around the corner. Akin to Dr Dietrich’s rooms, the apartment was packed with knick-knacks, appliances, a caged pigeon, a bar, a coffee machine and coat hangers which in an odd way simply added to its shabby-chic charm. The apartment doors weren’t locked half the time but unsurprisingly, being the only South African in residence, I was the only guest who seemed somewhat perturbed by this fact.
By the time I’d settled in and freshened up dusk was falling so I decided to make my way towards the city. Austria in general and Vienna in particular are steeped in history, so I was keen to get a head-start on my sightseeing.
According to the history books, Vienna became an important hub in the tenth century. It fell to Rudolf of Habsburg in 1278 and became the imperial capital in 1683 at which point it was flooded with aristocratic families who went on a building spree, imparting Vienna with the largely baroque character it sports to this day. The Habsburgs continued their rule until WWI when Emperor Charles I abdicated.
Not five minutes into my walk down the hill towards the city centre I came across the exquisite Belvedere Palace. Built in the 18th century along baroque lines, the palace complex was originally built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy. Set amidst elegant baroque gardens, statues and fountains, Belvedere Palace now plays host to the world’s largest collection of artworks by Gustav Klimt including ‘The Kiss’ and is well worth a visit.
![palace](/ftpupload/UserImages/images/Belvedere Palace.JPG "")
The stunning Belvadere Palace
As night fell I was intrigued to see locals jogging around the formal garden grounds and a fashion shoot taking place on the palace steps. It was pleasing to see such an historic building being incorporated into the modern social fabric and not isolated purely as a showpiece of its time.
Emerging from the palace gardens at the bottom of the hill, I happened upon the Soviet War Memorial erected in honour of 17 000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the battle for Vienna in WWII. Perched around an adjacent fountain were numerous local couples and groups of friends who were clearly accustomed to meeting there. Again, I was delighted at the way in which Vienna’s people incorporate the monuments of the past into their everyday lives.
Ambling on around the outskirts of Vienna’s famed Ringstrasse – a series of boulevards that encircles Vienna’s Innere Stadt or Old Town - I stumbled upon another baroque confection which turned out to be St. Charles’s Church. The Wien Museum which focuses on the history of Vienna and the impressive Musikverein, home of Vienna’s philharmonic orchestra also lay within close reach of the church.
Keen to see more, I continued on and within no time at all found myself in front of Vienna’s State Opera House in front of which a large crowd was seated in the open air. Intrigued I moved closer and discovered a live opera being aired on a big screen attached to the façade of the opera house. Fascinated, I spoke to one of the bystanders who explained that the opera house routinely airs its shows for free during summer. Clearly a number of opera veterans were amongst the crowd as evidenced by the numerous picnic baskets and blankets scattered about between the chairs. “Vienna has something special going on,” I thought as I moved on.
Vienna’s Old Town is surprisingly compact as I quickly discovered. It measures just one kilometre wide and can be traversed in less than thirty minutes thanks in large part to the excellent public transport on offer. Just about all the city’s major sights are located within this relatively small area and along the Ringstrasse which is good news for those who want to see a lot within a short space of time. These factors, amongst others, led to Vienna being named the world’s most liveable city three times in a row in recent years. The Old Town has also been named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Just across the way from the opera house was the Albertina, a museum which houses thousands of drawings, approximately one million old master prints, modern graphic works and much more besides. Following a quick look at the Albertina, I made my way up Kärtner Strasse, Vienna’s most famous shopping street, only to be drawn into the luxurious, world famous Sacher Hotel where I couldn’t resist buying a small sacher torte and nearly choked on the price of a cup of coffee.
Counting my pennies after my sacher experience, I continued up Kärtner Strasse which was lined by the usual ubiquitous ‘living statues’ and a mix of upmarket and tacky tourist shops. Kärtner Strasse culminates in Stephansplatz, a pedestrianized central square dominated by St. Stephan’s Cathedral, one of Vienna’s oldest and most recognisable architectural gems.
Running west of the cathedral is the Graben, a more upmarket version of Kärtner Strasse punctuated by an ornate column erected to commemorate the plague of 1679. Mozarthaus, Mozart’s only surviving residence also lies just around the corner from the cathedral. The house has been turned into a museum but is only really worth visiting if you’re an avid Mozart fan. At this point I called it a night, excited to continue with my exploration of Vienna the next day.
Keep an eye out for next week’s chapter which outlines more of what Vienna has to offer and provides some insights into the city’s property market.