It felt like we had returned to the glory days of the 20s. Fresh from a cosseted beverage in Harry’s Bar, the venerable watering hole of Hemingway, and having headed along the Grand Canal by vaporetto to the Stazione Santa Lucia, we left Venice one foggy freezing night by night train. With our own little private compartment complete with bunk beds, complementary towels (and bubbles!), and even a tuck away sink and wardrobe, the only thing missing was the inevitable Agatha Christie-esk murder. And while things certainly did go bumpety-bump-bump in the night, we (and as far as I know, the other passengers) arrived early the following morning very much alive and vibrating. Our new destination: Vienna.
Vienna is synonymous with New Year thanks to its famous New Year’s Day concert from the grand Musikverein, and likewise with the festive season owing to its multitude of Christmas markets perfumed with the scent of mulled wine and spiced pastries. The city was therefore an obvious choice after our Christmas in Venice, and with our night-journey also doubling as a hotel, it was the most convenient of onward travels.
Vienna, first views
If Venice was remarkable for its decadent, fading grandeur, Vienna was notable for its utterly breathtaking majesty. While Venice’s palaces and piazzas were to be found nestled alongside a maze of tiny canals, and hidden in cosy corners, from our first steps within Vienna, it presented as a city on show. A city-spectacular, straight out of the gilded pages of its imperial past. A city built as a manifestation of an empire’s utmost power, spectacular riches and the very best of refined taste and unceasing elegance. It felt like a city almost untouched by the turbulence of past centuries, as its resplendent monuments and palatial public buildings glittered as though brand new.
This was no more evident than on the Ringstrasse, Vienna’s principal boulevard and main inner-ringroad, an avenue whose construction 150 years ago coincided with a race to build alongside it the most spectacular buildings the city had ever seen.
Our location in the comparatively village-like Josefstadt region led us directly onto the Ringstrasse, and our first encounter was with the phenomenal neo-gothic Neues Rathaus, the new city hall built by architect Friedrich von Schmidt and including an impressive 100m central tower topped by a 3m statue of a knight in shining armour.
The Neues Rathaus
Just a few metres onwards and we came face to face with the classical masterpiece of Theophil Hansen’s Parliament Building, a temple-like construction whose positioning up a gentle sloping hill and collection of grand mythological statues imbued the site with all the majesty and power which would be expected of such a key component of the state. Meanwhile, just opposite across many of the grassy gardens which also line the Ringstrasse, further majesty could be found in the form of the Hofburg Complex, the sprawling network of former imperial apartments and the Presidential offices; a cluster of palaces whose impressive scale is softened by the elegance of its green cupolas and gilded details.
The Parliament building and the Hofburg Complex
And so with each and every step we took along this impressive broad avenue, we encountered a new masterpiece of architectural prowess, from the twin places of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Natural History Museum to the stunning State Opera House, one of the first of the grand Ringstrasse buildings to be completed, and of course the famous Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. And these views only got better as night quickly fell, and the grandeur was aptly illuminated against a starry blue sky.
The Opera, and the Musikverein
As Sigmund Freud once noted, Schein über Sein – looking good is better than being good. And while Vienna struck us almost immediately as a veritable showpiece rather than a place of cosiness and homely welcome, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the show being laid out before us, a performance whose protagonist would continue to dazzle as this next leg of our winter journey moved onwards.
The Ringstrasse at night
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