Waltzing through Vienna, the still-royal city

January 09, 1994|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

Sometimes, you find history in the strangest places.

At Vienna's venerable Greichen-beisl restaurant, founded more than 500 years ago, history is written on the ceiling. Look carefully there and you'll spot autographs of such illustrious personalities as Beethoven, Wagner, Schubert and Strauss. Mark Twain signed in large, firm strokes. Mozart's moniker looks a little squiggly, Count von Zeppelin's takes a bit of neck-stretching.

Other famous names are inked into the plaster, but they're hard to decipher. Not that it matters; if it's history you're looking for, Vienna has plenty of it elsewhere.

Echoes of Vienna's past greatness are heard throughout the city, in its palaces, on its great boulevards, in its cafes and coffeehouses.

Only France's Versailles, for instance, can outshine beautiful Schoenbrunn Palace, the seat of an Austro-Hungarian Empire that until 1918 extended from Budapest to Belgrade and encompassed 12 nationalities.

Mozart, as a child prodigy, gave his first concert in the Schoenbrunn's Mirror Room in 1762. Napoleon Bonaparte lived for six months in what is now known as the Napoleon Room. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna convened in the Great Gallery, lighted by 4,000 candles. In the same room more than a century later, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev met for the first time, to discuss Berlin. (The conversation did not go well, and the Berlin wall went up shortly thereafter.)

Many future emperors were born at Schoenbrunn, among them the mutton-jowled Franz Joseph, who ruled for 68 years from 1848 to 1916, and his ill-fated brother Maxmillian, who became emperor of Mexico and was executed there during the Mexican revolution.

Circling the city center is the Ringstrasse, as grand as any boulevard in Paris. Here stand such great 19th-century buildings as the Hofburg Palace, City Hall, Parliament and Opera House. Glittering Kartnerstrasse, the pedestrian street, connects the Ring with St. Stephansplatz, the Times Square of Vienna.

Certainly famous citizens and tributes to past accomplishment are found in all cities. But Vienna exudes a feeling of empire that is almost palpable.

Most of all, to take the measure of Vienna, count the creative minds that it nurtured over the centuries.

Beethoven wrote his "Eroica" here (and tore out his dedication to Napoleon when he learned the latter had crowned himself emperor). Johann Strauss popularized the waltz and wrote the "Blue Danube"; waltz clubs and concerts are still a major diversion here. Sigmund Freud introduced psychoanalysis and was an intellectual force until the Nazis forced him to flee in 1938.

Certainly famous citizens and tributes to past accomplishment are found in all cities.

But Vienna exudes a feeling of empire that is almost palpable.

"On the Ringstrasse I often experience . . . something which is not associated with the buildings or the people. It is rather an ever-changing sense of the past that you can hardly grasp," author Milo Dor wrote in "Apropos Vienna." "This is the very center of an Empire which has passed away. There are other cities in Europe where you come on history at every turn. But though I have been in Paris I did not get the same impression, nor in Berlin."

When he was not at Schoenbrunn, Franz Joseph stayed in the town at the Hofburg. This is not simply a palace, but a whole complex of royal buildings -- and most are open to the public today.

Two popular Vienna institutions -- the Lipizzaner horses of the Spanish Riding School and the Vienna Boys Choir -- are housed in the Hofburg. Lipizzaner performances take place only in April, May, June, September and October, but the Boys' Choir can be heard at Sunday Masses at the Imperial Chapel throughout winter and spring. The choir also gives Friday concerts in May, June, September and October.

Open year-round is the Hofburg's Treasury, where one can gaze upon the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which sat upon the Hapsburg heads, and a vast array of other astonishing trinkets of royalty: jewel-encrusted swords and scepters, royal orbs, crowns and crownlets, medals, coronation robes and the like.

The possessors of those priceless baubles, the Hapsburg emperors, empresses, kings and queens, are all still in Vienna, buried in a Capuchin crypt in the middle of town. The no-nonsense Capuchins will not admit kings to the subterranean crypt just because of their lofty position in life; the dead rulers have to be announced as humble sinners, just like ordinary folk.

Some of their tombs, nevertheless, are encased in exceedingly extravagant sarcophagi. Humble sinners they may be, plain folks no.

Composers, too, are among the highly honored in Vienna.

Mozart lived in three apartments during his 10-year stay here, but the so-called "Figaro House" in the heart of town near St. Stephan's church is the best known and can be visited. It is here that he wrote the opera "The Marriage of Figaro."

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