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Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe.
This time we're celebrating the good life in Vienna.
Thanks for joining us.
When I think about Vienna, I think about good living:
elegant parks, romantic Danube River, imperial art collections, and great music.
After centuries of rule by the Habsburg family, today the people are calling the shots...
and they seem to be getting it right.
We'll marvel at the awe-inspiring Schonnbrunn Palace and enjoy the imperial city's fine
art, then we'll relax in a hillside wine garden. And we'll visit a world class opera house
and catch a little Klimt before touring the Danube countryside with its striking Melk
Abbey.
Vienna was the grand capital of the formerly grand Habsburg Empire - which once stretched
across much of Europe. Its superpower days are now long gone. And today, the city enjoys
the cultural and physical remnants of its Imperial age as both an inspiration and a
playground for living well.
Vienna sits along the Danube River. St. Stephen's Cathedral marks the center of town. The old
town - with most of the top sights - is bound tightly by the Ringstrasse, marking what used
to be the city wall.
The palaces of the imperial Habsburg family still create a buzz. The Royal family wintered
downtown in their Hofburg Palace and they summered here - at the Schönbrunn Palace.
Among Europe's grandiose palaces, only Schönbrunn rivals Versailles. It's big, with over 1400
rooms, but don't worry - only 40 are shown to the public.
While the exterior is Baroque - the favored style of divine monarchs in the 17th century,
much of the interior was finished under Maria Theresa in Rococo - the frillier let-them-eat-cake
style that followed. The chandeliers are either of Bohemian crystal or of hand-carved wood
shiny with gold-leaf. This one was lit by 72 candles.
Maria Theresa, who ruled in the late 1700s, was the only woman to officially run the Habsburg
Empire in that family's six century reign. She was a strong and effective empress famous
as the mother of 16 children - most of whom survived to adulthood. Imagine that the most
powerful woman in Europe was either pregnant or had a newborn for over half of her 40 year
reign.
The original practitioner of "make love not war," Maria Theresa expanded her empire while
avoiding wars by cleverly marrying her children into other royal families. During her reign
the rest of Europe recognized Austria as a great power. Her rival, the Prussian emperor,
said, "When at last the Habsburgs get a great man, it's a woman."
In room after luxurious room, the palace heralds the story of a powerful family. Frescos in
the grand ballroom were propaganda: the good life under Maria Theresa. A contemporary of
George Washington - but worlds apart politically, she presides like the divine monarch she was
over a vast multi-ethnic empire at peace: Tuscany with the bottles of good Chianti,
the Netherlands with the wild sea, Hungarians with their Magyar hats and animals were all
part of her realm in about 1750. There was peace - but only through strength. This fresco
shows off her state-of-the art military. Her infantry moves forward in alternating lines,
firing and loading with a horrifying speed and efficiency.
A walk through the imperial garden, now overrun with commoners, celebrates the evolution of
our society from autocracy to democracy. It's been nearly a century since the last emperor
checked out. And, if access to once out-of-bounds royal gardens is any measure, the people are
doing quite well.
While the Habsburgs may be gone, their appreciation of finer living is alive and well, as you'll
learn in the cafes. For many Viennese, the living room is down the street at the neighborhood
coffeehouse. Each comes with its own individual character. The venerable Café Sperl is still
furnished just as it was on the day it opened back in 1880.
While a bit tired, often smoky and with a shabby patina, a Viennese café is a welcoming
place. They offer light lunches, fresh pastries, a wide selection of newspapers, and "take
all the time you want" charm for the price of a cup of coffee.
Divine monarchs like the Habsburgs liked their art divine too, in other words, Baroque. Charles
Church offers perhaps the best Baroque in Vienna with the unique combination of columns,
a classic pediment and an elliptical dome. We're dropping in for a peek at the painstaking
and costly restoration work going on all the time to keep the cultural treasures of Europe
looking good. Here, tourist admissions help pay the bill.
The church, which dates to the early 1700s, was built and decorated with a scaffolding
system essentially the same as this one. Ascending the elevator high into the dome, you're in
the clouds with cupids and angels. Many details that appear refined and realistic from ground
level - such as gold leaf, frescos, and fake marble - look rough and sloppy up close. It's
surreal to observe these distorted figures from this unintended angle.
As always, the art had a purpose; teaching...or propaganda - depending on your perspective.
Here, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Catholic priests triumph and inspire - while Protestants and
their trouble-making books are trashed. At the very top, you'll see the tiny dove representing
the Holy Spirit, surrounded by a cheering squad of nipple-lipped cupids.
Nearby, Imperial Austria's greatest leader, Maria Theresa, looks upon the country's greatest
collection of art, the Kunsthistorisches Museum. As you enter, you'll be dazzled by the space
and reminded of the former glory of the Habsburg's multi-national empire.
At their peak of power in the 1500s, the Habsburg family ruled Austria, Germany, northern Italy,
the Netherlands, even Spain. And this museum offers great art from throughout the realm.
The Italian collection is particularly strong.
Around the year 1500, Italy had a Renaissance, or "rebirth," of interest in the art and learning
of ancient Greece and Rome. In painting, that meant that Greek gods joined saints and angels
as popular subjects.
The collection spans the all-stars of the Italian Renaissance:
Titian - the Venetian - seemed particular intimate with the pre-Christian gods and their
antics. Here, in Mars, Venus and Amor, a busy cupid oversees the goddess of love making
her case that war is not the answer. Mars - his weapons blissfully discarded, sees her
point.
The 22-year-old Raphael captured the spirit of the High Renaissance, combining symmetry,
grace, beauty and emotion. His Madonna of the Meadow is a mountain of motherly love.
Mary's head is the summit and her flowing robe is the base - enfolding baby Jesus and
John the Baptist. The geometric perfection, serene landscape, and Mary's adoring face
make this a masterpiece of sheer grace. But the cross the little tykes play with foreshadows
their gruesome deaths.
As the baroque age succeeds the Renaissance, it brings more emotion and melodrama. Caravaggio's
Rosenkranz Madonna provides a strong contrast to Raphael's super-sweet Madonnas. Caravaggio
shocked the art world with brutally honest reality - ordinary Madonnas, hands that seem
to speak...saints with dirty feet.
In David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio turns a harsh light on a familiar Bible story.
David shows off the dripping head of the slain giant. The painting, bled of color, is like
a black-and-white crime-scene photo. This David is not a heroic Renaissance Man like
Michelangelo's famous statue, but a homeless teen that Caravaggio hired off the street.
And the severed head of Goliath...is none other than Caravaggio himself, an in-your-face
self-portrait.
Art of the Northern "Renaissance" was different. Funded by the economic boom from Flemish and
Dutch trading, it was more secular and Protestant than the Catholic-funded art of the Italian
Renaissance. Rather than Madonnas and saints, and Greek gods, you'll see peasants, landscapes,
and food.
Paintings are smaller, full of down-to-earth objects, designed to appeal to the thriving
merchant class. Northern artists embraced the details, encouraging the viewer to appreciate
the beauty in everyday things.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder was the Norman Rockwell of the 16th Century - the undisputed master
of the slice-of-life village scene. While a city-slicker himself, Brueghel dressed down
to observe country folk at play. Even as he highlighted the rustic simplicity of their
lives, he showed their quirks as universal examples of human folly.
In his "Farmers' Dance" there's not a saint in sight, but there is a message. Bagpipes
symbolized hedonism. In this scene, the church is ignored while the piper gets all the attention.
Perhaps the best way to match this rustic conviviality today is to head into the nearby
Vienna Woods. Here in the foothills of the Alps, locals enjoy their natural backyard.
And, amidst the famous vineyards, they gather for the ritual of tasting the new wine.
The uniquely Viennese institution of the Heurige is two things: it's a young wine, and a place
to drink it. A long time ago, when the Habsburg Emperors allowed Vienna's vintners sell their
young wine tax-free, several hundred families opened up these wine-garden eateries clustered
around the edge of town - and a tradition was born.
Today, there are more than 1,700 acres of vineyards within Vienna's city limits, and
countless Heurige taverns. For a Heurige evening ride a tram into this wine-garden district,
wander around, and choose the place with the best ambience.
Many locals claim that it takes several years of practice to distinguish between the young
Heurige wine and vinegar.
To enjoy a more refined wine some vocabulary helps. Try the grüner Veltliner a dry white
wine. Since Austrian wine is often sweet, remember the word trocken, that means dry.
While waitresses bring your wine order, the food is self-serve.
As is the tradition, they don't serve fine cuisine - only simple dishes and cold cuts
from a hearty buffet like this. Clearly, no one's goin' hungry tonight.
So, here we have everything you can imagine in a traditional Viennese country restaurant:
you've got your sauerkraut, your red kraut, schweinbraten, Alp cheese, mountain cheese
and potato salad and something I think is very important-schmaltz - this is lard actually.
And it's something young people don't eat much but the old timers love it. Mmm, takes
you way back. Lard.
Vienna has fine art and architecture from just about every age and particularly interesting
is the art from the last decades of Habsburg rule - art nouveau. Vienna gave birth to its
own curvaceous brand of art nouveau in the early nineteen hundreds - jugendstil. Playful
examples are all over town. Whether architecture, coffee, cakes, or music...it's all part of
the good life Vienna style.
The Belvedere Palace, with its elegant Baroque gardens, was the lavish home of Prince Eugene
of Savoy, the still-much-appreciated conqueror of the Turks. Eugene was the greatest military
genius of his age and highly valued by his emperor.
When you conquer great enemies, as Eugene did, you get really rich. Since he had no
heirs, the state inherited his palace. In the 19th century, Emperor Josef II converted
the palace into Austria's first great public art gallery.
It houses the Austrian gallery of 19th- and 20th-century art. As Austria became a leader
in European art around 1900, that age is the collection's forte, with fine works by a school
of respected romantics, Egon Schiele, and Gustav Klimt.
In the room full of sumptuous paintings by Klimt you can get caught up in his creed that
all art is erotic. He was fascinated with both the beauty and the danger of women. He
painted during the turn-of-the-century, when Vienna was a splendid laboratory of hedonism
- the love of pleasure. For Klimt, Eve was the prototypical woman; her body not the apple
provided the seduction. Frustrated by censorship, Klimt refused every form of state support.
While he didn't paint women entirely nude, he managed to capture a bewitching eroticism.
Here, Judith is no biblical heroine but a high society Viennese woman - with an ostentatious
necklace. With half-closed eyes and lightly parted lips, she's dismissive yet mysterious
and seductive. Holding the head of her biblical victim, she's the modern Femme Fatale.
In perhaps his most famous painting, The Kiss, the woman is no longer dominating...but submissive,
abandoning herself to her man in a fertile field and a vast universe. In a glow emanating
from a radiance of desire, the body she presses against is a self-portrait of the artist himself
- Gustav Klimt.
At the Hofburg, the Habsburg Winter Palace in the town center, Vienna's love of music
is beautifully captured in a fine collection of historic instruments.
Vienna was Europe's music capital long before Beethoven called it home. As far back as the
12th century, it was a mecca for musicians. Later Habsburg emperors were generous patrons
of music, in fact many were talented musicians and composers themselves.
Palatial rooms are filled with odd medieval noise makers, regal trumpets, famous pianos,
and more. Immersed in music history - this portrait is of a 13 year old Beethoven - visitors
can actually hear these precious instruments being played with the accompanying audio guide.
The Clavichord and the Harpsichord were two predecessors to the piano.
For a couple hundred years the Clavichord was the standard keyboard instrument. It's
small, it's simple, good for domestic intimate settings. The keyboard action is very simple,
just a teeter-totter motion. You can do a little dynamic contrast-soft and less soft-and
a little vibrato if you like. The Harpsichord makes a bitter and a brighter sound because
the strings rather than being hit with a hammer were plucked with a quill. And because a pluck
is a pluck the volume was always the same. Around 1700 they developed a more complicated
mechanism that when you hit the key it would throw the hammer up to the string and you
could strike it softer or louder. They called it the soft loud piano forte. Today we call
it the piano.
These days' visitors to Vienna find musical treats wherever they turn. Even if you don't
have time or money for a performance, a visit to the opera is a must.
The Vienna State Opera house built in the 1860s's is the pride of the city. Here in
the grand entry hall, it's easy to imagine an age when opera was as popular as movies
are today. Picture white gloved dandies with their dates. Tours are offered daily.
Guide: We're standing now in a very elegant intermission room which takes us back into
the time of Francioza. The auditorium altogether holds 2,200 places. You have a fantastic view
from your seat. You have to imagine that the entire auditorium was damaged in World War
II. So this place was terribly hitten by the bombs. The entire auditorium burned down,
also the stage area so it had to be completely rebuilt after the war.
We are now on one of the biggest stages in Europe. It's possible to compare the entire
size of the stage to the interior of St. Stephen's Cathedral.
The Vienna State Opera - with musicians provided by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the
pit - is one of the world's top opera houses offering 300 performances a year.
While the orchestra and the opera take the summer off, Vienna's music scene thrives year
around. And most summer evenings in front of the City Hall, free concerts are broadcast
on a giant screen. Just before the show, people gather to enjoy dinner in the park. It's a
lively local scene...sure, there's some schnitzel...but it's mostly "world food" with Vienna at play.
Singles consider this the best pick-up place in town. The city government subsidizes the
event believing even those just looking to hook up will pick up an appreciation of a
little high culture at the same time.
Tonight, three thousand seats are filled as people who couldn't make it to the original
performance enjoy the Vienna State Opera and its orchestra perform the Love Potion by Donizetti
[doan-it-tzetti] for free.
The Danube River is an integral part of Vienna - for both trade and for recreation. The mighty
river flows nearly two thousand miles through 10 countries - from the Black Forest in Germany
to the Black Sea in Romania. Western Europe's longest river, it's also the only major river
flowing west to east, making the Danube invaluable for commercial transportation.
The town of Melk - just a short trip by boat, car or train from Vienna - is a fine base
for exploring the Danube River Valley. Its traffic-free and cobbled town center with
cheery eateries and budget guesthouses is dwarfed by its magnificent abbey.
Melk's newly restored abbey, beams proudly over the Danube Valley. Established as a fortified
Benedictine abbey in the 11th century, it was destroyed by fire. What you see today
is 18th-century Baroque.
Today, as they have for 900 years, monks have pray, meditate, and follow the rules of St.
Benedict right here. The institution survives - that's the point of the modern frescoes
gracing the courtyard. Like the monks, visitors stroll past six centuries of Habsburg emperors
as they tour the building.
For the Benedictine monks, the library was - after the actual church - the most important
room in the entire abbey. That's made clear by the extravagant investment in its elaborate
decor. Many of Europe's finest old libraries are housed in monasteries like this.
In the Middle Ages, Monasteries horded and controlled knowledge. Monks were Europe's
educated elite and it was in information power centers like this that that they decided what
was...and what wasn't.
Long before Dewey and his decimals, the books here were organized starting with Bibles,
then theology, and from there into law, philosophy, medicine, and so on. Many of the collection's
oldest books were written and transcribed here. It's a visual reminder of how monasteries
were the storehouse of knowledge through the ages. There would be a Gutenberg Bible...but
it was sold to Harvard University to raise money to restore the library...
...and this. The gilded church is classic Baroque. Everything works together theatrically
- the architecture, frescoes, pipe organ, and opulent chapels - all combining to make
the Benedictine's theological point: A just battle leads to victory. In the front, below
the huge papal crown, Saints Peter and Paul shake hands before departing for their final
battles, martyrdom, and ultimate triumph. And, high above, St. Benedict makes his glorious
entry into heaven.
The Danube River Valley is at its romantic best between Melk and Vienna. This stretch,
called the Wachau Valley, is easily explored by bike or boat ....or both. The Wachau is
steeped in tradition, blanketed with vineyards, and ornamented with cute villages and fabled
castles.
Cycling is popular - with clearly marked bike paths and no shortage of colorful pubs for
a meal or a drink.
And whether you roll on or walk on, cruise ships have you humming the Strauss waltz that
causes everyone who visits to wonder...why isn't the Danube blue?
Thanks for joining us. I hope you've enjoyed our visit to Vienna and our quick cruise down
the Danube River Valley. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Auf wiedersehen.
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Vienna and the Danube

3316 Folder Collection
Jane published on September 27, 2015
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