Back from Europe. Travel Post #3: Vienna Waits for You

Coming here to Vienna, I can’t hear Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz without seeing 2001’s stately, lovely docking scene. Now, that is powerful filmmaking.

I have been hearing Blue Danube a lot.

First, on the tarmac, before/after Austrian Airlines takeoffs/landings. Then, prominently – obviously — in the Mozart and Strauss concerts for tourists.

(We partook in one the other night, in the lovely 18th century Palais Auersperg, where, on January 12th, 1762, a 6-year-old Mozart entered history by jumping on Empress Maria Theresia’s lap.

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© Bwag/Commons, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

No such historical events took place while we were there. But I did leave my bag at coat check, and had to run back to grab it before they closed up shop. You and I were on the phone while that was going on…)

We heard still more Blue Danube on the headphone audio guides at Hofburg, visiting the winter residence of the workaholic emperor Franz Joseph and his depressed, alienated, literary Empress, Sisi.

Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, in uniform, undated. Credit: Library of Congress

Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, in uniform, undated. Credit: Library of Congress

We saw the room where Franz Joseph regularly held well over a hundred audiences each day, during his extraordinary reign as “first public servant” of the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph took the throne soon after the failed European revolutions of 1848, and held it until 1916, halfway through the World War. 68 years: that is longevity.

By now, I’m an old pro at describing the Emperor’s audiences. Because Franz Joseph abhorred personal ostentation, these usually took place in one of the palace’s simpler rooms. They generally lasted three minutes, max. A visitor might be requesting a favor, or clemency… offering thanks for an honor… sharing a confidence. Whatever the agenda, the visits invariably closed with the emperor nodding slightly downward and telling his guest: “It has been a pleasure.”

(I know all this because the same exact ritual has already been described to me at the Emperor’s summer residence at Schloß Schönbrunn.)

Here in Vienna, this Emperor’s presence is everywhere. Vienna was at the peak of its power during his reign: the center of a thriving and complex multi-ethnic empire. The Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire sought to manage, control, and balance the interests of everyone from Ukrainians and Poles to Italians and Hungarians and Serbs.

(Woodrow Wilson seemed to imagine this would be easy. But, judging from the 20th century’s carnage, the empire’s successors did not do real well after Wilson effectively promoted their “self-determination of peoples.” I think we need a new generation of revisionist historians to uncover something Wilson was actually right about.)

Franz Joseph also needed to manage the aspirations of a growing middle class, while preventing the depredations of anarchists (who assassinated, among many others, his beloved wife).

Ah, Sisi, “The Reluctant Empress.” We must talk about Sisi, whose image seems even more ubiquitous in Vienna than Franz Joseph’s, once you leave his palaces and museums.

Here at Hofburg, we walk through Sisi’s life: as a 15-year-old girl who catches the new emperor’s eye when he was supposed to fall in love with her older sister… as a young bride overwhelmed by court life (and, allegedly, by an overbearing mother-in-law)… as a mother whose two-year-old daughter dies, and, decades later, loses a son to suicide. We are shown Sisi, the vain beauty, who spends hours having her hair done just so, with the perfect mixture of egg yolks and cognac.

But what’s she doing while her maids are grooming her? She’s learning Greek; having Homer read to her; writing original poetry. And what are all those books in her private room? That’s what I want to know.

Who was this woman they talk about everywhere here? This 19th century Princess Diana shining out from marble statues and cheap fridge magnets?

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Kangaroos, Santa Clauses, and Sisi…

The one played by Romy Schneider in the movies? The one you can “feel like” if you buy the right jewelry reproduction in the gift shop?

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…”Feel like an empress…”

If I were I a woman, I would not want to feel like this empress felt.

…While Franz Joseph was attempting to maintain control of an increasingly unwieldy empire (and marriage), he was also working to reinvent Vienna as a global capital on the level of Paris and London.

Hence the Ringstraße (Ringstrasse). This world-renowned circular road replaced ancient city walls that once protected Vienna against Ottoman invaders. Many European cities replaced their walls with ring roads, but Franz Joseph also wanted his Ringstraße to host the city’s most impressive new buildings and public parks. A classically-styled Parliament. An impressive City Hall (which now hosts an amazing outdoor summer movie festival). Natural history and fine arts museums, the Vienna opera house, and a whole lot more.

(You can see the whole Ringstraße for one tram fare. Buy the Wiener Linien transit day pass, or a 2- or 3-day Vienna Card and see it all for next to nothing on the “1” and “2” tram lines. Please do NOT pay for the tourist “Hop On Hop Off Bus” I call it the “Trudge On Trudge Off Bus… but, again, I digress…)

It’s 2015, but you can’t miss much of the sparkling magic of 19th century Vienna. Conversely, tourists find it harder to get at the history that made the Empire so vulnerable. You get little sense of its internal security apparatus, or its limitations on the free press… no sense of what it took for Franz Joseph to maintain rule for 68 years, even as Austria lost wars and struggled to compete with the likes of Germany’s Bismarck.

This is really striking, given that the Empire ultimately, spectacularly, failed. Visiting these palaces, it’s as if history has been written by the losers. The cliché says that can’t happen. But some of us Americans know how the South revised our Civil War’s history in ways completely inconsistent with the documentary evidence.

Sometimes history is written by whoever is most determined to write it.

History aside, we’d hoped to see an opera while we’re in Vienna. But the opera shuts down in July and August for vacation. I like a society that doesn’t work 24/7. To visit the Donauturm tower for its exquisite view of the city,* we subway-ed out towards Vienna’s suburban corporate parks. At night, there wasn’t a light on in any of those buildings. Where I come from, there would be people up there working (or simulating work) all over the place. The legendary Spanish Riding School was shut down for the summer, too: even Vienna’s trained horses get a vacation.

Billy Joel’s 1977 song, Vienna, uses the city as something of a metaphor for slowing down and connecting with the timeless:

Slow down, you crazy child

And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile

It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two

When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

I doubt the disconcertingly modern Vienna Tourist Board would like that.

They’ve adopted the slogan Vienna: Now or Never. Seems their marketing research says lots of people want to go to Vienna eventually… but they figure it’ll still be there whenever they’re ready. Not good enough! Tourists should be told the old Vienna of Franz Joseph and Freud is slipping away: if you don’t hurry up and get here, it’ll be gone forever.

Perhaps. But people tell you the same thing everywhere: whatever made their hometowns unique is disappearing.

Despite its McDonaldses and neon-lit Wurstelprater amusement park, Vienna feels more out of time than almost anywhere I’ve been. Barring geopolitical upheaval or civilizational collapse, I bet it’ll feel much the same if you wait ’til you’re 59 to visit.

(Not that you should.)

I’ll say this, though. After five days here, when I hear Strauss’s Blue Danube now, I don’t see Kubrick anymore. I see parks and opera houses and classical statuary; summer palaces and winter palaces; the double eagles of lost Austrian empire.

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The Double Eagles of Austrian Empire

*If you visit Donauturm at night, skip the fancy restaurant: just have dessert at the rotating coffee shop. The view is equally magnificent, and a lot cheaper. I don’t want to say their chocolate sachertorte was as good as the famous Café Sacher Wien. But, rumor has it, some of those center-city sachertortes are a bit overrated. And if we want one enough, we can always have one shipped to us.

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Housekeeping note: I plan to post a few more tidbits on Vienna, a few pictures I want to share with you, and (eventually) a lengthy post on Munich.

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