by Dick Dace – Photos by Joel Hoopaugh
After Joel and I check into the Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna Hotel, we met our tour guide, Ilse Heigerth, for a walking tour of the city center. With seven hundred years of history, 27 palaces, 150 churches, and more Hapsburg royals, princesses and Emperors than I can count, Ilse proved invaluable with interesting stories and tales about this remarkable city and its people. We walked around the first of 23 districts on the ring road, created when the Emperor tore down the medieval wall, creating a green space with a walking path, bike path and roadway, in the footsteps of Roman soldiers, romantic princes and bloodthirsty assassins.
The Hapsburgs ruled Vienna from 1273 until 1918, and were a dynastic powerhouse that was created by marrying off their fifteen year-old daughters and sons to other royal houses in political alliances. “They weren’t very good at winning wars,” Ilse shared. “So inheritances allowed them to expand their empire, and stuff their treasury.” At one point, their empire included everything from Spain in the west, to the Baltic States (including Hungary and the Czech Republic) to the east, and north to Denmark and south to Rome, Italy.
During the eighteenth century, Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, had sixteen children. Among the ten that survived to adulthood, would emerge a Queen of France, the Queen of Naples and Sicily, the Duchess of Parma, and two Holy Roman Emperors, Joseph II and Leopold II.
One of Maria Theresa’s children was Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna aka Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. She was Maria Theresa’s fifteenth and second youngest child, and was just fourteen years-old when she married the fifteen year-old future King of France, Louis XVI.
Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were the last Habsburg emperor and empress of Austria. Sisi, as Elizabeth became known to the world, was one of nineteenth-century Europe’s most famously beautiful women. She was known as the world’s unhappiest royal, though not an actual princess (think Princess Diana). She bristled at the traditions and demands of court life, writing in her diary, Marriage is an absurd arrangement. One is sold as a fifteen year-old child, and makes a vow one does not understand, and then regrets for the next thirty years. Love her.
Two of the Hapsburgs most romantic royals were Duke Albert and Duchess Marie Christine, briefly ruling Brussels until French revolutionary troops forced them back to Vienna. Marie Christine was the only child of Marie Teresa’s who was allowed to marry for love. When she died by drinking tainted water, Duke Albert underwrote the cost of building two pipelines from the Swiss Alps to bring spring water to the citizens of Vienna, which Viennese still drink from to this day. He also commissioned a moving memorial in St. Augustin, the parish church of the imperial court of the Habsburgs.
The Hapsburg royals believed in elaborate funerals. They had their hearts buried in the Herzgruft (Hearts Crypt) inside St. Augustin Church, their entrails entombed in the Ducal Crypt below St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and their bodies buried at the Capuchin Church and Monastery. Famished, we were about to be funeral-ready ourselves.
So Ilse invited us to a traditional Viennese dinner in the hills surrounding Vienna. We took their safe, clean underground subway, a tram then a bus, all of which have efficient, intuitive signage event directionally challenged like myself can figure it out. We dined at Mayer am Pfarrplatz in hills above the city, feasting on Wiener schnitzel (think chicken fried steak) roasted pork and potatoes, all washed down by local wine.
The wine tavern’s most famous guest was Ludwig van Beethoven, who in 1817 came seeking a cure to his hearing difficulties, and it is where he completed his Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.”
The next day we visited both the Upper and Lower Belvedere Palaces and gardens, which houses an art collection worthy of Emperors. Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss is here. The rooms, with their Rococo ceilings and walls, are the perfect backdrop for the art. The Belevdere’s beautiful gardens inspired us to lunch at Palmenhause in the Burggarten Park. It was our first opportunity to enjoy a slice of Sachertorte, one of desserts for which the Viennese are most famous.
A visit to Vienna isn’t complete without an outing at its famous amusement park Prater, and a ride on one of Vienna’s landmarks, the Giant Ferris Wheel, which Alfred Hitchcock made famous in his movie, The Third Man.
The Ferris wheel cars remind me of 18th century a train cars, same red color, made of wood. The view revealed our first sight of the modern skyline across the Danube. The park had a retro feel, with old-time amusements, and tree-shaded beer gardens, which the locals really seemed to enjoy. On the way out of the park, we stopped for dinner.
Vienna is famous for its street food, especially its sausages, so we stopped at Bitzinger near the entrance. We shared a bratwurst stuffed with cheese and pomme frites, washed down with local draft. Our meal was so delicious, we doubled our order.
On our last day in Vienna, we visited the former summer residence of the imperial family, Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens. Its last residents, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth (Sisi), are very present in portraitures, and extravagant displays of their personal items in the very same rooms in which they and their children lived.
We discovered Vienna’s love for coffee in our hotel lobby, where from morning to late at night, Viennese gathered and mingled with hotel guests over a cup of Joe. The worldwide coffee culture began in Vienna during the Thirty Years war. People could not afford to heat their homes, but could afford a coffee in the local cafes. The Viennese still expect to enjoy a cup of coffee, a fresh glass of water every thirty minutes, and to read all the local newspapers and discuss the news of the day with anyone who will listen. No surprise the Age of the Intellectuals began here.
Our last meal in Vienna was at Edvard inside the Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna Hotel, where Executive Chef Anton Pozeg had just won his first Michelin Star, the third star in three years for the restaurant. Chef Anton served us his seven-course tasting menu—adding four other courses that we just had to have. These featured local seasonal produce (he works with a local farmer who brings him this entire crop of fruits and vegetables). Chef Anton’s inspired use of wood ash, for that hint of smoke, and dust he created out of different herbs, layered flavors and textures that left you wanting more.
I can’t say I know where Joel will wind up. But I can tell you that Mr. Dace is not going to heaven when he dies.
You’ll find me at the Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna Hotel.
Private Tour Guide
Mayer am Pfarrplatz
Pfarrplatz 2, 19th district,
Edvard at Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna Hotel
Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna Hotel