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Vienna: Music for the soul

Shivani Mohan / 26 November 2010

Vienna is an alluring canvas of majestic old world charm served with a vibrant new age feel. Positioned somewhat in the centre of Europe, it inspires the obvious question ‘Is Vienna the East of the West or the West of the East?’ — for it courts both cultures rather effortlessly.

The best way to begin exploring the city is to go on top of Wien Woods, lush hills called the lungs of Vienna. Perched on top is the Leopoldsberg church from where you get a stunning view of the city. As we come down the hills, cottages, as if styled out of gingerbread, beckon us with interesting menus of the day written on blackboards and a couple of conifer or fir twigs called Buschen hanging above the entrance door. This is the sign of a ‘Heurigen,’ which is a household producing wine and serving fresh produce of the season. A Heurigen is not your regular restaurant, as it can only serve its own wine besides a limited selection of food from a buffet such as Liptauer, a cold cheese dish or the international favourite, Wiener Schnitzel. We enter one and listen to local music being played live on guitar and accordion. No recorded music is allowed in a traditional Heurigen but only this music called Wienerlieder or Schrammelmusik that adds to the ambience.

Music literally courses through the veins of Vienna. Three of history’s greatest musicians — Johann Strauss II, Mozart and Beethoven — spent their prime productive years in Vienna raising western classical music traditions to dizzy heights. Their sonatas and operettas still emanate from many a street corner, house and opera house.  As we briefly visit the Stadtpark, the gilded bronze statue of Johann Strauss II, framed by a marble relief, evokes memories of his masterpiece ‘The Blue Danube’.

Vienna State Opera, known as the Wiener Staatsoper, is one of the busiest opera houses here with a history dating back 200 years. At least ten months a year an opera is performed there every night to packed audiences. The government has again played a major role in keeping this tradition alive.

Vienna is also known for its grand balls, with some of the more prestigious ones hosted in the many beautiful palaces with as many  as  ten live bands in attendance. The most coveted ball is held at the Hofburg Palace at Heldenplatz where dancers and singers from the Vienna Staatsoper may perform.

As one approaches the stunning Schonbrunn Palace, along the avenue life-size portraits of royals beckon you to take a glimpse into their faraway world. Empress Elisabeth, lovingly known here as ‘Sisi,’ captivates the most with her ethereal beauty and raven tresses. Known to be a free spirit, her life reads like a tale of tumultuous trysts — an early marriage into royalty, extreme adulation and extreme disillusionment, struggle to maintain a 20-inch waist, anorexia nervosa (when the term was not even coined), a string of lovers, unexplained accidents and assassination. Shades of Lady Di? Perhaps, but this was more than a century prior.

The vast gardens surrounding this palace can be explored in stately stagecoaches or in a bright yellow toy train. We pass by what is officially the world’s oldest zoo, many acres of landscaped topiary and centuries old trees. The train finally ends up halting near The Gloriette, an awe inspiring structure topped by a magnificent imperial eagle built in 1775. The palace is visible in all its glory, stretching like a butter yellow slab of delicious history. Empress Maria Theresa and Empress Elisabeth would both have strolled here. Today, we notice that in the chilling cold weather, joggers running the length and breadth of the beautiful estate. We are told that the Viennese are health conscious people today, running and burning those calories, what with such wonderful bakeries spread across the city. From the legendary Sacher Torte to a range of pastries, strudels and breads, Austrian food is rich, sumptuous and wholesome. We get to sample excellent road side sausage stands serving bratwurstl, debreziner and frankfurters.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is particularly captivating, with collections dating back over seven millennia, from treasures of ancient Egypt to 18th century masterpieces. Lovers of renaissance and baroque are particularly well served here.

Central Vienna is a history book in itself. The mounted statue of Archduke Albrecht stands in front of Albertina, one of the city’s best known museums. The State Opera House stands next to it. We also catch a glimpse of the iconic Hotel Konig Von Ungarn at Schulerstrasse, built in 1746; Alain Delon shot his thriller ‘Scorpio’ within its walls and Mozart wrote his ‘Figaro’ in the neighbouring house.

Another delightful sound is the clatter of hooves on the cobbled pathways of Vienna’s ancient lanes. Unlike many other big European cities, Vienna has kept its calmer rhythms in place. For a city of well over a million people, it is still very tranquil.

As we approach the grandiose Parliament building, a statue of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, stands proudly in front. With a spear in her left hand and Nike, the goddess of victory in her right, she seems to be turning her back to the building — prompting many a local joke that if you’re looking for wisdom, Parliament isn’t the place to find it. But as an outsider, I appreciate the care that has gone into keeping this city historical, green, inviting and modern at the same time. Vienna has effectively learnt to cultivate its past and embrace the present.

Alfred Polgar, the Austrian born journalist, writer and critic, who was one of the reknowned wits of the legendary Vienna coffee houses, once famously said, “ A coffee house is a place for people who want to be alone but need company to be so!” You could say that about the whole of Vienna.

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