When I first visited Prague, I thought to myself, “This city is like a mini-Vienna!”
I don’t think I’m too far off. After all, the two cities are only a few hours apart. They also share a long history.
Well, for starters, both cities were part of the Holy Roman Empire and both were later ruled by the Hapsburgs. That went on for a century or three. When the Austrian Empire was created in 1804, it absorbed the Kingdom of Bohemia ― that’s the half of the Czech Republic where Prague sits today. And then in 1867, when the Austrians and the Hungarians decided to get together and form the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemia was made one of its provinces and remained so until 1918.
That’s an awful lot of Austrians hovering in and around Prague for an awful lot of years.
I first visited Prague in the summer of 1998. I quickly realized it was a city of deep contrasts that was working hard to recover from all those centuries of domination by each of its neighbours in turn: the Hapsburgs and the Austrians I’ve already mentioned, and the Nazis, and, oh yeah, those Russians.
That same summer, I heard an American-Jew who had lived in both Prague and Vienna say that the Czech nation has always been western, and it was dragged kicking and screaming into the East in both 1948 (when the Communists took power) and 1968 (when the Russian tanks rolled into town).
From what I saw, Prague ― a definitively western city that bears a striking resemblance to Vienna ― had bounced back into the West with lightning speed. Less than a decade after the fall of communism, designer shops and McDonalds dominated the streets and a flurry of tourists from all over Europe filled the Old Town Square daily.
Prague has a long and storied history simply because of geography: it sits at the crossroads of Europe. I find that fascinating.
But even more fascinating is a city full of life and colour and music that is (at long last) relishing its independence.
I’ve had Vienna on my mind for much of the past few months ― and not only because I recently posted about Salzburg.
It all began with Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888–1889. The book was required reading for my Modern Europe history course a couple of decades ago, and I enjoyed it so much that I later bought Morton’s other book about Vienna: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913–1914.
And then promptly packed both books in a box for one of my (many) moves.
This winter I finally got around to pulling both books off the shelf. I reread A Nervous Splendor and then, for the first time, I read Thunder at Twilight. (I’m about three-quarters of the way through the latter at the moment.) A Nervous Splendor tells the story of the last few months of Crown Prince Rudolph’s life and his suicide, while Thunder at Twilight tells the story of the last few months of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s life and his murder. Both men were heirs to the Austrian-Hungarian throne until their untimely deaths. The suicide of Rudolph was the beginning of the end for the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 ― we all know what happened after that ― was the nail in the empire’s coffin.
Both non-fiction books read like novels, and both are useful if you want to learn something about the waning decades of nineteenth-century Vienna and the city’s role in the build-up to World War I.
(Coincidentally, I found out just a few days ago that Frederic Morton, an Austrian-American writer, died two weeks ago in Vienna.)
In addition to my Viennese reading, I recently enjoyed Vancouver Opera’s performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, which transported me to 1870s Vienna, if only for a few hours.
And a couple of weekends ago, I saw Woman in Gold, a Hollywood film that far surpassed my expectations, which tells the story of an Austrian-Jew who took the Austrian government to court to get back the paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis.
All of this adds up to an awful lot of Viennese armchair travel. And, except for my reading of the Morton books, all of it was unintentional.
But unintentional armchair travel is a good excuse for posting about Vienna.
Vienna was one of the cities I hit on my first European walkabout by Eurail. Initially I found it rather overwhelming; my travelling companion was ready to leave almost as soon as we arrived.
But there is a spectacular majesty to Vienna that I came to respect before we moved on a few days later and I now think the city is too often overlooked. The seventh largest city in the European Union, sandwiched between Bucharest and Budapest, it gets far less attention from tourists than London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Paris (aka Europe’s Big Five).
At the heart of Vienna’s majesty is the Ringstrasse ― a 5 km ring of boulevards that forms a semicircle through the heart of Vienna. Emperor Franz Joseph I, father of the above-mentioned Crown Prince Rudolph and uncle of the above-mentioned Franz Ferdinand, was much influenced by Napoleon III’s demand that Paris be transformed by Baron Haussmann. In 1857, Franz Joseph ordered that Vienna’s decaying walls be torn down and replaced with a series of grand new buildings.
And so began one of the largest construction projects ever completed in Viennese history: neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical buildings sprouted up along on the Ringstrasse over the next several decades. These include the Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper (1869), the Votive Church, or Votivkirche (1879), the Palace of Justice (1881), the Austrian Parliament (1883), the Town Hall, or Rathaus (1883), the University of Vienna (1884), the Imperial Court Theatre, or Burgtheater (1888), and the twin museums of Natural History, or Naturhistorisches Museum (1889) and Fine Arts, or Kunsthistoriches Museum (1891). Only the imperial palace, the Hofburg, is older than the Ringstrasse.
I initially started writing this post about Vienna because of all the recent happy coincidences I described above, but while doing my research, I discovered another happy coincidence: it was 150 years ago today, in 1865, that Emperor Franz Joseph I officially opened the Ringstrasse. Hence, the title of this post.
I think Franz Joseph was perhaps a tad premature in opening the Ringstrasse ― it would be some years before the construction of all those grand buildings would be complete and who wants to promenade past a noisy, dusty construction site? Not me and I speak from personal experience. But eventually the “Ring” was to become an enjoyable city promenade for Viennese and tourist alike ― as I learned during my first visit to the city ― and has remained so for 150 years.
All of the world’s large cities have ring roads, but only Vienna has a Ringstrasse.
Since I’ve been writing about some rather tenuous links between my travels and opera for the past month, I thought I’d rifle through my photos of opera houses.
And hey! Look what I found. This is the Vienna State Opera. (That’s “Wiener Staatsoper” in Austrian.)
I’ve been debating with myself whether or not to post this photo as I don’t have a lot to say about this particular opera house. Other than I once took a tour of it. A very long time ago.
I like the photo, though. And I like the intersecting wires at the top of the photo. Usually I don’t like power lines in my photos, but they look all right here. I like the geometrical touch they add to the opera house. Appropriate, I think, since music is all about math.
Right. Enough with the tenuous links.
I read somewhere once that Vienna is London meets Paris. I can see it. Like London, Vienna was once the capital of a monarchy-ruled empire. It has that aura of imperialism that capital cities of empires tend to have. And, like Paris, it’s got those grand boulevards, which, I’d hazard a guess, were modelled after the ones that Haussmann built.