Thursday, January 23, 2014

Vienna: From Cafes to Crypts

The next morning in Vienna was cold and foggy. We walked to the historic old town center and saw St. Stephen's Cathedral. It was reduced to rubble by fire during WWII and rebuilt from the ashes in only seven years. The detailing on the exterior of the gothic church is amazing. The interior was beautiful, also very gothic and imposing. The church is still used for services today and is considered the most important Catholic church in Vienna.

We decided that the weather was still a little too miserable so we retired to a Viennese institution, Cafe Central. It first opened in 1876 and was a popular meeting place for great minds like Sigmund Freud and Leo Trotzki. The Viennese Coffee House Culture is listed as "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by UNESCO. We had a grand time enjoying Viennese coffee, pastries, and goulash soup in the impressive, columned interior. 

Our next stop was the Sisi Museum. Sisi refers to Empress Elisabeth of Austria. I really didn't know much about the Empress or even the Habsburgs before our trip to Vienna. I found the history fascinating and was completely enthralled by the story of the misunderstood Empress. The museum is inside the Hofburg Palace, in a different section from the one we were in for the ball.

Sisi Museum Entrance

We began with a comprehensive tour of the Imperial Silver Collection. It includes everything from tableware and linen to toothbrush holders and bedpans. There are around 7,000 items of solid gold and silver displayed. I thought the description of the foot-washing ceremony was the most interesting part of the tour. Each year on Holy Thursday the Empress and Emperor washed the feet of twelve (each) elderly men and women in a ceremony meant to emulate Christ washing the feet of his disciples. The elderly paupers then received gifts of wine, food, and coins. On display were the gold lavabo sets used during the ceremony.

Next is the Sisi Museum. More than 300 items from Empress Elisabeth's life are on display. Visitors are taken through her childhood, betrothal to Emperor Franz Joseph, marriage, motherhood, and finally her death by assassination. She seemed to be a complicated and intriguing woman. Her beauty was world-famous and she went to great lengths to make sure it stayed that way. She had her own gymnasium set up in her apartments in the palace and performed a strenuous daily exercise program followed by massages. Her ankle-length hair was washed during an all-day process with egg yolk and cognac. She took warm olive oil baths and wore face masks made from crushed strawberries or raw veal, which she wore all night. Her largest waist measurement was 19.5 inches, and at one point she had reduced it to 16 inches. She was once described as "almost inhumanly slender."

After the suicide of her son in 1889, she spent the rest of her life in mourning. She wore only black jewelry, became withdrawn, and traveled incessantly. She went to Geneva in September 1898 for a health cure. Luigi Lucheni, an anarchist, was in the city on a mission to assassinate a ruling member of a royal family as part of a protest. His intended victim was a prince who canceled his visit at the last minute. Lucheni read about the empress' visit and schedule in a newspaper and decided she would do. He attacked her with a sharpened file while she was strolling at a lake promenade. The wound was small, so small in fact that the empress believed she had just been punched. It was only after she had boarded a steamship that her companion noticed blood on her chemise and realized she'd been stabbed. Empress Elisabeth died of internal bleeding from the fatal wound. Lucheni was arrested and eventually hung himself in his jail cell.

Once you learn about Sisi's life, the tour brings you to the Imperial Apartments. The Hofburg was the residence of the Habsburgs for over 600 years. The apartments of Franz Joseph and Emperor Elisabeth offer a glimpse into their royal lives. Their bedrooms, dressing rooms, and personal desks are on display. It was interesting to see Elisabeth's exercise equipment and the tub where she bathed in olive oil. 

The Sisi Museum is a must-do in Vienna. We spent several happy hours wandering through the palace and learning about Empress Elisabeth. 

The next day was spent in Bratislava, Slovakia and that deserves its own entry so I'll finish up with Vienna before we hop on the train.

Our most notable dinner, aside from the one before the ball, was at the Le LOFT restaurant at the top of the Sofitel. The gourmet French restaurant is on the 18th floor, offering magnificent views of Vienna. We were spellbound by the all-around glass windows and colorful ceiling that seemed to project itself out into the Viennese sky. The menu was what you'd expect at a place like this: overpriced, hoity-toity, with a gin and tonic setting you back a staggering 18 Euros. I don't think that I would recommend the Le LOFT restaurant because it's the kind of place  where you pay a lot and leave hungry, but I would suggest eating a reasonably-priced dinner elsewhere and having one fancy drink at the bar so you can enjoy the view. 

On our final morning in Vienna we went to another coffee house, this time the Demel. It was established in 1786 and known for its confections and pastries. We sat upstairs in the non-smoking section and I absolutely loved the Rococo interior. I ordered the goulash soup to compare it to Cafe Central. Demel's is the hands-down winner. It was rich, thick, and delicious. I washed it down with raspberry water. My husband had traditional Viennese sausage served with mustard and shredded horseradish.

Last on our list was a visit to the Imperial Crypt at Capuchin Church. The exterior of the church is completely unassuming, especially compared to St. Stephen's Cathedral. The Imperial Crypt is the burial vault of the Habsburgs. There is a double sarcophagus with the bodies of Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen, the parents of Marie Antoinette. The crypt also contains the tombs of Franz Joseph, Empress Elisabeth, and their son. Interestingly, the tombs contain only the bodies while their hearts are in urns at a different chapel and their entrails are in a crypt under St. Stephen's Cathedral. Burials still take place in the crypt today, the most recent entombment being that of Otto Habsburg who died in 2011.

Our sightseeing in Vienna was at its end. I really loved the city. It was clean and lovely and people were friendly. The food, in general, was very good and affordable (with the exception of Le LOFT). The highlights for me were the ball and the Sisi museum. 

So long, Vienna! Maybe I'll see you at the opera some time.


  1. I've really enjoyed reading your blog. I made a similar move to Germany last year and found similarities in so many of our experiences, including making accidental faux paux :)

    1. Thank you so much! I think the faux pas definitely make the best stories. It's better to be laughing than crying, after all.

      I'm excited to check out your blog, too!

  2. :) I agree so much! There have been some experiences in life in general that were so bad or awkward that they seemed almost made up so all I could do was laugh at how ridiculous they were. I even just screwed up yet again today. I went to Mainz and spoke to the waitress in English and she did the whole order in English. Then, not thinking, I switched to German. She kind of had a look like, why did we speak English if you knew German? Well, my German still isn't good and I can't think of the words that I want all the time. Sigh. I do have to say that in SW Germany where I live, people do seem more tolerant of Americans. There have been so many of us here and many of the local folks have ties to the bases and posts in some way. People have been quite pleasant when I screw up, which seems like all the dang time.

    1. I'm sure the waitress was impressed that you at least attempted to speak German! I think they are much more receptive when you try, even if it isn't perfect. And really, who can blame them? If you're living in their country, it's only fair. In general, I've encountered many more kind people than rude and I think that's true for anywhere you live/visit.