Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Vienna: Walking Tour, Danube Canal

We went on a 2.5 hour Vienna walking tour which took us to many of the major points of interest all around the Innere Stradt.  While the tour covered some of the areas that we had already seen by ourselves, including Hofburg Palace and St. Stephens Cathedral,  it also led us to areas that were not initially on our radar.

We passed through several shopping areas including Graben (meaning trench) which dates back to the Roman days.  Along with many shops and restaurants, situated along this wide pedestrian street are two fountains dedicated to St. Joseph and St. Leopold.  Between the fountains is a gigantic marble and gold column with elaborate carvings, commissioned by Emperor Leopold I to celebrate the end of the Black Plague.

We also walked through Kohlmart, which is Vienna's "mink mile"–home to, expensive watch, jewelry and clothing stores, brand names like Gucci, Chanel, and Tiffany's, and even some old local shops that used to supply the Imperial Palace.  It is interesting that "kohle" translates to coal, which was once a measure of wealth.  There was an ornate building called Pension Neuer Markt that turned out to be a three-level grocery store that was as beautiful inside as it was outside.  Multi-level grocery stores must be common, since the Merklr Markt next to our apartment also had three floors.

During the walking tour, we went into the Kinsky Art Auction house to see another example of a palatial Baroque mansion.  In fact, it seemed like everywhere we turned, there were sculptures and carvings adorning buildings and fountains.

We visited Judenplatz or Jewish Square, which was the center of the Viennese Jewish community in the Middle Ages.  The tour guide gave us a frank assessment of Austria's cooperation and culpability in the Nazi persecution of the Jews.  She said that it was misleading to say that Austria was the "first victim" of the Nazis, since at least in the beginning, there was a lot of support for Hitler within the country.  German-speaking Austrians harboured jealousy and resentment towards the wealthy Jews, while Hitler seemed to be bringing jobs and economic prosperity.  Of the 200,000 Jewish people who lived in Vienna before the Second World War, only 1000 remained afterwards.  It was not until the year 2000 that the Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in the square.  It is designed as to look like a library where the bindings of the books are stacked up against the four walls.  The memorial stands in front of the Museum Judenplatz.  There is also a sculpture of the German poet Gotthold Lessing, whose writings preached tolerance in the Age of Enlightenment.

The Ringstraße is a circular "Ring Road" that surrounds the Innere Stadt and follows the path of the former city walls that were built in the 13th century to protect Vienna.   The wall was torn down during the reign of Franz Joseph I, who erected 12 buildings around the ring road.  These included parts of Hofburg Palace, the Town Hall (which looks like Big Ben from afar), the Burgtheatre, the University of Austria, where all Austrians can attend for free, and the Statsoper.  The part of the road around the State Opera, which is called Opernring, has wide pathways surrounded by trees and is quite beautiful to see.  The road is shared by cars, buses, horse and carriages, and bicycles who have their own dedicated lane.

Classical music is very important to Vienna's history as is shown by the number of tourist items available for purchase that are dedicated to famous composers who lived in Vienna.  Mozart Chocolates can be found in numerous places and there is a Cafe Mozart which serves the Mozart torte.  A kitchen/nicknack store sells everything from tablecloths, cups and saucers, plates and umbrellas, all with piano keys or musical scores embossed on them.  We saw plaques on buildings indicating that Mozart or Hayden or Beethoven lived here for a period of time.  The tour guide told us not to be too excited by spotting one of Beethoven's "homes", since he had lived in over 67 different places in Vienna.  Apparently, Beethoven never paid the rent and would squat in one place until he was evicted, and then would move on to another.

The various buildings of Hofburg Palace overlook the Volksgarten or People's Garden.  This is a beautifully landscaped park that is full of rose bushes which can be rented.  For 150 Euros per year, you get a dedication plaque on your rose bush, from which you can cut blossoms to take home.  A neoclassical Greek temple was built in 1821 and seems a bit out of place with its surrounding Baroque neighbours.

While the Danube Canal was not part of the walking tour, we did catch sight of it at the start of our tour and decided to check it out the next day.  The Danube Canal used to be an arm of the Danube River and runs 17.3km along the Innere Stradt.  We accessed the canal after visiting the Hundertwasser Apartments and the entrance was lined with his trademark columns.  The paths along each side of the canal are perfect for walking, jogging, cycling and even fishing.  Even though it was October, we witnessed people doing all these things.  I can just imagine how crowded it would be here in the summer.  A few tour boats sailed up and down the canal but many more were docked for the season.

We had remarked earlier in the week that there was a distinct lack of graffiti on the walls of Vienna, although it would probably be a serious crime to be caught defacing any of the historic Baroque buildings.  But when we saw the walls along the canal, we knew we had found the graffiti Mecca.  We walked about 2km along the canal and there was not a blank wall to be seen through this entire stretch.

It was a perfect day to walk along the canal, with the sun shining brightly and the autumn leaves just starting to change colour.  We spotted one restaurant where diners could be seated on a ramp which extended out over the canal.  The view from up there must have been stunning.

Vienna is a very compact and walkable city that is brimming with history. Many of the streets in the Innere Stradt are pedestrian-only, making it a pleasant place to wander and window shop.  Even after 6 nights, there were still things we didn't have time to do in Vienna.  If we return, we would like to take the "Third Man" tour since this is Rich's favourite movie, and we need to go to Schomberg Palace.

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