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  • Writer's pictureTony Herbert

Christmas in Vienna - 2023

Updated: Jan 2

22-27 December 2023





 This was four days over Christmas, in Vienna - all part of a package tour, not a thing we’d done before - or at least not for a very long time. All organised by our friends at Kirker - “for discerning travellers” as they modestly (or flatteringly) put it.

 

The discerning travellers on this occasion were a group of 23 people, almost all Brits, a few couples, many on their own - all with their varied reasons for missing the joys and stresses of Christmas at home.

 

The programme included all the main sights, but the big attraction was two operas at the

Vienna State Opera, Hansel and Gretel and Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

 

Arrival

 

It all went well, the group arriving and coping with the usual problems of travel at a holiday time. The plane was late - only an hour - and the weather that welcomed us was dreadful - pouring rain and strong winds. But we’ve come to expect it - see my journal on Paris! I’ll have to avoid turning this into a weather report.

 

We arrived at our hotel, the luxurious Bristol Hotel, in a state of worry that because of our late arrival we would miss the dinner booked by Kirker at a local brasserie. We also worried that we’d get drenched wherever we went. No worries! Equipped with umbrellas all round, we repaired to the said brasserie, the Gasthaus zur Oper, where we made friends with our fellow travellers and devoured at least some of the amazing quantities of beef goulash that were provided, as well as as much wine and beer as we felt like. A good introduction to Vienna and, actually, possibly the best food we got during our stay.

 

Tour

 



It all started (sensibly) with a bus tour round the Ringstrasse and some of the main buildings of the city. As many will know, the Ringstrasse is a wide road, a kind of périphérique, encircling the old city, constructed under the auspices of the long-serving 19th century Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph (see right).

 

There was a slight problem about this. Our local guide, Inge, diligently pointed out the many impressive buildings. But we, the discerning travellers, found ourselves peering out of the fogged-up windows of the bus, trying to pick them out through the pouring rain.

 

Still, you can get the overall picture, even in the rain. Vienna was constructed in grandiose style and on an extensive scale. You are reminded that, for most of its life, it was the capital of a vast European empire. Remarkably, this still shows, despite the disasters of the 20th century.

 

The Belvedere

 



This was our first museum, the Belvedere, famous these days for its collection of the works of Gustav Klimt and, in particular, The Kiss (see above).

 

The magnificent palace itself is one of the few buildings not built by the Habsburgs. It was the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy who in 1683 defeated the Turks, who had been laying siege to the city. I have to say - sorry, back to the weather! - it was not looking at its best in the rain. But, surprise surprise, as we emerged, it was snowing! The snow was even settling for a few brief moments, making the palace and the surrounding grounds look rather amazing.




 

As to the museum, The Kiss is their prize exhibit, much advertised in the publicity. Rightly, in my view, although also well-known is Klimt’s Judith and Holofernes. The subject is not at all obvious. As the Bible story relates, Judith seduced the enemy commander Holofernes and then chopped his head off, as depicted in many typically gory paintings by Caravaggio and his followers. But not by Klimt. Holofernes’s head is very well hidden, bottom right!

 





The Leopold Museum

 



Our next museum was the Leopold, in the so-called Museum Quarter. It majors on the works of Klimt’s younger friend, Egon Schiele. Not everyone’s favourite. But his works are amazing: striking, often horrible, images of the human frame, male and female. He was a key member of the intellectual and artistic establishment at the turn of the 20th century and the museum is full of fascinating stuff about them - Klimt, Schiele, Freud, Kafka, Mahler (plus Alma Mahler, of course) and others unknown to me.

 




The Secession

 

I should add that they saw themselves as a movement distancing themselves from the traditional culture, calling themselves the “Secession”. They created a curiously plain, windowless, tomb-like structure - the Secession Building - with a bizarre globe on the roof. I’m afraid I didn’t find time to visit it, although it was proudly pointed out by Inge. Many of the buildings in Vienna are in the favoured secessionist style, the Jugendstil, a sort of Art Deco, as far as I could see. I’m glad the traditional styles from which they were rebelling still survive plentifully!

 

The City Centre

 

On our second day, we were conducted on a walk round the city centre, all pedestrianised. Mercifully, the rains had retreated - to be replaced by a strong, bracing, cold wind. Much more bearable!

 

Our first destination was the Mozart House, where the great man spent his years in Vienna after escaping the clutches of the dreaded Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg and where he composed many of his greatest works.

 



Then trouble! We were told that the cathedral was closed because of an Islamist threat. Not so, actually, though it was surrounded by an impressive number of police vehicles and armed police. The real problem was people - in quantity - long queues to get in, which I decided to avoid. (I was easily able to go later and did so, with great enjoyment, listening to a large choir singing the Christmas music to a packed congregation.)

 



I wandered off and found myself in the Peterskirche, one of the great baroque churches of the city. Mass was going on - it was after all Christmas Eve - but no one seemed to mind an intruder wandering discreetly around. It has the most extravagantly flamboyant pulpit that I’ve ever seen in my life - or is it even a pulpit, see below?

 




 

 

The Hofburg

 

Back with the group, we proceeded to the Hofburg, the extensive palace complex of the

Habsburg Emperors, reminding one again that the Habsburgs were rulers during many centuries over vast swathes of Central and Eastern Europe. See a small part of it in the photograph right at the top.

 

The main focus for visitors is the suite of apartments of the Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Joseph I, known to her friends as “Sisi”, and now known to us too as Sisi. She had a tragic life, of which I was shamefully rather ignorant. But you learn fast.

 

She was born into the Bavarian royal family (a cousin apparently of mad King Ludwig) and married as a teenager to Franz Joseph. She was not a happy girl. Her children tended, to her dismay, to be removed and brought up by her ghastly mother-in-law. Her only son was Crown Prince Rudolf, who famously committed suicide with his mistress at Mayerling. Sisi went into mourning for the rest of her life. Then she was assassinated in Geneva by an Italian anarchist.

 

We were told that she hadn’t been popular as Empress, but now she has become something of a monarchical, or indeed imperial, icon.

 

The apartments are needless to say splendid. Many of the exhibits are her amazing dresses, all indicating her obsession about retaining her phenomenally slim waistline.

 

Kunsthistorisches Museum

 



On to the main museum in Vienna, one of the most impressive fine art museums in Europe. Which makes it in some ways difficult to visit. Too easy to go through endless rooms, gliding past things you aren’t interested in and missing what you are. Our guide did a good job in directing us to the things that she correctly predicted we would want to see.

 



I have to confess to a minor obsession about a particular item, namely the gold salt cellar made by Benvenuto Cellini, known in Vienna as the Saliera. I suppose I first became aware of it as a student when I first got interested in the Italian Renaissance. He, Cellini, was very much part of it as a Florentine and a sculptor and goldsmith. He also wrote a scurrilous autobiography, translations of it being still very much in print. But is he or it much known about these days? I was amazed to find that the DK guide book on Vienna scarcely mentions it. I had always thought of it as one of the main treasures of the museum. Anyway, Inge our guide took us straight to it.

 

One of the surprises is its size. It has a statue of Neptune at one end and the Earth goddess at the other. If you first see a photograph of it, you can easily assume that it’s large, as statues of Neptune and Gods tend to be. But actually it’s only about a foot long (10 cm) - very small for a statue of Neptune, but of course still quite big for a salt cellar!

 

It was made for the French king, Francois I. If you think that it’s bizarre to want to have a salt cellar with statues intricately made in gold, you have to remember that in those days salt was a valuable commodity, as was pepper, which also has its place in the Saliera. A later French king gave it to a Habsburg, which is why it has landed up in Vienna.

 

End of digression about the salt cellar! But it’s well worth admiring.

 

Another thing that I was keen to see was the only painting by Vermeer in the museum. It was much the most important of his paintings that didn’t make it to the wonderful exhibition in Amsterdam earlier in the year. It’s called the Art of Painting (see below) and may well have been Vermeer’s most treasured painting. He never sold it and apparently kept it in his studio until his death, maybe to show to potential clients as an example of his skills. Who knows?

 



The reason it didn’t get to Amsterdam is interesting. According to a lady at the Rijksmuseum, it was because it is the subject of restitution claims, doubtless following troubles during the Nazi era. It isn’t allowed to leave Austria.

 

I will refrain from describing all the other major works in the museum - there are plenty of good guide books! But the museum is strong on Rubens and Bruegel - and surprisingly has a Holbein portrait of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. How did it get there, I wonder?

 

Hansel and Gretel

 

We saw our first of the two operas on Christmas Day - Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert

Humperdinck. Both were at the magnificent Vienna State Opera, see below.

 



I was apprehensive. It has a very silly plot, taken from one of Grimm’s fairy tales, and presumably intended mainly for children. As people probably know, it’s a simple tale. Brother and sister - H and G - go out into the woods to collect strawberries and get caught up with a witch who lives there in a house made of gingerbread. She has the habit of kidnapping children and throwing them into an oven, which turns them into gingerbread. (It’s amazing to me that these ghastly stories were presumably thought suitable for children. I remember being horribly frightened by Strewwelpeter, which is probably why I’m such a wreck now when confronted by children being turned into gingerbread!) In this version, Gretel is too cunning for the witch and manages to throw her into the oven, turning her into gingerbread. So it ends happily for everyone except the witch!

 

The music was great, melodic and all you could wish for. The scenery and production were

inventive and, I thought, worked well. Although, I have to say, it worked less well in the second act when it has to deal with the absurdities of the witch and the oven. But my sympathies are with the director!

 

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

 

This was our second opera, this time on what we think of as Boxing Day - but no one else does. To the Viennese it’s St Stephen’s Day.

 

It was Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the first performance of which took place just round the corner at the Burgtheater, with Mozart himself conducting. The Emperor himself had been instrumental in encouraging German, rather than the popular Italian, operas and Mozart had taken up the challenge. Giving rise to the famous, probably apocryphal, story of the Emperor complaining that there were too many notes and Mozart replying that there were just the right number.

 

This opera caused much discussion and disagreement among the ranks of the Kirker group. In fact one - or perhaps two - of our number left after the first part. What was the problem? Normally Mozart unites everyone.

 

The opera is in fact what the Germans and Austrians call a Singspiel, viz: part singing, part speaking. The programme has a discussion of this and says that it isn’t right to regard it as an opera at all. The production team involved had a somewhat bizarre approach to it. They had each of the roles played by two people: a singer for the arias; and an actor for the spoken parts. They mostly appeared together, one reacting to the other. This was indeed odd. And seemed grossly improper to some of us - not including me, actually. I had no problem with it and found it had its happy and

often amusing aspects.

 

There was another aspect that upset the purists. The producers had massively cut much of the spoken parts and, in some places, updated it for comic effect, with references to Winston Churchill and others unknown to Mozart. Shock, horror! But it is, after all, meant to be a comedy, albeit with intense and serious moments. One of the changes was that the Pasha Selim, the man who has captured Konstanza (whose abduction the whole thing is about) and who at the end releases her in a spirit of goodwill, appears immaculately dressed in white tie and tails (what Bertie Wooster would have called the full “soup and fish”) and delivers a serious poem written in the 19th century in homage to Mozart by a poet called Eduard Mörike. I have to admit that some of this passed me by at the time, but the programme has much discussion on the subject - of a teutonic and philosophical nature.


The grandiose foyer of the Opera House. The auditorium is much less grand.


Albertina

 

We had a morning at the end of our stay to do what we liked or indeed nothing at all. We decided to go to the museum called the Albertina, very near our hotel, just behind the opera house, which has art exhibitions, some temporary and some, I think, permanent. Now they have an exhibition of drawings by Michelangelo, with drawings by many later artists showing his massive influence through the centuries. They also have an exhibition of paintings from Monet to Picasso. One of the ones by Monet is of the village of Vétheuil, where he lived for a short time and which we know well, as friends live opposite.

 

The building is one of the wonderful imposing palaces of the city, originally owned by a Duke Albert, son-in-law of the Empress Maria Theresa. In front of the entrance there’s a vast horizontal structure that everyone refers to as the diving board. Why it’s there and what it’s meant to do or signify is a mystery to me. An example of how imortant it is to keep firm control over architects.

 

I should add that on the morning we went to the Albertina (our last day), the sun shone. A clear blue sky. Sadly, it was a bit late for us - though welcome nevertheless. You can see below the equestrian statue of presumably the Duke Albert, enjoying the sunshine.

 



Food and restaurants

 

My general feeling is that the Viennese don’t eat quite as well as I was expecting, but maybe in the few days we were there we didn’t have time to sample properly the delights of Viennese food.

 

We had a special dinner on Christmas Eve at the hotel, with venison that we had to wait for for so long that we were losing the will to live.

 

Our other special meal was Christmas lunch (of course), taken at the neighbouring and equally prestigious hotel, the Imperial. Starters excellent, but the main course was Wienerschnitzel in massive helpings. Most of us, me included, thought this, admittedly traditional, Viennese dish much overrated at the best of times and this version didn’t alter our views.

 

By way of contrast, and looking on the bright side, the Bristol Hotel offers the most spectacularly good breakfast array that I’ve seen anywhere. It even included orange marmalade, a great rarety on the continent. And the breakfast/dining room is a delight, maintained immaculately in the old style of the hotel.

 

We also had dinner at a restaurant, which is called the Palm House for the very good reason that it was indeed a palm house attached to the Hofburg palace. It reminds you of its equivalent in Kew Gardens. And the food is excellent, in a straight-forward brasserie style.

 

Sachertorte

 

No visit to Vienna can avoid mention of the Hotel Sacher and its famous Sachertorte, the rich chocolate cake with apricot jam slotted in somewhere and a little chocolate badge on the top seeming to indicate that it’s the real thing. All nonsense presumably. I ordered one at the Bristol Hotel, which had the little badge and tasted pretty good. But maybe I’m not a real connoisseur. And maybe the Bristol has done a deal with its near neighbour. Anyway, there was a queue at all times, way down the street outside the Cafe Sacher, of people wanting the real thing and prepared to wait for it.

 

 

Tony Herbert

29 December 2023

 

 

 

 

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