Last March 4, I met a friend who was visiting Vienna for the weekend.
Our itinerary comprised of visiting the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace, strolling along the riverside of the Danube, and walking through the scenic route from the Stephansplatz to the Hofburg Palace to the Vienna Burggarten to the Museums Quartier, and finally to the Vienna State Opera House (or the Wiener Staatsoper) where we lined up for 4-euro per head standing room tickets to watch the ballet “Onegin”.
These activities weren’t all that lavish. The most “luxurious” thing we did was to watch a ballet at the Staatsoper, but even then, we didn’t have to splurge.
It was almost unbelievable. Even now, it strikes me how, without spending much money, and by just walking around the city, one could experience in Vienna much historical grandeur and artistic inspiration.
My friend also pointed out the important role that art and history play in the daily life of most European cities she visited. Her comment was trigged by an art exhibit by Adolf Frohner titled “Approximately 55 Steps through Europe (Circa 55 Schritte durch Europa)” which we saw at the Westbahnhof Underground Bus Station. This artwork, around 40-meters long, visually chronicles the development of European art history from the ancient period until modern period. Set up in a bus station in Vienna, the artwork is accessible for free to any commuter who takes the time to look.
This idea has often passed through my mind, but its significance for Vienna only sank in the next day, when I had time to reflect on our art-and-history-filled Saturday trip.
Our day started with a visit to the Schönbrunn whose architecture was already enough to satisfy the eye.
All around us were sculptures lined against the trees, standing there like guards directing us to the foot of the hill. There, one can find the Neptune Fountain which depicts Thetis, the mother of Achilles, pleading that Neptune give her son a favorable voyage. This moment, captured beautifully through sculpture, is a cut out from the pages of literature and mythology.
The Gloriette, the crowning glory of the hill, is also such a marvel. From there, one can see the skyline of Vienna as if in a painting.
The Danube River also knows how to keep up with the man-made wonders here in Vienna. One cannot see it without thinking of the famous Blue Danube waltz composed by Johann Strauss II.
After seeing the Danube, it is no longer difficult to imagine Strauss getting inspired by the elegant swans seemingly waltzing to the sound of the waters of the river.
Not to be left out, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, standing majestically in the middle of the Inner City, exudes history through its design. With a mainly Gothic style and an elaborate southern tower, a Romanesque front gate, and a Renaissance spire for its northern tower, this cathedral’s mixed architecture reveals how much history it has witnessed.
All those three landmarks highlight how art and history have been woven into the city. Yet, for art and history to retain their significance, the cooperation of the city’s inhabitants is necessary.
On our way to the Hofburg Palace, we saw two musicians playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D on violins. Their music was such a nice treat that we took the time to listen and to appreciate the talent they were sharing with us passersby.
Next, we entered the grounds of the Hofburg Palace. As the former seat of power of the Habsburgs, it stands as a reminder of Austria’s imperial history. However, we didn’t stay very long at the Hofburg because we had to be at the Wiener Staatsoper by 5:00pm to line up for standing room tickets to watch a ballet. So we walked straight to the Vienna Burggarten where the Mozart Memorial Statue is located.
Then, we just took a quick glance at the Natural Museum of History (Naturhistoriches Museum), the Art History Museum (Kunsthistoriches Museum), and the Museums Quartier (a complex comprised of various museums and art institutions), which were all just across the street.
Then we walked towards the Albertina, a museum that is known for housing one of the finest and largest print collections in the world.
So far, we haven’t spent on anything except food. While we didn’t enter the paid areas of all the places we visited, even the façade of buildings exude art and history. Truly, it would have been better if we went inside the museums (and later on I would), but if we were to do that, then we might have been late for the SRO ticket sales.
Still, even just walking around gave us a taste of art and history. Just look at the steps of the Albertina and you will understand what I mean.
Of course, we did spend on art at some point.
To cap our night, we watched Onegin at the Wiener Staatsoper. At four euros, hearing an orchestra play Tchaikovsky’s music while watching a professional ballet company perform in one of the finest opera houses in the world is such a bargain!
When we finally entered the halls of the Opera House and everyone had taken a seat (or, in our case, a spot), I noticed that the theater was almost, if not, a full house. Apparently, in Vienna, there are enough people who would pay for the regular prices of tickets while those who would rather save are willing to stand for hours.
Indeed, in this city, art is nourished and made available to the people, and art finds an audience that knows its worth. In this city, the classics are appreciated as part of artistic history, and history is given importance.
For a writer, artist and academic, this is great news, because art and history are not supposed to be luxuries, but rather are meant to enrich our daily lives.