Everything I know about the world-famous doctor, Sigmund Freud, I learned from Mel Brooks, Saturday Night Live, and my “Intro to Psychology 101” class in college. So I was very excited willing to visit Vienna, Austria, the place that had birthed this sex-obsessed pervert highly esteemed intellectual.
First things first: Vienna is in Austria, not Australia.
After our visit to Budapest, we ventured northward to Austria, a country that often gets confused with Australia (by dumb people who aren’t even sure it really exists). To be clear, Austria has little in common with Australia besides many of the same letters: Austria is smaller, more landlocked, and almost entirely devoid of kangaroos (here, they’re called “Members of Parliament”).
Austria has far more in common with Germany: Austria borders the country, speaks pretty much the same language, and both historically owned neighboring countries (including each other, but not lately). They’re so similar, in fact, that a lot of people think famous Austrians like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hedy Lamarr, Max Schell, Falco, Billy Wilder, and Fritz Lang are actually German (they’re not).
Vienna, Austria is the center of Central Europe.
Austria has a population of about 8.5 million people, and about 1.7 million of those people live in Vienna, its largest city. (Did you even know Austria had other cities? Yeah, me neither.) As you might expect, Vienna is also Austria’s capital and, as such, it’s been the country’s cultural, economic, and political center for around 2500 years. So compared to all the other cities in Austria that no one has ever heard of (I’m looking at you, Salzburg), Vienna is by far the best.
But Vienna isn’t perfect; despite having reliable electric power, cable TV, and tolerable Internet speeds, Vienna is a town of another time. A time when men wore powered wigs (or “Perukes”) to hide their bloody syphilitic sores. A time when women wore corsets to hide all the delicious sausage they ate. And a time when kids worked 14 hours a day in a sweatshop — you know, the good old days. Frankly, I half-expected to see public floggings and horse feces in the streets. (Sadly, we saw neither.)
Vienna, Austria attracted the area’s greatest minds and egos.
In the early 1900s, Vienna attracted Europe’s best, brightest, and most brutal. Famous Central Europeans who gravitated to Vienna included Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Tito, Joseph Stalin, and even Adolf Hitler himself, all of whom lived within a few miles of each other. More amazingly, many of them allegedly frequented the same coffeehouses — because what lazy, unmotivated guys like that really needed was a nice jolt of caffeine to get them going. (Thanks, Vienna…)
Clearly, there was something in Vienna’s water — something dark, unholy, and evil — so we stuck to drinking either beer and/or wine. As a result, we didn’t have any megalomaniacal or Oedipal inclinations, though, to be completely honest, we did inexplicably scream orders at the waitress (who looked surprisingly like my mom). Of course that could’ve just been jet-lag.
Vienna attracted the area’s greatest musicians, too.
The only thing I knew about Vienna, Austria before coming here was that Classical music was big. Classical music is now the city’s biggest draw just as it was in the Dark Ages (before the dawn of the electric guitar.) Today, Vienna is Europe’s ‘Music City’ where many Viennese orchestras and symphonies showcase the music of local and long-dead artists. In particular, you can always hear the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Strauss I, and Johann Strauss II, much to the dismay of the performers who are probably sick to death of the stuff by now.
Vienna in the 19th Century was lousy with musical prodigies. Guys like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Brahms either lived or worked in Vienna. It was like the Portland Music scene of its day, only without as many drug over-doses. Yet while Grunge Music lasted a solid 4 years — a good run if you ask any record label executive — the Vienna Classical period lasted 48 years meaning that sullen Viennese teens would grow up listening to music that wouldn’t annoy their parents, or even their great grandparents. How messed up is that?
Assuming you’re not a fan of Classical music today — and who is since they invented DubStep, am I right? Who’s with me?! Anyone?! Anyone?! — why the heck would any right thinking person want to visit an antiquated city like Vienna? Okay, sure, but I mean other than the culture, arts, science, and cuisine? See? You’ve got nothing, right? Told you. But how did Vienna amass all that amazing culture, arts, science and cuisine? The old fashioned way: Imperial oppression.
Why isn’t “The Habsburgs” a TV miniseries yet?
The country of Austria has been around, in one incarnation or another, since around 500BC when the tribal Celts first discovered it. Since that time, the country’s leadership changed hands a lot, but one group held the mantle of power longer than any other. Everywhere we went in Vienna, the name “Habsburgs” kept coming up. They were one of the biggest dynasties that ruled Central Europe’s constantly changing borders for about five hundred years, well before anyone came up with the idea of “term limits.”
Starting in what is now Switzerland, the House of Habsburg came to rule Austria around the 13th Century. However, rather than fighting their way to fame and fortune as was the custom of the time (see Game Of Thrones), the Habsburgs married their way into it like The Kardashians. As time went on, the Austrian Habsburgs betrothed a blistering bridal path all the way to an impressive empire “upon which the sun never set.”
In 1440, the Habsburg’s chose Vienna as the resident city of the dynasty and commissioned some spectacularly insane buildings to make sure everybody knew it — “subtlety” was never one of the objectives given to architects. Over the next couple of hundred years, the Habsburgs transformed Vienna, Austria from a backwater, one-horse town into a global, cosmopolitan, and shining metropolis that was the rival of Europe’s other sewer-deficient, plague-ravaged major cities.
St. Stephan’s Cathedral was where the straight-out-of-a-reality-TV-show “Viennese double wedding” was held. Eager to bring Bohemia and Hungary under Habsburg rule, Maximilian I made a backdoor deal with both country’s current ruler, Jagiellon king Ladislas II — Maximilian adopted Louis Jagiellon (age 9), and married Louis to his granddaughter Mary (age 9), while Louis’s sister Anna (age 12) married Maximilian himself (age 56!) with the option to “transfer” the marriage within one year to one of Max’s grandson Ferdinand. Top that, Hollywood.
The Hofburg Imperial Palace and Winter Residence has been Austria’s seat of power since the 13th Century. Originally “just a castle,” the Imperial Palace is now an extensive complex of 19 courtyards, 18 wings, numerous private apartments, and state rooms. In traditional “one-up the previous ruler” ego-stroking style, Austria’s rulers had their architects slowly expand Hofburg from simply ostentatious to full-on over-compensation (see Freud).
Schönbrunn Palace — which means “Beautiful Spring” — was the summer residence of the imperial family and is, from an efficient land-use perspective, obscenely obscene. The land was purchased back in 1569 and was used for hunting. After the Turks messed up their “humble” hunting lodge in 1695, the Emperor commissioned a palace to outshine even Versailles — one with 1,441 rooms for, presumably, when the entire population of Bohemia wants to come over use the pool.
The palace itself is impressive enough, but the entire complex covers a jaw-dropping 435 acres of Holy Crap, this place is HUUUGE! Walking out the back door slaps you in the face with the reality of your own relative poverty — Donald Trump couldn’t build this place today. Stretching out literally as far as human vision allows is a spectacular garden, no doubt tended to by the most exhausted gardeners ever. Beyond the garden is a massive sculpture called, Gloriette, made from recycled stone left over from the original hunting lodge, because, you know…why be wasteful?
The Church Of The Augustinian Friars was constructed in the 14th century by Duke “Frederick the Handsome” — second cousin to Duke “Chauncy, the Humpbacked.” Yet despite its reserved Gothic exterior, the church was chosen as the “home church” of the Habsburg Dynasty and its interior was quickly renovated to be the opposite of reserved. The church is most notable for being the place where 24-year old Franz Joseph I married an 18-year old hottie named Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie instead of his own cousin. (You sent a gift, right?)
The post-Habsburg Vienna.
The Habsburg Dynasty remained a great power for centuries, but the empire inevitably disintegrated just like every Kardashian marriage. Following the fall of the Habsburg Dynasty, Vienna, Austria remained the seat of a multi-national, social and economic power, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918). Second only to the Russian Empire in size, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s full official name was “The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen” but try fitting all that on a map.
Unfortunately, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and WWI spelled the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, too. The Empire broke down along nationalistic lines and that cost Austria its most precious asset of all: easy beach-access. By losing Croatia, Austria was cut off from the Mediterranean and its many topless beaches. Now land-locked, the Austrian Navy — yes, they had one — was downsized to a couple of guys in a row-boat patrolling the Danube.
Vienna’s architecture is both beautiful and bonkers.
As a result of all the money that flowed into — and, later out of — Imperial Austria over the centuries, its architecture is predictably impressive (and whiter than the sands on Clearwater Beach). The city’s First District (aka, Innere Stadt) was conspicuously missing any “buildings of color,” and was entirely comprised of sculpted stone facades that, unlike those in Budapest or Prague, looked like someone had used a Crest 3D Professional Teeth Whitening Kit on them. [sponsored link]
The Ringstraße is a road that circles the Innere Stadt along the route of the former city walls and is an unmoving parade of mind-bending castles, palais (palaces), and churches — the density and scale of opulence is boggling. The surrounding palais are the huge residences of aristocrats who wanted to live near the king so they’d have his ear — I imagine they waited until they saw the king take out his trash and then took out their trash and said something like, “Howdy, neighbor! Mind if we have a chat about the impending rat uprising?”
Outside of the Ringstraße, the Viennese architects didn’t tone down their designs much, if at all. Everywhere you look in the city there are full-size male sculptures holding up lintels or cheerful cherubs jammed into every cornice and corner. I have no idea why, but the Viennese architects loved those fat little guys for some reason. Maybe it was the fashion of the day, or maybe they had some kind of dwarf fetish or something. Though, honestly, that would’ve been one of the less bizarre sexual quirks of Europeans.
Vienna’s cuisine is no worse than Germany’s.
After eating a lot of sausage in Munich, I was thrilled to find that cased-meat was also popular in Vienna. In fact, the sausage Americans know as a “Wiener” is actually from the German word for “Viennese.” (In Vienna, it’s called a “Frankfurter” after the German city of Frankfurt — crazy, right?). More importantly, you can buy either of them anytime, day or night, from street vendors (or “Würstelstand”). Because what’s better right before bed than a massive, calorie-laden sausage? That’s right, nothing.
The vendors typically sell Burenwurst (a boiled beef and pork sausage), Kasekrainer (spicy pork with chunks of cheese), and Bratwurst (a white pork sausage). We ordered the last two (both as “hot dogs,” or in a roll) and watched the guy do something brilliant — he didn’t cut the rolls in half as we expected, he used a cylindrical blade to cut out a 1-inch, length-wise hole in the roll. Then he slid the sausages down inside it along with our condiments. That way, neither the curry nor ketchup (respectively) leaked out! Sausagenius!
Unfortunately, the Viennese aren’t all-sausage, all the time. No, for a change of pace, they also eat stuff like Wiener Schnitzel, a pounded-flat, breaded, and deep-fried piece of chicken or pork. It’s solid, sure, but the tastiest thing on the menu always seemed to be Strudel, a multi-layered pastry that’s traditionally stuffed with something sweet like Apple filling. It was supposedly huge in the 1700s with the Habsburgs and anyone else who had a functioning tongue.
Vienna only has one flaw and it’s unforgivable.
Vienna is a very walkable, or at least “bike-able,” city. So to encourage people to ride bikes around the city, Vienna deployed a self-serve bike rental system. Regrettably, they’ve made the system atrocious to use. For some reason, the system limits the number of bikes you can rent to one per credit card. And it only accepts Visa/MasterCard (no AmEx or debit cards). This presented an insurmountable problem as my wife’s credit card is considered the same card (even though the numbers are different).
To add to the fun, you have to fully sign up and enter ALL your information on a horrible keyboard — even creating a new user account — before the system lets you know that your card was rejected for one of the above reasons. So now you have an account, but they still won’t let you use the card they just accepted to pay for an additional bike. Why? Who knows. However, our abject rejection turned out to be a blessing in disguise because Vienna’s bicycle problems go beyond just getting one of the damn things.
Assuming you make it through Vienna’s bicycle sign-up gauntlet, you then have to ride on Vienna’s insane bike paths. We walked around the Ringstraße and noticed the cycling symbol painted on the path constantly switched sides with the pedestrian symbol for no discernible reason. I was utterly confounded by it each time it happened — we were consistently on the wrong side of the path no matter what we did. Frankly, the person or persons who painted the symbols had to be purposely trying to cause accidents to put up on YouTube — there’s just no other logical reason.
The verdict of Vienna.
If you’re a fan of classical music, you should already be on a plane waiting on the tarmac for four hours. If you’re a fan of bicycling, you should bring every credit card you own. If you’re a fan of movies, you should go during the summer — they project movies on the back of churches in this place. (How cool is that?) And oh, yeah, and if you’re a fan of sausage…