Vienna: a cultural powerhouse

The Vienna State Opera House.
The Vienna State Opera House. /Fresno Bee

It takes an empire to build a city like this.

Like an immaculately tailored suit fresh from the dry cleaner, the historic core of Vienna suggests easy elegance and decorum. The cavernous palaces, treasure-stuffed museums, towering cathedrals, superlative cultural attractions and even the pastries — ah, especially the pastries — seem to hearken back to a time of pomp and majesty. Climbing up the marble stairs in the grand foyer of the Vienna State Opera, with everything in sight gilded and buffed to a shine, you half expect to see members of the royal court enjoying a pre-show champagne.

Vienna’s drink of choice at such events is champagne, of course.

In my schooling I learned a lot of British history and to a lesser extent French history, but I realize while immersing myself in this former imperial capital that I’m a little sketchy on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I think that’s common for a lot of Americans.

Yet the Habsburgs — who ruled varying vast swaths of Europe for 500 years — were a very big deal on the world stage. They controlled such vast amounts of wealth and power that it’s no wonder Vienna feels like regal even though Austria has long since given up its imperial possessions.

Perhaps the most conspicuous display of wealth is found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, known to locals as the KHM, just one of several world-class art museums housed in former palaces. One of the prime attractions inside is the Kunstkammer Vienna (chamber of art and wonders), reopened in 2013 in a stunning permanent display, which includes precious artworks and knick-knacks from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque era collected by various royals across the centuries.

There’s a whole room just for gilded models of transportation, including golden ships and carriages.

Taking in the hundreds of priceless objects is almost dizzying. Various emperors and empresses had their own specific collections they wanted to build, ranging from timepieces and sculptures to coins, weapons and “curiosities” (such as a 15th century fossil shark tooth thought to be that of a dragon). It’s as if you took a standard American tchotchke collector of frogs or owls, say, and gave him or her superpowers.

One of the themes of my January trip to Eastern Europe was: Go in the off-season so you don’t have to deal with the crowds. That was certainly true for Vienna. I managed to get a photo of the Schloss Belvedere, another palace converted into a museum, with almost no one in sight — as if the emperor himself had decreed an afternoon of emptiness.

But you have to plan in advance for some things. The Vienna opera is known for selling out on a regular basis, and it’s imperative that you book tickets well before a trip. I waited until six weeks before arrival and managed to snag the last two seats (not together, alas) for a production of Salome.

It was ravishing, gorgeous and so emotionally charged I almost forgot to breathe in the final 15 minutes. Catherine Naglestad, singing the title role, managed to both creep me out (especially when she makes out with the head of John Baptist) and elicit my sympathy when she meets her executioners. The triumphant scenic design and fabulous singing makes the memory my most treasured Vienna souvenir.

The Vienna Philharmonic, which performs in a glorious, ornate hall opened in 1870, likewise was exhilarating. We got to hear Rafael Payare, a brilliant up-and-coming Venezuelan conductor, lead the orchestra in works by Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Also on the program: a work by Lorin Maazel, the famed American conductor and composer who died last year, set to the text of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, the composer’s widow, read the words of the book aloud.

Throughout our stay, the elegant ambiance of Vienna just seems to settle into my bones. The city doesn’t feel like a historical theme park, which can be the case with Prague. Modern buildings sit alongside historical landmarks such as the imposing St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a towering Gothic masterpiece.

There was something formal yet almost playful about the people we met. (I even loved the sound of German in a lilting Austrian accent.) Yes, it can be a little intimidating if as a small-suitcase tourist you don’t pack a sports coat for elegant events. I got really warm at the Vienna Philharmonic and took off my nice wool sweater (between movements, of course) to reveal a long-sleeved dress shirt beneath, and even sitting in the cheap seats, I caused some surprised looks from among those around me.

Yet I never felt as if people were being condescending in Vienna. If anything, they extended a dignified welcome.

Besides, I could never find fault with a city that prides itself so much on dessert. Yes, an empire is to this day responsible for one of the world’s great sugar rushes.

At the Hotel Imperial, which used to be (you guessed it) another palace, I took my first bite of the Imperial Torte and almost melted into one big taste bud. The recipe is said to have been created for Emperor Franz Josef I on the occasion of the hotel’s opening in 1873. The hard chocolate glaze, which gives way to layers of almond flavour, marzipan and a slight hint of cocoa creme, will forever for me be the taste of Vienna.

Now if I can only get back there someday to get not seconds but fifths and sixths.