On May 3 we landed smoothly in Vienna at about 08:40, more or less on time, after an overnight flight with three names operated by Austrian Airlines direct from Toronto. If one must wait for one’s bags and be bombarded by marketing, let it please be four illuminated panels of The Kiss. Always. I’m very OK with that. We had selected Insight Vacations’ Highlights of Eastern Europe bus tour because it began and ended in Vienna and included Budapest and Warsaw, where we had friends-well-met on our 2013 Camino Santiago. This enabled us (well, me) to add a precious four more days of self-guided sight-seeing in amazing, once-imperial-still-magnificent, Vienna before flying home on May 20. The itinerary also included two nights in Budapest, Kraków, Warsaw, Berlin and Prague plus one night in Cesky Krumlov. As bus tours go, Insight delivers one of the best. They use excellent tour directors, more legroom on the bus and centrally located, classy hotels. We weren’t disappointed. Out of seven tour directors on as many tours with Insight since 1995, we had six who were stellar and only one selfish, mercurial, intimidating, paranoid, should-have-retired-long-ago jerk. That was on a 2011 tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Say no more. We had a welcome dinner planned for that evening with our tour director, Kari Anne. Her poster asked us to meet for roll call at about 17:30. Our room was ready at 10:40 when our transfer arrived at the Hilton Hotel near the Stadtpark, on the western edge of the famous Ringstrasse, a 12-minute walk to St. Stephens Cathedral, Stephansdom.
Crashed in our bed until 14:15. Then we crossed the street to a major subway station/shopping mall complex and had a bite to eat, during which we shared a small table with a Viennese woman who had been to Canada. We found the Viennese consistently charming and friendly to us during the 6 days we were there. Not having learned how excellent the tap water is, we bought two big plastic (ugh!) bottles, took them back to our room and then walked to Stephansplatz and back, walking through a part of the Stadtpark and over a small canal.
After roll call we bused to our restaurant, once an old building that housed the Soviets, one of four nations that occupied a divided Vienna after it lost WW II. After our meal, some sort of siren (demo?) occurred as we exited the restaurant.
Monday, May 4. Spent half a day in Vienna visiting the Schönbrunn Palace, begun by Emperor Maximilian II as a hunting preserve with a mansion called Katterburg and completed with this Shining Spring Palace by Eleanora Gonzaga, the wife of Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) Ferdinand II, in 1643. This was the summer palace of the Habsburg Dynasty. The Habsburgs ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1278 (Rudolf I) to 1700 (Charles II) to 1780 (Maria Theresa) who, though female, let’s face it, wore the pants and the crown during her time. Married to the virile HRE Francis I, our heroine frequently took them off to conceive and give birth to 16 children until the age of 39, when her youngest, Maria Antonia, whom the world knows as Marie Antoinette, was born. The Holy Roman Empire itself, founded in 800 A.D. when Pope Leo III declared Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor, carried on after Francis I via Maria Theresa’s sons, Joseph II and Leopold II, and grandson Francis II, until 1806, when Francis II abdicated as HRE after losing a decisive battle with Napoléon Bonaparte. Fortunately for Francis II, he had founded the Austrian Empire as Francis I of Austria in 1804, so he was still an emperor of sorts. The Austrian Empire was joined by the Kingdom of Hungary in 1867, forming the short-lived, but very opulent, Austro-Hungarian Empire that dissolved after its WW I defeat in 1918.
I loved the Schönbrunn’s elegance and the delicate, uncrowded, ceiling art. Our local expert, Peter, was brilliant. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside so I can’t show you the ballroom or Maria Theresa’s bed, where she sat when receiving visitors. And the magnificent gardens behind it were not at their best, being early in the season. Much work seemed to be going on at the Neptune Fountain.
Our tour then drove around the Ringstrasse, with Peter describing all the sights with succinct, perfect English and wonderful, dry humour. We had a deluxe cafeteria lunch at Rosenbergers on Maysedergasse near the Staatsoper and the Albertina and wandered around taking in the people and the architecture. Here are a few photos taken from the bus and on foot after lunch.
The Ringstrasse is a grand, horseshoe-shaped road full of magnificent buildings that, with the Danube River, surrounds old Vienna. It was built after 1857 according to a plan by Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I that removed the city’s walls built in 1200 A.D. The walls saved Vienna from capture by the Ottoman, Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1529. Suleiman had already conquered south-Eastern Hungary. Vienna also had help from HRE Charles V, who sent mercenaries composed mainly of Spanish musketeers and German pike-men. Suleiman failed again in 1532. The survival of Vienna marked the virtual end of Ottoman expansion. After Suleiman, the Ottoman Empire did not grow much. The Ottomans failed a final time in 1683.
A fascinating fact: The 13th century walls were financed with ransom money paid by England for the 1194 release of King Richard the Lionheart who, while returning from the Third Crusade, was captured near Dürnstein by Duke Leopold of Austria. The ransom was equivalent at the time to 25 500 kg of silver, a sum that, if inflation and historical value are considered, would amount to over 3 billion dollars today. Richard had insulted Leopold during the crusade. Peter told us that Richard was discovered when he foolishly tried to pay for a meal using English coin.
So the Viennese return the insult to this very day…
The bus picked us up at 12:40 and we left with Alex, our new driver, and Kari Anne for Budapest, where we had a date that same evening with a private dinner cruise on the Danube :))