Eric Johnso 2015-09-01 03:38:07
Trace Vienna’s history, culture and cuisine from its imperial peak through today’s modernity, all in and around a 3-mile boulevard. Aroad circles the heart of Vienna, a beacon of architectural achievement and the centerpiece to the city’s cultural landscape. Named the Ringstrasse (meaning “Ring Road”), the area’s significance encompasses more than meets the eye; its story is one of empires and empires lost, beautiful classical music and avant-garde art, political unrest and harmonious coexistence. From its 1865 dedication through today, the Ringstrasse continues to offer travelers and locals alike the opportunity to immerse themselves in nearly every major aspect of Austrian history and culture. This landmark of landmarks sees its 150th anniversary this year, and the city is commemorating the milestone with special exhibitions and celebrations, making 2015 an especially exciting time to explore the Austrian capital. The Classics The Ringstrasse’s story starts with Emperor Franz Joseph, the penultimate ruler from the House of Habsburg, one of the most important royal houses of Europe. In 1865, the 35-yearold Austrian emperor presided over the opening of an imperial boulevard that was meant to match or beat anything London or Paris could offer. And even before the builders’ dust finally settled 40 years later, the Ringstrasse did just that. Along the Ringstrasse’s broad avenues still stands the highest density of monumental buildings anywhere in the world—an impressive spectacle that’s no less awe-inspiring 150 years later. Institutions of art, music, theater, science, church and state have made their home here. Sprinkled liberally among them are accouterments of shopping, dining, green spaces and public squares that invite and delight locals and visitors. While the 1865 dedication was the beginning of the Ringstrasse, the year marked the beginning of the end for Joseph. The House of Habsburg, one of Europe’s most enduring dynasties, was about to lose its reign, which had lasted six centuries. This might have been difficult to foresee, given the distractions of imperial life that are still on full display inside the emperor’s former palace, which is now open to visitors. The Hofburg, a massive pile of 18 wings, 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms truly deserves the modifier “majestic.” Visitors can explore its labyrinth of royal quarters, museums and art treasures, as well as view a stable and show ring of prize horses that would have comprised Joseph’s Spanish Riding School. The facilities stage regular dressage performances in which muscular, compact stallions charge about the venue in a combination of acrobatics, ballet and gymnastics that fascinate equine aficionados and newcomers alike. Plenty of other Habsburg-era diversions still find a place in the Ringstrasse, allowing both visitors and Viennese to connect with the area’s heritage. To this day, Vienna is recognized as the classical music capital of the world. Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss all spent their most productive years here; Schubert was even born in the city. Every evening, about 10,000 people listen to live performances; the city hosts more than 15,000 musical events each year. Facing each other along the Ringstrasse are the Musikverein, the Konzerthaus and the Vienna State Opera, which are nearly as distinguished for their looks as for their sounds. Then there are dozens of more casual evening venues, plus Sundaymorning appearances of the Vienna Boys Choir, whose rendition of sacred song is often likened to the voices of angels. For younger music lovers, the same boys regularly sing on Friday afternoons at the MuTh, a musical theatre that is about a 15-minute walk north from the canal that skirts the top arc of the Ringstrasse. That same canal has its own ties to Vienna’s musical history. It’s a branch of “The Blue Danube,” immortalized in the Strauss waltz that later accompanied the iconic film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The waterway goes by various names as it winds its way some 2,000 miles from Germany’s Black Forest to Romania’s coast on the Black Sea. Pushing the Boundaries Although it was and still is a bastion of tradition, the Ringstrasse has also served as a model of modernity. The Viennese inspired other cities to restructure themselves, according to Harald Robert Stühlinger, a professor of architecture and urban planning who specializes in Vienna. Austria’s Graz, the Czech Republic’s Brno, Hungary’s Budapest and Germany’s Cologne all imitated the monumental style of central, round roads. Still, the finest example of this arrangement of roads and architecture anywhere, Stühlinger contends, lies in Vienna—especially in the Museumsquartier, which hosts grand houses of architecture, art and science. The Leopold Museum is an ideal place to connect with four artists who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tested the limits of painting. Richard Gerstl, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka pioneered expressionism, symbolism and imagery—concepts that, in their day, were beyond avant-garde; some of the work was condemned at the time as obscene. Schiele did prison time for his offenses, and all had numerous lovers as well as unrequited loves, leading art historians to conclude that the artists led personal lives as colorful as their paintings. This is reflected in many of the works on display at the museum. Traces of those who were radicals in the political realm, too, can be found on the ring. Adolf Hitler, a native Austrian who in his early 20s lived in the capital for five years, celebrated his 1938 return with a parade around the Ringstrasse. He addressed thousands of supporters at the Heldenplatz, right on the ring between the Hofburg and the Museum of Natural History. Thankfully, any public markers that would have signified this dark age have long since been removed, but the significant era is preserved photographically in the museums. A remembrance to Nazi victims, the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, was erected in 2000. This public square is a five-minute walk from the imposing spires of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, headquarters to Austria’s Roman Catholic Church. Back to the Future While Vienna and the impressive Ringstrasse continue to pay homage to years past, current residents are shaping an exciting future for the city. No longer the dreary outpost it once was during World War I through the Cold War, Vienna ultimately became known as the West’s door to the East and the East’s door to the West. “It is now a regular boom town,” says Stühlinger, noting that the population is growing along with a multicultural, eclectic mix of hotels, restaurants, renovated residential districts and pop culture reminiscent of Franz Joseph’s old rivals in London and Paris, not to mention hot spots such as Barcelona, Berlin or New York City. For a taste of the city’s modern landscape, visit any of Vienna’s internationally recognized restaurants, where chefs push Viennese cuisine into the future by incorporating flavors from different continents and transforming traditional favorites into veritable works of modern art. Restaurant Steirereck in Stadtpark is a shining example of the gourmet food scene: With two Michelin stars, the restaurant was transformed under chef Heinz Reitbauer, a pioneer of “neue wiener kuche,” or new Viennese cooking. Expect Austrian cuisine using only the highest quality ingredients—and to plan ahead, as Steirereck’s excellence is no secret. Celebrity chef Christian Petz has also caused a stir at the reimagined Gusshaus, which would be a typical Viennese bistro if it weren’t for the menu. In unpretentious surroundings, Petz offers an elegant array of dishes that nod to tradition while remaining at the whim of his creative genius. Tradition also lives on in the city’s coffeehouses, which rose to notoriety in the 19th and early 20th centuries when creatives and philosophers began to gather in them to socialize, work and study. Many remain as cultural institutions. Café Sperl epitomizes the charm characteristic of the Viennese coffeehouse; locals sit for hours among classic lighting fixtures, deep red menus and metallic serving trays. Americans may recognize the ornate seating from Richard Linklater’s cinematic paean to Vienna, “Before Sunrise.” Of course, when eating in Vienna, a stop at the “wurstelstand,” or sausage stand, is a foregone conclusion. These can be found throughout the city, offering a choice of sweet or spicy mustard atop hot dogs, or fried or lightly smoked pork sausage, among other accouterments. The street food scene has also been on the rise; epicures can enjoy melted raclette cheese on homemade bread in Yppenplatz square or an array of stews and casseroles from around the world at the Gourmet Nomaden food truck, which frequents Kutschkermarkt. More examples of Vienna’s modern cosmopolitan nature can be found on Karntner Strasse, one of the city’s most famous shopping streets. While the thoroughfare dates back to Roman times, major department stores and smaller boutiques now find a home in this pedestrian-only zone, making for a beautifully scenic retail experience. Also connecting Vienna’s storied past to its dynamic present, the Prater is a large public park that’s best known for a huge Ferris wheel. The attraction was prominently featured in “The Third Man,” a 1949 film written by Graham Greene, starring Orson Welles and shot mostly in the city. The now-retro amusement park about 1 mile northwest of the ring is surrounded by green space, and near plenty of open-air art and an eclectic mix of restaurants. The Ferris wheel provides an exciting vantage point from which to view the city today, while the nearby Panorama Museum includes an installation of Ferris wheel wagons that depict Vienna’s history. While the city draws visitors this year to commemorate its main road, exuberant celebrations of Vienna’s rich culture will continue to permeate its diverse neighborhoods. Even without emperors from bygone eras, the city maintains its royal stature through its dedication to classical music, loyalty to the artists it has fostered and recognition of new generations of local visionaries. ANNIVERSARY EVENTS Here are some of the 2015 events aimed at providing fascinating perspectives on Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse: •The BELVEDERE PALACE AND MUSEUM hosts “Klimt and the Ringstrasse – A Showcase of Grandeur” through Oct. 11. It focuses on Ringstrasse painters who documented a romanticized period of Vienna’s history. •Through Oct. 18, the JEWISH MUSEUM’S “Ringstrasse: A Jewish boulevard” explores different sides of the Ringstrasse era, including the successes and plight of the Jewish community. •“The Rise of the Ringstrasse” will be on view at the VIENNA LIBRARY IN CITY HALL through Nov. 13, presenting the media’s take on the opening of the Ringstrasse in 1865. •The VIENNA MUSEUM’S “Vienna’s Ringstrasse: The making of a grand boulevard” runs through Oct. 4 and showcases never-before-seen sketches, models and photographs of the Ringstrasse’s earliest years.
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