Nearly on the spur of the moment – on the principle that life is short, so keep moving – we decided to drive to Vienna Saturday evening, stay the night and spend Sunday sightseeing. After the grocery marketing and a trip to the hardware store, which is just over the border in Germany, we Googled hotels, booked a room and took off at 5:30.
Most of what I knew about Vienna comes from Andrew Wheatcroft’s Enemy at the Gate (Basic Books, 2009) about the Ottoman siege of 1683. Other than that, I had only vague associations – waltzes, pastries and coffee, Freud, Strauss and the Hapsburgs, and art, lots of art. And, in our rush, we didn’t have time to do any research. So Sunday morning, when we came up out of the underground in the city centre, I could think only of going directly to Stephansdom, the church that figured in the defence of the city against the Turk’s attack.
Coming into the enormous cathedral, we were overwhelmed by its Gothic splendour, even more so than St Peter’s in Salzburg had impressed us on Easter. Mass was in progress, the priest had just finished his sermon, and again there was an orchestra and choir performing, this time Haydn’s Mariazellermesse, No 8 in C Major. So we slipped past the tourists with their cameras and backpacks crowded in the back and found our way forward to stand near the transept.
Great columns of red marble soar in the late Gothic manner as they do in Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame. Everywhere we looked, altars were decorated with paintings and sculpture. We stood not far from a large gilded altarpiece, a triptych. On three levels, it depicts Mary and – I now learn from researching it – Saints Barbara and Catherine surmounted by the Coronation of the Virgin. It is beautiful, and I stood trying to see across the short distance its details and make out the images. Around us, the music reverberated in the vast height and space, the sound expanding and lifting me with it.
Mass ended and we explored the church, taking particular pleasure in a carved self portrait of the architect and stone mason as he leans out, as from a window, at the top of an altarpiece, his face wistful and compelling. Not far from this sculpture is an elevator that, for €4.50, whisked us to the top of the tower that houses the huge iron bell called the Pummerin, one of the largest in Europe.
Coming out of the elevator, we found ourselves on a narrow, railed platform high over the city. From there we climbed more stairs around the exterior of the tower, as I clutched the rails with both hand, breathing shallowly, feeling that elemental terror felt on heights, no matter how safe. The views of Vienna were wonderful, even enlightening, making the effort worth it, though a cold wind blew and, briefly, hail pelted us. Still I felt the whole time a thrill of terror and trembled not just with the cold but with awareness of the narrow steel-mesh platform on which we moved and at the sight of the tower rising opposite us and the roofs beneath us and the streets so far below. I wondered how anyone could contain that fear to work at such heights.
Leaving Stephansdom, we moved in the general direction of the imperial palace, equipped only with a flimsy, advertisement-filled, tourist map from the hotel. Passing another church, a smaller domed church with an elaborate Baroque façade, we climbed the steps to its porch and opened the door. Organ music welled up from within the interior, and so we went in.
I was, as they say in Ireland, gobsmacked by the ornate decorations of the church, called Peterskirche. Its dome is covered with rich with frescoes depicting the Coronation of the Virgin surrounded by an orchestra of angels with instruments. Eight windows pierce the dome, brightly illuminating the frescoes. In the top of the cupola, a dove hovers. Around the walls of the compact, oval nave stand huge marble altarpieces, paintings, gold and silver. The pulpit is a frenzy of gold rococo excess, sculptures writhing over a tasselled canopy supported by more gold sculptures. Attached to the oval of the sanctuary is a rectangular apse filled by a monumental Baroque altarpiece under a trompe d’oeil arch and dome.
As we wandered, the unseen organist continued to play, practicing, I believe, for a recital scheduled for that evening. Again our senses were charged by music as well by visual extravagance. There is something gem-like about St Peter’s; its compactness is complemented by its gracefulness, inside and out. We could have looked and looked and still have found more treasure. Its richness was marred for me, however, when I noticed a lacklustre, obviously modern, portrait of a man wearing glasses, Josemaría Escrivá. I immediately recognised him as the founder of Opus Dei, an organisation I find repugnant. An altar is dedicated to him; it turns out the care of the church has been transferred from the Archbishop of Vienna to Opus Dei, which explains, to my mind, a particular tone of exaggerated veneration in the literature we found there.
We left the church and again wandered, crossing a wide platz dominated by a monumental Baroque sculpture. We continued in the direction of imperial residence, walking past art galleries and antique shops, past windows displaying charming works of glass and of jewellery. At last we came to the third church we entered, the Augustinian church attached to the Hofburg, the winter palace of the Hapsburgs.
After the sumptuous, not to say overwrought, decoration of the Stephansdom and Peterskirche, the nearly bare cool grey interior of Ausgustinerkirche felt peaceful. The vaults of its nave soar high and narrow, and, in its austerity, it seems older and more secure, even more stately, than the other two churches we visited. Two remarkable ornaments stand out, a large Gothic altarpiece and the hauntingly beautiful monument to Archduchess Maria Christina by Canova. The cenotaph, of white marble, depicts dejected figures entering the door of a tomb, shoulders drooping, watched by a reclining lion and a winged angel. It is a masterpiece. We stood in front of it, fascinated and moved, not realising until later whose work it was. By which I mean, Canova's mastery spoke for itself.
It was about 3, and we wanted to begin our drive to Salzburg by about 5. Yet we hadn’t seen the palace, which was just beyond the church. We pushed on, down a narrow passageway and through courtyards and round corners into even grander courtyards, past statues and through grander-still courtyards, until at last we passed under a final arch, me a few paces ahead of Himself, who had paused to read a sign, and I stopped still, mouth open, amazed at the monumental Renaissance palace with its formal garden rolling out over acres in front of it, the palace majestic, huge, with more Renaissance buildings just beyond, elegance in all directions, with the Gothic spires of the Rathhaus rising in the distance.
Gobsmacked, again. After Dublin, after Salzburg (not even considering Thousand Oaks, California), Vienna is indeed a revelation. Grand on the scale of Paris, it is beyond my power to describe.
We were not even close to the Danube at this point, and no longer had the time or the energy to tour any of the Hofburg. All we could do is gape, two country mice surrounded by imperial splendour, before creeping home.