Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Austria, at least Vienna, is known for classical music, art museums and strudel.  There are no kangaroos in Austria.  Believe it or not, many stores sell signs with a kangaroo and a red line through it.  I seriously thought about buying one.  Austria used to be much bigger and more powerful than it is today, and I'm sure Europeans have no confusion about where they are.   As to the average American on the street, well that's another story.    We did enjoy our stay in Austria, or was it Australia.

Austria also has a dark side to its history.   Perhaps in an attempt to reclaim the past glory of the Habsburg days, between 1938 and 1945, Austria enthusiastically embraced Nazi Germany.  After all, Hitler was Austrian.  Unlike Germany, Austria never confronted its role in the Holocaust and refused to pay compensation to Nazi victims. 

In 1986, the Austrians elected as president the former UN Secretary-General and ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim.     During the campaign, it leaked out that Waldheim may have committed war crimes during World War II in occupied Greece.  It didn't hurt him in the election and maybe even helped him.  However, it caused an international furor when the United States declared him persona non grata and barred him from entering the country, not necessarily because he was a Nazi, but because he went to great lengths to cover up his past.   As it turned out, the UN investigation found no evidence that Waldheim personally committed war crimes, but it didn't believe his statements that he know nothing about them.  As Schultz used to say in Hogan's Heroes, "I know nothing."

Be that as it may, we had a good time in Vienna.  The day we arrived, we ate three meals in three different national capitals.  Breakfast in Budapest, lunch in Bratislava, Slovakia, and dinner in Vienna.  That's probably some kind of record. 

Natives of Vienna are called Wieners.  That's amusing to Americans, and I won't comment on that, but they do have hot dog stands in Vienna, and they are not like those in the U.S.   The Viennese serve you a foot long sausage and cut it in chunks.  Pork sausage, not beef.  No bun.  These are not Chicago or New York hot dogs.  No mustard, chopped onions, celery salt, hot peppers, relish.  They probably even put ketchup on them.   Folks here also eat lots of wiener schnitzel which is a breaded veal cutlet, not a hot dog.

The Viennese have Epicurian tastes when it comes to fancy pastries.  A block away from our hotel is the 5-Star Sacher Hotel which is world famous for its Sacher torte, a chocolate cake with apricot filling.  The dish was created by confectioner Franz Sacher for an 1832 reception honoring the Austrian chancellor Metternich.  We didn't taste it; we already had too much to eat.

Strudel is what puts Austria on the map.  There is an art to making good strudel, and there are schools in Vienna to teach strudel making.  We took our lesson at the Strudelshow at Schoenbrunn Palace where we learned to make apple strudel and eat the results.  The key is to stretch the dough very thin so that it comes out light.  It looks easy.  The strudel maker pounds out the dough like a large square pizza.  Then she scoops in the diced apples and rolls them up in the dough.  It was delicious. Right after our lesson, we went to lunch where they served us generous portions of wiener schnitzel with tomato sauce.   


We stayed at the grand old Bristol Hotel on the famous Ringstrasse in the center of town across from the Opera House.  The Bristol was built in the 1890's and it's classy.  We felt like we won the lottery when we entered our spacious room and bath decorated with elaborate furnishings.  The hotel is proud of the notable people have stayed there over the years:  Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Paul McCartney (before he was knighted), author Arthur Hailey (Airport, Hotel), the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, and the guy who wrote Bambi and later sold it to Walt Disney. 

When I got lost, I called the hotel concierge and told him I was on Einbahn Street and he laughed.  I said, "Hey, I'm looking right at the sign."   I found out einbahn means "one-way" street.

To say the Bristol served high end liquor is an understatement.  For example, if you're thirsty and have a big expense account, they'll serve you a 1.5 liter Magnum of Louis XIII Remy Martin cognac in Baccarat Crystal which will set you back 8990 Euros which is somewhere north of 10,000 bucks.  If you just want a shot, we're talking 95 euros which is actually reasonable.  We had some in Las Vegas. They sell this stuff like you'd sell a car.  The menu explains, "After 50 years of ripening, a full 1200 Eaux-de-vie have joined in an act of pure genius.  Nectar of ever-lasting flowers, dried fruit, lather, nutmeg, sandalwood, honey and wood bark - and a length of flavor that surpasses all expectations.  The complexity of the blend is displayed in exceptional length as in the presence of rare flavors."    As I said, this place is classy.

A short walk away is the symbol of Vienna, from where the streets all radiate.  The majestic, Gothic style 850 year old St. Stephen's Cathedral with its 500 foot spire can be seen from all over town.  It is the most visited tourist attraction in Vienna.  Mozart was baptized and married there.  St. Stephen is not to be confused with the Hungarian St. Stephen.  The Vienna Stephen was one of the first Christian martyrs, stoned to death in Jerusalem in the year 60 A.D. after a lengthy speech.   The Cathedral had began construction in the 1100's on December 26th, which is St. Stephen's Day.


Tauck Tours often comes up with pleasant surprises.  In Vienna, our tour group was treated to a private concert at the Vienna Residence Orchestra, a 7 piece chamber orchestra plus four singers and dancers.  It is considered one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world, and indeed, they have performed worldwide.  Their first guest conductor was Rudolf Nurayev, so we're talking big names. 

They entertained us with some of the familiar works of Mozart, Johann Strauss the Elder, and Johann Strauss the Younger.  Most non musicians probably didn't know there were two Johann Strausses.  The Mozart pieces included Marriage of Figaro, A Little Night Music and Turkish March.  If you ever watched Tom & Jerry cartoons, you would know these tunes. 

After the intermission, they played Strauss.  Roses from the South and Blue Danube Waltz are famous pieces by the younger Strauss.  They performed the Radetzky March by the elder Strauss.  You'll know it when you hear it.  The program listed "Johann Strauss" but didn't distinguish between the father and the son.  If you wanted to know why they wrote a song about the guy, Joseph Radetzky was the 81 year old general, actually the Field Marshal, who led the Austrians to victory at the obscure Battle of Custoza in 1848 defeating the King of Sardinia in the First Italian War of Independence.  Although it is pretty much lost to history, it was an important battle at the time. 

The Strausses were prolific, to say the least.  Johann the Elder fathered 7 kids with his wife and 6 more with his mistress.  He wanted his son to be a banker, not a composer. When he found Junior secretly practicing the violin, he took the boy out to the woodshed and gave him a severe whipping, saying he was going to beat the music out of him.   Strauss' long suffering wife went out of her way to encourage Junior to pursue a music career.  The result was Johann the Younger became an even more famous composer than his father.  Blue Danube Waltz is one of the most recognizable classical pieces ever. 

Mozart was born in Salzburg.  His father was a musician who earned extra money giving lessons.  When he gave Mozart's older sister piano lessons, the 4 year old Wolfgang watched intently, soaking up the lessons himself.  Before long, at age 5, he began composing his own stuff.  He was too young to write, so he dictated the tunes to his father.  His first piece was a 20 second number you can find on You Tube

Contrary to urban myth, the 5 year old Mozart did not compose the tune to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Baa Baa Black Sheep or the Alphabet Song (same tune).  He did write Twelve Variations of Ah! Vous dirai-je maman (Oh! Shall I tell you Mommy),  a French folk song, when he was 25.  Other composers like Bach, Liszt and Saint Saens also wrote compositions based on that tune.  The lyrics to Twinkle, Twinkle were written by the English sisters Jane and Ann Taylor in 1806. 

Mozart died at age 35.  He was diagnosed with a strep infection which caused kidney failure.  The disease was prevalent in Vienna at that time.  Unfortunately for Mozart, the diagnosis was not done until 2009, over 200 years too late.


The largest complex of buildings in Vienna is the Hofburg which was once the palaces of the ruling Habsburg Dynasty.  The Habsburgs originated in Switzerland.  Their name originated from their 11th Century Castle of Habichtsburg (hawk's castle), built by Count Radbot who changed his name to Count Habsburg--he named himself after the castle.  He was a local warlord, essentially the 11th Century Tony Soprano, who built up the family's influence through strategic marriages and alliances.  The family came to the area now known as Austria in 1278. 

Through different branches of the family, they ruled for 640 years until 1918.  Over the years, the different branches controlled not only Austria and Hungary, but most of Italy, Spain, Holy Roman Empire (Germany), Croatia, Slovenia, the Netherlands and even Transylvania.   They might have ruled longer, but they picked the wrong horse in World War I by siding with Germany.  The family lost their palaces but kept the money.   The most notable was Emperor Franz Josef who ruled for 72 years until his death in 1916 at age 86,  He was considered a benevolent ruler but his wife, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) remains a cult like figure today.  More on her in a moment. 

The last Habsburg--the last surviving son of the last emperor--Otto von Habsburg died in 2011 at the age of 98.  He had renounced any claim to the Austrian throne in 1961, so his 7 kids are not considered royalty.  Otto received a royal funeral, actually two--one in Budapest and the other in Vienna.  It was attended by kings, queens and heads of state.  


Emperor Franz Josef was a boring, bureaucratic type of guy.  Not a bad guy, just geeky.  His wife, however, was described as the German speaking Scarlett O'Hara.  She was tall and beautiful and neurotic about her appearance.  Everyone in Austria knows what she looked like because her image is everywhere.  Sisi spent hours each day working on her hairdo.  She had an aversion to fat, so she exercised incessantly.  Then she would wear heavy leather corsets pinching her waist to keep it around 18 inches.  She once met her cousin, the corpulent Queen Victoria of England and said, "Get me out of here!"

Sisi and the Emperor had overbearing mothers.  Their mothers were sisters, so she and Franz Josef were first cousins.   Her machutunim were her aunt and uncle.  In the U.S., people might make fun of rural Southerners who intermarry, but intermarriage was common among European royalty.  Whatever the case, Sisi was from Munich and spoke German with a Southern accent.

Sisi's mother Ludovik had worked out big plans for Sisi's older sister Helene to marry the 23 year old Emperor.  They journeyed to Vienna to meet him.  The 15 year old Sisi tagged along.  Well the Emperor couldn't take his eyes off Sisi, and their whirlwind romance--or maybe their problems--began.   They were married in 1854. 

Franz Josef's mother, the formidable Archduchess Sophie felt bamboozled by the whole thing.  Helene had been raised to marry well, while Sisi was more of a free spirit, growing up as a tomboy, playing sports and horseback riding.  Sophie took on the project of civilizing Sisi, to remake her into a disciplined Empress.  Sisi was not a willing student.  What galled Sophie even more was that the beautiful and freewheeling Sisi was very popular with the common people--the Nineteenth Century Princess Diana. 

She and Franz Josef had four children, but mother-in-law Sophie took charge of raising them.  Sisi began to travel extensively, especially to Hungary, to get away from the court.  Sisi got the last laugh in 1867 in defiance of her mother-in-law who didn't much like Hungarians.  Sisi took up the cause of the restive Hungarians and, partly through her influence, worked out the Hungarian Compromise in which she and the Emperor were crowned as King and Queen of Hungary.  The Hungarians loved her.  Sophie stewed about it.  Her perception was that her beloved Franz Josef was under the undue influence of his wife. 

In 1889, Sisi's son, the crown prince Rufolf, who was unhappily married to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, killed his mistress and the himself in a bizarre murder-suicide.   Sisi never recovered from that tragedy. 

Sisi was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist who stabbed her with a letter opener that punctured her corset.  His intended target had been the Duke of Orleans who didn't show up.  Sisi was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She had spent most of her life seeking happiness which constantly eluded her.    Being a queen would seem like a nice gig but it really isn't. 

After her death, Sisi became a larger than life figure.  Hollywood made three movies about her.  Her imperial crypt in Vienna is always covered with flowers.  The Sisi Museum at the Hofburg has throngs of people lined up to see her exercise equipment and personal effects. And, of course her image appears on postcards and posters all over town..

The Habsburg palaces in Austria are now museums.  The Hofburg is a maze of museums ranging from art museums, the Imperial Treasury and the Natural History museum to the Spanish Riding School, home of the famous dancing Lipizzan horses.  It is also the home of the Austrian president. 


At the Hofburg, we made it a point to visit the Imperial Treasury which contains, among other things the crown jewels.  This museum traces the long history of the Habsburgs through the trappings of their 640 year reign.  The most popular exhibits are the two magnificent crowns--that of Rudolf II and also the Imperial Crown of the Habsburgs.  These crowns are not something the king would wear out on the street.  They weigh enough that he would get a headache wearing it on his head.  Rudolf's crown looks like a crown should look, with red velvet interspersed with all the gold. 

Some of the other interesting relics at the Treasury include the cradle for Napoleon's son, the largest cut emerald in the world, vestments and collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece.  Also we saw agate bowls, golden goblets--everything was worth a fortune.  Dianne and the other women were dazzled by the gold jewelry, the ostentatious display of wealth. 


The Baroque style Schoenbrunn Palace, built in 1548 for the Habsburgs is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Austria.  It has 1441 rooms (we only saw a few hundred), and has been featured in several movies as well as the Great Race on TV.   It was the summer residence of the Habsburg family.  The history of the palace is essentially the history of the Habsburg Dynasty in Austria. 

Empress Marie Theresa (1717-1780) lived in Schoenbrunn Palace in the 18th Century.  She completely remodeled it in 1743.  She wanted it to look like Versailles which had been completed about 20 years earlier in France.  During her reign, she hired Wolfgang A. Mozart to perform a concert to entertain her friends in the palace.  Mozart was 6 years old. 

They didn't have reality shows in those days, but the Empress bore 16 kids, including 11 girls.  In George Foreman fashion, she named them all Marie.  Each one had a different middle name, like her 15th kid, Marie Antonia who married King Louis XVI in France and became better known as Marie Antoinette.  Marie Theresa was a larger than life character, in more ways than one.  She married her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I for love and was devoted to him,  However when he took a 17 year old mistress, Countess Maria Wilhelmina von Neipperg, that put some strains on their marriage.  In state matters, and certainly household matters, Marie Theresa ran the show. 

We tend to think it's great to be a princess; life is good.  That was not always the case.  Like most of European royalty, Marie Theresa married off her daughters in arranged marriages to various kings and dukes who would knock up their mistresses and often abuse their wives. 

Marie Theresa's doctor told her to eat 12 meals a day to nourish the kids.  She dutifully obeyed her doctor and enjoyed every morsel.  However, they didn't have personal trainers in those days, and she became rather portly, so much so, that she couldn't climb the stairs in the palace.  They hadn't invented escalators yet.  She had to have a first floor bedroom. 

Marie Theresa was extremely anti-Semitic, but in all fairness, she was intolerant of other faiths (e.g. Protestant) also.  In 1744 she expelled the Jews from Prague, perhaps because of rumors the Jews had sided with the Prussians during the War of the Austrian Succession.  Then she expelled the Protestants to Transylvania.   She regarded the Church of England as heretical Protestant, so she distrusted the British also.

She mellowed somewhat in later years, maybe due to the influence of a Jewish member of her court, Abraham Mende Theben.  In 1762, she forbade the forcible conversion of Jewish children to Catholicism, and then in 1763, she stopped the Catholic clergy from imposing special taxes on the Jews.  She supported Jewish commercial and industrial activity but still intensely disliked them to the extent that she would only talk to Jews behind a screen.    Her attitudes toward Jews and non Catholics appeared to change almost daily, but it appears from her actions that her priority was the protection and welfare of her empire and her subjects (except those of the Jewish and Protestant persuasions). 


After World War II, Austria and also Vienna were divided into occupation zones similar to those in Germany and Berlin.  At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the U.S. essentially ceded Central Europe to Russian influence.  There were political reasons for doing so.  As in Berlin, there was Cold War intrigue--spy vs. spy.  It was exemplified in the 1958 spy classic The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, filmed in Vienna.  Critics call this movie a work of art, one of the greatest movies of all time, right up there with Citizen Kane.   The best line in the movie had Orson Welles' character remarking, :...In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.   In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace--and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." 

In 1955, the Austrians asked the Russians to leave and, to the surprise of the West, they agreed to do so.  The catch was that they would leave if the U.S., Britain and France left also, and Austria would become a neutral country.  They worked out a treaty, and Austria became an independent republic  A year later, Poland and Hungary  tried that also, but it didn't work for them.  The Russians weren't moderating after all.


This magnificent museum displays the largest collection of Bruegels and Flemish art in the world.  Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)--whose son was also a painter but not a good one--was the first to paint scenes of peasant life.  He created 45 paintings of which one-third are in this museum.  Some of the others have been lost, probably in World War II. 

Most Renaissance painters portrayed religious subjects, and Bruegel did also in his early years, but Bruegel was significant because he accurately depicted daily life in the Belgian countryside   His subjects displayed the meals, festivals, dances and games of the peasant culture.  In The Peasant Wedding one can point out individual people of the village whom he knew. The details are quite remarkable when one looks closely.  In The Hunters in the Snow, he documents European life during the Little Ice Age.  In recent years, they haven't gotten much snow in the Low Countries, but for several hundred years, winters were very cold in Europe.   

The most valuable piece in the Museum of Cultural History is the Vermeer, The Art of Painting
Vermeer was known to work slowly and created only 34 paintings that we know of.  His works were widely forged, so we're not sure about all of them.  There were lawsuits about this piece.  Its (non-Jewish) owner, Count Jaromir Czernin sold the painting to Hitler in 1940 for 1.8 million Reichmarks.  Earlier in 1935, he had tried to sell it to Andrew Mellon but the Austrian government prohibited the export of cultural heritage.  After the war, the U.S. Monuments Men led by George Clooney recovered it from a salt mine and repatriated it.   Czernin and his heirs tried to get the painting back, or at least restitution, at least three times over the years claiming the sale was coerced.  The judges in each case didn't agree.  They said he sold it voluntarily for fair market value.  At least Hitler paid for it--he probably could have just taken it. 

The museum also exhibits celebrated works by Rubens, Caraveggio, VanDyck and Rembrandt.  The guide brought out a interesting fact about the people depicted in the paintings.  In those days long hair was the style for men, and it was the mark of a free man.  If a man had short hair, he was probably a convict because if did time in prison, his head would be shaved.   When he was released from jail, he of course had short hair. 

NEXT:  The Suskins Go Bohemian, Czech This Out.   


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