Vienna Stories and Tips

Grandiose Vienna - The Opera and the Ringstrasse

The Rathaus from the Ringstrasse Photo, Vienna, Austria

The first thing which struck me about Vienna was the quietness. Even in the centre of this capital city you can still hear the creaking of the trams and sound of the people. The Ringstrasse is the major boulevard - the equivalent of Fifth Avenue, the Champs Elysee or Picadilly. But even in the middle of the day it is not choked with traffic. You could let a child loose on the Opernring and no one would bother him, the traffic would probably stop for him. For the tourist this is a bonus and shows the monumental edifices of the Ringstrasse in an even better light. You must spend a day wandering the Ringstrasse viewing the Opera, Rathaus, Burgtheater or Maria Theresa platz in what is one of the most opulent, user-friendly and downright beautiful city centres in Europe.

The Ringstrasse gurdles the Aldstadt of Vienna. Its eastern edge is the Donau Canal along Schwedenplatz, but the north, west and south is a great ten lane boulevard ringed with trams and majestic buildings. Vienna was always huddling behind its city walls as it was a major impediment for the Ottoman Turks conquest of Europe. But as time went on that threat receded and ornate buildings were built outside the city walls. Between the them and the walls was the sloping glacis (lawn) and in 1857 Franz Josef decided to flatten this and create the Ringstrasse and between 1860 till 1906 he built what you see today. He wanted grand monumental buildings to show off the splendour of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And seeing them after a century of completion you cannot help but agree with Bill Bryson who said "If the martians were to land in Vienna, they would think it was the capital of the world..."

All tram, bus and U-bahn routes lead to the Ringstrasse. The trams themselves epitomise the city and are rather elegant with red and white flags attached to their foredecks. The Ring-kai-Ring tram circumnavigates the Ringstrasse and makes for an easy rest when the feet can''t take any more pounding. A good tram stop is outside the Parliament building and the maps have illustrations of the buildings on the routes which makes them rather charming. There is nothing quite so Viennese as waiting for a tram with the locals on a cold winter''s day.

To begin a tour of the Ringstrasse it''s best to start in the north-east corner and take an anti-clockwise direction. After the Bourse the first major building you will come to is the Voltivkirche. This is a neo-gothic creation with two soaring steeples and a facade that is streaked with grime. Inside is a vaulted ceiling and superb stained glass windows. Several monuments abound inside including one with a pictograph of a stormtrooper. My German is so bad I could not tell whether they were commemorating or condemning the lives of the soldiers. Outside is the green expanse of Sigmund Freud Park which is always full of lounging students from the nearby university. The university itself isn''t as sleepy and a demonstration was going on while we were there. Pretty gardens lead to the Rathaus - Vienna''s city hall (see photo). This is built in the Flemish gothic style and it''s steffl soars above the surrounding buildings. But across the Ringstrasse is the Burgtheater - the royal theater - with its baroque exterior. It''s season of events is excellent, and like the Staatsoper, often puts on productions very cheaply. What astounds me about Vienna is that the majority of the populace know about and enjoy these productions. That does not happen in too many capital cities.

Just south of the Rathaus is the Parliament building (see photo) with is Doric columns and statuary. During Franz Josef''s time it was rather a white elephant, the Emporer himself kept a firm grip on the Empire. And south of this is the stunning Maria-Theresa Platz. When I first saw this from a moving tram I was so amazed I jumped off the tram there and then. Two huge neo-classical buildings overlook a green square full of tinkling fountains, topiary and classical statues (see photo). The pride of place goes to the coal black statue of Empress Maria Theresa seated above prostrate courtiers. The whole platz is very photogenic and a visit to the world-class art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum is a must. Just to the south is the exclusive apartments of the nobility. The best of these overlook the most famous building in Vienna, the Staatsoper - the Opera House. Its neoclassical facade is world-famous and even when there isn''t a production on you can get a tour of the interior for 80 Austrian Schillings. It''s rather an egalitarian institution and if you are lucky you can get tickets for 20 AS (about £1.00/$1.60).

To see more of Vienna''s musical heritage, walk north towards the Hofburg, in the Burgarten there is a monument to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It''s rather a twee statue, very popular with us tourists, with a large quaver depicted in flowers in front of him. The Ringstrasse gets quieter around here and more residential. If you cross it again there is the great square of Schwarzenburgplatz. Named after the patrician general this is very beautiful but behind it is a giant fountain with water shooting forty feet in the air. When I first visited I noticed a statue on a plinth behind it. On closer inspection it was a Soviet Soldier. When the Russians liberated and occupied Vienna at the end of the war they built this monument to their dead. The Viennese, try as they might, can''t get rid of it. The thing is so solid it resisted three attempts to blow it up.

By now you feet would have been aching and you need a sit-down. The southern part of the Ringstrasse is attached to the lovely Stadtpark. Dotted with copses, pathways, statues and flowerbeds - the highlight of the park is the golden statue of Strauss (see photo). I found myself a nice green patch of lawn with a good eyeline for the monument, settled back and promptly had a nap in the middle of Vienna.

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