Vienna Stories and Tips

Medieval Vienna - the Stephensdom and the Aldstadt

Stephansplatz with the Dom  Photo, Vienna, Austria

Vienna wasn''t always wide boulevards and elegant parks. The core of ancient Vienna is the Innere Stadt or Aldstadt. This is only a mile wide at its widest point and today is squeezed between the Ringstrasse and the Danube Canal. But this is the Vienna most visitors come to see with narrow streets, baroque squares, elegant courtyards and row upon row of restaurants serving kaffee(coffee), weiswein (white wine) and sacher torte (chocolate cake).

There the Viennese don''t care if there is a world beyond the Ringstrasse and they can live surrounded by their luxury shops and baroque apartments. And after visiting the central, oldest part of Vienna you may agree with them - what is the point of the outside world?

The Innere Stadt is where the city began as Roman Vindobona and the city grew up within its medieval walls. The ancient city was surrounded by these walls, as major incursions by the Ottoman Turks boiling up from Constantinople hindered expansion. They did build outside the walls (ie the Karlskirche) but every thirty years or so they would find themselves besieged again by the Ottomans and lost everything. So the central core of the Habsburg Empire was always the Innere Stadt. The aristocracy built their palaces on the Herrengasse, the Jews lived around Fleischmarkt.

And Mozart? Mozart lived everywhere around the Innere Stadt - Wipplingerstrasse, Graben and Rahaensteingasse - and about ten other addresses. He moved thirteen times to avoid both creditors and employers. Only the Figarohaus, east of the Dom, is the only place where he stayed that stll survives.

To begin a tour of the Aldstadt the best place to start is at the symbol of Vienna - the Stephansdom. The nearest tramstop is probably on Schwedenplatz but the U-bahn stop of Stephansplatz lets you alight right outside the Cathedral/Dom. As you climb out the subway the Dom will soar above you with its steffl (spire) reaching hundreds of feet into the air.

It''s sides are streaked with age and the nave roof is covered in tiles depicting twin-headed imperial eagle of Austria. As you get closer you can pick out the details and gothic lines, it is a very dark medieval cathedral and the main entrance is flanked by carved demons and gargoyles. Inside is gigantic with hundreds of pews interspersed by soaring gothic columns. The transept and altar were high baroque but what really surprised me was the pulpit. It was carved with a swirl of leering demons and monsters. Indeed the whole church evoked damnation and devine retribution. What a monstrous influence the Stephensdom must have had in narrow superstitious medieval Vienna.

Once you are back on Stephansplatz, avoiding the smell of manure from the fiakers, you can take a good look at the square. Most of the architecture is turn-of-the-century and where it turns a corner you can continue down the shopping mecca of Kartnerstrasse or turn north into Graben. This is pedestrianised and stretches hundreds of yards lined by neoclassical apartment blocks, exclusive shops and high profile restaurants. In the centre of Graben is the Pestsaule - a swirling, boiling amorphorous statue with an angel piercing a hag, all topped by gold. It was built in 1679 to say thank you for deliverance from the plague (and the Turks).

Turning left at the top of Graben is a fantastic vista. This elegant street has the Hofburg at its far end and the blue baroque dome of the Michaeltor looms above everything. The strasse is called Kohlmarkt and is the most exclusive in Vienna, those with KK embossed on their shops means they have the imperial warrant and you can stick your own nose in the air to admire the jewellers, courtierers, antique shops and the royal confectioners, Demel.

Follow it north and you will hit Freyung. On the way you will be amazed at the restaurants and cafes lining the Innere Stadt - Vienna is such a wealthy city. Approaching Freyung is a shopping arcade, not just any shopping arcade but one which was once the palace of the Ferstel family. The aristocratic palace now houses boutiques and jewellers and even to window shop feels expensive. On Freyung is the baroque Schottenkirche, named after Scottish monks who settled in Vienna and opposite is a small garden with trellised vines.

The rest of the Innere Stadt down to the Danube (Donau) canal is lined with narrow lanes and baroque squares. Between the Stephansdom and the Canal is the Fleischmarkt. Once the Jewish centre of Vienna it now is a lovely street where vinecovered churches overlook band-serenaded cafes. The steet Greichengrasse is worth a look.

Just north of this is the famous ''Bermuda Triangle'' the centre for Viennese nightlife. There are about ten bars in close proximity here, and while it is not Times or Leicester Square, you can have a good time here. In fact my only quibble about Vienna is its quietness at night. But when you have such a beautiful city with its cafes, restaurants and concert halls - lets be honest - what have you got to complain about?...

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