Darkness Gathered Around The Light – Vienna: A City Laid Low

One of the great things about Bratislava is its proximity to Vienna. It is less than an hour away by either train or bus. The trip is even shorter with a car. This closeness has paid dividends, with an influx of foreign investment that has made the city one of Eastern Europe’s economic engines. It has also brought many tourists, such as myself, looking to avoid the high cost of accommodation in Vienna. Bratislava makes a visit to Vienna possible for those who would otherwise pass due to the expense. I was one of those eager for a day trip to Vienna from Bratislava. There were several reasons why. The first of which was its reputation as one of the most enchanting and culturally rich cities in the world.

Despite its position in the eastern reaches of Central Europe, Vienna avoided falling into the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War. It is surprising to look at a map and realize just how close Vienna once stood to the Iron Curtain. The border with Hungary and Slovakia was just thirty kilometers away. The Austrians managed to stay on the western side of it by officially declaring neutrality. Soviet troops were withdrawn in the mid-1950’s. Ever since that time, Austria had become a shining example of social democracy and capitalism. Vienna was the showpiece of this success, a treasure chest of beauty, wealth and history. With thoughts of Vienna shimmering in my mind, I headed out of Bratislava on a morning train filled with anticipation.

Keeping up appearances - The Hofburg as seen from Heidenplatz

Keeping up appearances – The Hofburg as seen from Heidenplatz (Credit: Bwag)

Eerily Immaculate – Viennese Vanity
Oddly enough, my first visit to Vienna left me strangely unimpressed. It was much too nice for my liking. The public transport system was routed to perfection. The U-Bahn cars were shiny and sparkling, the stations eerily immaculate. The center was filled with baroque architecture, an imperial air of triumphalism pervaded the place. The Habsburg’s glittering Hofburg Palace was the epicenter of this aesthetic. It was thoroughly royal. The horse drawn carriages carting tourists to and fro were much too splendid, the statuary grand to the point of intimidation and the sidewalks swept so clean that I could have dined on them. I never actually entered the Hofburg because I felt the price was excessive, they demanded a mint to witness superficial lavishness. Witnessing this for the first time, I understood the feeling of Emperor Franz Josef’s wife, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) who despised the staid atmosphere and rigid protocol of the royal court in Vienna. No wonder she spent so much time at Godollo, in the Hungarian countryside.

I could sense that the Hofburg was still a place steeped in tradition and living off reputation. The refinement played to people’s vanity, but it felt more like a ball and chain. Any moment, I expected to be forced to wear white gloves and tails just to walk around the place. Royal Vienna served to remind me of unchecked wealth, submission to central authority, stuffed shirts and stiff collars. This part of the city screamed “we are better than you and if you do not believe it just look around.” The Austrian capital was the first place I have ever been where buildings two, three and four hundred years old looked as though they were brand new. The vanity and pomp of imperialism covered the city at its core. None of this seemed real, wealth never does and that is one of many problems with it. The Viennese, like the Habsburgs, have a very high opinion of themselves. Their standard is the very best, but something about this snobbish sensibility I found incredibly distasteful.

Roman ruins in front of Hofburg entrance - Michaelerplatz in Vienna

Roman ruins in front of Hofburg entrance – Michaelerplatz in Vienna (Credit: Ralf Roletschek)

The Inevitable Afterlife – Ultimate Outcomes
The most memorable thing I saw in the center of Vienna had nothing to do with the Habsburgs or the Hofburg, though it was imperial in nature. Just outside the entrance to the Hofburg on Michaelerplatz were the ruins of Vindobona, a Roman military camp which had once stood on the very same spot. A crowd of onlookers stood around an exposed area that displayed a collection of foundations and walls. It was nothing impressive by the standards of ancient Roman ruins, but in this case location was everything. The constantly rotating audience’s collective expressions were of bemusement or disbelief. Juxtaposed against the majestic splendor surrounding them, these ruins were an extremely odd site, so odd in fact that no one quite knew what to make of them. It left the onlookers puzzled and curious. Watching people look at these last vestiges of Roman power in what was today one of the world’s great cities was much more interesting than the ruins themselves. I wondered if what we were all looking at was the very beginning of the greatness of Vienna or the inevitable afterlife of their own splendid city.

Almost all the ruins of Vindobona had long since been covered by newer developments in Vienna. The scant ruins in Michaelerplatz left visitors pondering the fate of empire. Imperial power had never looked so emasculated as it did here. The pile of ruins seemed to mock the Hofburg. This was the Vienna no one ever talked about, it was perplexing and for me deeply disturbing. Ironically, these ruins were likely left in situ as a way of connecting modern Vienna with the magnificence of ancient Rome. This raised a troubling question, if this was the eventual outcome of imperial ambition than why was the Hofburg promoted as a stunning example of civilization? All I could think of was that all civilizations have it coming, including modern Vienna.

A different reality - The tunic Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated

A different reality – The tunic Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated

The Sum Of A Tragedy –  Lasting Impressions
The most real thing in Vienna for me was its tragedy. The sum of it was confined to a room in the Austrian Military Museum. The museum housed several of the most important artifacts concerning the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had triggered the outbreak of World War I, subsequently bringing the Habsburgs down and laying Vienna low. There was the car the Archduke and his wife had ridden to their death on that fateful June day in Sarajevo. There was the pistol which had ended their lives and led to the end of an empire. And there was the bloodstained tunic the Archduke had worn in the last moments of his life. It was torn, soiled and faded, morbidly fascinating and most of all real. It was kept far from the shimmering city center, in the gallery of a museum that most will never visit. This tunic was the beginning and that war was the end for Vienna. Followed by the start of something new and even more horrible. At the Austrian Military Museum I had found something that felt real in Vienna, a place where darkness gathered around the light.

Click here: Madness Is A Matter of Minutes – An Austrian State Of Mind: From Slovakia to Slovenia By Train 

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