Vienna is a city of around 1.9 million people, famous for its imperial palaces, museums and coffee houses, and although some of its attractions will require a metro or tram ride to one of the city’s other districts, the Inner Stadt has so many things to keep you occupied, that you may well think there’s no need to venture any further, but even though I think that would be a mistake, this is still the best place to start.
The boundary of the Inner Stadt (or Old Town) is more or less the same as the famous Ringstrasse: This Ring Road was constructed during the 19th century over the top of the city’s medieval fortifications, and in 2001 the whole area inside the Ringstrasse was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.
At the heart of the Inner Stadt, and therefore the whole city, stands the Stephansdom, so where better to start a tour of this fabulous city than at its most famous landmark?
The Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral) stands in the centre of Stephansplatz, and due to heavy bombing during WWII, the square has few buildings left of any real merit. Apart from the church of course, there is one building that you can’t fail to miss – the Haas-Haus, a controversial glass and polished stone building completed in 1990. I don’t think people objected to the building as such, more the location. In my opinion (and some of you may disagree) there are examples of where modern architecture sits comfortably alongside the traditional: The glass dome on top of the Reichstag in Berlin and the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris are two that immediately spring to mind, but the Haas-Haus doesn’t fall into that category for me I’m afraid.
The Haas-Haus may not have impressed me, but the Stephansdom most certainly did. Towering 136.7m (448ft) above Stephansplatz, it’s the ninth tallest religious building in the world, and if you’re a masochist, you might like to know that it’s possible to climb up the South Tower’s 343 steps for far-reaching views over the city. I have to admit I gave it a miss: I’d like to say it was just because restoration work would have restricted the views, but we all know that the real reason was because I’m not a masochist – and you have to pay for the privilege too.
There’s been a church on this site since at least 1137 when it was the parish church. Not much is known about it except that it was Romanesque, and like most similar buildings of this age, it’s taken hundreds of years to get to how it looks now. The oldest surviving exterior feature is probably the Giant’s Doorway and Heathen Towers which greet visitors into the church. In fact, it’s a miracle that there’s anything left at all. It has survived Turkish sieges, a bombardment by Napoleon, American bombers and Russian artillery in WWII – and thanks to a German captain disobeying orders – its destruction when the Nazis retreated.
Apart from the South Tower’s Steffi spire, the other thing that is difficult to miss – and you wouldn’t want to – is the Tiled Roof. Over a quarter of a million of these glazed tiles were restored or replaced after damage caused during the last days of WWII: I’m not sure how long it took to restore, but as far as I’m concerned, it was worth every minute. What do you think?
Before venturing into the cathedral, there’s one other thing I think you should take a look at, and that’s what’s known (in Austrian) as the Johannes Capistranus Pulpit. Located on the north-eastern side of the church, this monument originally started out as an oak pulpit inside the cathedral. It was from here that the Italian Franciscan, Giovanni da Capestrano appealed for volunteers to join a crusade against the Ottoman Turks at the Siege of Belgrade. In 1456 The Turks were defeated, and the pulpit was replaced by a stone successor in honour of Capestrano’s sermons. In 1738 a triumphant statue was added above it, and even if the religious and historic events don’t set your heart racing, then I hope you agree that the monument definitely has to be worth checking out.
To enter the cathedral, you first have to run the gauntlet of people outside selling tickets for the city’s numerous classical concerts. They dress in typical attire that resemble Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or somebody, but they reminded me more of Dick Turpin. Once inside, the first thing I noticed was how dark it was, and perhaps those ticket sellers might have made more money selling night vision glasses instead.
Dick Turpin’s ecclesiastical equivalent was selling tickets inside the church too, because unless you paid for seeing different parts of the cathedral, you wouldn’t see anything at all – with, or without night vision glasses. You need to pay for a self-guided tour (extra for the audioguide), access to the South Tower via the steps that I’ve already mentioned, the North Tower, the Catacombs and the Treasury. It has to be said that a combined ticket to see everything makes sense if you intend to visit most of these attractions: You should at least do the self-guided tour which isn’t at all expensive. After thinking about it, these charges are not that unreasonable and I bit the bullet and bought two combined tickets. This system does also have the added bonus of restricting the number of casual visitors who are not prepared to pay to tour this Vienna icon.
As I’m not fully conversant with the Archbishop of Vienna’s church, we followed the suggested tour as laid out in the plan given to us, and it unexpectedly started half way up on the right-hand side, in the Hall of the South Tower where the main feature is St. Catherine’s Chapel. These days it’s used as a Baptistery and was not open when we were here, but I could at least peer through to see the figure of St Catherine which dates from around 1395.
The next point of interest is the Choir of the Apostles, and particularly the Tomb of Emperor Frederick III. This is definitely one thing not to miss. He was the first member of the Habsburg dynasty to become Holy Roman Emperor and when he died in 1493, he was laid to rest in this elaborate tomb made for him by Niclas Gerhaert van Leyden. I’m assuming Frederick had it made in advance because the Dutchman died 20 years before the Emperor.
The obvious thing to stop at next is the High Altar with a painting of the stoning of St Stephen.
On the other side of the High Altar in the Choir of our Lady, is arguably an even more interesting one called the Wiener Neustadter Altar. It’s only been at St Stephen’s since 1883 but it was a gift from Emperor Frederick III to the Neukloster in Wiener Neustadt in 1447.
If you look closely underneath the panels (just above the bottom central one) you can just make out the letters AEIOU which was Frederick’s favourite inscription. He didn’t explain what the letters stood for until he was on his deathbed and claimed that it meant ‘Alles Erdreich ist Österreich Untertan’ which is German for “All the world is subject to Austria”.
There is one more thing that I recommend you don’t miss during the self-guided tour – and it’s another pulpit. Known as Pilgram’s Pulpit, this gothic masterpiece was for a long time attributed to Anton Pilgram, but it now seems likely that it was created by Niclaes Gerhaert van Leyden again. Around the pulpit are carvings of the four original fathers of the church – St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome. While I was studying the intricacies of these faces, I missed one underneath, of the sculptor himself – whoever he was. Make sure you don’t do the same.
Once the tour of the main part of the church was over, we chose to visit the Catacombs next, which are by guided tour only. Walking down the steps brought us to the final resting place of other members of the Hapsburg dynasty.
Initially, wandering amongst the laid-out caskets, I didn’t get the feel I was expecting: Previous restoration work may have got things better organised, but that’s about all, but as we walked through to the 18th century catacombs the mood changed completely. The dimly lit chambers were piled high with thousands of bones including some from a medieval plague. This was more than I was expecting – and quite chilling – but you’ll have to take my word for it because understandably, photography down here wasn’t allowed.
I’m not proud of what I’m about to say next, but I have to come clean. I’m a first-class hypocrite and I can’t deny it. On the one hand, I don’t like to see the world’s wealth spread so unevenly, but at the same time I have a fascination about seeing treasures and works of art that have been accumulated by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals and organisations – and what’s more, it usually costs me money to see them; and it’s the same to see the Stephansdom Treasury, but at least it was included in the combined ticket that I bought.
Access to the Treasury is via an inconspicuous lift just inside the cathedral’s main entrance, and if there’s nobody there (which there wasn’t) you have to ring a bell to call for it, but it’s worth it, not just for the Treasury itself, but also for the views down to the Nave.
The Treasury is actually split into two parts – the Cathedral Treasure in the West Gallery, and the Relic Treasure in St Valentine’s Chapel.
The Treasure in the West Gallery includes medieval manuscripts, artefacts made of precious metals encrusted with diamonds and gemstones, and paintings, including a 15th century triptych. Much has been lost over the centuries but there’s enough here to make you wonder how many valuables must have passed through the walls of this church.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of St. Valentine’s Chapel. It’s supposed to include three thorns from the crown worn by Jesus Christ on the cross, a fragment of the tablecloth from the Last Supper, and the body of St. Valentine. The first two claims had to be dubious as far as I was concerned, but there’s no doubt that the sarcophagus in the middle of the chapel was impressive, but even so, I would still need some convincing that it held any of the patron saint of lovers’ bones.
During the restoration of the chapel, a passageway was built to connect it with the adjoining Romanesque Tower Chamber, which can be reached by a metal staircase. It now houses a collection of reliquaries obtained by Dean Thomas Lambrichs, some of which date back to the Middle Ages.
By the time we left St. Valentine’s Chapel I’d had enough of seeing and reading about old bones, but fortunately I didn’t have to put mine to the test because there was another lift that would take us up the North Tower to see the Pummerin, the cathedral’s great bell. This was also included in the combined ticket, but the bell only rings on certain occasions and I preferred the view of the roof tiles under a dusting of snow more than I did the bell.
Having seen a fair number of cathedrals, I wouldn’t put the Stephansdom in the ‘magnificent’ category: It’s different to most churches in Vienna in that its architecture is Gothic rather than Baroque. It also has quite a strong religious feel to it, which I’m sure is the intention, and maybe the thinking behind the way the admission charges are applied. I certainly don’t have any regrets about buying the combined tickets.
We ran the gauntlet past Dick Turpin and his mates, and I know it’s just my mind working overtime, but the stagecoaches were also lined up ready to take people for a ride as well. These horse-drawn carriages, called Faikers (I hope I spelt that right) are another common appearance on the streets of Vienna. I’m amazed at how docile these horses are in traffic: They all look in good health and no doubt well looked after, but I couldn’t help feel sorry for them while they were waiting for customers in the snow outside the cathedral.
As darkness fell and the snow got heavier, it was a good time to check out the Christmas market around Stephansplatz. We didn’t buy anything worthwhile, but after a couple of glasses of glühwein I was all for buying one of them concert tickets, but in the end, I resisted the temptation and had an orange punch and bratwurst instead. Even the Haas-Haus was looking good by then.