Places to visit in Vienna

From Stephansplatz to the Albertina and its surroundings. Vienna, September 25, 2018.


From Stephansplatz, we meandered through the time-worn cobbles of Karntrashtrasse, arriving at the venerable Albertina Gallery. There, a unique Monet exhibition unfolded before our eyes, uniting his masterpieces from global museums. This collection showcased the same locales captured at varying seasons and times, revealing Monet's genius in a new light. Our stroll culminated at the old market square, where we were delighted by a humorous tale reminiscent of Mark Twain's wit.

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Evgeny Praisman (author)
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The square in front of Vienna's central cathedral is named after St. Stephen, as is the cathedral itself. In fact, both the cathedral and the square only became part of the city's enclosed walls at the beginning of the 13th century. Prior to this, the city's principal churches were St. Peter's Church, the building complex at Am Hof, and St. Rupert's Church. Gradually, as the city developed, buildings began to emerge around the cathedral. By the early 18th century, the area housed a cemetery and the St. Magdalene cemetery chapel. In the late 19th century, the entire square was reorganized and merged with the neighboring Stock am Eisen. In 1973, during the construction of the subway, this now well-established center of the old town revealed an intriguing discovery: the underground St. Virgilius Chapel, connected to the Magdalene Chapel. Today, a mosaic on the square marks the outline of Virgilius Chapel, adding a layer of historical intrigue to this vibrant part of Vienna.

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Kärntner Straße is one of the ancient and significant streets of the old city. Its name originates from the medieval 'Strata Carintianorum - Udina', or the road that led south-southeast to Carinthia - modern-day Croatia. The street stretched from Stock am Eisen Platz (now merged with Stephansplatz) to the Carinthian Gate. It is a street revered by both shoppers and sellers, often said to be the heart of shopping in Vienna. Here, shopping is not just about making savvy purchases, but about being part of the grand shopping spectacle.

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The Meissl & Schadn Hotel is a renowned establishment situated with its main façade facing Neuer Markt Square, parallel to Kärntner Strasse. The beautiful ornate façade in front of us is, in fact, the "back" of the hotel. According to one contemporary from the dawn of bourgeois Vienna, this hotel was the place of the "noble bourgeoisie that no one sees and doesn't want to see." The history of this place dates back to the mid-17th century when the first hotel, called "At the Blue Deer," was established here. In 1852, it was acquired by a Viennese restaurant cooperative, which sold the building a few decades later. The Meissl & Schadn Hotel was then constructed in 1894-96 by Karl Hofmayer.

The façade facing Kärntner Strasse was adorned with a mosaic by Eduard Veith representing the five continents. A notable guest at the hotel was the composer Edvard Grieg, who stayed here in 1865, 1869, and 1896. Scandinavians, in general, frequented Vienna in the 19th century, influenced by Andersen's writings, as he spent a considerable amount of time in the city.

On the ground floor of the hotel's Grand Dining Hall, facing Kärntner Strasse, on October 21, 1916, socialist Friedrich Adler shot Prime Minister Karl Graf Stürgkh. The historical building was destroyed in 1945 during World War II. However, the side facing Kärntner Strasse, with the still-existing mosaic, survived and was incorporated into the wall of the new Europa Hotel. This new hotel, like its predecessor, has its main façade facing the New Market Square.

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Opposite is the grand department store Stefel, featuring an observation deck on the seventh floor that offers a stunning view of Vienna and St. Stephen's Cathedral. Additionally, this department store boasts a convenient VAT refund system for tourists. The process is quick, queue-free, and can be done in cash at the automated kiosk.

Within this store, renowned for its unique shops on Kärntner Strasse, stands the flagship store of German designer and photographer Karl Lagerfeld. He gained worldwide acclaim for his design work in clothing and accessories, particularly his affinity for natural fur. This passion has, at times, been the subject of criticism from animal rights advocates. Karl also faced considerable scrutiny for his once highly-publicized marriage to life partner Jacques de Bascher, which ended in the latter's death from AIDS in 1989. Since then, Karl has lived a solitary life.

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The Maltese Church, also known as the Church of the Order of St. John, traces its origins back to the time of the Crusades. Vienna played a crucial role as a waypoint during the Crusades, with Frederick Barbarossa, the German king, making stops in the city. The church is first mentioned in historical records in the year 1217. Prior to this, the site of the church was occupied by the "House of the Prüder of the Order of the Sandy John," dedicated to pastoral work, caring for the poor, and supporting the crusaders. It is likely that between 1205 and 1217, followers of the Order of St. John, known as the Johannites, settled in the then-Saint John Street (now Kärntner Straße 35 / Johannesgasse 2), an important trade and military route through Vienna to Croatia.

In the 17th century, the church became a venue for the preaching of Abraham of Santa Clara, a court preacher and founder of a distinctive preaching style. His sculpture is installed near the Albertina, at the entrance to the Palace Park.

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The Albertina Museum is situated in the palace of Archduke Albrecht (Albert) – son-in-law of Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa relocated the court from here, acquiring a private palace on Herrengasse for this purpose. Her daughter and son-in-law resided here after returning from Bratislava, where they served as envoys of the House of Habsburg in Hungary. It was in Bratislava that the art collection was initially established, later moving to this building. In 1792, Archduke Albrecht amassed a significant collection in the Austrian Netherlands, where he also served as a crown envoy.

Having no children, Archduke Albrecht and his wife were renowned as avid art enthusiasts. The Albertina's permanent collection boasts around a million paintings and drawings spanning from the Renaissance to the present day, but the most captivating displays are often the temporary exhibitions. We happened to visit during an exhibition featuring Monet.

Beyond a relatively long corridor, you'll find a spacious and well-lit hall where you can purchase tickets and audio guides. Temporary exhibitions are a constant feature, often bringing together works from a single artist sourced from various museums – this is what makes the Albertina particularly unique and valuable.

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The Albertina in Vienna boasts an excellent collection of permanent works, particularly strong in its representation of Impressionist artists. Among them, you'll find many Austrian painters, including Oskar Kokoschka. The twists and turns in the lives of artists, writers, and intellectuals in early 20th-century Vienna are vividly described in guided tours through the city park. I highly recommend visiting for a deeper understanding of this fascinating period.

In addition to being an art gallery, the Albertina serves as a venue for significant events, conferences, and gatherings. One such event was being prepared by the museum, and the photos speak for themselves. The atmosphere exudes style, taste, and traditions, making it a versatile space that goes beyond the appreciation of art to host a variety of meaningful occasions.

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At the Monet exhibition, a painting caught my attention, one that I remembered from Parfenov's film "The Eye of God." The film talked about Russian collectors and paintings that became part of the Russian Museum. One of the paintings depicts a pink mist through which the outlines of Westminster Abbey are barely visible, and seagulls flash with white glints in the sunlight. I distinctly remembered the mood of this painting. In the Albertina, I was pleasantly surprised to see several paintings next to it, all painted from the same spot but at different times and under different lighting. These paintings were brought from various museums, from Paris to Boston. The exhibition was curated in a way that showcased different paintings by the same artist, all depicting the same scene. In one of the rooms, there was a painting of Monet's wife passing by the windows of their home. It instantly brought to mind a plot from Parfenov's film, where it was mentioned that Monet was able to acquire this house by Shchukin purchasing one of his paintings.

The modern structure surrounding the Albertina is a light concrete addition to the classical building. It neither disrupts nor conflicts with the historical appearance of the Albertina. The Viennese take pride in this museum, often reminding American guests that the museum's foundation coincided with July 4, 1776 – the day the United States declared its independence.

The Albertina staircase is a living painting in motion. From a distance, it appears as though people are walking across the artwork. Upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that the image is "cut" into the steps. This innovative presentation is the hallmark advertising approach for every new exhibition at the Albertina.

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The Church of the Holy Virgin Mary is a Roman Catholic church within the Capuchin monastery, where, for centuries, a special crypt has served as the burial place for the ruling Habsburg dynasty. In contrast to the simple design of the church, the Imperial Chapel, extraordinarily opulent, features life-sized statues of Habsburg family rulers. The chapel has received multiple donations from the imperial house over the years. Over time, the mausoleum has become a pilgrimage site for the Habsburgs. Below the Imperial Chapel lies the so-called Founder's Crypt, the oldest part of the Capuchin chapel, housing famous sarcophagi of Emperor Matthias and Empress Anna. The last Austro-Hungarian heir, Otto von Habsburg, who passed away in July 2011, and his wife, Regina von Saxe-Meiningen, were interred in the Kapuzinergruft in the Kaisergruft.

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The southern side of the New Market Square is enclosed by the Ambassador Hotel. With the support of the U.S. Embassy, a commemorative plaque was installed on the hotel's facade on April 21, 2010. The plaque acknowledges that Mark Twain stayed at this hotel from October 1898 to May 1899. He also lodged at the Metropole Hotel on Morzinplatz from September 1897 to May 1898 and spent the summer at Villa Paulhof in Kaltenleutgeben, where his wife and daughter Jane received treatment at a spa center. Mark Twain and his daughter Clara were not fond of water procedures. Twain, with his characteristic humor, justified himself by saying, "As soon as I went out for a walk in the hills, the fog immediately enveloped me with its dense blanket. I fear that my view of things will become foggy." Just a few years before the fateful 20th century, in 1897, Mark Twain wrote the famous article "Steering times in Austria." Besides Mark Twain, the Ambassador Hotel hosted notable figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford III, Thornton Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, Romy Schneider, Josephine Baker, Sviatoslav Richter, Robert Schumann, Louis Trenker, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Princess Elena of Greece, and Princess Maria Alexandra Victoria of Edinburgh. Now, let's make our mark at the fountain in the center of the square and learn about the fate of its sculptures. Tomorrow awaits us with the Vienna Woods and Baden.

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The Thunder Fountain in the center of the New Market was initially conceived and named the Providentia Fountain. However, for the city's residents, it was simpler and more understandable to refer to it by the name of its creator - Georg Raphael Donner. Thus, the name "Donnerbrunnen" became established. Similarly, the name "New Market" did not immediately stick. This square was initially referred to as the Flour Market. Under the rule of Maria Theresa, the nudity of the characters was considered offensive. At the initiative of the Commission for Chastity, they were removed in 1773, and the sculptor Johann Martin Fischer was authorized to melt them down. However, the sculptures were preserved, and in 1801, recognizing their high artistic value, they were returned to their original location. Yet, in 1873, the originals were replaced with bronze copies, while the authentic sculptures now adorn the center of the Baroque section of the Belvedere Gallery.

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