I am currently in Brasov, an ancient city in the rugged Transylvania region of Romania. I have found a room with a view looking out over medieval German architecture, traces of the far-reaching Hapsburg Empire. This peaceful place has given me the inspiration I needed to stop my travels for a few days and begin publishing my writings on my blog about my recent European adventures in Vienna, Austria, and Bucharest, Romania.
Cool mountain air and a dramatic view of the tree-covered Tabor Mountain greeted me this morning as I threw opened my window. Wide pedestrian streets below, which fanned out from the old town square were buzzing with activity. People dressed in business attire were walking with purpose. Workers in orange jackets and hard hats were at work restoring old buildings. Bells tolled from surrounding churches and the clock tower of the Council House, formerly City Hall.
But wait – let me take you back to the glories of the Hapsburg Empire in Vienna for the time being. We’ll return to historic Brasov (and Romania) later.
I arrived late one afternoon at my hostel in Vienna after a relatively short flight from London. It was the dead of winter and bitter cold. The many layers of clothing that I had packed in my backpack prepared me well for this weather.
My well-priced hostel bed, which was US$20 per night in a female dorm room, was conveniently located. It was adjacent to Wein Westbahnhof (train station), just outside the historic center of Vienna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It put me a heartbeat away from the celebrated Ringstrasse boulevard, the Hofburg (the former principal imperial palace of the Hapsburg dynasty rulers and today serves as the official residence of the President of Austria), and the labyrinth of intriguing pedestrian streets that fanned out from lively Stephanplatz square. I constantly enjoyed the intoxicating mix of international cuisine and delicacies which was at my fingertips.
A brief introduction to the Hapsburg Empire and Vienna’s Golden Age
*The Hapsburg Empire was the central European monarchy that ruled a collection of lands from the 13th century to 1918. **The Hapsburgs were the hereditary rulers of the Holy Roman Empire from 1438 -1740.
The late 19th century was Vienna’s Golden Age, as reflected by the magnificent architecture that lines Ringstrasse boulevard. In the 1850’s in place of where the medieval city wall once stood, massive civic buildings were constructed including the Opera House, Town Hall, and Parliament. Members of the imperial household, the high aristocracy, and great families of the new class of Jewish industrialists, bankers, and financiers, built magnificent mansions and moved in.
A free historic walking tour of Vienna
The meeting point for a ***free two-hour walking tour was in a square in the old town at the Monument against War and Fascism. Dana, our friendly, professional tour guide, was a local who spoke impeccable English. Introductions revealed that our small group of eight independent travelers represented five countries from three continents. She briefly reminded us that giving “free” walking tours was her livelihood, and that a monetary show of appreciation would be welcome at the end of the tour.
Our immediate surroundings set the scene for a discussion about Fascism in Austria during WWII and the tragic events that led to the elimination of most of Vienna’s 180,000 Jews who lived in the city before 1938.
The tone of the tour quickly turned to a more upbeat note when she gave us an overview of the expansive palace with its numerous museums as we stood in front of one of the beautiful gates to the Hofburg. We were especially encouraged to visit the temporary exhibit in the Australian National Library celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday. I put in on my list.
As we strolled around parts of the Ringstrasse, she pointed out an elegant palace house which had been built in the late 19th century by the Euphrussi family, an aristocratic Jewish family. It was now no longer occupied by them. Soon after the German Wehrmacht marched into Austria in 1938, their property was removed from their possession through the German policy of ****Aryanization. (more on this subject later)
When we stopped in front of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), she encouraged us to purchase a standing-room ticket to an event there, as it was the easiest (and cheapest) way to see an opera or ballet on the same day. We were introduced to the nearby Musikverein (Vienna Concert Hall), and the Café Schwarzenberg, the oldest traditional Viennese coffee house on the Ringstrasse.
I would have a personal connection to many of these places in the coming days. Stay tuned!!!
* For an outstanding video showing the rise and fall of the Hapsburg Empire, visit the “maps” link at the top of this page
** For a basic introduction to the Hapsburg Monarchy, visit the following link:
****Aryanization: Forced expulsion of Jews from business life. It entailed the transfer of Jewish property into “Aryan” hands.
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