Snapshots and History Lessons

So here’s to finally wrapping up the month of February (I mean in writing of course, since it is actually now April). It’s hard to believe that time goes by so fast, but February definitely was one of the most hectic months of my entire life (keep in mind that I am also writing this from my perpetual state of “catch-up,” several weeks after the actual events). In my last post, I complained about how I haven’t seen much of Vienna, and how much that pains me to say. So, in part to relieve myself of those feelings by gaining some sense of accomplishment, and on the other hand to keep you, my lovely audience, updated, here is a list of some of the things I HAVE seen so far:

February 2014

1) Café Diglas: From the moment we set foot in Vienna, we global scholars have been bombarded with suggestions and recommendations on where to eat, what to do, and how to live this experience. One name that kept coming up, especially in relation to the words “Apfelstrudel mit Vanillesauße,” was Café Diglas. The Diglas family of Vienna has been in the restaurant business since 1875. Cafe Diglas on Wollzeile in Vienna’s first district was opened by brothers Franz and Hans Diglas in 1923 and served many of Vienna’s popular artists and politicians. My roommate and I decided it merited a try, at least for some famous Apple Strudel. The best part about the experience (besides the food) was that we couldn’t speak a word of English except to each other – our waitress did not speak English, and the menu was not translated. This was a breath of fresh air, actually, considering that it is difficult to get a truly authentic experience, sans English, anywhere in Europe anymore. Thank you, globalization. We managed just fine, except we had no idea what we were ordering. Mine was called “Ausberger…” something long and complicated that I couldn’t pronounce. It ended up being some sort of light pink sausage served with mustard, potatoes, sauerkraut, and pickles. It was delicious. The Apfelstrudel was divine. In the process of ordering it, we thought the waitress was asking us if we would like it on two checks or one. We asked for one. It wasn’t until she brought us the dessert that we realized the word we thought meant “check” actually meant “fork.” Classic rookie mistake.


2) Vienna on a walking tour: Three weeks into the program, we finally took a walking tour of the city (which definitely should have happened the first week of the program, because I didn’t realize how disoriented I was in my own city until after we completed this tour). Better late than never, I suppose. Here were some of the highlights:

– We saw the Hofburg Palace, which has been the home of some of the most powerful people in European and Austrian history, including the Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between the 1400s to the 1700s. It currently serves as the official residence of the President of Austria. The oldest sections originate from the 13th century and were constructed before the Habsburgs came to power and acquired them. The Hofburg has been expanded over the centuries to include various residences, the Imperial Chapel, the Naturhistorisches (Natural History) Museum and Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum, the Austrian National Library, the Imperial Treasury, the Burgtheater, the Spanish Riding School, the Imperial Horse Stables, and the Hofburg Congress Center.

The entire Hofburg Palace complex underwent significant expansion after the city walls were demolished in 1860. This expansion included the Neue Berg = “New Palace”, Natural History and Art History Museums, and the Austrian National Library, among other things. We stood in front of the Austrian National Library complex, part of which was originally the Imperial Library founded by Charles VI during his rule from 1685 to 1740. The new, post-expansion building’s most renowned feature is the famous balcony where Hitler stood in 1938 when he told the Austrian people that their country had just been annexed to Germany.

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– We marveled at Karlskirche (St. Charles’s Church), an 18th Century baroque church considered one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. In 1713, one year after the last great plague epidemic, Charles VI pledged to build a church for his patron saint, Charles Borromeo, who was revered as a healer for plague sufferers.


– We craned our necks to appreciate another of the Vienna’s most famous symbols, Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The current Romanesque and Gothic form of the cathedral was initiated by Duke Rudolf IV (1339–1365) and stands on the ruins of two earlier churches. The location of the earlier churches, now underground, is marked by a large cross painted onto the ground beside Stephansdom. It’s so big that if you don’t know it is there, it is very easy to miss.


– We passed by the Secession Museum. The Vienna Secession was founded in April 1897 by artists Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, and Max Kurzweil, among others. Secession painters, sculptors, and architects sought to explore the possibilities of art outside the confines of academic tradition. They hoped to create a new, unique style, totally void of any historical influence. Essentially, they “seceded” from the artistic norm. The Secession Building features some of the movement’s most widely recognized artworks. The motto of the Secessionist movement is written above the entrance: “To every age its art, to every art its freedom” (Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit).

3) Rathaus: I’m not talking about rodents. I’m talking about the most magnificent specimen of neo-Gothic architecture in all of Vienna, if I do say so myself. The Rathaus (Town Hall) is the seat of the mayor and city council of Vienna. It is “neo-gothic” because it was designed in the Gothic style in a post-Gothic era, by Friedrich von Schmidt between 1872 and 1883. In the winter, the park paths and open squares in front of the Rathaus are frozen over and converted into a gigantic ice-skating venue. The trees are lit, and a DJ sets the mood. Wieners really know how to ice skate. I found myself constantly being turned around by 10 year old boys whooshing by at dangerous speeds. One scared me so badly, I dug the tip of my skate into the ice to stop myself as quickly as possible, and ended up face down, wiped out, with a severely bruised knee. The battle scars are always a great reminder of the most memorable experiences. Visitors can also enjoy a variety of sweet and salty Viennese treats at the many snack bars, including anything one can imagine chocolate-covered and rainbow sprinkled. I personally opted for a chocolate-dipped, m&m-candied apple.

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4) Josephinum: Vienna is home to one of the largest hospitals in Europe, the Allgemeines Krankenhaus der Stadt Wien (Vienna General Hospital). The original medical complex was built by Emperor Leopold I beginning in 1693 as a military hospital to house wounded soldiers and their families. It also included the “Narrenturm”, a mental asylum, and was the center of the Viennese Medical School beginning in the 1700s. A part of the original complex, the Josephinum, was commissioned by and named for Joseph II of the Habsburg Dynasty in the 1700s as a medical-surgical Academy to educate physicians and midwives for civil and military service. The Josephinum houses a collection of over 1,000 anatomical wax statues, which were formerly used to instruct medical students. Artists were hired to completely map out the entire human anatomy, bodies, organs, and systems, in life-like, to-scale sculptures. The museum also included an exhibit to show how medical procedures and tools had advanced through the ages, including drawings, pictures, and many instruments themselves. Imagine a rusty scalpel or saw cutting into flesh and bone of a wounded soldier, and all before modern anesthesia. The best doctors could do was give their patients enough heavy opiates so they maybe wouldn’t remember, but the pain was still so great, assisting physicians would have to forcefully restrain patients.

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5) Strange theater culture – A couple classmates had heard that Brett Theater in District 6 was showing The Picture of Dorian Gray, which just so happens to be my favorite novel. Naturally, I couldn’t miss it, but I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced. It was the strangest play I have ever seen, but I also am severely lacking in theater culture. All the characters were played by only 4 actors, who switched masks every time their role changed. The “portrait” was projected on a white wall on stage, and special digital effects were used to alter the portrait every time Dorian would further tarnish his soul. In between scenes, the projector would display a different quote from the novel. The actors who told the story were very talented and transitioned well into their numerous roles. Once I was able to get past the strange dynamics of the rendition, I actually really enjoyed it. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I highly recommend reading the novel by Oscar Wilde).


6) St. Othmar Cathedral & Hunderwasserhaus: What is the best cure for being physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually drained? My roommate and I found the remedy. One day we were sitting in our room, tired and unmotivated for anything at all. So we decided a little bit of an adventure was needed. We hopped on the U-Bahn to Swedenplatz and took the first Straßenbahn we saw a few stops to a random location. We walked a couple blocks and came upon a gorgeous cathedral called St. Othmar. Designed by Friedrich Schmidt and built in the late 1800s in the neo-Gothic style, St. Othmar boasts the 3rd-tallest tower in Vienna, after Stephansdom and Votivkirche. We walked inside where it was very dark, except for a little corner where people had lit candles in prayer. It was peaceful and beautiful, and somehow it reminded me of my Greek Orthodox Church, St. Spyridon, back home in West Virginia. A few more blocks down the road, we came upon the Hundertwasser Houses. Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an Austrian artist who became one of the best-known contemporary Austrian artists by the end of the 20th century. Originally a painter, Hundertwasser began focusing on architecture in the 1950s. He designed the Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment block in Vienna, and took no payment for his design, stating that it was worth the investment to “prevent something ugly from going up in its place.” Hundertwasser used irregular forms and bright colors (he believed that straight lines are alien to humankind) and incorporated natural features of the landscape into his design. The Hundertwasserhaus apartment block in Vienna has undulating floors, a roof covered with earth and grass, and large trees growing from inside the rooms, with limbs extending out the windows.

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7) Zwölf Apostelkeller:   The Zwölf Apostelkeller, or Twelve Apostle’s Cellar, is a historical (and dining) gem. Our entire group of 16 students arrived on a Sunday evening to celebrate the birthday of one of our classmates. It is very unusual for businesses to be open on Sundays in Vienna, but we couldn’t have asked for a better dinner option any day of the week. Three basements (each one lower than the next, the lowest being 18 meters underground) can accommodate up to 390 people.
The origins of the building go back to the 1100s, when the bottom most cellar is said to have been constructed. The existence of the cellars and a building above, however, was first recorded in 1339. The Gothic-arched upper cellar was completed by the year 1500. In times of war, as well as during two Turkish sieges in 1529 and 1683, the three cellars served as shelter sites. From 1716 to 1721 the currently standing baroque building above was constructed by Viennese architect Lucas von Hildebrandt. It has from then on been known as the “Hildebrandthaus.”
The restaurant opened in 1952 and has since attracted not only locals and tourists, but also famous artists, painters, and poets who seek to enjoy authentic Viennese cuisine and (or so I hear) one of Vienna’s greatest selection of beer and wine. While sampling local delicacies such as potato dumplings stuffed with meat, sauerkraut, frankfurters, and blood sausage, we were serenaded by a musical duo playing the accordion and the violin. The food and music together made for a truly authentic atmosphere in a unique location.


~I hold this beautiful city in the palm of my hand, with all the richness of its history and culture at my disposal. And that, my friends, is what this experience is all about.

rathaus iceskate


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