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Viennese Alchemy

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

Vienna sparkles in the sun as it does in your soul.
A view of the Vienna skyline highlighted by the sun's yellow hue.

Robert Schumann once described Frederic Chopin’s music as “cannons buried in flowers.” He might have described Vienna in the same way. This sublime metropolis on the Danube river is a slow burn that combines what the Italians call “adagio” (meaning to be performed slowly) perfectly with the measured passion burning within its urban loins. The Viennese do not walk as much as waltz through the streets haltingly, and yet with purpose. When you are there you will do likewise.

On the surface – the Viennese appear unflappable and nonchalant. The Viennese greet each other with the phrase Grub Gott – "May God greet you." They regal you with a warm smile while sipping coffee in their glorious cafés or as they consume the penetratingly delicious chocolate Sauchertorte (Viennese Cake). Men (Herr) dress fashionably, dare I say even better than the Ladies (Frau). In the German speaking world the Viennese are often described as Germans with a sense of humor. Having lived in Germany I can tell you there is some truth to it.

The streets are clean, the furnishings modern, and the stores radiate an expensive though tasteful hue. A simple glance above the streets hits you with a thunderous passion that boomerangs around you. The crackling cannon of Vienna’s flowery beauty fires volleys that move you without disrupting your pace. Keeping to the beat, street musicians serenade you with modern music – Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Green Day – all remixed classical style on the violin or piano.

Vienna eases you into its provenance in stark contrast to the Italian experience in Florence or Rome, places that are almost overwhelming to the senses. Viennese architecture found at Stephansplatz – the massive cathedral at the heart of the city and Schönbrunn Palace where the Hapsburg’s once reigned are simplistically regal. The Belvedere Palace, which plays host to the works of Gustav Klimt (“The Kiss” always draws a feminine crowd) is my favorite. All display a controlled elegance each in their own unique flavor.

Belvadere Fountain.
A view of the Belvadere Palace.

Indeed, the city is peppered with a pantheon of writers, thinkers, composers, artists, statesmen whom are immortalized in the monuments that bear their likeness. This is the milieu that bestirs foreigners upon learning that in places like Café Central (Vienna’s most famous café) sitting in the same locale not so long ago gathered men who changed the world: Lenin, Trotsky, Freud, and the most infamous of them all Hitler.

The greatest gift the city has passed to posterity is music. To fully appreciate the cultural mecca that is Vienna a night at the opera house is required. In classic Viennese style, its orchestras put on a good show that is both light and substantive. Their nightly concert is headlined by Mozart’s best Arias and Overtures from Don Giovanni, the Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Von Tutte and others. The night ends with Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” the most famous waltz ever composed, and the Radesky March, which inspires the crowd to clap in merriment.

Finally, no Vienna experience is complete without visiting the Central Cemetery. The cemetery is a healthy distance away because city planners anticipated Vienna’s population to eclipse 4 million by the year 2000. Their prediction did not come true largely because the First World War permanently severed the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That being said, it is well worth the detour. Tourists from around the world and especially music lovers place bouquets of flowers at the foot of tombstones to pay homage to the masters. Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, Suppe and countless others rest there. To witness it in person is deeply moving.

Entrance to the Central Cemetery.

Truly – Vienna is alluringly Romantique. In German the phrase that best captures this sentiment is Schone Seele – it means beautiful soul. Romantic does not mean the quest for love as we understand it in English. Rather it refers to the complimentary point-counter point between emotion and reason that best expresses the human spirit. Essentially, reason works in concert with rather than against reason. This was a revolutionary idea that contradicted Enlightenment thinkers who believed that reason was the sole force behind humanities higher understanding. In Vienna there is an uncanny balance between reason and emotion mixed with a bit of frivolous fun in between.

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