Destination: Austria: Vienna
The Augustinerkirche, part of the Hofburg, has seen its share of famous weddings: Emperor Franz Joseph and Elisabeth (known as Sissi), in 1854; Crown Prince Rudolf (who later committed suicide at Mayerling) and Princess Stéphanie, in 1881; and even French emperor Napoléon (in proxy) and Austrian princess Marie Louise, a daughter of Maria Theresa, in 1810. There are tons of noteworthy art, so it’s best to explore with a guide like Diane Naar-Elphee, who can give a thrilling context to what you’re seeing. Don’t miss the marble tomb of Archduchess Maria Christine, known as Mimi. The favorite daughter of formidable Hapsburg matron Maria Christina, who had sixteen children, Mimi was the only one permitted to marry for love (rather than for reasons of state). Tragically, Mimi died shortly after they were married, and her husband’s grief is movingly expressed in architect Antonio Canova’s sculpted tomb.
Imperial Court Chapel
The Vienna Boys’ Choir, whose members live, study and practice in the city’s Augartenpalais, perform in the Imperial Palace chapel, part of the Hofburg complex, every Sunday at 9:15 A.M. (except when they are on tour). Note that the choir sings as part of regular Masses, which are conducted in German. Be sure to request tickets with full view of the altar. The dates for 2008 are Jan. 6–June 29 and Sept. 14–Dec. 28.
Kirche am Steinhof
This Art Nouveau marvel was designed by Otto Wagner from 1903 to 1907. Koloman Moser created the mosaics and stained glass windows (sketches are on display at the Leopold Museum in the MuseumsQuartier). The church was recently renovated and opened to the public (on Saturday afternoons only). The Kirche am Steinhof, with a façade of white Carrara marble and copper details, is in the Penzig district of Vienna, a thirty-minute drive from the city center. For information about guided tours in English, which take place Monday through Friday at 3 p.m. or by appointment., email Paul Kleiblinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Besides the Prater, the Stephansdom (St. Stephan’s Cathedral), with its unfinished North Tower and ceramic-tile roof, is Vienna’s most recognizable symbol. The Gothic structure dates to 1147, though it was damaged and rebuilt throughout the centuries. There are four towers, two of which can be climbed. The South Tower, known as the Steffl, measures 447 feet, while the 224-foot North Tower was never completed. If you’re dying to see the view from the top, I would suggest the North Tower, which has an old-fashioned elevator (to get to the top of the South Tower, you climb more than 300 steps up a narrow spiral staircase—a claustrophobic nightmare). Be aware that the platform you arrive on is a grate through which you can see all the way back down to the Stephansplatz, so this is not a recommended activity for those even remotely afraid of heights. The views of the city and 360-feet-long roof are amazing, especially on a clear day.
The Stephansdom also has creepy catacombs, which can be visited with a guided tour that starts out near the elevator of the North Tower. Descending through a gloomy gate, you are told gruesome stories of mass burials of victims of the bubonic plague (until 1783, approximately 11,000 people were buried in mass graves here). Farther down you see rows of urns in which the Hapsburgs buried their intestines—bodies are kept in the nearby Kapuzinergruft, hearts are kept in the Augustinerkirche—a fact that seemed to both thoroughly gross out and impress the kids on my tour. As a friend who lived in Vienna for many years told me: “What can I say? Austrians are morbid.”
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