On our first day in Vienna, we rode trams 1 and 2 around the Ringstraße, hopping on and off as it suited us. We were intrigued by what appeared to be a city gate with a palace of some sort behind it, but the sky looked a little ominous so we decided to save exploring past the gate for another day.
Researching the maps and guidebooks later that day, I discovered that we had been standing before the Hero’s Gate (the Heldentor) to the Hofburg Palace complex, an amalgamation of buildings erected over the course of 600 years that now covers 60 acres, contains 2,600 rooms and employs around 5,000 people.
To the right after passing through the Hero’s Gate is the newest part of the palace complex, the Neue Burg (the New Castle), completed in 1891 as part of the massive Ringstraße project undertaken by Emperor Franz Joseph. At the time of its construction, its use had not been determined, but today it houses various state museums and the reading rooms of the National Library.
Following a coup d’etat in March 1938 by the Austrian Nazi Party, Adoph Hitler proclaimed the “Anschluß” (meaning “connection” or “annexation”) of Austria into the German Third Reich from the balcony over the entrance to the Neue Burg – which didn’t end well for anybody.
Our main visit to the Hofburg Palace was on Wednesday, the day after we visited the Schönbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the later Habsburgs, principally Empress Maria Theresia and her great-great-grandson, Emperor Franz Joseph. Both of these regents used the Hofburg Palace as their summer residence.
Over to the left of the Neue Burg is the Leopoldinischertrakt (the Leopold Wing), constructed by Emperor Leopold I from 1668-1680. This was where Empress Maria Theresia spent her winters. Since 1946, the Leopold Wing has housed the offices of the Austrian Federal President, a fact that seems to get little mention here in Vienna for some reason unknown to me.
The Leopold Wing is on the southwest side of the Alte Burg, the Old Castle, which is essentially a rectangle around an internal palace square. Continuing clockwise around the building takes you past the Amalienburg, last used as a residence by Empress Elizabeth, known to Austrians as “Sisi,” the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. Continuing clockwise, the northeast side of the Alte Burg is the Imperial Chancellory Wing (the “Reichskanzleitrakt”) which was last used as the apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph, himself.
Attached to the exterior of the Chancellory Wing is the St. Michael’s Wing (the Michaelertrakt) which established the façade of the Alte Burg to the people of Vienna on the picturesque Michaelerplatz, St. Michael’s Square, below.
From St. Michael’s Square we entered the Alte Burg through the Michaelertor, St. Michael’s Gate, which is flanked by statutes of Hercules for some reason.
Inside, to the left, is the Schweizerhof, the Swiss Court, which is one of the oldest sections of the palace. The crown jewels are exhibited back there in the Schatzkammer, the Treasury, which you get to through this ornate Swiss Gate:
We opted, instead, to go into the Silver Museum which contains room after room of dinnerware, most of which is silver, like these candelabra. You can just never have enough of these things in your palace.
I wouldn’t have the faintest idea which spoon, fork or knife to use with each course at a royal dinner; thank God I’ve never been invited to one.
After the Silver Museum, we also toured the Sisi Museum (Sisi is Vienna’s version of Princess Diana or, perhaps, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – the beautiful and mysterious, tragic royal). The Sisi museum led directly into the Royal Apartments where Sisi (Empress Elizabeth) and her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, occasionally resided. Interesting, but a little tiresome and obviously embellished for the tourists.
We returned to the Hofburg Palace a couple days later to take in a performance at the Spanish Riding School which has been the home of the Lipizzaner stallions since the 1730s. Here’s a view of the inside of the School with the Emperor’s box in the background. This place was NOT designed for an audience. In fact, it has only been since the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 that the public has even been allowed inside to view the performances at all, and then, only because of financial necessity.
[Tip: if you’re ever in Vienna and decide to go to this, don’t pay for a seat; buy a standing-room ticket].
The performance is classical dressage, the finer points of which are, unfortunately, lost on me, which finishes with the “School Quadrille” that according to Wikipedia, “consist[s] of 8 riders working in formation at the walk, trot, and canter, with flying changes, pirouettes, the half pass and the passage. The ride is performed to classical music. Lasting 20 minutes, the School Quadrille of the Spanish Riding School is the longest and most difficult in the world.”
I suppose that the announcer said something like this over the P.A. system, but the acoustics were so bad I couldn’t understand a word. Like I said, this facility was not designed for the public and you get the feeling from the staff that they’re merely tolerating your presence – the ushers are constantly on patrol to snatch away any camera that comes out, not that that stopped some knuckleheads from taking flash photos. I waited until the very end of the show to pull out my iPhone for the picture, above, and even then I felt the need to be clandestine.
At any rate, we enjoyed the Lipizzaner’s, but it was also nice to get back outside after the show. The back of the Nueu Burg isn’t as imposing as the front, but it’s certainly more people-friendly than the Spanish Riding School.