By Afdhel Aziz
The beautiful Austrian city of Vienna must surely rank as one of the most picturesque European capitals to visit. Every year, thousands flock to its grand squares and churches, experience the dizzying array of fine art and music and bask in its refined atmosphere. So in a city of a thousand surprises, where do you start?
Well, one of the best ways to see the city is by horse-drawn carriage. You can pick one up from the Stephansplatz in the 1st district and climb on board for a lovely ride, with commentary on the sites around you being provided by one of the affable drivers in their top hats.
The coaches are called 'Fiakers' - this is because they were originally based on the coaches in Paris that used to line up in the square in front of the Church of St. Fiacre. When the coaches were brought to Vienna, the nickname came along with them. You can also find Fiakers in the Heldeplatz, in front of the Albertina in the Augustinerstrasse and next to St. Peter's Church in the Jungferngasse, all in the 1st district.
The typical tour will take in the Ringstrae with its magnificent buildings, such as the Museum of Applied Arts, the State Opera House, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Natural History, the Hofburg, the Parliament, the City Hall, the Burgtheater, the university as well as the Votive Church.The clip-clop of horses' hooves, the fresh air and the jovial banter with the driver beats walking around the city with your nose buried in a guidebook any day.
For those of you who love horses, one of the places you must visit is the Spanish Riding School in the Josephplatz in the 1st district. The 'Spanish' part of the name comes from the breed of Moorish riding horses that Emperor Maximilian II imported from Spain - and the Riding School maintains the highest standards of the equestrian arts and classical dressage.
These graceful animals go through centuries old manoeuvres with precision and discipline- man and horse in perfect harmony. The Riding School operates in the confines of the splendid Winter Riding School, a huge baroque hall which holds up to 10,000 people; you have to write in advance to get tickets to one of their shows. However, an easier way of seeing them in action is the morning training sessions which are open to the public.
Vienna is also famous for its great music history. Famous musicians like Franz Joseph Haydn, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and of course the most famous of them all, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived here. Mozart who spent the last ten years of his life here, had wandered the city streets, letting his beautiful music develop in his head while getting about his tasks, from shopping to having a shave. Then he would go home and write down his compositions in one go - almost like dictating a letter, without having to make any preliminary attempts and with almost no corrections needed.
Vienna responded in turn to the genius of the musicians who lived there by providing them with some fitting showcases for their work. The State Opera House was built in 1863, but almost completely destroyed by the end of the Second World War. However, it was rebuilt according to its original plans and reopened in 1955. The Vienna Philharmonic, rated as one of the best in the world is based here, and you should not miss a chance to take in a dazzling evening of sight and sound
The box office is located on the Albertinaplatz and if you go early enough you may be able to pick up some bargain tickets.
But if you want to catch one of the best known of Viennese musical institutions for free, then all you have to do is visit the Imperial Chapel any Sunday (except during the summer) when the world famous Vienna Boys' Choir sings mass as they have done since 1498, when they started. The angelic voices of the choir have travelled across the world, from almost all European countries to many in Asia, Australia and the Americas.
The Opera House is also the venue for one of the most spectacular events in the Vienna social calendar — the Opernball or the Opera Ball. The orchestra pit and the main floor are transformed into a huge dance floor as one hundred couples, the women in ball gowns and the men in tie and tails go through the motions of centuries old dances, flowers cascading from the boxes. And of course, the first dance is always a left-hand waltz — what else in the city that is synonymous with that dance?
But Vienna is not just about the past - it is also a city with a vibrant contemporary culture of its own.
One of my favourite places is the KunsthausWien, designed by the great Austrian painter and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. One of Hundertwasser's basic principles was that houses should have no straight lines - and as a result the KunsthausWien is an undulating, flowing construction, where walls flow into floors and staircases flow into windows. Colourful tiles are placed in mosaics everywhere; the effect is one of a fun, relaxed place where the normal rules of architecture do not apply. The ground floor features a pleasant cafe, the next two floors are dedicated to a retrospective exhibition of Hundertwasser's groundbreaking work in art and architecture, and the next two floors play host to an ever-changing series of exhibitions by modern artistes - from Kandinsky, Klee and Le Corbusier to Miro, Picasso and Basquiat.
If you are looking for somewhere to take the kids too, then along the banks of the Danube River is the Prater Amusement Park. Originally a game preserve for the imperial court, it was opened to the public in 1766 by Emperor Joseph II. A number of amusement arcades and restaurants opened up and today the Wurstelprater amusement park has a great range of activities for everyone. The centrepiece is the 220- foot giant ferris' wheel known as the Risenrad, which gives you a spectacular view of the city. Old-style amusement rides like the tunnel of love,merry- go round and shooting arcades are side by side with more modern rides like roller coasters, bumper cars, go carts and others.
You can also take regular riverboat cruises down the famous Danube, a marvellous way to see the city. And if you find yourself humming a few bars of 'The Blue Danube Waltz' by Strauss, then at least you'll know where his inspiration came from.
Vienna also offers a great range of shopping, especially in the pedestrian zones in the Karntner Strasse, Graben and Kohlmart, where you can get everything from the latest fashions from around Europe to old antiques, jewellery and china from the famous Augarten factory. However, if you want an equally charming if less expensive shopping experience, the Flea Market in Wienzeile every Saturday is a great place to spend a couple of hours - you can pick up everything from handicrafts and lamps to old books and pictures for next to nothing.
The Viennese also love their food and if you pop into one of their many coffee-houses you will see a vibrant cafe society still very much alive. Businessmen and artistes, philosophers and journalists have been meeting and discussing the affairs of the world ever since the cafes were opened in 1900 or so. You can sample dozens of different types of coffee.
If you get hungry, you could try the famous Wiener Schnitzel, which is escalope of veal, breaded and deep fried - and for dessert sample some of Vienna's famous pastries at Demel's on Kohlmart, close to the imperial palace. It serves some of the best tasting pastries I have ever had and is well worth its former title - 'Imperial-Royal Court Pastry Makers'.
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