Sometimes, the best things in life are free.
The gardens of Schoenbrunn Palace bask in a warm afternoon sun. Youngsters watched over by anxious grandparents toddle along gravel paths, entranced by swirls of red and yellow flowers that extend over acres of lawn.Elderly women with thick ankles and somber colored dresses occupy the benches while members of the younger set climb the hill to the Gloriette, a majestic monument behind the palace built to commemorate a military victory. From there they are rewarded with a view of Schoenbrunn's spacious grounds and the rooftops of the city beyond. The hills of the Vienna woods rise in the distance.
Trees are tinged with the colors of fall and a mist lingers in the air. Autumn has arrived in Austria.
There is no better way to spend an autumn day than at Schoenbrunn, located in the city's forested outskirts. The palace was designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, chief proponent of the architectural style referred to as Austrian baroque. Built beginning in 1696 and later enlarged to a preponderous 1,500 rooms, it was the royal family's summer residence and a change of scenery from the Imperial Palace in Vienna. From Schoenbrunn Empress Maria-Theresia and her husband Emperor Stephan von Lothringen ruled the vast Austro-Hungarian empire and orchestrated an idyllic childhood for their 16 offspring.
The palace is painted brilliant yellow, the color most often associated with the style. Succeeding architects added onto the original structure. The entrance facade is the only section that can still be attributed to Fischer von Erlach.
Twice Napoleon used the palace as his headquarters and on Nov. 11, 1918, at Schoenbrunn, Charles I signed the Habsburg abdication ending more than six centuries of rule.
Schoenbrunn's regal rooms (to which there is an admission fee), coach museum (a splendid collection of ornate carriages to which there is also an admission fee) and vast formal gardens (free) are Vienna's answer to the opulence of Versailles. They are also symbolic of the city's imperial past.
There is no better way to acquaint yourself with Vienna's imperial ambience than by walking around the Ringstrasse, a 2.7-mile boulevard that circles not only the city's heart but also its soul. It was built in the mid-19th century to replace the recently razed city walls and is one of the grand boulevards of Europe. It is lined with stately buildings, gardens and parks. The structures were designed to resemble classic architecture of the past. Among them are the neo-Greco-Roman Parliament, the neo-Renaissance Natural History Museum and Fine Arts Museum, the neo-High Italian Burgtheater and the neo-Early French Renaissance State Opera.
I amble along the Ringstrasse early one morning, taking in the grandeur of it all and attempting to bring life to my travel-weary body. I am a disheveled looking soul in the company of meticulously-dressed Viennese on their way to work. They are walking briskly or riding bicycles along what surely must be one of the city's most scenic routes.
You can also ride around the Ringstrasse. Take a street car, like a working man, or hire a horse-drawn carriage, like an imperialist. The carriages are called fiakers. They ply their way along the streets of Vienna with coachmen wearing top hats and tails at their helms. The boulevard is particularly impressive at night because the buildings are illuminated.
For a glimpse of a more plebian Vienna you must explore the narrow streets and courtyards of Innerestadt, the area within the Ringstrasse. Here, off Kaertnerstrasse, you will find the site of the house where Mozart died on a wintry day in December just shy of his 36th birthday, and a bar where it is said Beethoven drank his beers. Both are within the shadow of St. Stephan's magnificent spire.
A renaissance transpired in the past decade that has breathed new life into the lesser-known sections of Innere-Stadt, now frrequented by pedestrians exploring art galleries, restaurants and shops housed in immaculately restored buildings. The Kleines Cafe, a tiny and dingy coffee house popular with the "in" crowd, islocated here.
"The area was virtually deserted 10 years ago," says our guide Brigitte Timmermann. Her expansive knowledge of Vienna is enhanced by her Ph.D. in history. "It used to be that no one walked here at night."
If you closely explore the nooks and crannies of Innere-Stadt you'll see remnants of the city's former life. Wells where Viennese once drew their water and doors leading to cellars are apparent in its cramped alleyways. Cellars were interconnected to the extent that you could walk underground from the State Opera to the Danube Canal.
Step into the inner courtyard of an apartment building where residents fetched their water from a communal faucet. The faucet is still there. So are balconies with communal bathrooms that were used by everyone on the floor.
Vienna's proud and stately architecture has a humorous side. Grandiose statues serve as rooftop ornaments and bas-relief faces decorate building facades. They peer down on you from all directions. "Look up, there are faces everywhere," says Mrs. Timmermann as we walk toward St. Stephan's Cathedral. "The higher you look, the more beautiful becomes the facade."
I meander through Innere-Stadt on a drizzly Sunday morning, so deserted that my footsteps echo in the streets. Yet I am not alone. Faces from every direction are looking at me.
A glance upward reminds me that I am never alone and always looked down on in Vienna.
The making of Viennese pastries has been elevated to an art. Glance into the window of any konditorei and you will behold a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.
There are cheese cakes topped with fruit, cake rolls filled with whipped cream that has been seasoned just right with strawberries, sweet rolls covered with a crust of connamon and sugar, a seemingly endless assortment of cookies and a selection of cakes that inevitably includes several varieties of gugelhupf (a rather dry cake best consumed with a glass of milk), and the house version of the legendary Sachertorte.
The Sachertorte is a simple creation: two layers of chocolate cake separated by a thin sheet of apricot jam. The entire concoction is covered with melted chocolate that has cooled into a crust. In my estimation Sachertorte is best when eaten with a generous portion of sweetened whipped cream. The whipped cream, I rationalize, is needed to cut the cake's inherent dryness.
The torte was the subject of extensive litigation between two of Vienna's celebrated culinary establishments, the Sacher Hotel and Demel's.
The Sacher Hotel is a paragon of lavishness located conveniently across the street from the Vienna State Opera. The hotel has been a Viennese institution for over a century. "The Sacher Hotel breathes elegance," says Mrs. Timmermann.
Anna Sacher was friends with members of the royal family, prominent politicians and well-known actors. She was a major influence on the hotel's development. One of its prize possessions is a tablecloth embroidered with the signatures of the hotel's famous patrons. It hangs in a lighted case in a hallway on the main floor. Anna was known for her strong personality and was the only woman in Vienna who could get away with smoking a cigar in public.
Guests of Emperor Franz Josef would often go to the Sacher after dining at the Imperial Palace. Between the emperor, who had a habit of eating quickly, and his slender wife, who merely picked at her dinner, there wasn't enough time for their company to consume the food that was placed before them. After a 12-course meal at the palace they often reconvened at the Sacher for what they called "a proper meal."
They may well have eaten Tafelspitz, tender slices of boiled beef served with apple-horseradish sauce and potatoes sauteed with onions. It is one of the hotel's specialties.
Demel's lineage is equally illustrious. It was once the bakery for the royal family. The coffee house is located on a narrow street near the Imperial Palace and is still one of the most acclaimed in Austria.
Inside you'ss find a room paneled in dark wood and glass-front cabinets. The ambience exudes the elegance associated with imperial Vienna. A buffet of salads and casseroles and an assortment of pastries is laid out before you. A waitress will fix your plate while you make yourself comfortable at one of many small tables. They are best suited for two, creating the perfect scenario for a romantic tete-a-tete.
Several years ago I spent an hour or so at Demel's. Ay avowed purpose was to wait out a rainstorm. But I managed to kill two birds with one stone. I avoided the downpour while partaking of an afternoon snack. I consumed a cup of hot chocolate so thick you could eat it with a fork, to borrow a phrase from Campbell's Soup, and a slice of Sachertorte topped with a mountain of whipped cream.
I decided to balance out my meal of chocolate upon chocolate with a spoonful of what I recall to be a ham and potato casserole and a couple of different salads.
Austrain coffee houses serve several purposes. You can snack on delectable pastries and refresh yourself with a beverage. The drink is served on a small tray always accompanied by a glass of water. Daily papers from the capitals of Europe let you keep up with current events.
A coffee house is relatively expensive. But the price you pay for a cup of coffee, hot chocolate or freshly squeezed orange juice allows you to settle in for the afternoon, watching the people of Vienna come and go. Life inside a coffee house proceeds at a distinctly leisurly pace. People accustomed to it can make one cup of coffee and a sliver of cake last for hours.
A disagreement arose between Demel's and the Sacher Hotel because both labeled their cakes the Original Sacher Torte.
The cake was devised in 1832 when a member of the aristocracy wanted a special dessert for his guests. The chief cook of the royal bakery was sick in bed so a 16-year-old, second-year apprentice named Franz Sacher concocted the cake, which he later used for other occasions. The torte was soon in demand all over Vienna and Franz became well-to-do at the age of 30.
He opened his own delicatessen where his son Eduard worked as an apprentice. Eduard later relocated the buffet on Kaertnerstrasse and in 1876 established the Hotel Sacher near where it stands today. The hotel called its cake the Original Sacher Torte.
Demel's, however, also referred to its cake as the Original Sacher Torte. The matter was taken to court in a confrontation that dragged on for years. The court ruled that the hotel would label its cake the Original Sacher Torte. Demel's would call its cake the Eduard Sacher Torte.
The two tortes have since abided amicably together in Vienna, where there is apparently room enough for one Original Torte, one Eduard Torte and any number of illegitimate offspring, I, for one, am delighted to sink my teeth into any of them, anytime.
Sometimes, the best things in life are not free.