My wife and I wanted a change from the “seven countries in six days” kind of touring, opting for a more immersive experience in a leading European city. We recently rented an apartment for a few weeks in urban Vienna, attended every concert and museum we could find and steeped ourselves in this venerable city’s rich musical, artistic, cultural, historical and gastronomic delights.
A city of not quite 2 million, its gracious boulevards ring the historic areas. The extended outdoor pedestrian-only blocks of glittering shops and stores leading to and from the huge St. Stephan’s cathedral in the old city center make Vienna both exciting and accessible.
The Vienna State Opera is one of the world’s eminent companies, counting such luminary ex-directors as Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Herbert von Karajan. We were thrilled to attend a joint performance of the world-renowned Vienna Boys Choir, which dates back to the Middle Ages, and the Lippizaner stallions in their 450-year old Spanish Riding School home.
Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert all played and composed in the city, and their music is still played with reverent pride. The Strausses cemented Vienna’s place as the world’s music capital with their catchy waltzes and marches. The Belvedere, Albertina and the Art History Museum hold some of the world’s magnificent art pieces.
A veritable galaxy of writers, philosophers, artists and other intellectuals, many of them Jewish, inhabited the legendary Viennese coffee houses. Austrian painters like Gustav Klimt (known for the iconic painting “The Kiss”) were among the leading expressionists at the turn of the 20th century. Sigmund Freud founded modern psychotherapy in Vienna.
Austria has a grand and hoary heritage. Vienna was the seat of the centuries-old Austrian Habsburg dynasty that ruled the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and sometimes the Holy Roman Empire as well. The assassination in 1914 of Archduke Ferdinand, the royal heir to Austria’s throne, lit the fuse that ignited World War I.
Austria is not just a once-great power displayed to tourists in grand palaces and museums. It is a vibrant, prosperous, modern and functioning country. It is much, much different than the U.S. In fact, my principal observation was that Austria, like France, Sweden, Ghana, Indonesia and other larger countries, has it own unique history, culture and society. But it is no antique to be viewed only in its palaces and museums. Austrian society, politics, art, and culture are as alive and robust as ever.
With Germanic efficiency, Austrians have created a first-rate rail and transit system. The frequency of service, ease of access, and cleanliness of the trains and buses make getting around a breeze and obviate the need for a car.
Grocery stores are packed with Austrian and European brands and products. We hardly saw an American brand. In fact, it was hard to find the few American things we wanted.
The Viennese urban lifestyle is compact and vastly different from our auto-based mode of suburban living. But they enjoy significant offsetting advantages, including being extremely environmentally friendly. The Viennese enjoy a breath-giving 50 percent of their city in green space in parks, woods and riverways. City dwellers may live in apartments, but their access to parks, trails, exercise facilities, art, music, cafes, education and efficient public transportation can hardly be rivaled.29 comments on this story
Americans tend to think that we are the center of the universe, that U.S. popular culture has taken over the world, and that all the important companies, technology, movies, social media, art and academic progress are centered in the U.S. Austrians certainly watch Netflix, use Facebook, and are glued to their iPhones, but they have their own distinct society and culture. American egocentrism seems to say that the world is a mere extension of the United States, essentially our cultural, business, and political colony. That is distinctly not the case. While America’s influence is highly disproportionate to our population, Austria does very well on its own.
As with every country, U.S. products, companies, academia, pop culture and entertainment are highly influential throughout the world. But make no mistake, Austria is very different from America. And that pertains to the rest of the world as well.