Christmas Markets in a very snowy and beautiful Vienna - in fact about five different markets to visit set in parks and palace gardens.
The magnificent Hofburg Palace and Schloss Schönbrunn, romantic (though heaving!) cafés and desserts to die for.
We almost didn't make it to Vienna - there was heavy snow in Switzerland and air traffic was severely disrupted but we were lucky to get a clear weather window and after final de-icing made it into the air. We were flying with Niki Airlines and were very impressed with the service!
After checking in at the hotel we went straight to a nearby café - the Schwarzenberg, a classic old-style Viennese café with high ceilings, panelling and huge mirrors. Courteous waiters, almost formal in their dress, served us with champagne (for me) beer (for Andrew) and a light lunch. Hot chocolate to finish was good though not the hoped-for Café Louvre version in Prague. The Schoko Mousse Torte was, however, very good.
Fortified we set off to explore the city heading through the snowy streets for Stephansplatz.
Stephansplatz is the central square of the city, to which tourists gravitate, dominated by two quite different buildings: Gothic Stephensdom and the twentieth century Haas Haus.
Stephansdom was built on the site of former churches, parts of which remain. The original twelfth century Romanesque church was badly damaged in a devastating fire in the mid-thirteenth century. The current Gothic building was built mostly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, including the soaring south tower. The north tower was planned to be just as tall but was never completed.
High above ground, windows in the beautiful multi-coloured tiled roof, covered in a sprinkling of snow, look out over the square.
Inside the cathedral it was extremely dark and very difficult to make out the individual sculptures.
Opposite the cathedral is a building which could not be a greater contrast - the Haas Haus. Designed by the Austrian architect Hans Hollein and completed in 1990 its glass curves reflect the ornate cathedral to the delight of tourists.
Encased in glass on the corner of a building at the end of Kärntner Strasse is the Stock-im-Eisen - a nail-studded tree stump said to have been created by sixteenth century blacksmiths knocking in a nail for luck as they left the city - no wonder the tree died!
Near Stephansplatz, on Kärntner Durchgang, we paid a visit to the celebrated American Bar.
Designed in classic Art Nouveau style by Adolf Loos, it's small and dark inside but wonderfully atmospheric. An efficient bartender serving cocktails at dimly illuminated tables - whatever time of day it is outside, in here the evening is just beginning.
Vienna has the most magnificent, magical settings for its Christmas Markets spread around the city. Approaching the Stadthaus Christmas Market from Ringstrasse huge trees were festooned with brightly lit decorations surrounded by countless colourful stalls, their roofs covered in snow and loaded with Christmas decorations, craft works and all kinds of food. It was extremely cold and snowing so the mulled wine was more than usually welcome!
The backdrop to the whole scene was the maginificent illuminated Stadthaus. Nineteenth century neo-gothic in design, it looks like a fairytale palace on a snowy winter's evening.
The magnificent curving facade of the Hofburg on Michaelerplatz is a fitting entrance to a palace which was home to the Habsburgs for 600 years. The face of each wing houses a statue group symbolising the powers of the earth and sea, and more statues, of the labours of Hercules, flank the entrance.
The inner courtyard, called In der Burg, through the grand carriage entrance, is a serene space with a large monument to Emperor Franz I. Here too there are monumental sculptures depicting labours of Hercules on the classical facade of the seventeenth century Reichskanzleitrakt. The original palace has been much extended and replaced since it was first built and most of In der Burg is fifteenth and sixteenth century,
Entrance tickets to the Hofburg include the Imperial Silver Collection (Silberkammer), the Sisi Museum and the Imperial Apartments. No photography was allowed inside the Sisi Museum or the Royal Appartments.
We went into the Silberkammer first, thinking it would not take us very long, but the displays of wealth are amazing, especially when taking into account that this is by no means all that the Habsburgs owned - much of the gold tableware was melted down to finance wars!
In 1918 when the Habsburg monarchy ended, the imperial holdings passed to the Austrian Republic. Some items were sold but the majority remained in the Court Silver and Table Room - 7,000 items from the incredible 150,000 in the collection can be seen here.
The earliest tableware was made of silver - it was in the nineteenth century that fine porcelain replaced it. Silver would have been for "everyday" use, gold for more celebratory occasions.
Of the porcelain my absolute favourite was the 1870 English Minton service designed by William Coleman and depicting colourful birds, sea creatures, insects and plants. Empress Elizabeth gave this to Emperor Franz Josef for his hunting lodge at Offensee. There is also one mind-boggling room full of gold.
The incredible Gold Room holds the Grand Vermeil service - the original French service was for 40 place settings but this was expanded to 140 by Viennese craftsmen around 1840. It now consists of 4500 items and weighs over 1,000 kg.
Place settings of the "Court Form Service", which was in use for state occasions up until 2000, have the Imperial folded napkin, the creation of which has always been a closely gaurded secret.
The amazing Milan Centrepiece was commissioned for Emperor Ferdinand's coronation as king of Lombardy-Venetia in 1838 amd can be extended to 30m! What spectacles the state banquets must have been with such displays of opulence.
There is some very beautiful oriental porcelain in the collection, including the celebrated Imari from around 1700. Karl Alexander was a voracious collector causing huge financial problems, and when he died his nephew Franz Josef II had much auctioned off, retaining the valuable Imari porcelain for the Viennese court.
The Maundy Thursday foot-washing tradition is common in all major Christian churches and commemorates Christ's washing of the disciples' feet before the Last Supper.
In Vienna the Emperor and Empress washed the feet of twelve poor elderly men and twelve poor elderly women who presented themselves washed, in clean clothes and had a thorough medical examination. They were given gifts of a lidded earthenware jug filled with white wine, a silver beaker marked with the double eagle and the year, food and a pouch containing 30 silver coins, a reference to the thirty pieces of silver given to Judas for betraying Christ.
The solid gold 18th century “Mundzeug” (literally "mouth kit") of Empress Maria Theresa is a set of eating implements made for her personal use which accompanied her wherever she went. It comprises a knife, fork, serving fork and spoon, eggcup, egg spoon with a marrow extractor, and a salt-cellar. Matching sets of cutlery came into existence only towards the end of the 18th century, replacing these individually designed sets.
We were simply ages looking at all of these sumptuous things but finally moved on to the Sisi Museum and the imperial apartments. I didn't know anything at all about this complex woman before we visited. Born in 1838 she was married at the age of 16 to the love-struck Emperor Franz Josef. But she hated the restrictions of court life and became obsessed with her beauty and figure. She had exercise rings and bars fitted into her dressing room and also had a full gymnasium at her disposal. She ate very little and became extremely anxious if she tipped the scales over 110 lbs (50kg). Considering she was 5ft 8 inches tall (1m 72) this is already unhealthy. Her luxuriant hair, which reached the floor, took two hours to dress and a full day to wash. She did develop an interest in politics, most especially for the plight of Hungary, having become attracted to the character of their aristocrats who were much less restrained than the Austrian aristocracy - an attitude she would have wished to practice herself if it were possible.
After the birth of their fourth child and the death of her domineering mother-in-law Princess Sophie of Bavaria (sister of her own mother Ludovika) she began to travel more but without her husband. She seems a sad figure, especially after the deaths of one of their daughters and their only son, Rudolph, in 1889. She became even more withdrawn from public life, though she continued to travel and even had her own steamer in the Mediterranean. In 1898, on a visit to Geneva, she was stabbed by an Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni, dying very shortly afterwards.
In the Imperial apartments - a blur of red, white and gold with some very impressive ceramic stoves - the bedrooms of the Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth are remarkable for their contrast. Hers is dominated by photographs of her own family - parents and siblings - and she was the first member of the Imperial family to have a bathroom installed. His are most memorable for the simple iron bed and his work desk with photographs of his beloved Sisi and children. He was conscientious in his work connected with the vast empire and seems to have preferred a relatively spartan lifestyle - certainly compared to Sisi!
This is held in the grounds of the old hospital on Alserstrasse near the University of Vienna. Not as grand a setting as the other Christmas markets in Vienna, this one very much had a family feel - there were lots of children running around having fun.
Not being fond of performing animals we had no plans to visit the Lipizzaners but Vienna has something to delight and interest on almost every street. Walking between Stephansplatz and the Hofburg we passed the plague monument - the Pestsäule - on Graben. Dedicated to the Trinity it was erected by order of Leopold I in thanksgiving for the ending of the devastating plague of 1679.
Graben was festooned with Christmas decorations, there were hundreds of Christmas trees for sale and at one end a couple of stalls selling the local punch - rum-based and I wasn't too keen - much prefer traditional mulled wine.
On Kohlmarkt towards the Hofburg is Demel, the famous confectionary and coffee house. Operating in one form or another in Vienna since 1786. In the 19th century they became K. u. K. Hofzuckerbäcker (Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery) and it is said they provided Sisi with candied violets, though it's hard to imagine her eating anything so calorific! It is a wonderful place, and downstairs you can watch through glass the master bakers preparing traditional sachertorte - Eduard Sacher, the son of the inventor, completed his training at Demel and perfected the recipe here. Having originally been invented for a Viennese prince, the perfected recipe was first served to the public here at Demel and later at the Hotel Sacher, established by Eduard in 1876.
Kohlmarkt ends at Michaelerplatz and the entrance to the Hofburg, but the square has one or two other sites which are worth at least a quick look. Right in the square is an archaeological dig which has uncovered evidence of the origins of the city. The earliest settlement was Celtic around 500BC, but under the Romans it became an important outpost and military base, called Vindobona, protecting the empire from Germanic tribes to the north. The archaeological excavations in Michaelerplatz revealed part of the civilian city, probably homes for the soldiers' families, attached to the military camp of Vindobona.
Opposite the entrance to the Hofburg is St Michael's Church with a fine sculpture of the Archangel Michael battling Lucifer above the entrance. The church dates from 1220 - 1240 and is late Romanesque early Gothic in style, with some Baroque interior and a startling Rococo altarpiece "Fall of Angels".
In Neuer Markt near Stephansplatz is the Capuchin Church housing the Imperial Crypt - the Kaisergruft - a not unnaturally gloomy affair but interesting to see Franz Josef's and Sisi's sarcophagi.
Also in the square is the eighteenth century baroque Donnerbrunnen fountain, an allergorical representation of the four tributaries of the Danube - the Enns, March, Traun and Ybbs.
The Hoher Markt in the north of the city near the Danube canal is the oldest square in Vienna, once the site of the Roman forum, and still retains its elongated character. Rather unprepossessing now, it is filled with parked cars and is home to the Wedding Column, built to honour the Virgin Mary's wedding. However its worth a trip up here to see the Art Nouveau Ankeruhr at the south-eastern end of Hoher Markt. Each hour one of twelve historcial figures associated with Vienna, such as King Rudolf of Habsburg and Haydn, is visible in front of the clock face. On the hour the figures move around and a piece of music to match the new figure is played. At noon all twelve figures parade around the clock face accompanied by "their" music.
Though imperial bodies are entombed in the Capuchin Church, their hearts are removed and kept in urns in the Herzgruft in the Augustinerkirche. However, a better reason for visiting is the magnificent memorial to the Archduchess Maria Christina by the sculptor Antonio Canova, 1805. He designed something very similar as a mausoleum for Titian but it actually became the repository of his own heart in a church in Venice.
The inscription on the memorial reads "Uxorie Optimae Albertus" - Albert to his perfect wife - and the wonderful procession of figures entering the tomb are meant to symbolise her virtuous character.
And finally to the Hotel Sacher, on every tourist's list, it seems, because there is a queue even in the depths of winter - it must be horrendous in summer. But the sachertorte is sublime.
The Kunsthistoriches and Naturhistoriches Museums face each other across Maria Theresien Platz which has a large statue of her in the centre, holding the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 which allowed women to ascend to the Imperial throne. Maria Theresa was something of an enlightened empress: she introduced compulsory education for all and abolished torture.
There is a Christmas Market in the square. The evening we visited it was snowing making the magical setting even more atmospheric. Sausages and hot mulled wine were doing a roaring trade!
The two museum buildings are identical. We didn't visit the Naturhistoriches Museum but spent a good deal of time in the Kunsthistoriches museum which holds the accumulated collections of the Habsburgs.
The collections include some fantastic paintings - particularly a half length Rembrandt self-portraits, a room full of wonderful Brueghels including Peasant Wedding, Tower of Babel and Hunters in the Snow, and Caravaggios - especially David with the Head of Goliath, the head said to be a self-portrait.
The ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern galleries are also extremely interesting. They have some fantastically decorated sarcophagi.
The seated statue of Horemheb and Horus are almost life size with a lovely personal touch of the arm of the God Horus around Horemheb's waist. Horemheb was commander of Tutankhamun's armies and he became pharaoh around 1300BC - the last of the 18th Dynasty. The face is unusually expressive, a legacy of the art of Akhenaten's period (he was probably the father of Tutankhamun) which eschewed rigid idealised representations of people.
The sarcophagus of Pa-nehem-isis is from the much later Ptolomeic period, around 300 BC, and shows an even greater degree of realism.
The lovely little blue hippo is also Egyptian, decorated with water plants, from around 2000BC, these little figures were often placed in tombs. They were a dangerous animal to the Egyptian, a hazard to river traffic and people living on the river bank.
The beautiful cermic brick lion is from the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon, a good proportion of which can be seen in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Nebuchadnezzar II had the gate built in 575 BC.
Schloss Belvedere, south of the city, is actually two palaces, now art galleries. We visited only for the beautiful location and the Christmas market.
From the far side of the frozen lake, decorated with stars (some, unfortunately, no longer working) it was a most magical sight.
An altogether grander affair Schloss Schönbrunn was the summer palace of the Habsburgs. Though the building dates from the eighteenth century it was much altered in the nineteenth. No photography is allowed inside the palace. The interior is a mix of Baroque and Rococo so not at all what I like, and reaches a peak of opulence in the impressive 40m long Rococo white and gold Great Gallery with its frescoed ceilings. Two Chinese Cabinets show off a wealth of blue and white porcelain, covering the walls, and have beautiful patterned parquet floors.
Emperor Franz Josef was born here, and he and Sisi both had suites of rooms. Franz Josef's study is again much plainer than the other rooms.
The Gloriette was built on a shallow hill behind the palace in 1775. Designed as a belvedere it has a viewing platform on its roof.
At the foot of the hill, between the Gloriette and the palace, is the Neptune fountain.
It is only possible to see the interior of the palace with a guided tour. These come with a timed entrance which can be several hours later than the time of ticket purchase! The grounds, however, can be wandered at will (there was a Christmas Market in front of the palace with a huge Christmas tree!) - they looked beautiful covered in snow but are said to be wonderfully colourful in summer - we'll have to come back, for this and for all the other things in Vienna that we just didn't have time to see.