Day One – Palaces, Plaques, and Paintings

When we started driving through the city center, our guide, Siggy, a native of Vienna, gave us a few facts.

  • There are approximately 1.8 million people living in Vienna.
  • The city is divided into 9 districts.  The city center, the oldest and most prominent part of the city, is District 1.  The districts move out in concentric-like circles from the city center.  The easiest way to know what district you’re in is to just look at the number listed on each street sign next to the street name.
  • There are approximately 7,000 Jews living in Vienna today.  That compares to the approximately 80-120,000 living in Budapest, just a few hours down the Danube River.
  • Vienna, like many cities, was established along the river to provide business opportunities and that’s what led Jews to come to Vienna many centuries ago.  As the city expanded, they actually re-directed the main Danube so that it wouldn’t run through the center of town anymore.  There is now a smaller Danube canal near the city center.
  • There were about 200 winter and summer palaces (not just homes, we’re talking hundreds of rooms in these places!) spread out around Vienna.  They were built by the aristocracy over the centuries and many have now been turned into museums but some are still in use.
  • There used to be a wall surrounding the center of the city, but that was removed and while there are still some places where you can see remainders of the wall, a major thoroughfare (Ring Street) serves as the perimeter to the old city center now.

Our first stop was St. Stephensen’s Cathedral.  It’s a massive church that took 400 years to build (beginning in the 13th century) and reminds me of similarly large churches you find throughout Europe.  And because it took so long to build, it has a variety of architectural styles throughout.

From St. Stephensen’s Cathedral, we walked a short distance to the Judenplatz (The Jewish Place), a small square in the old city that contains a memorial to commemorate the murder of 65,000 Viennese Jews during the Holocaust.  British artist, Rachel Whitread, created a reinforced concrete cube that represents an introverted, non-accessible library, with hundreds of books facing backwards (their spines, where titles are written, cannot be seen).  The books represent the untold stories of the thousands of Jews who perished and it was built on the site of the largest synagogue in Europe during the Middle Ages.  In 1421, the Jews of Vienna were expelled or murdered but in the year 2000, they discovered the remains of the synagogue and we were able to go see them.  They are accessed through a Jewish museum located next to the Holocaust memorial.  The remains of the synagogue are actually right below the memorial.  As one of our tour leaders, Nimrod, pointed out, it’s an important symbol of how the new protects the old.  The Holocaust memorial stands above, protecting the ancient remains of a community that refused to be destroyed, despite all efforts to eradicate it.  Jewish vitality is one of our greatest qualities and something for which I am greatly proud.  Here are a few pictures of the memorial and the archeological remains of the synagogue.

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Judenplatz (Jewish place), the name of the square…and a restaurant with my daughter’s name.
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The Holocaust Memorial
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A scaled model of the old city of Vienna and the white area representing the old Jewish neighborhood.
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Remains of the old synagogue.
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Description of the synagogue.

From Judenplatz, we boarded the bus and traveled to the Belvedere Palace, Prince Eugene of Savoy’s summer residence and designed by Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, one of Central Europe’s greatest Baroque architects.  Building began in 1712 and was finished in 1723.  It’s an awesome place and consists of gorgeous gardens and two significant palaces.  Lower Belvedere was where the prince slept and Upper Belvedere was where he held all his ridiculously lavish parties.  Upper Belvedere is now home to the largest collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, including his very famous The Kiss.  Other incredible art adorns the gorgeous and detailed ballrooms of this palace, including paintings made famous by the movie, The Woman in Gold and it was wonderful to spend time meandering through the many rooms.  Photography was off-limits in most areas, but here are a few pics…

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Upper Belvedere Palace
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The Grand Ballroom
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Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
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Messerschmidt studied facial expressions and then made some amazing sculptures based on his research
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Upper Belvedere Palace

Our day finally ended with a group dinner at the hotel, giving us a chance to get to know each other a little better.  I’m looking forward to getting some sleep since I haven’t slept more than 3 hours in the last 36 hours.  A few final pics from the hotel –

Gute Nacht – Good Night

 

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