I looked away and tried focusing on something closer to calm my nerves. The Gothic lean church spire with lacy edges and colorful roof tiles laid like the coat of arms came to my rescue. The cruise guide who had left a few minutes earlier after giving us a whirlwind walking tour of the area had said, “When the roof was destroyed in a World War II fire, even people who were starving sold the last of their possessions and wedding rings to help rebuild it.” Such was the prominence of the cathedral in the minds and hearts of people, the oldest parts of which dated back to the thirteenth century.
St, Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna
Mozart’s marriage and funeral and Joseph Haydn’s singing as a choir boy are only tiny specks in the church’s history that spans across centuries. On my way upstairs, I had witnessed a mass in the confines of high ceilings and solemn gray walls dabbed in colorful sunlight filtering through the stained glass windows. Walking along the observation area, I saw Austria’s largest bell, Pummerin, weighing around 47,000 lbs in its full splendor in an enclosure mounted with its wheels and A-stands.
When I looked at the city views again, I was finally able to appreciate the bird’s eye view of the expansive city from my vantage point. I couldn’t help thinking of the appetizing apple strudels and Sachertorte chocolate cakes in the coffee house downstairs. There was no way I would be able to eat the entire cake, but I was determined to enjoy my tiny slice of this city.
An Opulent Afternoon at the Library
An afternoon at the Austrian National Library instead of Schönbrunn Palace held a greater allure for a bibliophile like me. The library’s State Hall, built in the 18th century by Emperor Charles VI as a court library, is home to over 200,000 works originating from 1501-1850. It sits inside the Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the Habsburg dynasty that ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
At the doorstep, the size and splendor of the Baroque hall drew me in just as much as the sweet and musty smell of old books. Wooden shelves lined with neatly arranged books covered almost all the walls all the way to the ceiling. The aged, mostly brown hard covers blended with the wooden shelves while the golden titles matched the golden floral motifs at the top of the shelves. There were two levels of shelves with movable ladders standing against the walls for the hardest to reach corners. I felt like a child, mesmerized by the sight and smell of thousands of books and the opulence of the grand room that housed them.
Frescos in the Vienna National Library
I craned my neck to admire the fresco on the 30 meter high oval dome in the center by Daniel Gran depicting the deification of Emperor Charles VI. The Emperor also commanded his presence on the floor in the form of a large statue in the middle of the room flanked by four ornate Venetian globes in each of the corners and diligently carved marble statues of emperors along the walls.
The temporary exhibit on the life and work of Empress Maria Theresa on the eve of her 300th birth anniversary. This made for an added a bonus to the timeless beauty of the hall. She was the only female ruler of the Habsburgs and although never elected or crowned, is still addressed as Empress and remains a symbol of unity and coherence.
Information and artifacts devoted to her political and cultural legacy lay side by side with her personal life. The lifelike artwork of stormy seas or an etching of a simple peasant by her daughters, archduchesses Maria Anna, Maria Elisabeth and Maria Karolina did more to bring the past alive than the administrative and military details.
A somber evening near Vienna
My stop for the evening included a little-known cemetery outside Vienna’s city center – Friedhof Der Namenlosen or Cemetery of the Nameless, tucked away amidst industries and warehouses in Simmering, the 11th district of Vienna. Amongst all the cemeteries in the city, Central Cemetery attracts more than its fair share of visitors due to its sheer size (around 330,000 graves in 2.5 million square meters) and for being the final resting abode of prominent personalities like Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss. Cemetery of the Nameless, in contrast, holds less than 500 graves of unidentified ordinary people who committed suicide or accidentally drowned in the Danube between 1840 and 1940.
A ride on the U3 metro from the city center brought us to Simmering. As soon as I stepped outside the train station, the landscape and demographics started to change. The area exuded a residential buzz with people going about their daily lives, buying groceries, picking up children and returning from college or work. The 20-minute bus ride on 76A brought me in proximity to a younger and more diverse populace than what I seen since morning – college students with backpacks casually strung on their shoulders and women in hijabs or headscarves with their children in tow.
The industrial landscape of Simmering slowly unfolded as the bus pulled further away from the train station. At one point, our bus seemed to be the only living being on this narrow single lane road. It finally dropped us at the deserted Alberner Hafen stop across the road from a large logistics company. Chasing this small cemetery was starting to feel like a mistake when a sign ‘Friedhof Der Namenlosen’ by the train tracks caught my eye. All along the road were wide grayish white industrial buildings and large commercial trucks standing several feet apart. In the absence of the sign, I would have assumed that we had lost the way. Human presence had already receded to the background even before I had reached the cemetery, with less than a handful of workers crossing our path.
The early evening sun shined bright and my eyes desperately searched for a glimpse of the cemetery’s green cover. Just when I was about to give up and backtrack my steps, I caught sight of some trees in the distance.
My steps quickened and soon enough I was at the cemetery entrance that I instantly recognized from the Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke movie ‘Before Sunrise’. In a scene, Julie recounts visiting the cemetery as a young teenager with her grandmother and admits that the place made a bigger impact on her than any of the museums they visited at the time. Standing at the entrance, it wasn’t difficult to see why.
The Simmering Cemetery
A circular chapel stood at the entrance. Its steps around it from both sides led to the new section of the cemetery. This includes graves from 1900. Simple black and silver metal crucifixes lay on all the graves. I slowly walked through each row, unable to believe that I had managed to find this place. Unbekannt or Namenloss (Unknown or Nameless) marked many graves. Others which were identified later included the name along with the year of birth and death.
The early evening sun filtered through the leaves of trees standing along the walls. Large bouquets of flowers at varying degrees of freshness lay on several graves. Beautiful child statues adorned some of the graves – a weathered girl angel poured stars from a rolled music sheet, a boy angel held a book in his hand while staring in adoration at the girl angel beside him, a day-dreaming dusty boy lay on his stomach with hands on his chin, a boy angel held his beloved in an embrace as he kissed her cheek with closed eyes.
The stillness of the place, solemn graves, lifelike statues and tall trees with chirping birds guarding it all in stark contrast to its surroundings almost made it feel like a secret garden, a bearer of life in the mechanical world around it. The peace that had eluded these souls in their lifetime was now palpable in their tiny corner of the world and rubbed off on visitors like me.
My Different Takeaway Story
Later that night, as I strolled in solitude in the parks of Donauinsel, a long and narrow island in central Vienna. I watched the brightly lit city and listening to the ripples of the Danube, it was hard to summon the restlessness of that morning. While I had clearly not hit the Top 10 things to do in Vienna, I had concocted a day with popular attractions, personal interests and offbeat locations featuring in equal measures. I had sampled this growing metropolis at my own pace, on my own terms. And at dinner that night, while most guests relayed their stories of Schönbrunn Palace, I gladly shared a different one.
Written by: Farha Mukri
Farha is a freelance writer and Software Engineer based in Chicago. She believes travel is as much about contemplation, as it is about adventure. So with every trip, she likes to explore a little bit more of the world and a great deal more of herself. She enjoys hiking as well as exploring small towns and interesting city neighborhoods.
All photos by: Farha Mukri