Text by – LEANDRO BONAN

Translation by – CHIARA SCARFO’

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Walking around Vienna on a Saturday afternoon will give you the impression of going back to 150 years ago, to the point where the cars and the traffic lights almost clash with the unchangingness and elegance of Austria’s capital city. Everything in the city refers to the Austro-Hungarian empire’s glorious period: just think about the fact that, to this day, the historic shops are proud of having been the Habsburg’s suppliers, writing that they are kaiserlich und königlich, imperial and royal. Both imperial and royal because the Austro-Hungarian empire was actually a double headed entity, just like the two-headed eagle that was its symbol: in fact, after the Hungarian revolutionary uprisings in 1867, in which the rebels received help from Prussia, Franz Joseph had to recognize more autonomy to the bohemian State, declaring that his State was a union of the Austrian empire and the Hungarian kingdom, modifying his title in emperor and king. Kaiser und König, indeed.

Franz Joseph, the last emperor, can be seen everywhere around the city, since this year is the centenary of his death. His severe and bewhiskered profile stands out from the bus stops, the houses’ walls and the banners of the shopping street Marienhilfe. My visit of Vienna started exactly from the place where the Imperial Crypt is located. It’s right in the city center, close by the wonderful gothic cathedral of Saint Stephen, and it’s the chapel where all the members of the Habsburg household were buried. The architecture complements the family spirit: bare, grim, without frills or decorations, and the graves themselves (except for Marie Therese’s one) are simple but solemn. The silence and the dim light wrap the visitor and let him perceive the crypt not only as a place the Habsburg have been resting for generations but also how the crypt has become, during the years, a symbol of the national history and identity.

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Viennese people, as a matter of fact, go there every day to commemorate their dynasty, always leaving fresh flower crowns and Die Kapuzinergruft, The Capuchin Crypt, the most famous novel by Joseph Roth, an Austrian-Jewish author who lived and wrote between the 19th and the 20th century. The novel is about how two young Viennese people saw their life twisted with the outbreak of the First World War, the following annexation to Germany and the Second World War. After centuries of peace and calm prosperity in which their parents and grandparents had lived, the kids from the 1890 found themselves suddenly thrown into history, that usually caught them off-guard. In the last scene of the book, the main character finds a refuge visiting the crypt as soon as he found out about the Anschluss from Austria to the Nazi Germany. That place for him, and in general for the Austrian people, represents the glorious past of a State with 8 million inhabitants, that in 1913 counted more than 52 million, and what was left of the passed pacific stability.

Be careful not to think of a melancholic city turned down on its past because you would be wrong: Vienna continues to live its history, still using the nineteenth-century spaces, adapting the form and the style but maintaining unchanged the original soul of the city. One example that can be made is the colorful Naschmarkt, in the southern part of the center. Born in the half of the 16th century as a place to sell milk bottles and cheeses and later on developed into the biggest city market in Vienna, today has still maintained its loud, popular and colorful soul, hosting stands with vegetables, exotic fruit, spices, Turkish sweets and foods, Slavic gastronomy and local bakery. Even if the exposed goods’ nature has radically changed, it has been unvaried during time as it still is a meeting and exchange place, and symbol of the surprising cultural richness of the city.

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Antithetical at first glance, but very similar for the process of actualization that has permitted their preservation, are the Viennese pastry shops, famous all around the world for their cakes’ goodness and for the unkindness of their staff. On all of them, a lot more than the now touristy Hotel Sacher, stand over for elegance Demel, in front of Hofburg (the royal residence) and the Café Central, in the city center, at walking distance from the already cited gothic cathedral, that just alone deserves the visit in Vienna (it is the impressive cover of this article). Opened respectively in 1786 and 1876, they hosted from the beginning the cultural and politic luminaries of the Empire: Freud, Princess Sissi, Von Hoffmannsthal, Theodor Herzl, Lenin and Trotsky were habitual clients. They met there, drinking tea and eating the very famous cakes, transforming the bakeries into a cultural salon or a political cabinet, depending on the time periods. The empire is over, and the poets have stopped frequenting the outwardly beautiful and mirrored rooms of the cafes, but this places haven’t lost the relaxed and thoughtful aura that characterized them: Viennese people go there habitually, even for work meetings, and the fact that they are still frequented by Vienna’s inhabitants has let these places survive, despite the tourists’ invasion.

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Even the imperial residences haven’t been transformed into mausoleums to remember the Habsburg: the Hofburg, the main abode of the emperor until the First World War, is where today the President of Austrian Republic lives. But it’s not only a place of power, since the incredibly ample courtyard and the gates are always open to the citizenry, becoming part of the green complex in the city center. The palace, beyond the baroque drawings and majestic royal apartments, hosts also

the National Library (Prunktsaal) and the Augustinerkirche, that houses the hearts of the Habsburg and the funeral monument made by Antonio Canova to Marie Christine, daughter of the Empress Marie Therese.

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But Vienna is also Viennese Secession, Klimt’s Symbolism, the deformed and suffering arts of Egon Schiele, Kokoschka’s violent colors. For the enthusiasts, there are two places that cannot be missed. The first one is palace where the separation of the Academy of Fine Arts happened, the Secession Palace. The second one is the Belvedere, built in 1717 as the residence for Prince Eugene from Savoy that became after his death one of the first public museums in the world. But I will talk about it another time, now it’s better not to exaggerate.

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