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Vienna offers opportunity to experience rich living history

Imagine walking down winding streets overlooked by historic buildings, feeling as though you had stepped back in time — at least until a car goes by and reminds you that you are still in the modern world. That’s how it feels to walk through the city of Vienna.

In the summer of 2015, I was presented with an amazing opportunity that helped change the course of my academic career — I went on a music history study abroad in Vienna, Austria, through the University of Southern Mississippi.

When people think of great places to travel in Europe, they think of the obvious destinations — Paris, London, etc. While these are undoubtedly wonderful locations, Vienna ranks just as highly. It is a city that oozes history and culture, especially with regard to music. If you ever find yourself in Vienna, there are several destinations in the city that are worth checking out.

viennamozartcutoutThere is the Vienna State Opera, which puts on performances almost every night during the summer season — that’s as many as 70 different operas and ballets in a given year. The architecture of the building is gorgeously ornate, with grand staircases and a massive chandelier in the concert hall — vestiges of the fact that the opera house was originally built in 1869, when Austria was still an empire ruled by the Habsburg family. In fact, the Stehplatz, or standing room, is located directly beneath the old imperial box where the royal family used to sit.

One can also witness one of the more interesting traditions associated with concerts in Vienna — saving one’s place with a scarf. The Stehplatz, in Viennese music venues, often features railings to lean on, and people will tie their scarves to these railings to save their spot should they have to leave at any point during the performance or intermission. It is an unspoken courtesy that the Viennese extend to each other — don’t take a place that’s been reserved with a scarf.

Standing room tickets for the opera can be purchased for only five euros, with actual seats being more expensive. However, if you don’t mind the background noise of traffic, the opera also has an outdoor seating area where people can watch the opera for free, featuring benches and a large screen on which performances are played live. During the summer, the sun does not set in Austria until almost ten o’clock at night, meaning that those watching operas outside will witness “the blue hour” — the period around dusk where the light of the setting sun reflects off of the old buildings in the first district of Vienna with a beautiful, deep blue color.

The outdoor seating area is located next to the street called Opern Ring, part of the larger Ringstrasse, or Ring Street, that surrounds the first district of Vienna, the oldest part of the city. The Ringstrasse marks the former path of the city’s defensive walls, which were in place to protect Vienna from invasion from the late Middle Ages until the 19th century, when they were torn down on the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph after it was determined that they were no longer militarily necessary. The street, now commonly known as just “the Ring,” was built in the walls’ place.

Another beautiful piece of architecture is Schönbrunn Palace, which has its own stop on the U-Bahn, or metro system. Built in 1699 by the Habsburg monarchy as their version of Versailles, the palace is open for public tours that are guided by an audio recording, which gives visitors information about the individual rooms on the tour and the members of the Habsburg family that occupied them. Among the rooms featured is the parlor where Mozart famously gave his first concert for Empress Maria Theresa when he was six years old, as well as the Emperor Franz Joseph’s office, Empress Sisi’s bedroom, and the ballroom where official court functions and other large events were held — all as close as possible to the condition they would have been during the Habsburg dynasty.

The palace is surrounded by extensive, immaculate gardens that are open as a public park. The gardens feature several large fountains, as well as enormous numbers of roses and other flowers. One can spend all day just in the gardens without ever setting foot in the palace itself, and many people do. It is a little surreal seeing joggers running in much the same way they would in any public park in the United States, as though completely oblivious to the fact that they’re next to a historic palace.

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Another outdoor space where one can spend all day is the Zentralfriedhof, or Central Cemetery. Although the prospect of walking around for hours in a cemetery may seem depressing, the notable individuals who are buried there make it an important part of the city’s history. Among them are Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss II, Arnold Schönberg, Johannes Brahms, and Ludwig van Beethoven, whose prominent, obelisk-like headstone is famous in its own right — and these are just some of the composers. That is not counting the numerous other musicians, as well as actors, artists, scientists and other historical figures who are also buried there. In fact, some notable figures in Austrian history who died and were initially buried in other cemeteries were disinterred later on and moved to the Zentralfriedhof as an honor — including Beethoven.

Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral, is the largest church in Vienna. A medieval Gothic cathedral that was originally built in 1147, the church has been renovated and rebuilt several times in its history to make extensive repairs after various disasters, such as the damage the church suffered in 1945 at the end of World War II. The bell in its south tower, which weighs 20 tons, is only rung on a handful of holidays during the year, one of them being the Feast of Corpus Christi, which falls during the early summer. I feel fortunate that I was there to hear it. Originally there were two such bells, one in the south tower and one in the north. However, the one in the north tower was destroyed by a bomb during WWII. Even though it has been redone extensively over the centuries, the inside of the church still feels medieval, with enormous vaulted ceilings held up by massive stone columns, and beautiful stained-glass windows.

If you enjoy a little bit of creepiness, St. Stephen’s has another interesting feature — it sits on top of the city’s old catacombs. The catacombs were used as a cemetery — there are an estimated 11,000 people buried there — until the 18th century when a plague in Vienna forced officials to ban burials inside the city walls as a public health precaution. One of the chambers in the catacombs also contains broken statues that were removed from the exterior of the building after they were damaged during WWII, as well as the clapper from the north tower bell, a giant piece of metal that weighs more than a ton by itself. A tour of the catacombs is a must for any visitor.

The boxes in the concert hall of the Vienna State Opera.

The boxes in the concert hall of the Vienna State Opera.

If one is in desperate need of fresh air after walking through the catacombs, the Kahlenberg, a small mountain located just outside of the city itself in Lower Austria, is a good option. Part of the foothills of the Alps, it is a great place to go hiking through Lower Austria’s wine country. One gains an appreciation for how far back Austria’s history reaches when one realizes that some of the vineyards on the Kahlenberg are hundreds of years old. At the top, one can look out over the entire city of Vienna, including the Danube River, and one can see the spires of the larger churches, such as St. Stephen’s, poke up above the rest of the buildings.

I was a music major, but after studying abroad in Vienna, I switched to history with a music minor, with the goal of attending graduate school to study music history. I also have a desire to see more of the world, to travel more and, especially, to go back to Europe someday.

Vienna is an amazing place, where one is completely surrounded by history on all sides. There, history is not just a subject of study — it is an experience.

For more information, visit www.lamar.edu/studyabroad. For more on the University of Southern Mississippi’s Music in Vienna study abroad program, visit www.usm.edu/study-abroad.

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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