Old Vienna: The Hofburg

Imperial Vienna is a city that is rich, very rich in both history and culture.  Just visit the Hofburg or the Imperial Palace and you will understand what I mean.  The palace is a complex comprising 10 or more buildings and is reflective of the six centuries of Austrian rule.  Now, most of it has been converted into museums whilst part of it has been turned into the President’s office.  Lucky him to be working in such a beautiful building.

I don’t know where to start, there’s the Albertina Museum which houses one end of the complex and is home to one of the world’s finest collections of watercolours, prints and drawings.  There, I saw breathtaking peices by Durer, Rubens, and Michelangelo to name a few.  I was also lucky enough to be there during the Munch exhibition an got to see some of the most famous works, “The Scream.”  If you are bored of the prints or they aren’t really your taste, you can also walk around some of the newly renovated rooms.  This used to be the residence of Maria Theresa’s daughther, Maria Christina and her husband Duke Albert.  The rooms have beautifully inlayed floors and silk panel coverings.  Exquisite.

If you are a book lover, stop by the Austrian National Library (Prunksaal) and be mystified by it’s wood paneling and flamboyant gold coverings.  Walls and walls of books await whilst the painted ceiling overhead just takes your breath away.

There’s a statue of Prince Eugene in front of the Neue Burg which is a great place to take photos because of its curved architecture added in 1881-1913.  It’s beautiful and grand. It’s no wonder this is where Hitler chose to proclaim “the Anchluss” in 1938.  The Neue Burg was also the latest addition to the Hofburg as Imperial power faded.  A mere 5 years after it’s completion, the Habsburg empire ended.

To see all the glory of the Habsburg empire, do not miss the State Apartments, Silberkammer and Schatzkammer (Treasuries).  In this part of the Hofburg, you will walk through rooms and rooms of ornate interior.  This was the home of Emperor Franz Joseph, the famous Empress Sissi, and even those of Tsar Alexander I.  There is an incredible 10th century crown dating from the time of the Holy Roman Empire and the cradle of Napoleon’s son with Maria Louisa.  There are golden crowns and chairs from the order of the Golden Fleece.  There are so many treasures here you get dizzy.  Museums in other countries seem to have but a fraction.  These are things you read about in history books and see in movies.  These objects from history are behind stories of knights in armour and wars.  Stories of love and marriages and hidden childs.  All this you must not miss.  You could spend a good part of the day roaming around the quarters and delving into the treasures.

My favorite part of the complex, aside from the treasuries, has to do with horses. The Winter Riding School.   By now you probably know I love horses.  This is the Spanish Riding School (horses from Spain bred with Arab and Berber horses) believed to have been founded in 1572 to train riders in horsemanship.  Here, they have shows showing you horses dancing to music as if they were part of a ballet.  The horses leap into the air completely in control of their legs with such grace, you wonder if its really a horse.  And all this, happens amidst a hall filled with carvings, intricate plasterwork and crystal chandeliers.  If you changed the flooring to wood, it could very well be a beautiful ballroom.  That’s how beautiful the building is.  I saw the morning training session, even then it was so beautiful. 

Yes, the Hofburg is large. You could get lost roaming around the place, but its definitely a site not to be missed.  At least see all the treasures.  It is amazing.  You’ll see how rich Imperial Vienna was and still is.


Lost in Cairo’s Gayer Anderson Museum

At the Gayer Anderson Museum

A little over a decade since I first started planning my trip to Egypt, I finally made it.  I was at long last in the land of the great pyramids, where great pharaohs had ruled Egypt for thousands of years.  I was finally in the land of the mummies and hieroglyphics.  A land where mysteries abound.  Of course my first destination was Cairo: the capital of Egypt.

I landed at Cairo Airport and was instantly struck at the amount of people everywhere.  It’s a small airport, so once off the airplane you just walk into the terminal building, watch your plane roll by and see a dozen tour groups waiting to go through immigration.  It was crazy.  Though busy and crowded with people like Japan, it was busy in a totally different sense.  Crowds of people stood around in anything but a line.  Tour leaders with dozens of passports in hand would somehow get to that window without havng to wait and then ‘poof’ his people would be through.  I realized, you had to be street smart to get around Egypt.  Following rules was not a prerequisite. Oh, and men need to have moustaches.  Moustaches were everywhere.

Now Cairo is a big city with a rich history and past so amazing that I wonder where to start.  There is Islamic Cairo whose landscape is filled with minarets, domes and the famous Khan-al Khalili Bazaar.  There is Old Cairo which has a Roman and Christian past, and then there’s Central Cairo which is the heart of the modern city and boasts features of European architecture modeled after France.  Cairo is a fascinating collection of architecture.

Inlaid work

I’ll start today with one of my favorite sites in Cairo.  It’s a museum that is often not included in the program guide, but one definitely worth going to if you have time: The Gayer-Anderson Museum.

The museum is in actual fact two adjacent 16th and 17th century houses that were lovingly restored by Gayer Anderson Pasha who was a Major serving in the British army and had received special permission to reside in this house by the Egyptian government.  He must have been one influential officer for his house stood with adjoining walls to one of Egypt’s largest and oldest mosque: Ibn Tulun.

It’s a magical house and one that can make you believe in flying carpets and Aladdin.   Inside, the house was decorated with wooden mashrabiyya screens and other beautiful objects of 17th century life.  The tables, chairs, screens, carpets, and lamps all made you feel like you had entered a truly Egyptian house.  The best of Egypt had been assembled here for all to see from the intricate marquetry wooden boxes with inlaid mother of pearl to copper tables that made me want to just dine there.

Going up stairs, through rooms you would get lost if it wasn’t for the occasional help of the guide in the house.  He showed us this fascinating corner cupboard that looked liked an innocent corner cupboard.  That was until he pressed a magic button and opened up a secret hiding place behind it.  It was an area small enough to fit in perhaps two people and it looked out onto the large reception hall below.  Clearly covered by the mashrabiyya screen, the minutely interlaced wood allowed females looking out to be veiled from the gaze of men. Though not seen, they were free to observe all that happened downstairs.

I’m told this cupboard is also where James Bond’s Movie “The Spy Who Loved Me” was partly filmed. 

Rooftop masbrabiyya screens

Moving up onto the rooftop, I’m greeted by a corridor of these beautiful wooden mashrabiyya screens which mesmerize me.   The designs are so intricate and so beautiful against the clear blue sky I crave to own a screen of my own.  The little windows built into the screen each open up to the top of another mosque in the horizon.  It was all calculated and planned.  Beautiful.

I wish I could stay and spend a night in this wonderful house, but it is only a wish I can dream of.  An hour after arrival, I am ushered out of the house before the important Friday midday call to prayer.  The staff are to close down the museum temporarily. Next time I’ll have to time my visit better.