Something to declare Visiting the past

| December 21, 2013

Simon Winder’s new book Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe takes readers on a riotous romp through a bygone age where sightseeing would have been nigh-on impossible. Here, we ask him “if the past is another country, how easy is it to travel there?”


Wandering around any great historical site, it is impossible not to feel frustrated by the often enormous gap between the current reality (a branch of Topshop, a street performer dressed as Darth Vader) and the wished-for, more exotic past. This feeling is further compounded by an awareness that in that past the chance of being allowed to visit historical sites would have been close to zero: constrained by issues as varied as lack of fast transport or the concept of a fortnight’s holiday, not to mention never being permitted to leave the fields in which you work on pain of mutilation or death. There is the further frustration that even if you were somehow sightseeing two hundred years ago, then at that time things we now consider annoying (Topshop, Darth Vader) would have had just as enraging equivalents (ubiquitous fake relic shops, a hopeless juggler). What we would now consider exotic would then have been banal and merely everyday.

The great cities of Central Europe are a prime case in point. Visiting them today can initially be a disappointing experience. It is impossible not to notice how similar to London or Edinburgh places such as Prague, Vienna or Budapest are. It is a superficial similarity, but that is what – by definition – you see first.

Time and again my own heart has sunk to have come all that way, just to see the same old brand-name shops and people painted as immobile gold statues (incidentally, do the latter all perhaps come from the same town, and simply fan out across Europe during the summer months?). But a never-failing source of excitement is the way that after a couple of hours in such cities, these initial annoyances evaporate: because these things are so ubiquitous they almost literally disappear from sight, leaving behind some truly astonishing sites.

Visiting the past undoubtedly requires some work, particularly reading, and some imagination, but the result is endlessly fascinating. I have been visiting Central Europe off and on for many years, but simply cannot conceive of a situation in which I would not leap for joy at the idea of going back to Budapest, say. Once you have made the adjustment, it is clear that even a lifetime is insufficient to understand such cities and that even pacing the quietest residential streets (which I often do) is as much a pleasure and surprise as wandering round the grandest monuments.

Vienna is a perfect example of a city that rewards perseverance. It can sometimes seem rather callously grand and chilly, but in so many ways it is one of the richest sites of human endeavour in the world, a palimpsest of jumbled layers of meanings and beliefs, triumphs and disasters. What we see today is like a shell without the snail. The central core of the city, from the cathedral to the palace, was for centuries designed purely to reflect the needs and whims of the Habsburg family. Settling permanently in Vienna in the early 17th century and ruling most of Central Europe for a further three hundred years (until the disaster of the first world war), the Habsburgs used this core area for a vast range of ceremonial processions – for regular Catholic feast days, for crucial family events, for greeting royal visitors, for giving thanks for surviving siege or plague. What is now the broad shopping street of the Graben used to be the setting for great feudal parades by the estates of Lower Austria. Surviving engravings show astonishing numbers of figures on horseback in terrific hats and cloaks, carefully positioned in order of precedence, from the grandest to the least grand. At the centre of the Graben there still stands the massive Plague Column, a huge bravura heap of carved clouds and angels, built by Leopold I in 1693 in thanks for the ending of a terrible plague. We can appreciate it still as a wonderful piece of baroque art, but the sensibility behind it is now baffling.

Wherever you turn in this part of Vienna there is nothing but left-over cult objects from the old regime. Churches for each of the principal orders of monks dominate each square or street, with different members of the Habsburg family on different occasions in the year favouring one or the other. Indeed the more time spent in central Vienna, the more it becomes clear that it was once a predominantly religious complex – not unlike Angkor Wat, say – in which thousands of people laboured, praying, singing and interceding for the health and success of the imperial family. This was expressed in very strange ways. When the emperor died, elaborate and peculiar ceremonies resulted in his body being cut up. His heart was put in the special ‘heart chapel’ at the church of the Augustinian monks, his bowels were put in alcohol-filled copper canisters in the basement of St Stephen’s Cathedral (they are still there, with helpful little labels marked Ferdinand III, Leopold I and so on). The rest of his now rather devastated body was given into the care of the Capuchin monks, who still to this day tend to the often sensationally gloomy tombs (some decorated with bronze skulls wearing crowns).

The past is indeed a different country, and a very peculiar one indeed. And, now I feel sad, as I have run out of room to point you in the direction of the Imperial Treasury, the contents of which make pickled tummies seem relatively rational. But with a little research and imagination, you can find your own way there.

Simon Winder is the author of Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (£18.99, Picador).

View Cox & Kings' short break to Vienna.

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