Context Travel Introduction Tour of Vienna’s 1st District

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We met Alexa, our Docent (guide), at Rupertsplatz, next to the oldest existing church in the city and the location of the first salt markets. Our group was small and consisted of just three others, a local guy and also a mother and daughter duo from America who were all very keen, curious and decent people.

Alexa had been a guide for 26 years and had masters degrees in various subjects, art history being one. She reminded us of our Context Travel guide in Athens, Vassilis, who was also cultured, well dressed and extremely knowledgeable about the city.

Our group walked across cobblestone for a few metres until Alexa pointed out the old synagogue. It’s built into houses and if not pointed out we’d have never noticed it.

“It wasn’t just during the second world war that Jews were treated badly,” said Alexa. “They’ve been subject to such treatment since medieval times and to be honest it only only stopped couple of years ago. Vienna is mostly Catholic and has been for centuries. When the synagogue was built the law was that there could be no external sign that it was a place of worship. The only reason that the synagogue was allowed to stay when the Nazis arrived was that they used it’s records to round up the Jews and either send them away after having paid a huge exit tax or send them to concentration camps.”

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The canal below Rupertsplatz, where we’d met, was where the Jews were gathered before being deported. As we walked on there were plenty of street scenes that looked as though they’d changed little from those terrible years. The same cobblestone, the same tall, functional buildings and no traffic, noise or crowds to give you any feeling of the modern world.

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Often I stopped momentarily and tried to imagine how it must’ve been to walk these streets during those times. It was easy to do that, the streets were so quiet, it allowed the imagination free range. What a terrible time to have lived here. You had just two choices. To join in with the Nazis and give in to the evil or join some sort of resistance group and risk the lives of yourselves and your family.

We arrived at the Anker Clock, built between 1911 – 1914 by the painter and sculptor Franz von Matsch – a friend of Klimt – in a typical Art Nouveau design so that it forms a bridge between the two parts of the Anker Insurance Company‘s building.

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In the course of twelve hours twelve historical figures or pairs of figures move across the bridge and every day at noon, all of the figures parade, each accompanied by music from its era and during the Advent season daily at 5 and 6 p.m there are Christmas Carols.

The clock is built over the site of the original Roman square (underneath the modern square there’s a museum that shows what remains of Roman Vienna) but we knew very little of the city history and in a way this stopped us from getting all we could from Alexa. We’ve been on a Context Travel tour before in Athens and found it fulfilling as we’d known enough about the city to ask a decent range of questions but unfortunately we didn’t know anywhere near as much about Vienna. This wasn’t your average city tour. It’s an orientation tour yes, but one led by a highly qualified docent and to get most out of it I feel you’d need more than passing knowledge of Austrian history. So we’d advise, don’t be like us! Learn a little about the city before you arrive…

Next came another cobblestone square where there was a memorial to dead Jews that’s been constructed by the British artist Rachel Whitereed.

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Just around the corner was a house where a very young Mozart played his first Viennese public performance. Apparently he wasn’t allowed to play for the Empress at first until high society could be sure he was the genius that rumour made him out to be, and the concert in this house was a way to prove just how good he was. Next to it was a church where the end of the Holy Roman Empire had been announced;  almost every building we passed had a fascinating history.

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We walked on through a gently lit shopping arcade…

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…and at a corner Alexa pointed out the building where the Ephrussi family used to live (the family detailed in that great book ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes) before we ascended a narrow staircase. With the story of the book in my mind it was again easy to be reminded again of WW2 as the area here must’ve looked exactly then as it does now.

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Having passed a house where Beethoven had composed one of his symphonies….

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…and a couple of street corners that I recognised from the classic film, ‘The Third Man’…

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…we took a break in the Cafe Landtmann – the oldest cafe on the Ring and a former favourite haunt of celebrated locals such as Sigmund Freud – where we had hot drinks to warm up. it’s a little pricey in the Landtmann but it’s unlike anywhere else in Vienna and as such we feel it’s worth it.

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Darkness was falling as we left the cafe and the Town Hall opposite was beautifully lit up.

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We walked on towards the Hofburg Palace, passing the old home of the Lichtenstein family who left Vienna centuries ago in order to form their own country, and reached the offices of the current president and chancellor. Both were guarded by only a single policemen, which is a very different situation to the hoards of armed police and the iron gates that protect the British PM in Downing St. I guess that’s what happens when you cultivate a peaceful society and don’t join NATO or get involved with bombing countries for dubious reasons.

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We ended our tour at Stephansplatz. It had been a fascinating, enjoyable afternoon, with plenty of time for questions, answers and discussion and by the end of it we could find our way around central Vienna a little better and understood more of local history.

If you’re looking for a city tour with more to it than just orientation, then we happily recommend Context Travel. We’ve taken their tours in a couple of cities now and they always have the same high standard of guide and attract a similar type of tourists who are generally inquisitive, gentle and the sort of good company we enjoy whilst on a tour.

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