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Walking Tour 3: Vienna's Back Streets

Start: Maria am Gestade.

Finish: St. Stephan's Cathedral.

Time: 2 1/2 hours (not counting visits to interiors).

Best Time: Daylight hours, when you can visit shops and cafes.

Worst Time: In the rain and between 4 and 6pm.

In 1192, the English king Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) was captured trespassing on Babenburg lands in the village of Erdberg -- now part of Vienna's 3rd District -- after his return to England from the Third Crusade. The funds the English handed over for his ransom were used for the enlargement of Vienna's fortifications, which eventually incorporated some of the neighborhoods you'll cover on this walking tour. Horrified, the pope excommunicated the Babenburg potentate who held a Christian crusader, but not before some of medieval London was mortgaged to ransom him and, eventually, pay for Vienna's city walls.

Much of this tour focuses on smaller buildings and lesser-known landmarks on distinctive streets where some of the most influential characters of Viennese history have walked. Prepare yourself for a labyrinth of medieval streets and covered passages, and insights into the age-old Viennese congestion that sociologists claim helped catalyze the artistic output of the Habsburg Empire.

Begin your promenade slightly northwest of Stephansplatz with a visit to one of the least-visited churches of central Vienna:

1. Maria am Gestade

The edifice, at Salvatorgasse 1, is also known as "Maria-Stiegen-Kirche," or the Church of St. Mary on the Strand. Designated centuries ago as the Czech national church in Vienna, it replaced a wooden church, erected in the 800s, with the 14th-century stonework you see today. Restricted by the narrowness of the medieval streets around it, the church's unusual floor plan is only 9m (30 feet) wide, but it's capped with one of the neighborhood's most distinctive features, an elaborate pierced Gothic steeple. Since the early 19th century, when the first of at least five renovations began, art historians have considered the church one of the most distinctive but underrated buildings in town.

From here, walk south along the alleyway that flanks the church's eastern edge, turning left (east) at the Wipplingerstrasse for an eventual view of the:

2. Altes Rathaus

The Habsburg ruler Duke Frederick the Fair confiscated the building in 1316 from the leader of an anti-Habsburg revolt and subsequently donated it to the city. It later gained a baroque facade (1700) and a courtyard fountain (1740-41) that's famous for being one of Raphael Donner's last works. The building, at Wipplingerstrasse 3, functioned as Vienna's Town Hall until 1885, when the city's municipal functions moved to grander, neo-Gothic quarters on the Ring. Today, the Altes Rathaus contains a minor museum dedicated to the Austrian resistance to the Turks.

Wipplingerstrasse runs east into the:

3. Hoher Markt

The city's oldest marketplace, this was the location of a public gallows until the early 1700s, and of a pillory used to punish dishonest bakers until the early 1800s. Hoher Markt was originally the forum of the ancient Roman settlement of Vindobona. Some excavations of what's believed to be a Roman barracks are visible in the courtyard of the building at no. 3. It's likely, according to scholars, that Marcus Aurelius died of the plague here in A.D. 180. In the 1700s, several generations of plague columns (erected in thanksgiving for deliverance from the Turks and from the plague) replaced the instruments of torture that dominated the square. The present version was designed by Josef Emanuele von Ehrlach in 1732 and sculpted by Italian-born Antonio Corradini. An important scene from the film The Third Man was filmed at the base of the Hoher Markt's famous clock, the Ankeruhr, which -- to everyone's amazement -- escaped destruction during aerial bombardments of the square in 1945.

From here, walk a short block east along the Liechtensteingasse, then turn left and walk northeast along one of Vienna's most prominent shopping streets, the Rotenturmstrasse, for 2 blocks. Then turn right (east) onto the:

4. Griechengasse

The construction of this narrow street in the 1100s was representative of the almost desperate need for expansion away from the city's earlier perimeter, which more or less followed the ancient configuration of the Roman settlement of Vindobona. Griechengasse's name comes from the 18th-century influx of Greek merchants, precursor of the waves of immigrants flooding into modern Vienna from eastern Europe and the Middle East today. At Griechengasse 5, notice the unpretentious exterior of the Greek Orthodox church, built in 1805 with the plain facade that was legally required of all non-Catholic churches until the 19th century. At Griechengasse 7, occupying the point where the street turns sharply at an angle, stands a 14th-century watchtower. One of the few medieval vestiges of the old city walls, it was incorporated long ago into the antique architecture that surrounds it.

The Griechengasse narrows at this point, and in some places buttresses supporting the walls of the buildings on either side span it. Griechengasse soon intersects with a thoroughfare where, during the 12th century, you'd have been affronted with the stench of rancid blood from the nearby slaughterhouses.

Turn right and head to:

5. Fleischmarkt

Notice the heroic frieze above the facade of the antique apartment house at no. 18 ("The Tolerance House"), which depicts in symbolic form Joseph II, son of Maria Theresa, granting freedom of worship to what was at the time a mostly Greek Orthodox neighborhood. No. 9, opened in the 1400s and improved and enlarged during the next 300 years, was used as an inn (or, more likely, a flophouse) and warehouse for traders from the Balkans and the Middle East during the age of Mozart.

Take A Break -- Griechenbeisl, Fleischmarkt 11 (tel. 01/533-1941), is an inn named for the many Greeks who made it their regular dining spot for hundreds of years. Established in 1450, it's divided into a warren of cozy dining rooms.

The walls of another Greek Orthodox church rise adjacent to the Griechenbeisl. It was embellished in 1858 by Theophil Hansen, the Danish-born architect of many of the grand buildings of the Ringstrasse.

At Fleischmarkt 15, notice the baroque facade of the birthplace of an obscure Biedermeier painter, Moritz von Schwind. His claim to fame is his membership in the circle of friends who attended the Schubertiades, evenings of music and philosophy organized by Franz Schubert in Vienna during the early 19th century.

A branch of the Vienna post office lies at no. 19, on the premises of a monastery confiscated from the Dominicans by Joseph II as part of his campaign to secularize the Austrian government. The only ecclesiastical trappings left in this bureaucratic setting are the skeletons of dozens of dead brethren, buried in the building's crypt many generations ago.

The uninspired modern facade of the building at Fleischmarkt 24 was the long-ago site of a now-defunct hotel, Zur Stadt London, whose musical guests included the family of young Mozart as well as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner (when he wasn't fleeing his creditors), and the Polish exile Chopin. The building at Fleischmarkt 14 shows a rich use of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) detailing, and a plaque commemorating it as the birthplace of one of the directors of the Court Opera in the latter days of the Habsburg dynasty. At Fleischmarkt 1, residents will tell you about the birth here of a later director of the same opera company, after its reorganization into the State Opera.

Turn left and walk for about a half block on the:

6. Köllnerhofgasse

Nos. 1 through 3 functioned long ago as the headquarters of a group of merchants, based on the Rhine in Cologne, who set up a trading operation in Vienna in response to fiscal and legal perks and privileges granted to merchants during medieval times. The building you'll see today -- remarkable for the number of windows in its facade -- dates from 1792.

At this point, turn left into a cul-de-sac that funnels through a wide gate into a courtyard that's always open to pedestrians. The cul-de-sac is Grashofgasse, at the end of which is a wall painted with a restored fresco of the Stift Heiligenkreuz (Holy Cross Abbey), a well-known 12th-century Cistercian monastery 24km (15 miles) west of town. A covered arcade, which is usually open, pierces the wall of Grashofgasse 3 and leads into the cobbled public courtyard of the:

7. Heiligenkreuzerhof

This ecclesiastical complex incorporates a 17th-century cluster of monks' apartments, lodging for an abbot, and the diminutive baroque chapel of St. Bernard, which is usually closed to the public except for wedding ceremonies. The courtyard's continued existence in the heart of Vienna is unusual: Many equivalent tracts formerly owned by abbeys were converted long ago into building sites and public parks after sale or confiscation by the government.

Exit the monastery's courtyard from its opposite (southeastern) edge onto the:

8. Schönlaterngasse

Its name derives from the ornate wrought-iron street lamp that adorns the facade of the 16th-century building at no. 6. What hangs there now is a copy; the original is in the Historical Museum of Vienna. This well-maintained street is part of a designated historic preservation district. Renovation loans to facilitate such preservation were issued at rock-bottom interest rates and have been referred to ever since as kultur schillings. The neighborhood you're in is a prime example of these loans in action.

At Schönlaterngasse 7 lies the Basilikenhaus, a 13th-century bakery supported by 12th-century foundations. When foul odors began emanating from the building's well, the medieval residents of the building assumed that it was sheltering a basilisk (a mythological reptile from the Sahara Desert whose breath and gaze were fatal). The building's facade incorporates a stone replica of the beast that was killed, according to a wall plaque, by a local baker who bravely showed the creature its own reflection in a mirror. A modern interpretation involves the possibility of methane gas or sulfurous vapors seeping out of the building's well.

Schönlaterngasse 7A was the home of Robert Schumann from 1838 to 1839, the winter he rediscovered some of the unpublished compositions of Franz Schubert. Schumann, basking in the glory of a successful musical and social career, did more than anyone else to elevate Schubert to posthumous star status. The groundwork for the renaissance of Schubert's music was laid at this spot.

The building at no. 9 (Die Alte Schmiede) on the same street has functioned as a smithy since the Middle Ages. From outside, you can glimpse a collection of antique blacksmith tools.

Continue walking east along the Schönlaterngasse, where you'll see the back of the Jesuit Church, which you'll visit in a moment. Continue walking (the street turns sharply right) until the street widens into the broad plaza of the Postgasse, where you turn right. The monument that rises in front of you, at Postgasse 4, is the:

9. Dominikanerkirche

This is the third of three Dominican churches on this site. The earliest, constructed around 1237, burned down. The Turks demolished the second, completed around 1300, during the siege of 1529. The building you see today was completed in 1632 and is the most important early baroque church in Vienna. The rather murky-looking frescoes in the side chapels are artistically noteworthy; some are the 1726 statement of baroque artist Françoise Roettiers. However, the church is mainly attractive as an example of baroque architecture and for the pomp of its high altar. Elevated to the rank of what the Viennese clergy calls a "minor basilica" in 1927, it's officially the "Rosary Basilica ad S. Mariam Rotundam." Don't confuse the Dominikanerkirche with the less architecturally significant Greek Orthodox Church of St. Barbara, a few steps to the north at Postgasse 10, with its simple facade and elaborate liturgical rituals. Beethoven lived for about a year in a building adjacent to St. Barbara's, Postgasse 8.

Now, walk south along the Postgasse to its dead end, and turn right into a narrow alley interspersed with steps. The alley widens within a few paces into the Bäckerstrasse, a street noted for its imposing 18th-century architecture. Architects of such minor palaces as the ones at nos. 8 and 10 adorned their facades with unusual details that could be appreciated from close up. Long ago, no. 16 contained an inn (Schmauswaberl -- "The Little Feast Hive") favored at the time by university students because of its habit of serving food left over from the banquets at the Hofburg at discounted prices. Other buildings of architectural note include nos. 7, 12, and 14, whose statue of Mary in a niche above the door shows evidence of the powerful effect of the Virgin on the everyday hopes and dreams of Vienna during the baroque age.

Follow Bäckerstrasse for about a block until you reach the confines of the square that's referred to by locals as the Universitätsplatz but by virtually every map as the Dr. Ignaz Seipel-Platz (named for a theologian and priest who functioned twice as chancellor of Austria between the two world wars). The building that dominates the square is the:

10. Jesuitenkirche/Universitätskirche (Jesuit Church/University Church)

It was built between 1623 and 1627 and adorned with twin towers and an enhanced baroque facade in the early 1700s by those workhorses of the Austrian Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits. Ferdinand, the fervently Catholic Spanish-born emperor, invited the Jesuits to Vienna at a time when about three-quarters of the population had converted to Protestantism. It was estimated that only four Catholic priests remained at their posts in the entire city. From this building, the Jesuits spearheaded the 18th-century conversion of Austria back to Catholicism and more or less dominated the curriculum at the nearby university. The stern group of academics built an amazingly ornate church, with allegorical frescoes and all the aesthetic tricks that make visitors believe they've entered a transitional world midway between earth and heaven.

The western edge of Dr. Ignaz Seipel-Platz borders one of the showcase buildings of Vienna's university, the:

11. Aula (Great Hall)

Vienna's premier rococo attraction, the Aula is a precursor of the great concert halls that dot the city today. In the 1700s, musical works were presented in halls such as this one, private homes, or the palaces of wealthy patrons. Haydn's oratorio The Creation had its premiere here, as did Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Exit the Dr. Ignaz Seipel-Platz at its northwest corner, and walk along the Sonnenfelsgasse. Flanked with 15th- and 16th-century houses (which until recently drew complaints because of the number of bordellos they housed), the street is architecturally noteworthy.

The building at Sonnenfelsgasse 19, dating from 1628, was once home to the proctor (administrator) of the nearby university. Other buildings of noteworthy beauty include nos. 3, 15, and 17. The street bears the name of one of the few advisors who could ever win an argument with Maria Theresa, Josef von Sonnenfels. The son of a Viennese Christian convert, Sonnenfels was descended from a long line of German rabbis. He learned a dozen languages while employed as a foot soldier in the Austrian army and later used his influence to abolish torture in the prisons and particularly cruel methods of capital punishment. Beethoven dedicated his Piano Sonata in D Major to him.

Walk to the western terminus of the Sonnenfelsgasse, then turn left and fork sharply back to the east along the Bäckerstrasse. You will, in effect, have circumnavigated an entire medieval block.

After your exploration of Bäckerstrasse, turn south into a narrow alleyway, the Essigstrasse (Vinegar St.), and cross over the Wollzeile, centerpiece of the wool merchants and weavers' guild during the Middle Ages and now a noted shopping district. Continue your southward trek along the Stroblgasse, which leads into the Schulerstrasse. Turn right onto the Schulerstrasse, which leads within a block to a sweeping view of the side of:

12. St. Stephan's Cathedral

Built over a period of 400 years, and the symbol of Vienna itself, it's one of the city's most evocative and history-soaked monuments.

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