Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Vienna Vignettes – A Musical Afternoon


VIENNA–JULY 14, 2015 20:33

I accidentally attended a funeral today.

Let’s rewind. I struck out this morning to take the (free) audio tour of the interior and exterior of St. Stephen’s Church here in Vienna. We’d seen the church before, but I had set aside some time to listen though the guided tour – skipping the admission line and simply looking at the paid part of the church from the entryway.

On my way to Stephen’s, I stopped by another church en route, Minoritenkirche, just around the corner from our apartment. This beautiful sanctuary is famous for its tile mosaic The Last Supper, a huge wall-sized recreation of the famous painting. The church itself has an iconic tower that looms over the quiet, sheltered plaza.



The Vienna TI was my next stop. I was hoping to get some help with a bicycle trip through Austria’s wine country later this week. Sadly, they were less than helpful when I had questions about bike rental companies outside Vienna. No financial connection with Vienna itself? Sorry, can’t help ya. Disappointed, I headed to the crowded plaza at St. Stephen’s to listen to the Rick Steves audio tour of the church.

After completing a full circle of the exterior – admiring the cannonball lodged into the exterior stone from an attack on the city – I popped into the free entryway of the sanctuary. As in other big cathedrals (St. Vitus in Prague comes to mind), entry to the church itself is free, but admission is required to poke around the full sanctuary and get close-up looks at the statues, side chapels, and tombs. Standing in the back and listening to the audio tour describe things I couldn’t see, I noticed a sign saying that there were no tours or admission to the main part of the church this afternoon. I wasn’t planning to pay anyway, so it didn’t bother me.

St. Stephen's

St. Stephen’s

I found a small bench in the rear of the church to rest while listening to the end of the tour. As the audioguide finished, I heard the sound of an orchestra tuning. I perked up and noticed that television monitors through the church were now on and displayed images of a sizable orchestra and a large choir. Could I have lucked into one of their concerts? Can I just sit in the back and listen?

The music started, and I thought myself extremely lucky as I watched the musicians play on the TV screens. Then, the image cut to a procession of priests and acolytes, followed by a close-up of a black-and-white portrait of an elderly man ringed with flowers. Uh-oh. The next image confirmed my suspicion: the priest was wielding a censer of incense and was anointing a white casket with the fragrant smoke. It all suddenly made sense: I was accidentally attending a funeral.

While listening to the rest of the processional – which was a lengthy piece – I noticed people sitting next to me on the bench getting up to go through a small door. As each left, the next would go in to take her place. A light alternated red and green over the small door, a sort of “occupied” sign for others in the sanctuary. I had accidentally joined the line for confession.

From St. Stephen’s – after listening to one more piece at the funeral – I went back to Stadtpark to photograph the busts of two lesser-known composers that I had missed on my big parks day. Before lunch, I sat down on a bench to do some work on my book manuscript in this inspiring park.

In the early afternoon, I made arrangements for the bicycle trip during the heat of the day. Having the luxury of so much time allows me to do trip planning mid-trip. It’s a nice pace to travel, and I’ll enjoy it while I can. At 3 p.m., I walked over to St. Peter’s Church, which offers free (!) organ recitals every weekday afternoon. On the way in, I saw a sign advertising another free concert that night at 6. I had the rest of my day planned out!

The interior of St. Peter’s is disgustingly Baroque and beautiful. Eye-melting gold and marble decorate every inch of the walls from floor to impossibly-high ceiling. Among my favorites: two decomposed human corpses – martyrs – on display in glass cases in side sanctuaries and a 3D golden image of St. John of Nepomuk, the Czech saint who was thrown from the Charles Bridge in Prague.

St. John of Nepomuk, St. Peter's Church

St. John of Nepomuk, St. Peter’s Church

The organ concert was fantastic, filling the huge church with the sounds of some of my favorite Baroque composers. Between concerts, I took a little walk around parts of the Ringstrasse that I had missed earlier, then settled down at the Kolar beisl that we had already visited. My timing was perfect, as a short rainstorm went through the city while I was sipping my dunkel and doing more work on my book.

I went back to St. Peter’s for the six o’clock concert – just as moving as the first, maybe more so after a couple of dunkel beers – and picked up some street sausage for dinner on my way home to meet up with Sara.

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