News Special: The Vicar In Vienna

A letter received by email on the 20th of July

Dear Friends,

I hope this finds you well. Since my first (and last!) email [which said ’I have arrived’ - Ed.], I have not just been sitting around. Tim and Pip Snell have a very attractive apartment only some 20-25 minutes by tram from the centre of Vienna. So just about every day I have taken the No.43 from Dornbacherstrasse to the Schottentor which is on the Ring, the main road which circles the inner city and on which many of its main buildings can be found, such as the opera, the parliament, the Votivkirche, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and the Burgtheatre.

I arrive at the Schottentor (opposite the Votivkirche) at about 11.30am and walk past the Schottenstift (abbey of the Scots, founded in the middle ages by Irish monks - ask Ray Sisley if that sounds a bit Irish!), through Am Hof, the courtyard in which the imperial heralds used to proclaim the emperors, and where, in 6th August 1806, to their everlasting shame, they announced the dissolution of the the Holy Roman Empire (otherwise the first Reich).

Then I walk through the Graben, a large square (actually oblong) filled with posh shops and rather expensive restaurants and outdoor cafes, until I reach the Stephansplatz and enter St Stephen’s Cathedral (the most beautiful in the world, as Johannes Giesen, pupil of Walter Gieseking, once told me at OBHS. He was probably right.) The wonderful Rieger organ is always played even at said masses, and we sing our way through beautiful chorales and mass settings while (I, at least) do my best to ignore the clergy giving us their much amplified best at the altar. You know the sort of thing - warm welcomes and fuzzy sermonettes.

Then it’s time for a spot of lunch, and boy do the Viennese like unhealthy food! You never saw so much whipped cream in all your life. However, as Tim has shown me, the latest research reveals that green vegetables are only of questionable value in the human diet, coming a good way behind chocolate in that regard.

I had the great pleasure of lunching with Matthew Smith (son of Merv and Barbara) who lives in Vienna when work does not take him elsewhere. I was delighted to see him again, and he took me to a restaurant in a lovely little square run by a most charming woman. However, I must confess, that although I admire Matthew’s principles with respect to our animal brethren, I don’t believe I will ever make a truly trustworthy vegan. Vegetarian would be good, but vegan - I need cow’s milk in my coffee and tea, and I’m grateful to say that the most charming woman running the show kindly took pity on me and gave me cafe au lait - and the right sort of lait at that!

After lunch it’s off to the sights. So far I have seen the wonderful treasury of the Deutschorden (the Teutonic knights), and the fascinating (and moving) Jewish museum where I bought a large black yarmulka (skullcap) because the Canon Law of the Church of England published in 1603 says that priests of the Established Church may wear black skullcaps in church when it is cold. I believe it looks very fetching indeed. Even the mirror thinks so.

I have also ’done’ (the right word, I think) the imperial apartments in the Hofburg. These are uniformly depressing, because they have been left as reminders of Kaiser Franz Joseph and his wife, Kaiserin Elisabeth, otherwise known as Sisi. Sisi was the Austro-Hungarian predecessor of Princess Di. Indeed, she was much worse, totally self-centred and vain, which was not true of Diana, I think, but like Diana she has (even now) a continuing cult whose devotees see her as the Tragic Beauty imprisoned in Castle Gloom. Or something. Who cares - not me I assure you, except when I have to trudge through the son et lumiere of the Sisi Museum in order to get to more interesting things. One of which just has to be the Schatzkammer, the imperial treasury with the wonderful and very ancient Reichskrone of the Holy Empire, (which those wicked Heralds to carelessly tossed aside in 1806) along with the Holy Lance. It also has the beautiful seventeeth century House Crown of the Habsburgs (from 1806 the Austrian Imperial Crown) made for the mildly mad Kaiser Rudolf II in Prague.

The imperial collections, artistic and otherwise, are largely to be found in the so-called imperial precinct which Franz Joseph and his successor the (Blessed) Kaiser Karl never quite completed. It includes the two great court museums of art history (Kunsthistorisches) and natural history, which face one another across the Maria Theresien Platz, along with the so-called New Hofburg beside them. I had not expected to like these enormous buildings at all - late nineteenth century architectural pomposity is not quite my thing, but all three of these structures are simply magnificent, inside particularly, which surprised and delighted me a good deal. So much better than the rather shabby looking baroque apartments elsewhere in the Hofburg - let alone the perfectly abominable chapel in which the Vienna Boys’ Choir do their Sunday stuff. Not only is it small and cramped, it has been so ’restored’ and ’improved’ over the years that Kaikorai Presbyterian Church would be preferable. Likewise the Augustinerkirche (the Court Church) which was a magnificent and very beautiful Gothic Hallenkirche, but which is now but a shadow of its former self, the interior largely covered in grey paint, if you please.

I’m afraid I do not quite come up the highest standards where painting is concerned - or rather the originals thereof. For years I have thought Vermeer’s canvas of the artist painting the girl with the wreath on her head (The Artist in His Studio, I think) just wonderful. But to me its reproduction in an elegantly produced book looks a lot better that the real thing behind glass (in the frame itself!) in a rather pokey corner of a museum. Sorry. However, you should see the exhibition of Historic Musical Instruments and the exhibition of Armour and Arms in the Neue Burg - especially the armour. Absolutely wonderful. And I touched a piano which Brahms himself used to play!

Ten days ago or so, we went to Mariazell, the main place of pilgrimage in Austria, perhaps in Central Europe itself, since (rather extraordinarily to my mind) Our Lady of Mariazell is probably the principal shrine of the Hungarians as well. It is in a very attractive town in the hills with a beautiful Church. The Image of the Virgin and Child, originally mediaeval, is dressed and crowned as is usual in such shrines, and sits above an altar, surrounded by the most incredible silver screen originally given by Maria Theresia and her husband the Holy Roman Emperor Franz Stephan. Lo, and behold, as we entered the Basilica, a mass was just beginning, and the wonderful eighteenth century organ accompanied our singing. I was impressed by the fact that both at Mariazell and at the Stephansdom in Vienna, everybody seemed to know whatever mass setting was being used, none of which were the sort of would-be up-to-date trash to which we are usually accustomed in our own dear Anglican Church. These Austrian settings are actually musical.

Then, just a few days ago, on Saturday, we decided to go to Salzburg and stop off at the beautiful town of Steyr on the way. As usual, it was very hot (about 35 degrees) and we found an outdoor restaurant in the main street for lunch. The restaurant was on a kind of wooden platform from which you descended by a couple of shallow steps to the footpath. But I didn’t. I have always been rather unsteady on my feet due to my carelessness in catching polio when I was two years old, and the situation has not improved with the years, especially the last few years. I fell really rather badly, broke my left wrist, damaged my left foot, and sprained and bruised quite enough of the rest of me as well. But I am truly grateful to God in that my back was not affected.

A few years ago now I fell over in St Peter’s while trying to change the sanctuary light, and was surprised to find that it was a most unpleasant experience, even on a nice new carpet. I was badly shaken. It was not at all as such falls had been when I was young, and the after effects were all too like those described by many of those whom I have visited for years in rest homes.

The fall in Steyr was a good deal worse than the fall in St Peter’s. Not only was it painful, but I was also in some kind of shock. Everybody was most kind and helpful, and eventually Tim and Pip decided it might be a good idea if I sat for a while in the church very nearby. Here, however, things seemed to get much worse. I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t move my fingers, and I felt sure I would either throw-up or faint or both.

The ambulance arrived and I was taken to the local hospital. Eventually the state of shock wore off, and I could move my fingers again and I felt a good deal better. Various tests were done and the doctors expressed the opinion that it would probably be better if I stayed in overnight. The ambulance men, the doctors and nurses at Steyr were just wonderful, and in a way, the most memorable part of our experience there. However, we decided to return to Vienna . All seemed OK for a while, but I could hardly walk at all without the risk of another fall and after Tim had got me to my room, the shock and so on returned and another ambulance was called to take me to what is apparently the university hospital in Vienna, where x-rays showed up the broken wrist and the damaged foot. My left arm was put in plaster and my left foot bandaged up, and after all the tests, an ambulance finally took me home at 1.30am.

But I should like you to know, dear parishioners, that when the clock in the hospital showed half-past midnight, I joined in prayer with you at the Solemn Eucharist on your Sunday morning at 10.30am. I hope it all went well - as I’m sure it did.

The upshot of all this is that I have had to stay on in Vienna, and cancel my trip to England. I am of course sorry about that, but I am grateful to be here with Tim and Pip at a time when I really could not travel, and I am improving every day.

Well, that is clearly more than enough for now. Next installment when I have thrown myself down an elevator shaft. Or not, as the case may be.

Love and best wishes to you all,


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