On my very first morning in Vienna I made a beeline for the Spanish Riding School, the home of the white Lipizzaner horses, those horses that had appeared unbidden in my dreams months ago and caused me to make this odyssey. It was early and I wasn’t sure that the school or anything else in the city would be open yet but now that I was in Vienna I had no intention of wasting one more minute in bed.
I was staying at a tiny family owned hotel called City Pension on Bauernmarkt, a narrow nondescript street tucked around the corner from the great St Stephen’s Cathedral. This cathedral, its towers soaring above all surrounding buildings, is at the heart of Vienna’s historic district, the “old city” or “innere stadt”. My home base during this self-devised expedition couldn’t have been more perfect. Even as I’d lain with my head on the pillow the night before, I’d been tantalized by the knowledge of all the things so close at hand, waiting virtually at my fingertips, directly outside the hotel. Museums, music, monuments and - most importantly, the Spanish Riding School in the Hofburg, the imperial palace complex. There, only a kilometre from my bed, ensconced in baroque splendour, a stable full of white stallions was sleeping. And soon, conquered by the exhaustion of my travels, I was doing the same.
Now, brandishing the paper map that had come with my Lonely Planet guidebook, I set off, leaving my hotel and Bauernmarkt quickly behind. I went down Brandtstatte, then along one side of the cathedral square and headed straight down the Graben, Vienna’s most prestigious shopping street. I passed stores touting the familiar global luxury brands, all the usual suspects. But I also passed a bookstore and cafes that were already open, their outside tables on this pedestrian only street dotted with solitary coffee drinkers.
I reached the point where the Kohlmarkt, another pedestrian street, meets the Graben. Looking down this vista I saw the dome that crowns the Michaelertor, the Michael Gate, exactly the landmark I’d longed to see. Green with the patina of time, belted with lacy gilding, gracefully flared at the bottom and set with four oval windows, this copper dome marks the old imperial entrance to the Hofburg. Beneath the dome is a large arched gateway once meant for the exclusive use of the emperor’s personal carriage. This arched entrance under the dome is flanked by huge statues of Hercules standing along the walls. The arch itself is embellished with wrought iron gates, curving and curling and surmounted with the imperial Habsburg crest.
The Michael Gate and this particular view of it is one of the most iconic of Vienna. In fact, on the airplane on my way here I’d watched a movie called “Red Sparrow”. It’s a spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence. At one point in the convoluted plot the beautiful but deadly dangerous Russian ballerina-turned-spy comes to Vienna to advance her daring double-crossing schemes. Vienna, mysteriously eastern and yet just barely west of the corroded Iron Curtain, is on the edge of her field of play.
The single camera shot used to signify Vienna in the movie is this exact view of the Michael Gate. Wrapped in a fiery red winter coat, the heroine strides through the wrought iron embellished archway. Now here I was only twelve hours after watching the movie doing the same thing. Only I wasn’t wearing a red coat and of course I don’t look anything like Jennifer Lawrence. And if I’m dangerous at all its only to myself and then primarily in an idiotic and accidental way. None of these facts dampened the thrill.
Beyond the arch, within the passageway, the Michaelertrakt, I paused to look up. Above me was the interior of the dome decorated with stucco flowers and flourishes like an inside-out Easter egg, it’s hollow shell-like beauty illuminated by the filigreed ovals of light cast by the four windows. Back at ground level, to my right was a doorway and a sign for the imperial apartments, the living quarters of the emperor and his family. Just here, just where I stood, the carriage would have stopped at this doorstep and the emperor would have gotten out, home at last. On my left, exactly opposite the emperor’s doorstep and just a few feet away, was the door of the Spanish Riding School.