The wind shrieked and swooned down the spiral staircase smacking our shivering faces; the draft carried with it whispers that grew louder with each upward step. At my eye level was a small window that framed a row of gargoyles looming over spikes that stood atop the cathedral’s buttresses.
Those voices were of tourists climbing down the south tower of the St Stephen’s Cathedral. We hugged the wall as people brushed past us. The stone walls were like that of a refrigerator with a texture of weathered leather, blackened by soot from candles probably held by many bell ringers, who have been scaling similar stairs in various medieval cathedrals.
Just the day before, we had been to the Schönbrunn Palace or the summer palace of the Habsburg family. In January, the garden had no trace of summer, and the decorative wrought iron arches that line the pathways holding green vines during summer stood barren. The French garden, so famous for its design seemed to be from Snowwhite’s dreams filled with frozen grass blades, frozen shallow puddles, and frozen fountains. Beyond the Grand Fountain of Neptune stood the world’s largest Gloriette on the hill that had a view of the city. With approaching dusk and plummeting temperatures, I was not game for traversing the once-hunting reserve of the ruling family. Today, the only animals in the garden are in the world’s oldest zoo that was started in the mid-1700s.
Schönbrunn held not only the austere living quarters and the office of Emperor Franz Joseph but also the gilded staterooms and guestrooms of the Habsburgs. A regular feature in the different rooms were ceramic stoves. Most of the lavish rooms that were open to the public were in Rococo or late-Baroque that became popular in the late 1800s. Chandeliers and furniture had lacquered surfaces covered in gold leaf. The paintings adorning the walls and ceilings were in Baroque style, focussing on emotions than on details; and to a novice like me, the pieces looked like a child’s serious attempt at art when compared to the intricate idealism of the Renaissance paintings.
It was not hard to imagine that the palace had seen Maria Theresa and Elisabeth of Bavaria, and many influential men and women of its time. After all, it was once the centre of a world superpower, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Back in the cold church tower, we reached the empty bell room. The bell had never been replaced after being damaged in the World War 2. From the watchman’s room, we could see a stunted north tower that would have matched the south tower had it not been for the mounting cost.
Perhaps, it was a similar window that gave a certain damned bell-ringer, a sight of his beloved Esmeralda. The rooftops in view had a frosting of snow; a sign for us to try out some Viennese pastries before we flew out of the city. And that is an ending that Quasimodo would have surely died for!
P.S – Thank you Inga for sharing your pictures and for also being my travel partner.