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Vienna, Capital of the Habsburgs

Vienna, Austria

Once the capital of the Habsburg Empire, Vienna now presides only over Austria, though its glory days peek through in its elegant cafés, the opulent Schönbrunn Palace — where we learn about Empress Maria Theresa — and the Baroque cathedral with its anti-Protestant art.

Complete Video Script

Vienna was the grand capital of the formerly grand Habsburg Empire — which once stretched across much of Europe. Its superpower days are now long gone. And today, the city enjoys the cultural and physical remnants of its Imperial age as both an inspiration and a playground for living well.

Vienna sits along the Danube River. St. Stephen's Cathedral marks the center of town. The old town — with most of the top sights — is bound tightly by the Ringstrasse, marking what used to be the city wall.

The palaces of the imperial Habsburg family still create a buzz. The Royal family wintered downtown in their Hofburg Palace and they summered here — at the Schönbrunn Palace.

Among Europe's grandiose palaces, only Schönbrunn rivals Versailles. It's big, with over 1400 rooms, but don't worry — only 40 are shown to the public.

While the exterior is Baroque — the favored style of divine monarchs in the 17th century, much of the interior was finished under Maria Theresa in Rococo — the frillier let-them-eat-cake style that followed. The chandeliers are either of Bohemian crystal or of hand-carved wood shiny with gold-leaf. This one was lit by 72 candles.

Maria Theresa, who ruled in the late 1700s, was the only woman to officially run the Habsburg Empire in that family's six century reign. She was a strong and effective empress famous as the mother of 16 children — most of whom survived to adulthood. Imagine that the most powerful woman in Europe was either pregnant or had a newborn for over half of her 40-year reign.

The original practitioner of "make love not war," Maria Theresa expanded her empire while avoiding wars by cleverly marrying her children into other royal families. During her reign the rest of Europe recognized Austria as a great power. Her rival, the Prussian emperor, said, "When at last the Habsburgs get a great man, it's a woman."

In room after luxurious room, the palace heralds the story of a powerful family. Frescos in the grand ballroom were propaganda: the good life under Maria Theresa. A contemporary of George Washington — but worlds apart politically, she presides like the divine monarch she was over a vast multi-ethnic empire at peace: Tuscany with the bottles of good Chianti, the Netherlands with the wild sea, Hungarians with their Magyar hats and animals were all part of her realm in about 1750. There was peace — but only through strength. This fresco shows off her state-of-the art military. Her infantry moves forward in alternating lines, firing and loading with a horrifying speed and efficiency.

A walk through the imperial garden, now overrun with commoners, celebrates the evolution of our society from autocracy to democracy. It's been nearly a century since the last emperor checked out. And, if access to once out-of-bounds royal gardens is any measure, the people are doing quite well.

While the Habsburgs may be gone, their appreciation of finer living is alive and well, as you'll learn in the cafes. For many Viennese, the living room is down the street at the neighborhood coffeehouse. Each comes with its own individual character. The venerable Café Sperl is still furnished just as it was on the day it opened back in 1880.

While a bit tired, often smoky and with a shabby patina, a Viennese café is a welcoming place. They offer light lunches, fresh pastries, a wide selection of newspapers, and "take all the time you want" charm for the price of a cup of coffee.

Divine monarchs like the Habsburgs liked their art divine too, in other words, Baroque. Charles Church offers perhaps the best Baroque in Vienna with the unique combination of columns, a classic pediment and an elliptical dome. We’re dropping in for a peek at the painstaking and costly restoration work going on all the time to keep the cultural treasures of Europe looking good. Here, tourist admissions help pay the bill.

The church, which dates to the early 1700s, was built and decorated with a scaffolding system essentially the same as this one. Ascending the elevator high into the dome, you're in the clouds with cupids and angels. Many details that appear refined and realistic from ground level — such as gold leaf, frescos, and fake marble — look rough and sloppy up-close. It's surreal to observe these distorted figures from this unintended angle.

As always, the art had a purpose; teaching… or propaganda — depending on your perspective. Here, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Catholic priests triumph and inspire — while Protestants and their trouble-making books are trashed. At the very top, you'll see the tiny dove representing the Holy Spirit, surrounded by a cheering squad of nipple-lipped cupids.