Vienna, a history in geography

Our lodgings in Vienna, the Ibis Budget, cost less than $100 a night including a pretty good breakfast. It’s near the river in a nondescript part of town. Though it’s on a major thoroughfare, the taxi driver got lost searching for it. For one-tenth the fare, we could have switched to the S-Bahn No. 7 at the train station and alighted within two blocks of our hotel. Use the transit system in an unfamiliar city? Don’t think so — want to get the lie of the land first.

We quickly did get the lie of the land and bought three-day transit pass, good on all lines. Besides the S-Bahn, an interurban system on standard-width railway track, dedicated, with ten or so lines, the earliest dating to 1908, Vienna’s public transit has the U-Bahn, a true subway system, begun in the 1970s, now with five lines; 29 tram lines, some using vintage cars; and 90 bus lines.

transit map detailed

Vienna transit system (in part), circa 2008, copyright Stadt Wien [City of Vienna], on SkyscraperCity internet forum Subways and Urban Transit, posted January 23rd, 2009, by Slartibartfas. “Thats not a complete map of Vienna’s PT network, it shows however roughly 80% of Vienna’s tram network. Have a look therefore at the thin red lines. (thin blue lines are buses and the thick lines U-Bahn and S-Bahn)”

A world-class transit system, incredibly efficient and clean, existing in a city how big? — Vienna’s population is estimated at 2.1 million; Vancouver’s is 2.45 million (Major Agglomerations of the World).

It’s one  S-Bahn No. 7 stop north and a walk through an untouristy part of town near the river to Gasthaus Kopp, an unpretentious restaurant serving heaps of mostly meat with local atmosphere — another fruitful tip from Google Maps: you just key in “restaurants” and up they pop, all in your vicinity, with customer reviews and ratings. We had way much to eat at the table … asked for doggie bags … server leaves plates, goes away, returns with orders for the other customers … to us he tosses a roll of tinfoil. Busy place.

At the hotel desk we grabbed a city map and used it until it was in tatters. Setting out to walk into the Old Town, we headed southwest along Lassallestrasse, a busy divided thoroughfare, to find Vienna’s most distinctive landmark, the dom, cathedral, of Sankt Stefan, Saint Stephen — often just Stefansdom. Sometimes der alte Steffel, Old Steve. We went there twice.

0 Vienna google earth

The Reichsbrücke bridge over the Danube River was near our hotel, at the top of the above Google Earth shot (thanks again). We had no interest in approaching the big ditch that is that stretch of the river. Reichsbrücke and Lassallestrasse are on a prime civic axis running northeast-southwest through Stefansdom (“Reichsbrücke,” Wikipedia). The surveyors lined up the cathedral tower and some more distant fixture, I guess.

An 1847 bird’s-eye-view looking northeast across Stefansdom, from about the same position and orientation as the GoogleEarth image:

0 st stephen's 1847Watercolour by Jakob Alt in Mozarthaus Wien; in the public domain via Wikimedia.

In the painting the whole near shore of the Danube appears green. Our hotel probably sits on former marshland.

Soon we came to a big roundabout under the elevated Praterstern train/transit station (marked seven times on this map):

2014 Praterstern map

The U-Bahn No. 2 line ran underneath en route to and from the bridge.

To the east in a pleasure park was a giant ferris wheel, the setting of a memorable scene with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in the film The Third Man. It’s marked Riesenrad on the map.

Wien, Prater, Riesenrad

Turns out much of the area south of the River Danube is reclaimed from an inland delta.

At the beginning of the 18th century the rivercourse was dramatically different:

1704 Marinoni lo rotated

Sketch plan of Vienna with its suburbs and outer line of fortification [Grundrissplan von Wien mit seinen Vorstädten und dem Linienwall] by Leander Anguissola, Johann Jacob Marinoni et al. Published 1706. From Wikimedia Commons.

The map has been rotated clockwise 90º to restore conventional orientation, with north at the top. (North is at more like 11 o’clock.) The Linienwall, the outer line of fortification, completed in 1704, is represented by the wiggly black line in the bottom half; it protected the suburbs of Vienna to west, south and east. The white U-Shaped swathe between the suburbs and the Innere Stadt, the original walled town, was the Glacis, “a broad strip without any buildings, which allowed defenders to fire freely” (Wikipedia).

A 1767 map also shows Vienna with all its fortifications in relation to the many arms of the Danube River; this map is oriented conventionally, north at the top, and colour-coded to show land use:

1767 map crop

Noted: changes in the rivercourse over 60 years; new road coming in from the north; bridges across several channels, bringing the road to the edge of the city. Noted:  Lasallestrasse was already surveyed; beginnings of a roundabout where four roads meet; nearby label der Prater.

The word “Prater” was first used in 1403, originally referring to a small island in the Danube … gradually extended to mean the neighbouring areas as well.

The land … was bought by Emperor Maximilian II in 1560 to be a hunting ground … Emperor Rudolf II forbade entry to the Prater.

On April 7, 1766 Emperor Joseph II declared the Prater to be free for public enjoyment, and allowed the establishment of coffee-houses and cafés, which led to the beginnings of the Würstelprater.

“Prater,” Wikipedia

Würstelprater was the original name of the amusement park known today as der Wiener Prater, the Vienna Prater. Würstel means “a vienna sausage (German: Wiener Würstchen, Wiener; Viennese/Austrian German: Frankfurter Würstel or Würstl)” (“Vienna sausage,” Wikipedia). Sausage Prater? The place in Prater where you can get wieners? That’s my best shot.

Der Wiener Prater is reputedly “the oldest amusement park in the world” (Olex).

How the Prater neighbourhood looked in 1830:

1830 map Prater

The first railway station built in the area opened in 1838 (“Emperor Ferdinand Northern Railway,” Wikipedia) and was named k. k. Nordbahnhof, Imperial and Royal North Railway Station)(“Wien Praterstern railway station,” Wikipedia). “K. k.” was a commonly used abbreviation for kaiserlich und königlich, Imperial and Royal.

In this 1844 map Vienna’s north railway station was named Kaiser Ferdinands-Nordbahn, Emperor Ferdinand Northern Railway, as shown top centre:

Plan von Wien

Plan Von Wien. R. Gross (Leipzig: Pierer, 1844). Courtesy Reinhold Berg Antique Maps for sale.

In the heyday of the Empire, the Nordbahnhof “was one of the most significant stations in Europe and Vienna’s primary railway station, connecting Vienna with Brno, Prague and Warsaw. For many immigrants, it was the door to Vienna.” (“Praterstern,” Wikipedia)

The second Nordbahnhof, completed 1865, is in the distance at left in this 1900 colour photochrome:

Praterstern photochrom lo

The gigantic statue of Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, erected in 1886 with an 11-metre column by Karl Hasenauer, is heavily embellished and topped by a 3.5-metre bronze statue by Carl Kundmann  [Fn: Felix Czeike: Historisches Lexikon Wien (Vienna: Kremayr & Scheriau, 1997), Vol. 5, p. 424]. The strange thangs on the sides of the column are ram bows, as in bows of warships strengthened for ramming other ships. The admiral used them to advantage in naval engagements. A blogger comments: “I was especially impressed by the six ram bows decorating the memorial which reminded me of the style of Roman monuments for naval victories” (, Memorial to Wilhelm von Tegetthoff in Vienna):

Admiral Tegetthof statue top loAdmiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff – Denkmal. (C) by gerhard orzel. From Wikimedia Commons. Thank you for the loan. One of three pairs of ram bows stick out of the sides of the pillar.

The erection no longer dominates Praterstern. It can be spotted by its shadow in this Google Earth view of the roundabout:

Praterstern google earth lo

Praterstern is considered the largest traffic intersection in Vienna (“Wilhelm von Tegetthoff,” Wikipedia).

The combination intercity/ S-Bahn station was completed in 2008 and renamed Praterstern. From some angles the modernist building is almost attractive:

Praterstern train bus street

Maybe not.

As for the river itself, the problem of bridging a wide, extremely active floodplain was first tackled with “a system of connecting bridges” in 1439 (The “Ringstrasse” period – History of Vienna on website).

Beginning in 1869 the river was overhauled — straightened, dyked, dammed and dredged.

An entirely new river bed was excavated, with the former inner city branch forking off as the regulated “Danube Canal.” Henceforth navigation was on the main river, bypassing the city proper (The “Ringstrasse” period).

North of the river, east of the city, the Danube floodplain is called the Lobau.  A national park now protects some 2,300 hectares of wetland.

The taming of the Danube made possible development of the area we were walking through, between river and canal.

By 1875 the site of our hotel was a railyard. The city looked like this:

1875 map Aufnahmeblatt Wien Innenstadt lo

How the district looked in 1925:

1925 Stadtplan Praterstern crop

We negotiated the mad-busy bike lanes and the traffic, then crossed the canal and entered the east end of the big horseshoe known as Ringstrasse. It’s where the walls protected three sides of the Innere Stadt, the historic heart of the city. The Danube canal protected the fourth side, I guess.

News to me that Vienna was once a walled city. How did a walled city come to be constructed on a lowland plain? It sounds doomed to fail. Clearly it did not fail. Perhaps I’m missing the logic in building a walled city near a floodplain. Another ignorance: how old Vienna is, how it got started. This is what turned up …

This area was part of the Roman watch on the Danube; the frontier; the Limes Germanicus. 

0 Vienna Roman Pannonische Limes detailPart of the Danube River showing the northern border of the province of Pannonia between Vindobona (Wien/Vienna) and Aquincum (Budapest), 1st-2nd century CE. Detail of Map of Roman Limes in Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

881 CE: mention of “apud Weniam” in Salzburg Annals; not clear whether the name refers to a place or a river; thought to be an early version of “Wien;” this during centuries when various groups were occupying the place by turn (“History of Vienna,” Wikipedia).

1137: the Exchange of Mautern mentions Vienna as a civitas, city, possibly for the first time; the deed gave St. Peter’s Church to the Bishop of Passau in exchange for which Leopold Duke of Bavaria got Church land outside the then city walls … except for the site of Stefandom; the first church there was consecrated in 1147; the bishops of Passau, resident in Vienna, block the church’s bid for a bishopric until 1469.

“History of Vienna,” “Leopold Duke of Bavaria,” Wikipedia; “The St. Stephen’s Church: the heart of Vienna,” Unser Stefansdom, website of the agency that manages the church’s restoration)

Soon Vienna was the seat of government of the Duchy of Austria and a rising port and marketplace.

1273: “Count Rudolf of Habsburg was the first Habsburg on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. With him, the Habsburgs moved from their ancestral domains in Switzerland to the Danube regions which were to form the centre of their dominion for so many centuries. After Rudolf had defeated his greatest adversary, the Bohemian king Ottokar II Přemysl, he enfeoffed his sons with the duchies of Austria, Styria and Carniola together with the Wendish March in 1282.” (The World of the Habsburgs)

Separate articles on the Habsburgs and their Crypt.

1420-1: all Jewish residents of Vienna were murdered or expelled from Vienna (The World of the Habsburgs).

Here’s how it looked in 1421 — I think this is the earliest known map showing Vienna:

1421 map

And in 1493, showing the walls:

1493 woodcut view

And in 1548:

1548 view lo

In 1609:

1609-1640 bird's eye view lo

Here’s how it looked about 1682, when the walls were about to be tested by the Ottomans (the orientation is given on the compass, bottom right; north is “s”):

1682 map Vienna a Turcis obsessa lo

In 1683:

1683 view

This next painting, Vienna from Belvedere by Bernardo Bellotto, school of Canaletto, 1758, looks westward; in the distance are the walls, already obsolete, and the swathe of green between them and the suburbs:

Vienna from Belvedere by Bernardo Bellotto, 1758

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *