Americans look at the Liberty bell, or the ruins at Mesa Verde, and say, “Wow, that’s old.” In Santa Fe, NM, and a few places on the East Coast, we have cities that date back two hundred, at most four hundred years (not counting those unintentionally built on the top of older Indian camps or settlements). Vienna is two thousand years old. There’s something a little mind-blowing for someone conditioned to the time-scale of North America when they go through a cafe, down a flight of steps, and find themselves in Roman ruins. That was my introduction to Vienna.
My parents had been there before, and found a book entitled ViennaWalks. It was just that, a series of four or five walking tours through different historical periods in the inner city and the adjacent districts, all quite walkable, all including fascinating bits and pieces. You know, anything that has lines like, “cut through the durchaus on the left and go to the second door, the one that is unlocked except on Sundays. Go up two flights of stairs to the Medieval Mural Museum. The cost is ten Schillings each. Here you will find . . .” It was a set of murals that were discovered in the 1970s and that date to the 1300s or so. You’d never have known about them unless you had a German-language guide to the city’s museums. Or ViennaWalks.
This was my introduction to history that you live with, to the idea of having an apartment in a building that dates to the 1500s and is on foundations that go back to the Romans. And to churches with bullet holes on the facade, thanks to the Red Army (poor muzzle control so the gun “walked” up as the guy(s) fired into the church). Vienna is a place with layers and layers of history, where the Red Army, the Turks, the Hungarians, the Avars, Huns, Bavarians, Marcomani, Romans, and others fought and occasionally built. The city sits a good ten feet higher than it once did, because so much is literally built on the foundations of the past. And on the rubble, old walls, fill, and garbage. You sometimes have to squint in order to find the traces of Roman Vindobona and the Medieval city, but it is not that hard once you learn to see through the layers.
I’ve been to Vienna probably five or six times by now. My father is much more familiar with it, because it was (and is) the gateway to Eastern Europe, especially the former Russian Empire/ Soviet Union. The rising tide of the Ottoman caliphate broke on the Gates of Vienna twice, and there was a reason all the Cold War spy novels and movies took place in or near the city.
I thought I’d gotten used to the idea of the city’s age, until last year. I was reading a book about the Vienna Woods, the Wienerwald, and some of the odd and unusual things that can be found there. Now, for those picturing something like a large versions of Central Park but perhaps more rolling, that’s not at all what the Wienerwald looks like. The Wienerwald is the foothills of the Alps. It is rugged, forested, cut with steep valleys, and you do not have to go very far to feel as if you are in the back of the backside of beyond. It’s easy to understand why people could go hunting out here well into the 1900s without anyone batting an eye. Imagine moving the more rugged bits of the Smokey Mountains to within ten miles of Washington D.C. and you have an idea of the contrast. (Except instead of the Atlantic Ocean, you have the great Hungarian Plain to the east. Still flat, either way).
Anyway, the authors of this book point out that people have been using certain sites in the Wienerwald for tens of thousands of years, if not longer. Yes, paleolithic remains are not that rare, pushing the dates back to 40,000 years ago, or so. I can barely wrap my mind around that. I’m used to 2500 years of history (if you include the “Celts” aka Hallstatt Culture), but 40,000 years of people living and dying, worshipping and ducking under trees to get out of the rain, fighting and marrying? It makes my brain hurt.
I realize my British and European readers, and some Israelis as well, are chuckling. 40,000 years ago is darn recent for some parts of the world in terms of human occupation of the land. Hey, I’m from North America, OK? We’ve just started to perhaps possibly agree that maybe some humans got here longer than 15,000 years ago. I get a little slack, please.
As you read this, I am, Lord willing, walking throughout the enormous Roman settlement of Caernuntum, the provincial capital built by Marcus Aurelius. Tomorrow I go thirty kilometers upstream to Vienna, to Vindobona, to the city of the Babenburgs and Habsburgs. There are museums to visit, streets to saunter through, buildings to ogle, pastries to nibble, and history to bask in. Too much history for comfort, some days, but that’s what happens when you walk a city that guards the gates, the center of one empire and the outpost of another.