Our day began at the Schonbrunn Palace, with a guided tour of the interior and a few moments in the immaculately groomed gardens behind the summer home of Empress Maria Theresa, the last of the House of Habsburg. Marie Theresa gave birth to 16 children in 20 years, the most famous being the 15th child, Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette). The palace was built to rival Versailles, and with 1,441 rooms, it certainly comes close! And no, we did not tour the entire estate!
After the palace, we went downtown for the walking tour in the most historic district, and again, I was amazed at the juxtaposition of the old and the new. Through one courtyard connected immediately with another, we suddenly came upon an advertisement posted on an exterior wall for the Spanish Riding School, the oldest riding academy in the world, and a significant part of Austria’s cultural heritage.
The School takes the “Spanish” part of its name from the horses which originated from the Iberian Peninsula during the 16th century and which were considered especially noble, spirited, willing and suited for the art of classical horsemanship. Today’s Royal Lipizzaner Stallions are a cross between Spanish, Arabian and Berber horses. An interesting fact is that they are born dark and do not turn white until sometime between ages 8 and 10.
In 1962, when I was eight years old, Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby. I cut the picture from the newspaper and pasted it into my childhood scrapbook. Shortly thereafter, the newspaper printed a picture of the Royal Lipizzaners, and I cut and pasted that in my scrapbook as well, vowing that someday I’d attend the Derby, and someday I’d see the Lipizanners in person.
This day, we entered yet another covered stone walkway, passing between the paddock of the stallions and the arena in which they are trained. We were able to see, through the plexiglass windows along the right hand wall, into the paddock. Suddenly, a dozen or more of the horses were led from their stalls into the courtyard by their trainers, and then the glass doors slid open to make way for the stallions to cross right in front of me!
And there I stood, bawling my eyes out with unchecked joy, able if I wished, to reach out and touch these magnificent animals as they passed by. Who knew it would take exactly 50 years to cross “see the Lipizzaners” off my bucket list, or that I would accomplish that goal right outside their home paddock in Vienna, Austria?
Neither our city guide nor Anselmo had ever been present when the horses had been moved before, and this was indeed a fabulously special event for all of us.
After that experience, you’d think St. Stephan’s Cathedral, the most identifiable landmark in Vienna, would pall by comparison, but it did not. The sunlight streaming through the stained class windows turned the interior into a rainbow fairyland of amazing beauty. Photographs do not do it justice, but just imagine being bathed in holy colored light while offering up your prayers of thanksgiving. And there was so very much to give thanks for that day.
The evening concluded with a Farewell Dinner at a farmhouse vineyard a few miles outside the city. “Just another short walk” from the bus up a gravel road climbing between the grapevines beginning to leaf out. The food was fabulous, the musical entertainment lively, and only the thought of my 3 a.m. wake-up call could pull me away.