No, all you fellow Lord of the Rings nerds out there, not those two towers. I’m talking about the south and north towers of St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church in Vienna, and our outing today going up each of them.
After its ‘crowning’ with a domed cap and the imperial double eagle, the “unfinished” North Tower, at 68.3 metres (224 ft) tall also became known as the Eagle Tower. Of course there is a legend about the master builder Hans Puchsbaum explaining why the tower was never completed, and of course it involves the devil, but the reality is that when construction stopped around 1511 AD building materials were more urgently needed for city fortifications against attacks by the Ottoman Turks. The finished South Tower is 136.4 metres (447.5 ft) tall, twice as tall as the North.
Those towers – and 343 winding stone steps with NO RAILINGS – looked quite daunting from ground level, so “I” decided that “we” couldn’t tackle them without sustenance. Off to Zanoni & Zanoni, a wonderful dessert café not far from Stephansdom, where the ice cream menu proved almost as daunting as the towers!
After a lovely time eating and people watching we waddled over to the cathedral to buy our all-inclusive tickets, which include the use of a handset for a self-guided audio tour of the main floor, an elevator ride to the top of the North Tower, access to the 343 stairs leading to the Watchmen’s Chamber just over half way up the South Tower, and a guided tour of the catacombs (which we missed because we ran out of time).
We started with the cathedral tour, which explained much of the building’s history as well as its architectural highlights. Stephansdom History. Ted took lots of pictures of the Stephansdom exterior on our previous visits to Vienna, so today’s photos are more about interior features that caught our eye.
Moving toward the centre (west wall) of the cathedral, the next thing we saw was the high altar, flanked by incredible stained glass windows.
Having just seen the exhibits of Mediaeval religious art, including magnificent winged altars, at the Belvedere, I was immediately drawn to the incredible Wiener Neustädter Altar at the northeast of the cathedral. This 15th century altar didn’t start out here – it was moved around to several monasteries and churches after being commissioned by Emperor Friedrich III, and was eventually bought by St. Stephens in 1885. It seems somehow fitting that it ended up in the same place where the emperor rests.
Despite all the ornate trappings in the church, sometimes the simpler ones are just as eye-catching.
We’re always fascinated by the huge pipe organs in European churches. The Stephansdom has had several since the first one was installed in the 14th century. The most recent one was built in 1960, after its predecessor was destroyed in 1945’s fire, and refurbished in 1991. We were able to see the smaller organ up close – the other is in a high gallery.
The Stephansdom is impressive, but it hasn’t knocked Passau’s St. Stephen’s off the top of my list of favourite churches. While they’re completely different (Passau’s is a baroque Dom, and relatively new at 1688 AD), it’s Passau’s cathedral that continues to inspire me.
Having done our ground floor walkabout, it was time to turn in our audio guide and head for the easy tower ascension: the one with the little cylindrical elevator.
On the platform of the North Tower, we could admire the largest bell in Austria, the ‘Pummerin’. This is not the original, though, which was cast by Johann Achammer in 1711 from melted down Turkish cannons. That bell was raised in the South Tower and rung for the first time on 26 January 1712. It was destroyed in the fire of April 1945 that resulted when flying sparks from burning (bombed) houses in the vicinity caused a fire in the Gothic wooden roof truss. The new ‘Pummerin’ weighing 21,100 kg (46,517 lbs) was cast in 1951 in St. Florian Austria and has hung in the north tower since October 1957.
From the outdoor gallery at the level of the Pummerin, we got a close-up look at the cathedral’s tile roof. The pattern (exclusive of the Imperial eagle) is apparently based on a Saracen carpet design, and reminded me of the roof of the Matthias Church at Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest. There are 230,000 tiles in all.
To get to the South Tower, we had to exit the church and re-enter by a door on the south side.
We’d ascended several church towers in the past weeks, so 343 stairs were definitely do-able, but the Stephansdom could have benefited from the one-way-only traffic management we saw in Potsdam. I actually got quite sweaty with nerves doing the climb – no railings and two-way traffic on narrow spiral stone stairs had me feeling less than calm.
Once we reached the highest point accessible to tourists, we were in the Watchmen’s Chamber, from where a lookout for attacks on the city was done throughout several centuries, and from where the Viennese fire brigade monitored the city until 1956! Our reward: an amazing view in all 4 directions over the city.
We sat in the chamber for a while, enjoying the views and the breeze at that altitude, but eventually I had to face the descent to ground level. I was REALLY tempted to reward myself with a large Aperol spritz, but instead we headed home to a light supper of omelettes and the sounds of our neighbourhood park.
Just two days left in Vienna. Time really does fly.