There is no second option – the very first time you see Vienna, you will inevitably fall in love with it. And equestrians will love it even more because Vienna is one of the horsiest (yes, I love creating new words) capitals of Europe. Need evidence? Here you are:
- One of the best-known symbols of Vienna – the Cathedral of St. Stephen – is devoted to the patron saint of horses. (Apart from protecting horses, he is double-hatting as the patron saint of coffin makers, deacons and headache sufferers, but for my story that’s not that important :-));
- Another Vienna attraction, without which your visit wouldn’t be complete, is fiacre rides around the center of the city;
- And of course the city is very famous for the Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding school) – the oldest and perhaps the best-known horse riding schools in the world. Step into any souvenir shop in Vienna and you will find hundreds of items featuring the famous snow white Lipizzan stallions.
I’m pretty sure the list is not complete, but this is what I managed to see during my half-day trip to Vienna.
So, let’s get started:
St. Stephen’s Cathedral – check! From my previous post you may remember that St. Stephen’s day is celebrated on the second day of Christmas and is known as a horse day in a lot of countries in Western and Eastern Europe.
There are various stories explaining why St. Stephen became the protector of horses: according to the most popular one, he owned 5 horses and was a tireless rider, when one of his horses was tired, he changed to another one and continued his trek; however, in a 10th century poem he is mentioned as a man whose horse was cured by Jesus himself, and that prompted him to convert. But the most likely explanation is that practicing rituals associated with horses on the 26th of December started before Christianity and could be traced back to Ancient Roman traditions.
Anyway, nowadays it’s common to bless hay, oats and horses themselves on the 26th of December, and various horse-involving traditions are especially popular in Germany, Austria and Slovenia.
Fiacre ride – check! But I did it with a twist. Normally the 20-minute-long tour through the center of the Old City will cost you €55; however, I found a way to enjoy a carriage ride for a much better price.
So let me share my lifehack with you.:-)
Vienna fiacre business is very well organized and regulated. And not unlike cars, all the carriages have number plates; also, to minimize the traffic issues, fiacres are not allowed in the center earlier than 9 AM; what’s more, every carriage driver has a designated place where he or she can pick up customers. There are 5 official fiacre stands in Vienna: Heldenplatz, Albertinaplatz, Petersplatz, Burgtheater, and – the most popular one – the Stephansplatz, right next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
As you see, all driving routes go through the center, but all the stables are outside the old city. So when they are going to the fiacre stand, they are empty.
So, Berndt Adensamer, the owner of the hotel I stayed in, saw a perfect business opportunity in it. He offers a 40-minute-long minibus excursion around the center of Vienna, followed by a visit to stables and about a 30-minute-long carriage ride from the stables to St. Stephen’s square through the picturesque Stadt park for as little as 30 euro per person.
Cool, right? Find Bernd’s contact details below and try this when in Vienna. I promise you an absolutely brilliant experience.
My perfect morning in Vienna continued with a brisk walk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where I said good bye to the coach, to the Winter Riding Manège, the place where the Spanish Riding School’s shows are organized.
Despite having a map, I had to ask for directions at least 3 times. To credit the citizens of Vienna, every single person I asked spoke perfect English, so city tourist friendlies got 5+ stars on my list.
About 20 minutes later, slightly out of breath, I arrived at the dream destination of any horse lover – the Winter Riding School. Unfortunately, taking pictures during the show is not allowed, so I only got one picture of this cumbersome crystal lamp. :-)
The Show lasted for about 65-70 minutes and consisted of 5 compositions interrupted by historical references and performance explanations in German and English.
The first part of the show is called Young Stallions and features six 5-6-year-old horses performing simple moves in walk, trot and canter. They are still kind of ugly ducklings – all shades of grey (it will take them to up to 10 years to change to the snow white coat completely).
Young stallions are ridden without spurs and with the lower level of collection, and the group is normally led by the “Lucky Horse”. And now let me digress from the show for a short while and tell you a bit more about Lucky Horses.
All Lipizzaners are born dark-haired, and there is 99% chance that the horse will turn white eventually, but there is still 1% probability that the horse will remain dark-colored, even in his late twenties. What is especially fascinating is that unlike in other color-oriented breeds (take Frisians – only black ones are allowed to breed; or Ardennes – only black ones are not allowed to breed), these equestrian rara avis will not only be allowed to breed but can even perform in the Spanish Riding School show, except the final quadrille, of course.
But back to the Winter Riding School. When the composition was over and the group was leaving, one of the young stallions, still dark-grey, was spooked by the sound of applause. Poor baby! I’m sure sooner or later he will get used to this level of admiration and attention.
Pas de Deux – is a “Mirror image” performance. Two riders demonstrate the High school moves. During the performance introductions, it’s constantly reminded that these moves can be done only by highest level riders, practicing this art to perfection for years, so every move is flawless and is done with unprecedented precision. Well, although I perfectly understand that horses are not cars, to be honest, it didn’t look as precise as it’s claimed to be. Some of the canter pirouettes and half passes I saw wouldn’t get high marks in an international dressage competition. But, perhaps that’s not the point here :-).
Airs above the ground – were performed by 5 stallions. Only one stallion was ridden (without spurs and stirrups) and all the rest demonstrated work in hands. We were told that not every horse is capable of performing jumps as it requires not only stamina and a high level of athleticism, but also a lively character. One of the ways to predict if a horse will be a good jumper is to let the herd of young horses run freely in the arena – some will clearly demonstrate jumping abilities while horsing around.
Riding on the curb – This choreography is performed by single rider and is considered to be a demonstration of the highest level of equestrian art. In order to perform it flawlessly, a rider should have very soft hands, or rather a soft hand, as the rider uses only their right hand to steer the horse, while holding a withy in the left one. This reminded me of the doma Vaquera style of riding, which I saw and even tried in Spain.
Interesting fact: Horses will enter the arena only once, while riders may perform 2-3 times a day.
The show finished with the School Quadrille. Eight riders were working in formation at all gates and demonstrated passage, flying changes, pirouettes and half passes. Not unlike other School’s rides, the Quadrille was performed to classical music. It was the most beautiful and longest performance, lasting about 20 minutes.
One more fascinating fact about the Spanish Riding School is that at the beginning of every appearance, riders salute by taking their hats off.
It may seem that they are saluting the spectators sitting in the VIP lounge, but in fact for the last 280 years they salute to the portrait of Emperor Charles VI. Yes, this one.
Sadly, about an hour from the beginning, the fairy-tail, which took me hundreds of years back in time, was over. And as with many places I’ve recently visited, I was absolutely sure that I would be back there one day… Who knows, maybe I will see the young stallions, all matured and whitened, performing the final quadrille when I come next time.
P.S. Through the whole performance, it was impossible for me not to see the similarities with Real Escuela, so check my next week’s comparison review of both shows.
Here you can buy tickets to Spanish Riding school show: http://www.viennaconcerts.com/
And here you can arrange fiacre ride: http://www.fiaker-barrierefrei.at/english/index.html