Subterranean Cityscapes

Beneath Vienna's cobblestones and cellars you find a labyrith of ­hidden passages, crypts, churches and forgotten relics

On The Town | Duncan J D Smith | September 2012

Steps leading down to the labyrinthine crypt of St. Stephan’s Cathedral (Photo: Duncan J.D. Smith)

Vienna’s summer streets are a hive of activity, as visitors make pilgrimage from park to palace, and market to museum. Understandably, many locals flee to the countryside for the cool and the quiet.

But there is another way! And that is to head underground. Beneath the 1st District is a warren of secret places that speak just as eloquently about the history of the city.


Signposts to the past

Signposts to subterranean Vienna are easily missed. Take the curving row of baroque houses at the top of Naglergasse. They sit exactly over the long-lost north-west corner of the Roman legionary fortress of Vindobona, a stunning example of continuity in the urban landscape. The two levels are separated by 20 metres of accumulated occupation debris, providing archaeologists with a palimpsest of Vienna’s development.

Geography dictated the location of Vindobona, which was founded on a heap of glacial boulders rising conveniently above the Danube floodplain. The river was the Roman frontier, and Vindobona one of a string of forts built to guard it. A staircase from Hoher Markt leads underground to a ruined house that once stood at the city’s main crossroads – now the site of the fascinating Römermuseum. And just behind the museum at Ertlgasse 4, a five-storey cellar leads down to the remains of the fortress gateway.


Great piles of bones

The Romans buried their dead just outside their fortress walls, where Stephansdom now stands. Perhaps the Roman gravestone incorporated into the twelfth century cathedral’s entrance was to mollify the ancient gods? When the city’s graveyards were cleared in the eighteenth century great piles of bones were stacked like firewood in a labyrinthine crypt beneath the cathedral, where they remain to this day. Also here are urns containing Habsburg entrails, their hearts and bodies stored elsewhere to ensure the dynasty’s omnipresence in death. Then, during the 1970s, U-Bahn engineers tunnelling beneath Stephansplatz made an unexpected discovery: a vaulted Gothic chapel constructed around the same time as the cathedral. It was built to house the relics of a saint and later as a family crypt dedicated to Saint Virgil. This extraordinary structure is visible from the U-Bahn concourse.


A ghostly synagogue

The Babenbergs, the dynasty that preceded the Habsburgs, extended privileges to the Jews of Vienna, albeit confining them to a gated community. At its heart was a synagogue containing one of the most important Talmudic schools in the German-speaking world. After the Habsburgs ascended to power in 1278, they made scapegoats of the Jews and torched the synagogue. These charred remains lay buried beneath Judenplatz for six centuries until they were excavated in the 1990s. They now form the centrepiece of one of Vienna’s most affecting museums, reached by a tunnel from the Jewish school in the corner of the square. The demarcation of the ruins is represented by a ghostly line on the pavement surrounding Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial.


Crumbling walls

The Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1683 might have been successful were it not for the city’s colossal walls. So it was particularly ironic when in 1848 these stones were used by home-grown revolutionaries against Austrian troops. So the walls were demolished to build the Ringstrasse, although fragments remain, including a gate in the Stubentor U-Bahn station, and tunnels beneath the Palais Coburg visible from the street.

Alongside another fragment at Schottentor is the Melkerhof, the former townhouse of the monks of Melk Abbey, who in 1629 received the right to sell wine in Vienna, which they stored in cellars beneath the house. These are still accessible today through Tostmann’s Trachten shop, guarded by the ghosts of those who sheltered here from air raids during the Second World War.

Duncan J.D. Smith is the author of  Only in Vienna

(Christian Brandstätter Verlag)

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