The Oldest Zoo in the World: Vienna’s Schonbrunn


On my recent trip to Vienna, Austria I had the opportunity to visit the oldest zoo in the world. The Tiergarten Schönbrunn (the Schönbrunn Zoo) was founded in 1752 by orders of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I.  It was built near the Schloss Schönbrunn, the imperial palace of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A smaller zoo had existed on the site since 1540.

Why are you looking at me like that?

The zoo was opened to the public in 1779 and admission was free. Today, it’s no longer free (what is these days?), but it makes for a nice and easy trip by train and tram from the center of Vienna.


When I got there on a muggy summer day it was threatening to rain. I was hoping to make my way through the exhibits before a thunderstorm rolled in.

Where is my dinner?

When I got to the elephant’s enclosure, there were no elephants in sight. They were locked in their room while the zookeeper brought out bales of grass. I hung around for a few minutes until he was out of the area. Soon several elephants of all different sizes came lumbering quickly to get to the new grass.  It was snack time!

elephant eating
Thanks for the grass, Mr. Zookeeper.

I spent quite a while watching these cheetah cubs. They were romping around the enclosure with each other, and one of them repeatedly jumped on his mother’s head.  She took it all in stride and ignored him.  Just another day with the kids.

cheetah cub
I am working on my spots.
cheetah mom
If you jump on my head one more time, your are getting a licking!

The Schönbrunn Zoo is one of the better zoos I have visited.  The views were good and the distance to the animals was close. It’s certainly a good choice of an activity when visiting Vienna with children (how many old buildings and museums can they put up with?), and is even fun for us old-timers…

Hello there, Ms. Giraffe…

Check out these amazing Australian animals.

The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

Count von Harrach car

One hundred years ago Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Duchess Sophie left Vienna, Austria to visit the provincial capital of Sarajevo, Bosnia. Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of Franz Joseph, the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at 50 years old was the heir to the Habsburg throne.

assassination painting
A car ride that changed the world.

There was a lot of unrest in the empire.  Various factions in far flung regions wanted independence from Austrian rule.  One group in Serbia, called the Black Hand, was formed by Serbian army officers with the purpose of liberating Serbs living under Austro-Hungarian occupation. The Black Hand decided that they would assassinate the Archduke. They recruited three young Bosnians to carry out their plan.

The royal couple were on their way to a civic reception at Sarajevo’s city hall when the violence began with a conspirator tossing a homemade bomb from a bridge over the Miljacka River. It bounced off the folded convertible cover of the Archduke’s car and bounced under the vehicle traveling immediately behind them before exploding. The Archduke and his wife were unhurt but occupants of that car suffered injuries.

Count von Harrach car
The 1911 Graf Stift Double Phaeton.

After speeches at the city hall, the couple left the reception to go to the hospital to visit people wounded in the bombing attempt. With the Archduke in a military tunic and helmet, and the duchess in a dress of white filigreed lace with a matching hat and parasol, they headed back along the original route through the city and straight to their fateful encounter with a young man named Gavrilo Princip, one of the young Bosnians.

Princip's pistol
Princip’s Fabrique Nationale 9x17mm model 1910 semi-automatic pistol.

After learning that the first assassination attempt had failed, Princip thought about where he might make another attempt.  He waited outside a place called Schiller’s Delicatessen near the Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River.  On the drive from the city hall to the hospital, the driver of the Archduke’s car made a wrong turn. The driver stopped the car to correct his mistake. However, there was no reverse gear in the car, so security men had to push the car backwards. Unfortunately for millions of people, the car had stopped right in front of Schiller’s Delicatessen.

Princip stepped forward and fired twice with a pistol from a distance of only five feet away. He hit Franz Ferdinand in the jugular vein, and Sophie in the abdomen. Both died in the car on the way to the hospital.

Franz Ferdinand's tunic
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s tunic, with original blood stains.

The assassination set off a chain reaction of events that led to the Great War of 1914-1918.  Millions of people died, empires crumbled, and 20th century history started down a dark path which lasted for the next 70 years.

On the day of the crimes Princip was 27 days short of being 20 years old, so by law he couldn’t be charged with the death penalty. Instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, he died three years later in prison of tuberculosis and malnutrition.

While in Vienna I read that the Museum of Military History (the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum opened a new wing of the museum devoted to telling the story of World War I and commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the start of the conflict. As a history buff, and especially a 20th century military history buff, I knew I had to pay a visit to this somewhat obscure Austrian museum.

ceiling of Military History Museum
The ceiling of Vienna’s Military History Museum.

After a subway ride, a tram ride, and a rainy hike through a park, I finally made it to the Museum. The new World War I exhibits were excellent. I highly recommend a visit to this museum if you like history and find yourself in Vienna someday.

The Museum also has a longstanding exhibit about the assassination. The car that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were riding in is displayed.  The car is a 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton convertible luxury limousine.  It was owned by Count Franz von Harrach, who was in the front seat of the car at the time of the assassination.

The exhibit also includes the military uniform that Franz Ferdinand was wearing (complete with original blood stains!), Sophie’s clothes, the chaise lounge on which he was declared dead, and the pistol used by Princip that changed the world.

The Grand Tour of Europe

The Grand Tour of Europe

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, many upper class British young men traveled a traditional path through Europe called the Grand Tour.  The Grand Tour served as an educational rite of passage whereby the traveler learned about culture, history, architecture, and the arts. The traveler became knowledgeable about classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and was usually accompanied by a learned guide.

The Grand Tour of Europe
The Traditional Grand Tour of Europe

The itinerary for the British traveler started in Dover, England, crossed the English Channel to France or Belgium, and then continued down through the middle of Europe to Italy. Finishing in either Rome or Naples, the traveler might take a ship back to England.  Grand Tours lasted from several months to several years.

Grand Tours are a thing of the past.  The days of the landed gentry wandering the capitals of Europe seeking knowledge and life experiences are long gone. Instead, today we have gap years, study abroad programs, hippie trails, and sabbaticals.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that offers an eight week sabbatical after every seven years of service.  Add in three weeks of vacation and I don’t have to sit in a little grey cube staring at a computer screen for almost three months.  My sabbatical is fast approaching.  I have looked forward to it for at least a couple of years now.  I’m going to make the most of it.

I can’t do the Grand Tour.  There is not enough time and money.  But I can try to do some portions of it.  In reverse.  I’m starting in Rome, Italy.  My plan is to detour first to Greece, Turkey, and Israel.  After returning to Rome, my Grand Tour will take me to Milan, Lake Como, the Berner Oberland, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, London, Bath, and the Cotswolds.

I invite you to follow along.

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There is no Food on Czech Highways

I knew by looking at the map that it was going to be difficult driving out of Vienna to go the direction we needed to go.  Vienna, being such an old city, has no proper outer ring freeway, no straight streets, no grid, no obvious commuter routes, and lots of pedestrian zones, squares, and one way streets.  I won’t say we were lost, because I thought I knew where we were most of the time, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there from here most of the time.  Eventually we escaped the confusion and got on the right road out of the city.  It wasn’t the autobahn that we needed, but generally in the right direction. After zig-zagging through the villages and wine country of northern Austria, we linked up with the freeway.

When we got to the border of the Czech Republic, there were police there to check our passports.  I didn’t think they did that anymore after the Czech Republic joined the EU.  After a few minutes delay, we were on our way.  (The thing happened at the Polish border)  There is a marked difference in the quality of the roads around here.  The German roads were superior in every way.  The autobahns and other roads have smooth, new surfaces, easy to read signs, and rest stops, gas stations, and restaurants every few miles. The Austrian roads were not quite as good.  The Czech roads were bumpy, and typically under construction with lengthy detours through small towns.  We were hungry for lunch, and couldn’t find anywhere to stop to eat other than getting candy bars in a gas station.

Fix It Again, Tony (FIAT)!

Once we got into Poland, we drove on a smooth new highway from Ciescen towards Bielsko.  But after that, we turned off onto an old, bumpy road.  We navigated our way to the small village of Laka, where my extended family lives.  I was pretty sure how to get there, but knew we would have to look carefully at the street signs once we got close.   As we slowed down coming in to Laka, there was my niece Dorota on the side of the road waving at us!  She had come down their street to look for us just a couple of minutes before.

The rest of the day was a blur of food, conversation, food, more conversation, food, and more food.

Claustrophobic in Vienna

After breakfast we attempted to navigate the public transport system of Vienna.  Since we were staying on the outskirts of the city, we had to make our way to the city center.  We rode a bus, then a tram (streetcar), and finally another tram that went around the “inner ring” of the old town.  Our first stop was the Hofburg, the winter residence of the Emperor of Austria.  We bought tickets for the Imperial Apartments, which was a combined ticket with the Sisi Museum and the Silver Treasury.  The layout of the tour caused us to visit the Silver Treasury first.  This consisted of hundreds of silver and gold plates, candlesticks, and other assorted royal stuff.  Not very interesting.  Next was a sequence of rooms with displays telling about the life of Empress Elizabeth (“Sisi”).  She was the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph in the mid to late 1800s.  She died tragically in 1898, assassinated by an anarchist.  Her claim to fame seems to be her beauty and her 21 inch waist, which she kept into her 50s.

Unfortunately, this part of the tour was very crowded.  We got stuck behind a large tour group from Poland.  They would stop in a room and the tour guide starting explaining things.  Meanwhile, all of the tourists behind this group kept filling in the space behind them.  It was a classic traffic situation.  I started to understand the feeling of claustrophobia.  It was very hot and stuffy in these small, maze-like museum rooms, with so many people that you couldn’t move.

I was glad to get out of there and into the Imperial Apartments.  The crowd was more dispersed there.  We saw the desk where the Emperor worked on bureaucratic paperwork for 14 hours a day.  He was a dull workaholic.  Overall, I would have rather seen the Treasury, where the crowns and jewels were displayed, but after this tour we had seen enough of palaces.

Next, we walked through the park to the Vienna Opera House.  We waited for an English language tour starting at 2pm.  This was an excellent and informative tour.  The guide told us all about how productions are staged.  We sat in the best seats of the house, the ones used by the Prime Minister of Austria for special performances.  Since it was August, there were no performances scheduled (the season of 300 performances runs from September to June), so we got to go backstage.  The stage was enormous.  In fact, there are three stages:  1) the main stage, which usually hosts the first act; 2) a side stage for the second act; and 3) a back stage, for the third act.  The stages were on hydraulics, so they could be switched in as little as 40 seconds.

The good seats at the Vienna Opera House

There are up to 55 different operas being performed, with some having as little as three or four performances.    All of the sets are stored offsite at a nearby warehouse, and trucked in each day by the crew.  Sometimes they would have a rehearsal for one opera with one set in the afternoon, and a performance for another opera with a different set in the evening.  The schedule and all logistics are set up more than one year in advance.  The star performers are paid as much as 20,000 euros per performance!

After the tour we wandered down the Karnterstrasse, the main pedestrian shopping street.  It was a Sunday, so all the shops were closed.  There was a large crowd of people at the main square, near the St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  A group of street performers were doing a hip hop dance routine for tips.  One guy did a hand stand on one hand and was hopping around.

Vienna architecture

We walked next to the Rathaus (town hall) park, where there was a large video screen and hundreds of chairs set up.  During each night of the summer concert films are played on the big screen.  Nearby was about 20 food stalls.  We weren’t hungry yet, but Allison wanted to find an Internet café.  We asked one guy for directions.  He told us to walk to the corner, take a left, and then walk “about three minutes/blocks/hundreds of meters.”  We weren’t sure.

After walking for blocks and not finding it, we stopped and asked a group of guys playing a game on the sidewalk.  They told us it was the other direction, back the way we had come. So we walked back.  And couldn’t find it.  Next, we went into the McDonalds we found there and asked.  This time, a guy gave us directions and a specific address.  It was the way we walked at first, but we hadn’t walked far enough.  So back we went.

We walked and walked and walked.  We were tired.  We found the address.  It was not an Internet café.  A few doors down was a computer store, but since it was Sunday, it was closed.  We gave up, but luckily we were able to ride the tram back to the Rathaus Park.

One of the food stalls featured Mexican food, which struck me as something I would not have expected to find in Vienna.  We took a chance on that, and it wasn’t very good, but it filled us up for the ride back to the hotel.

And now, time for another brief aside about beds here…

Why is it that there is a thick quilt on each bed, but no sheet or blanket?  With a thick quilt you have a choice: either use it and get too hot, or not use it and have nothing and get cold.

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