The Greek Vienna

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Greek Mum Correspondent: Chrysoula Koutsouri, Munich (apomamasemama.com)

I happened to live in Vienna twice … The first time I was a student, I lived there for a whole semester, but it wasn’t enough. The second time I managed to stay a little longer, but unfortunately the end came soon, just like in fairy tales. Because this is exactly what Vienna is, a fairy tale. I had heard this before my first trip. What I did not know is that the capital of music has a Greek note too. I discovered this later, along with the thousands of tourists who visit it all year long.

One of Vienna’s most famous streets is Griechengasse, the “Street of the Greeks”. It is right in the centre of the city, just below the church of St. Stephen. There you can find not one, but two Greek churches, which essentially define the Greek Quarter. No wonder that the guides include a visit to this neighbourhood in their tours.

Having walked around a lot in the Austrian capital, I can objectively say that the Greek Quarter is one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods that one can meet. Its roots go back to the early 18th century, when the first Greeks arrived. Vienna had then started to be a major economic centre, thanks to the agreements signed between the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburgs. Greek immigrants, mainly merchants from Macedonia, Thessaly and Thrace, have increased rapidly since the middle of the 18th century, thanks to the privileges and facilities granted by the emperors. They set up their businesses around today’s “Griechengasse” and they quickly made big fortunes and rose in the social hierarchy, having as their main meeting point the two orthodox churches. In the old cemetery of Vienna (St. Marxer) there is still a whole section devoted to the famous Greeks of the city.

If you happen to be in Vienna, do not forget to pay a tribute to the Greek neighbourhood. Head down the road that passes in front of St Stephen (Rotenturmstrasse). Three blocks down, on your right hand, you will find a street named Fleischmarkt. At No.13,  you will face the impressive façade of the Holy Trinity. It was built in Byzantine style in 1858 by the Danish architect Theophile Hansen, thanks to the donation of Baron Simon Sina – a great Greek benefactor who lived in Vienna. To these two people, among other things, we owe two of the most magnificent buildings in Greece: the Academy of Athens (initially named the Sina Academy) and the National Observatory (started by the father George Sina). In honour of Simon Sina, Johann Strauss the son composed the famous Hellenic Polka, which he presented during a “Greek Dance” at Sina Palais (which used to be in the well-known Hoher Markt Square but was completely destroyed in 1945). Entering the Holy Trinity, you will first enter the imposing pronaos, while you will certainly be impressed by the grandeur and the details of the main church’s interior. If it is a Sunday morning, you will have a taste of the morning mass, while early in the afternoon you may see children climb the stairs on your right. They attend  the Greek National School of Vienna that operates on the second floor of the building. It was founded in 1801, being the oldest Greek school of the Hellenic community in Europe. It is open in the afternoons, with pupils across all classes (kindergarten to high school), so that young Greek children can learn the language, as well as the history of their homeland.

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Getting out of the church, head right into the small arc that essentially sets the beginning of “Griechengasse”. Let your eyes aim high around the buildings. You may think you are on a theatre stage – exactly that must think also the foreign tourists who come here to enjoy the neighbourhood. On the right hand side you will see the sign Griechenbeisl (Greek tavern). It stands for one of the oldest Austrian restaurants (1447), which was said to be a meeting point for the Greek community. You should have a good look at the iron sign over the restaurant. It portrays Marx Augustin, a street musician, who had been singing there since 1679. His song “Oh du lieber Augustin” belongs to the most famous Viennese songs.

Passing through the arch of the street, you will face on your right the first Greek church in Vienna, Saint George, dating back to 1804. It was the starting point of modern Greek Enlightenment – famous intellectuals had acted here, such as Anthimos Gazis, who published the newspaper “Hermes the Logios” – while it helped in the preparation for the 1821 revolution. That one you will understand easily, when you reach the recently renovated church. There is the following sign: “The Greeks of Vienna to their great countryman, Rigas Velestinlis Feraios for the 200 years since his tormented death “. Vienna was for him the basis for his revolutionary action.

Shortly before you reach the end of the road, take a look at the large dominant building on your left hand. It is called the Steyrerhof and is one of the oldest secular buildings of the city – some of its parts date back to the 13th century. Before leaving Griechengasse, take a last look behind you, you will definitely want to capture the beautiful picture on your camera. Continue your walk, following the Rotenturmstrasse again, this time towards the opposite direction. At the intersection with Fleischmarkt, where you started, cross over and stand in front of the yellow building at the corner. At the entrance you will meet the second sculpture of Rigas Feraios: “Whoever freely thinks, thinks right”. This same building housed the printing house of the Poulios brothers, where in 1797 Rigas Feraios printed his revolutionary books (Charta, Thourios) in thousands copies, in order to help the liberation of the Balkan people. The visit to the Greek Quarter may be over, but the the Greek elements found throughout the city do not stop there. Not far away, right opposite the famous Stadtpark, exactly where the Franz Schubert’s statue stands, you can see the majestic Dumba Palace. Nikolaοs Dumbas and his father Stergios were two more of the great benefactors of Greece who lived in Vienna. Nikolaos Dumbas, a member of the Austrian Parliament, an art lover, with honorary distinctions, is most known for the conception and realization of the idea of the Greek Musikverein building (Philharmonic). This is the building which hosts the world famous New Year concert. Theophile Hansen was the architect here too. Indeed, in honor of Dumba, Musikverein’s side road has been named after him, Dumba Strasse. Likewise a room inside the building has his name.

It is said that Johann Strauss in the house of Dumba conceptualised the Blue Danube, the second national anthem of the Austrians, while Anton Krahl has dedicated his work to Dumba Marsch. To Dumba we also owe the Austrian Parliament (and similar in design with the Zappeion Megaron), which was also created by Hansen. It is located on Ringstrasse, directly opposite of the Temple of Hephaestus in Volksgarten and must also be included in every tour. As soon as you get in front of it, you will think for a moment that you are in Greece: you will admire its greatnees, you will see the statue of the Goddess Athena (in the same dimensions as these of the one by Pheidias in Acropolis), as well as the other figures representing ancient Greek Sculptures (such as the Caryatis on the side of the building). Dumbas, though never having visited Greece, did not cease to help his homeland in any way. One should know that the frieze of the University of Athens (Carl Rahl’s piece) is due to his family’s donation.

In Vienna, therefore, you do not find just a Greek neighbourhood, but a whole story of a successful generation of Greeks who back then proved once again that the Greek spirit excels abroad – at the same time never forgetting and helping its homeland in every way. Our own debt, that of the new generation that leaves Greece with dreams and hope, is to follow their great example.

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