Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Big changes are afoot at the Westbahnhof in Vienna, a station which these past months has seen crowds of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. Vienna-based writer Duncan JD Smith takes a look at how the station has changed over the years.

article summary —

In December 2009 the fabled Orient Express pulled into Vienna’s Westbahnhof for the last time, a victim of high-speed trains and budget airlines. Thereafter the station was dramatically overhauled. Now as much a shopping centre as a railway station, it still contains reminders of a past both glorious and grim. The Westbahnhof opened in 1858 to accommodate trains connecting Vienna with Salzburg, Bavaria, and beyond. It was a grand affair realised in Emperor Franz Joseph’s preferred historicist style, a mélange of Renaissance pavilions and Gothic turrets, with Tuscan-style arcades to afford protection in bad weather. There was statuary, too, including a rendering in Carrara marble of the wasp-waisted Empress Sisi. The rail route to Salzburg was originally named in Sisi’s honour. She used the Empress Elizabeth Railway regularly to reach her Bavarian homeland, as well as the Habsburg retreat at Bad Ischl.

The interior was equally impressive and redolent of the industrial age in which the station was built. The four platforms stretched into the distance beneath a glass-and-iron roof over a hundred metres long. It is difficult now to imagine how the place must have appeared when filled with smoke and steam, porters and carts, but Franz Sandmann’s 1862 painting of the exterior reveals the extraordinary grace and beauty of this palatial terminus.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 47.