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In German, Graben means "pit" or "trench". So the name of this central Viennese street, which extends from Stock-im-Eisen-Platz to the junction between Kohlmarkt and Tuchlauben, may give you a clue as to the role that this site played in Roman times, when the city was called Vindobona.
Over time, however, the city expanded and finally, in the 13th century, the trench was filled in. From that moment on this beautiful corner of the city began to develop as a public space, with all the attendant activities this would signify.
For example, the Graben has hosted everything from open-air markets to the lavish celebrations of rulers such as the Habsburgs. What are known as Graben nymphs, in other words, prostitutes, have also played their part in the area's history.
Today, the Graben performs none of the defensive functions for which it was originally designed. The only defence you will need here is a bit of prudence in spending, and if you are prone to shopping in elegant stores you will find in this lively pedestrian street can be a real downfall.
Another of the great attractions in the area are the many cafes that attract customers both for the magical brew that is one of the few positive legacies of the Ottoman threat in the 17th century, as well as for the wonderful traditional pastries. Many of the establishments in the area fight an ongoing battle for the reputation of serving the best Sacher cake in Vienna.
Highlights of this elegant environment predominated by circa-1900 architecture include, in addition to the Ankerhaus building at number 10, which was built by Otto Wagner and whose top floor was the architect's studio, a number of shops designed by renowned architects. At number 13, for example, is that created by Adolf Loos and, a little further on, at number 21, the bank designed by Alois Pichl and dating from 1830. Also noteworthy are the identical Leopold and Joseph fountains, which stand as hallmarks of this street and date from 1804.
In the centre of the Graben visitors can observe the Pestsäule Graben, a Baroque column that is the work of artists the likes of Matthias Rauchmiller, Ludovico Burnacini and a young Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach. The monument, which commemorates the salvation of Vienna after the terrible plague of 1679, was built by Emperor Leopold I and, among other figures, features an angel pushing a ragged old woman who looks like a witch and represents the plague towards the fires of hell.
In the Graben you will also find a very curious H&M shop: the Swedish brand acquired this workshop from a tailor who agreed to sell on condition that everything was left as it stood. So this H&M boutique looks just like the tailor's former workshop, complete with modernist velvet walls, columns, lamps, stairs... But selling the same clothes found in any other H&M. Even the façade still bears the 'Tailoring' sign.
Another curiosity is that from the 1st to the 24th of December, this city artery, perhaps one of the finest, is transformed into a life-size Advent calendar. Twenty four objects are placed along the street, one for each day of Advent, so if you happen to be in the city in the weeks prior to Christmas you are bound to get swept up in the very special holiday atmosphere.
While a visit of Graben is a wonderful experience at any time of year, whether it be for the charm of Advent or the terraces in summer... This is surely an area you will visit more than once while in Vienna.
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