Vienna, 5th December 2012.
I eat breakfast in the hostel canteen, which is as cold, clean and institutional as the rest of the building. The giggling, laughing and squealing of a school group behind me mixed with the somber looks of the canteen staff, dressed all in white, makes the transformation to a cuckoo’s nest like sanitarium almost complete. Previous hostels have all been little operations but this one though is a big institutional effort.
To get into the centre of Vienna I cross the Ringstasse via the museum quarter, its grand twins of the Natural History and Art History museums only a taster of what is waiting inside the line of former fortifications. I pass through the Neoclassical Burgtor gate to stand in the Heldenplatz and admire the Hofburg Palace, its Neue Burg wing arcing spectacularly around the south-western side. The palace is now the official residence of the Austrian President and a major tourist attraction, but for more than six hundred years it was the seat of power for various empires. I wander around the outside a little to try and take in some of the grandeur and scale, but don’t feel the urge to see the inside, having seen enough splendour in Budapest yesterday.
The assistant in the tourist information centre doesn’t understand the word ‘free’ as I ask about walking tours, but hopeful of a repeat of the great experiences in Belgrade and Budapest I take a leaflet and find a tour that starts soon in the nearby Neue Markt.
The grey December skies now start to rain lightly and when I reach the Neue Markt looking for the eleven o’clock tour meeting point I find others hiding under the marquee of a nearby hotel. At eleven the Neue Markt is distinctly lacking tour guides. My fellow waiting tourists start to grumble in German about the tardiness of our guide; at three minutes past eleven one of the group phones the number on the back of the leaflet, demanding to know where the guide is. The guide’s husband answers the phone and tells us that she is on her way. At four minutes past, in a multitude of German accents, the group agrees that you can’t waste people’s time like this and it’s a disgrace. At five minutes past eleven I’m the only one left still waiting at the meeting point. I leave before the guide turns up and I have to give an embarrassed explanation of why everyone left.
With my unexpected free time and the continuing rain I head for the Vienna museum. Inside the curators clearly realise that the pre-history of the area is not what people are interested in, so in a few brief exhibits you are taken straight into Vienna as a fortified city, at times the centre of empires and at others the war torn edge in conflict with the Ottoman Turks.
While Vienna is famous for the Ring Strasse, the circular road with many spectacular buildings built by Emperor Franz-Joseph I from 1853 onwards, I had not realised how extensive the fortifications that used to exist there were. Models and maps show in great detail the huge star shaped fortifications, with multiple prows of wall sticking out into the defensive plain on three sides and the river on the last. These were successful in keeping Vienna out of Ottoman control for hundreds of years, including the 1529 Siege of Vienna and the siege that was the prelude to the 1683 Battle of Vienna.
As such Vienna was always the limit of the Ottoman empire, and after the Ottoman Empire started to decline it’s lands were take by the Holy Roman empire and fell under Hapsburg control. On my route this truly makes Vienna the end of the eastern influence, the first place not controlled at some point by the Ottomans.
The museum does a good job of describing and explaining the history up to 1900, but then the narrative abruptly stops. We never learn about the eventual dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the forming of the Austrian Republic; a story that I feel would be worth telling, as well as Vienna’s life as a diplomatic and espionage hotspot during the Cold War.
Having failed to find a tour in the morning I try my luck again in the afternoon with more success. A happy spherical man appears at the appointed time wearing the uniform of an official guide along with a few of this morning’s other thwarted tour-goers. This tour has a theme of courtyards and backstreets, for which some of the other visitors collect stamps in a loyalty card for Vienna walking tours. History doesn’t strike me as a ’listen to six centuries of history and get the seventh free’ product, but apparently so.
We start at the Scottish Church (a misnomer based on a long gone cloister of Irish monks that existed near that spot in 1100) before heading up a small slope that was once part of the city walls and then diving into one of the many little courtyards that exist inside many old Viennese apartment buildings. We’re taken through various Durchhauser, private residences that allow access to courtyards or other houses, a result of Vienna’s often cramped growth behind the fortified walls, which meant that streets couldn’t always be built to all buildings. Many buildings and apartments are only accessible through other buildings and often facilities like fresh water were shared in these common courtyards.
At this point the guide points out as small flat in a pink painted building and declares it to be one of the many apartments where Beethoven lived while he was in Vienna. The guide leans forward and conspiriotorally tells us that over the years the number of residences that Beethoven is purported to have lived in has steadily been rising, and that at some point soon there will be evidence that the itinerant composer has lived in almost every building within the Ringstrasse.
Our last stop is the Minoritenkirche, a church founded by followers of St Francis of Assisi. Inside is a large mosaic of the Last Supper, based on the Da Vinci painting, which was commissioned by Napoleon. It took eight years to complete and weighs twenty tonnes, but by the time it had been finished Napoleon had been exiled and wasn’t able to pay for or accommodate the grand work. Instead a Viennese relative picked up the tab, the result of which was that the Emperor of France’s mosaic is now on the wall of a church in the Austrian capital. Before leaving us the guide takes us through the sordid details and blunders of the 1913 Redl affair , in which shortly before World War I, Austrian’s chief counter-intelligence officer was found out to be a Russian spy.
At the end of the tour we’re left outside the famous Central Cafe. The most well known of the Viennese Grand Cafes that allowed aspiring writers and poets (including Leo Tolstoy) the comfort of a warm space in exchange for buying only the occasional cup of coffee. Vienna used to have hundreds of Grand Cafes, but now they’re almost all gone. I don’t know if the growth of Starbucks and it’s more recent friends have had the same effect, somewhere sipping a Grande Frappuccino is an impoverished poet whose genius we’re not yet aware of.
I spend the next couple of hours slowly wandering around the grand marvels and small streets of Vienna. This is the dead time after five but before a reasonable dinner hour. Without a hostel to return to, I’m on another sleeper train tonight, I have nowhere particular to go. So I take a very leisurely stroll into St Stephen’s Cathedral, around the university and through the Christmas Market outside the Rathaus. The trees carry the glowing winter fruit of lanterns, multicoloured against the orange neon glow which illuminates the thousand small details carved into the elaborate frontage of the Rathaus.
Further round the ring-road sits the Austrian Parliament. A country that was once ruled by one of the longest dynasties in Europe now doesn’t allow noble titles, but while the grand titles have gone, the architecture and self confidence of the city won’t let you forget them.
For dinner I decide that, having had Cevapcici in Belgrade and goulash in Budapest I’d better have Weiner Schnitzel in Vienna, otherwise I’m going to regret not completing a food stereotypes hat-trick. I pick the Kojote restaurant on Berggasse and am delighted to be served a plate of three broad and incredibly thin Wiener Schnitzel, fried, as per tradition, in fine breadcrumbs.
Ever since reading a Micheal Palin biography that describes the comic and traveller’s frequent habit of going to restaurants by himself and reading I’ve tried draw inspiration from this; if it’s good enough for Michael Palin it’s good enough for me. I’d prefer to be eating dinner with a friend, but in this case Robert Ciadini’s book Influence is pleasant enough company. I shouldn’t feel self-conscience about it, plenty of the other people seem to manage, but like going to the cinema alone, where even if you don’t talk to anyone during the film, there’s something that doesn’t seem quite right.
After finishing the last of the beer (long since warm) that I’ve been nursing I pay up, collect my rucksack from the hostel and find my train at the Westbahnhof. While cleaner and more modern then the sleeper trains in Bulgaria and Serbia, being busier the train feels less comfortable than my previous night trains. My compartment has four bunks, the one opposite me is occupied by a quiet Austrian who replies happily to my “Hello”, then makes himself comfortable on his bunk while trying to use the least possible space. With the four bunks, of a possible six, laid out, there is very little room left in the compartment. The bottom two are unoccupied, but the conductor tells us that they’ll be filled overnight at one of the stops.
We turn the light out, but through the thin walls can hear the excited shouts and gossiping of a group in the next compartment. My cabin mate gives me a resigned smile and says “Sadly you can’t choose your neighbours”. I agree with him, while trying to work out if he’s making a deeper philosophical point, but undermine its possible extra meaning by offering him some spare foam earplugs I have. Perhaps you can’t choose your neighbours, or in the case of the Vienna museum your history. The trick is knowning what’s safe to block out with earplugs, and what isn’t.