I once saw a quote somewhere by one of Austria’s post-war chancellors that “Austria has retired from world history, and is very happy about that”. Austria is not a particularly large country, but its erstwhile empire was very large and Vienna was a cultural metropolis and mixing-pot on the scale of London or Paris, and it has the buildings to match. The empire was finished by the age of the Manhattan skyscraper, but the buildings Vienna does have reflect the neo-classical ideology of Empire; everyone wanted to steal the clothes Greece/Rome, but as German-speakers the Viennese were also inheritors of the Gothic. The architecture, particularly around the lavish Ringstrasse that replaced the old city walls, is like a five-year-old unleashed on a pick ‘n’ mix with an unlimited budget. The familiar Hapsburg look of Herculean caryatids and green domes of oxidised copper is turned up to 11 in their capital; they were building a city for giants, on a heroic scale that seems almost comical to our eyes. But this city built for titans is now the capital to a small-to-middling country, and compared to our pressure-cooker global cities it has a paradoxically unpretentious, slightly soporific appeal that I find very appealing. It no longer asks to dominate world affairs; it is happy to rest on its laurels, and so it should be.
Our flight back from a week in the Wachau was from Vienna, and it was a pleasure to spend the last afternoon in a great city that is an old favourite. Vienna has so many huge, top-end museums that it’s difficult to know where to start, also it was a nice day and we hadn’t much cash left. The coffee houses feel like the soul of the city, as if they were to Vienna what Wren churches are to the City, but there is a limit to the number of cakes it is wise to eat in one afternoon.
So we elected to spend most of the afternoon walking around and dipping into a handful of the best-known churches in the city, trying to avoid the likes of Stefansdom and the Operaplatz where men dressed as Mozart were busy accosting the summer holidaymakers.
Leaving Weißenkirchen on a Sunday morning, we find it as busy as it has been all week, with tour groups of pensioners and biker gangs in black leather. The bus to Krems is late and causes a mad scramble for the Vienna train, which zips through fields of sunflowers and small towns, a couple of which I’ve heard of (Wagram, where Napoleon put the Kaiser back in his box, and Tulln, hometown of Schiele). The one astonishing sight that leaps out of nowhere, and too quickly for me to take a picture, is the Stift Klosterneuburg; a grandiose monastery on the scale of Melk or Schonbrunn, with twin Gothic turrets fronting a lavish palace. The Danube plains give way to the Vienna woods and a few pretty timber houses, before we change onto the U-Bahn at the edge of Vienna, with the aim of arriving at Wien Mitte and using their luggage lockers.
Disaster strikes, however, as it turns out that if you turn up on Sunday lunchtime all 60 lockers will be occupied; there is a steady stream of disappointed people wheeling their suitcases up and down the corridor. Once it’s clear that no-one is coming to our rescue we elect to travel one stop north on the S-Bahn and try our luck at the Praterstern station. For this we do buy tickets, but note that Vienna runs a (for us) incredibly trusting system that involves no ticket barriers at entry or exit. Thankfully there are a few vacant lockers here. Once freed up we jump on the U-Bahn and get out at Stefansplatz, the centre of inner Vienna.
For a light lunch we head to one of the classic destinations, Café Hawelka. Just off the bombastic department stores of the Graben, it’s as central as can be but still matches the old-world time capsule charm with a scruffy bohemian mood. The dark wood and well-worn upholstery gives it the same sort of vibe as a Dutch brown café.
First time around, we had our first meal in here and were sat next to a vast Viennese widow draped in lacy black, looking like Queen Victoria in her later years. She’s not in on this occasion, if she’s still alive, but the coffee is sit-up-and-take-notice good. Alas, unsurprisingly the prices appear to have gone up a fair bit in the intervening seven years, as we find out from a slightly smug waiter who goes out of his way to say that service charge is not included, but I suppose it must come with the business rents on a very central piece of real estate.
We come out onto the Graben, which is thronged with tourists, most of them sounding Eastern European (proximity, I suppose), and struggle to reign in our Stendhal syndrome at the super-sized architecture. In Belfast the most handsome buildings house the downmarket likes of Primark and Tesco, and although Vienna’s buildings are light years ahead they seem to have a similar problem. The age of Warhol gets one over on the grandiose legacy of the empires and deflates the self-importance of these buildings by filling them up with the entirely disposable.
On the opposite side of the Graben is the marvellous Peterskirche. Built at the start of the C18th on the site of an older church, this church manages to make a small, narrow plot of land feel much bigger than it is by building upwards, to a broad oval dome bolstered by twin turrets. On the inside, it fills itself out with sinuous Baroque shapes and more gilding than Melk Abbey.
In a crowded field, perhaps the most arresting piece is the golden sculpture group showing the martyrdom of St John of Nepomuk. After the guided tour of Melk, you can really tell the places where Baroque churches have painted stucco to imitate marble. Stand back, and it takes your breath away; scrutinise the detail closely, and you have the impression of looking at a theatre set.
We pick up a prayer leaflet dedicated to Karl, the short-lived last Hapsburg Emperor, which contains a prayer for ‘European unity’. Not for wretches like us, I fear.
Next we cut around the popular Stefansdom and into the far quieter streets behind, to visit the Dominikanerkirche. Passing old Stefansdom, I think of the C17th Turkish travel writer Evliya Celebi, who I’ve been reading lately, and his comments on the church. His descriptions of Holland are fantastical and filled with whopping untruths, but his description of Vienna is detailed enough to sound plausible. Despite hailing from a city with Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Theodosian Walls and Topkapi Palace, he declares Stefansdom to be the greatest building ever constructed. One man’s bread and butter is the other’s most impossible exotica.
Dominikanerkirche is slightly earlier than Peterskirche, having been finished in the late C17th after the Dominicans’ medieval church was badly damaged by the Turkish siege of Vienna. The facade has a recognisably Italian look; it fits in with the churches of the Rome of the Popes.
It’s Baroque on the inside too, but a less undulating, less luxurious, and less likeable Baroque; it feels frostier and fussier. Despite the abundance of cherubs, it has an oddly secular vibe, perhaps because it is grounded in the architecture of Greco-Roman temples. You have to walk a few minutes further to get here, and correspondingly there are vastly fewer people sticking their head inside on a sleepy Sunday.
Strolling around the area, we come across the Fleischmarkt, childhood home of Billy Wilder, and its wonderful Greek Orthodox church (we had spied on a service with lots of singing last time, but today it was shut). The lovely Eastern promise of its Byzantine/Moorish stylings reminds me of the synagogues of Otto Wagner in Budapest, but it was apparently built by a Dane called Hansen.
It benefits from the contrast with its neighbours, being placed next door to a famous old beisl where we are told Beethoven & Schubert used to eat.
You can stroll quite aimlessly through these streets, simply drinking in the beauty of Imperial grandeur here, art deco shop fronts there (even if Spar have moved into the art deco palace). It’s one of those cities that has gone for an abundance of beauty that will give any newcomer a dose of Stendhal syndrome.
We decide to make for the Jesuitenkirche, which is the earliest we’ve seen yet (1620s, albeit with a makeover in the 1700s), and I am so glad we did. It’s quite wonderful. This is Baroque at its happiest and most harmonious.
There’s an Andrea Pozzo trompe l’oeil dome in the ceiling, and the galleries look like boxes at the opera. There is more than a little Jesuitical cleverness at work here; putting together a church as pleasing as this is a fairly certain way to recruit worshippers to your gang.
The chapel altars are bordered by more fake marble, corkscrew-shaped Solomonic columns. There are posters advertising a Messaien recital that evening, and we must be privileged enough to get a free preview as someone is blasting out some very avant-garde sounds on the organ during our stay.
Three churches to the wind, we can’t resist nipping across to say hello to the Hofburg, site of the Kaiser’s apartments. I’ve still never been inside (there is apparently a museum to the cult of Sissi, Franz Josef’s frigid, bulimic, workout-obsessed wife who was killed by an Italian anarchist. She seems to have a similar place in Austria’s public consciousness to another Queen of Hearts), however you can walk through the entry arch and pass along a series of suitably ancient courtyards before coming out at the OTT Heldenplatz and finding yourself on the Ringstrasse. First time around, this would be our daily walk to the Museumsquartier and may explain why the city worked its magic on me.
The narrow little streets in one of the oldest, prettiest corners of the old city give way to the square in front of the Hofburg, where outsized musclemen statues play out Wagnerian battles to a scale that makes you giggle. The Greco-Roman ideal is injected with a strain of shouty Teutonic nuttiness.
Opposite the Imperial apartments is the modernist bank building of Adolf Loos, author of ‘Why a Man Should Be Well-Dressed’ and architect of the fabulous Bar Américain off Kärtnerstrasse. None of the guide books pass up the chance to tell you that Franz Josef kept his curtains permanently closed in protest at this “house without eyebrows”.
After the Hofburg courtyards with their bits and pieces of ancient heraldry, the bombast of Heldenplatz takes you to the Ringstrasse, the gigantic mid-C19th project to replace the city walls with a ring-road boulevard. Not uncommon in booming cities that were attempting to accommodate traffic, and cannon had rendered defensive walls redundant long before, but Vienna’s is probably the daddy of them all for its audacious decision to show off by lining the whole thing with monumental buildings in every style under the sun; Gothic, Baroque, Neo-classical.
On the other side of the Ringstrasse is a world-class collection of museums; the natural history museum, the Kunsthistorischesmuseum (when we went we spent hours with the paintings, and didn’t even have time to look at the antiquities on the lower floor), the Leopold for C19th stuff and MUMOK for the modern filth.
We cut through the appealing Volksgarten, with its ducks and mock Grecian temples, and sample a little stretch of the Ringstrasse that takes in the Austrian parliament, their national theatre and the Rathaus. If the parliament is pure C19th neo-classicism, and the theatre ripples its pecs and muscles as much as the Herculean sculpture, the Rathaus looks like a giant rebuild of a town hall from medieval Holland or Flanders.
Heading back into the Innerestadt, we pass one more important church and cannot resist popping inside for the full house; the Minoritenkirche, which, in a city with so much revivalist architecture, I am surprised to find is actually C14th Gothic. Looking from the outside, two chapels jut out around the tower and I’m reminded of Ian Nairn’s description of certain Paris churches as shopping bags about to burst. It looks and feels like the very old churches one finds in France or England; but this quite un-Italian church was given to the Italians of Vienna as one of Joseph II’s expressions of Enlightenment largesse and has been run by them since.
One of the nods towards the peninsula contained within is an odd, life-size mosaic reconstruction of Leonardo’s Last Supper, commissioned by Napoleon. In the churchyard, a dog is doing its business next to a ‘€50 fines for dog-fouling’ sign, and I wonder if this is an ostentatious sign of its owners wealth.
By this point, it’s late afternoon and we feel entitled to pick another coffee house for kaffee und kuchen. We opt for Café Bräunerhof, one of the less blingy places and erstwhile hangout of the godlike genius Thomas Bernhard. I try to limit myself to two of his books per year, the better to savour them, and to prevent them from ruining all other literature for me by making it seem so plodding. As much as I like the nostalgic novelists of Old Europe Vienna, Bernhard blasts them, and pretty much any ‘literary’ writer you could care to name, right out of the water. His nihilistic novels are more rants than conventional novels, and their protagonists are unhinged types that I would probably cross the road to avoid, but their voice is compelling, compulsive and makes for an electrifying read. The narrators get themselves so worked up that their accumulation of negatives is dizzyingly Rabelaisian, and so vehement that although I may be reading against the grain I find that they make me laugh and laugh and laugh like nothing else.
One interview has him proclaiming he sits by the windows at the café because the air is better, so we take a table there. It’s slightly on the scruffy/fusty end of the scale, and feels less like a cousin to the Ritz palm room, like a mid-range Paris brasserie or a 1950s formica coffee bar. The musical trio that usually appear on Sunday afternoons are, alas, having their summer break but we get to linger over newspapers on long sticks. It is easier to linger over your coffee as the classic beverage in Vienna is not an espresso but a melange (pronounced melansch), which is a bit like a cappuccino. The Austrian media is giving itself a reassuring, but sadly unrepresentative view of Brexit by interviewing Hilary Benn; the piece sees them raise Boris’ accussation that the EU position is “halsabschneiderisch” (I had to look this up, it’s ‘cutthroat’) and reflect on whether “kein deal ist besser als eine schlechte deal”. Ich nichten lichten.
Soon it’s time to make out way back to Praterstern and pick up the luggage, and we decide to make the best of a warm early evening by walking, heading round the Opera house and up the shoppers’ paradise of Kärtnerstrasse to the Danube and then along its banks. For all that Vienna is perhaps the most famous of the many great cities on the banks of this great river, it’s not one which is very willing to incorporate the river into the heart of the city, like Paris or London; it turns its back on the Danube. The northern side of the Innerestadt is fringed by a small canal that runs off the main Danube and rejoins it downriver of the city.
Few of the buildings around here are in the opulent Ringstrasse style, but there is much evidence of the canalside area having been cleaned up and made more user-friendly, with beach bars and a graffiti area whose beginning and end are marked ‘Fairness Zone’. There’s the predictable volume of sub-Banksy rubbish, but much of the sentiment expressed is anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, and in defence of refugees. It is notable that the slogan ‘TOURISM IS TERRORISM’ makes a few appearances.
Eventually we get to the Praterstern, with a distant glimpse of Harry Lime’s big wheel, and are reunited with the luggage. Just like London or Paris, this just-outside-the-epicentre terminus is a different world, away from the pristine palaces, where they hide the poor people; think Kings Cross before its C21st makeover. There are lots of destitute-looking people sitting on benches, and North African men meeting up with each other to conduct transactions. There’s also an S-Bahn that goes directly to the airport, so we arrive in good time for our flight, which turns out to be hideously delayed, as are lots of the flights getting into Gatwick that evening, meaning the queue for passport control starts out in the corridors before the giant hall, meaning we miss the last London Bridge train and have to get the all-night Brighton-to-Bedford thing which crawls through South London at a walking pace and leaves us having to walk from Blackfriars and wait an eternity for a 2am night bus. As I curse Sunday night public transport, as a small consolation there is one reminder of something London does (or did) just as well as Vienna.