Vienna stole in upon us on a gusty summer’s night and caught me unawares after a somewhat subdued start to our weekend break.
The day we caught the early morning flight to Vienna from Heathrow, the results of the monumental Brexit referendum had just been announced. The elderly cab driver in Northampton quizzed us on our reactions, co-travellers opined ‘Now, if the Scottish want to leave us, bollocks to them’, and stewards gabbed on about it. Brexit travelled with us to Vienna.
From the cool climes of England, we were driven straight into the arms of a suffocating heat wave in the Austrian capital. My hair frizzed up with alarming alacrity and my happiness ebbed in directly proportional measures. The Turkish doorman at the hotel announced, “Everyone who comes in through the doors says, ‘Aaaah the air conditioning, I think we shall spend the holiday inside the hotel.” The sentiment was much appreciated as my wilting spirits revived in the cool of our room which had beautiful Viennese art etched into the décor.
Mozart, Käsekrainer and Sisi
The hotel was plonked right on the Ringstraße, Vienna’s ring road that runs in a circle around the Innere Stadt (Old Town). Emerging into the hot noon, we found ourselves in front of the iconic Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), nearby which we were accosted by a man in a poufy white wig, yellow brocade waistcoat and breeches. He has many counterparts, across Vienna’s Old Town, ready to pounce upon tourists. In his Mozart-esque costume, the man tried his best to sell us exorbitant tickets for an opera, apart from prattling on about Brexit and Zubin Mehta because the maestro had started his conducting career in Vienna.
We wound up watching Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) instead at the Wiener Staatsoper after laying our hands on a couple of standing tickets. There we stood transfixed by the beauty of it – you can never underplay the emotions that a good opera performance can induce. It was one of the most atmospheric things that we indulged in, in Vienna. The comic opera, first staged in 1786 in the city, revolved around the marriage of the servants Figaro and Susanna, and in the process, the foiling of an amorous count’s plans to seduce Susanna.
In its aftermath, enveloped in a haze of operatic enchantment, we armed ourselves with cans of chilled beer. Fortified further by Käsekrainer (Austrian sausages with cubes of cheese) from carts and spicy noodles rustled up by Afghan migrants, we explored the baroque beauty of Vienna. Magnificent palaces, fountain nymphs, gods and goddesses, and churches cast an imperial aura over the city. Horse carriages clip-clopped by. Every old building oozed charm, and in front of the stunning Rathaus, we ended up watching a Euro football match with a passionate crowd.
Particularly romantic were the sky-high spires of a church built by the Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as a gesture of Ferdinand’s thankfulness because of a failed assassination attempt on the emperor’s life.
History lurked around every corner we turned. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had addressed an Austrian German crowd in 1938 from the balcony of the Neue Burg, a branch of the Hofburg Palace which was the stronghold of the Habsburg monarchy. The way to the palace was through a massive gate, Michaelertor, and it housed a museum dedicated to the Austrian cult figure of Sisi. The beautiful empress of Kaiser Franz Joseph I, formally known as Elisabeth of Austria, stared back at me from shop windows and palace banners. She was known for indulging in fripperies such as washing her hair with essences extracted from eggs and cognac and tightly lacing herself – which is how she maintained a slender figure, an enviable sense of fashion and lush long hair. Sisi was a woman oppressed. Her mother-in-law and the rigidity of courtly life were a couple of instances. I admired her for becoming a champion of independence, penning poetry and indulging her passion for wanderlust. “If I arrived at a place and knew that I could never leave it again, the whole stay would become hell despite being paradise,” said Sisi, who was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in 1868.
A couple of my friends were in Vienna at the time. We spent an evening with them near the impressive St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its richly tile-glazed roof, talking about politics and travel. We drank copious amounts of beer till the pubs shut down and resorted to some more from late-night food stalls while buskers played sweet music to us.
Vienna by night is truly unmissable.
Ye Old Cafés and Horse Traps
An inevitable part of being in Vienna is traipsing through museums and making pit stops at coffee houses. We absorbed Vienna’s Habsburg history in the Schönbrunn Palace and could not but miss out on Mozart’s birthplace. Warned by a friend, I skipped the museum dedicated to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He had fled to London with everything he owned to escape the Nazis and thus the museum in Vienna has barely nothing to show.
My ardent wish of meeting the Lippizaner Horses at the Spanish Riding School was in vain however. “They are on holiday,” beamed the blonde girl behind the till. I dismissed it as a joke. The girl reiterated, “They actually go on holiday during this period and return only in August.”
I drowned my sorrows. I ate cake.
We sat in the luxurious café of Hotel Sacher and sliced into Sacher Tortes along with dollops of whipped cream. We dug into more tortes at cafés which are institutions in Vienna. If I shut my eyes, I can almost taste the goodness of the Cleopatra Torte at Demel and the intimidating mound of shredded pancake known as Kaiserschmarrn at Central Café.
A cup of Viennese coffee and a slice of cake go hand-in-hand at these traditional coffee houses which have been listed as pieces of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by UNESCO. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Freud, Hitler, Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Soviet politician Leon Trotsky were some of the famous names who patronised Café Central.
For these cafés were and continue to be places filled with marble table tops, bentwood chairs and gilded columns, where time stands still, where the hours are spent at leisure, but where you pay for just the price of coffee.
Vienna waits for you.
If you enjoyed going through this post and do not mind a little more of this beautiful city, here’s more for you, Vienna – II.