Vienna stole in upon us on a gusty summer’s night and caught us unawares after a 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 about it. Brexit travelled with us to Vienna.
From cool English climes we were driven straight into the arms of a suffocating heat wave in the Austrian capital. My hair frizzed up promptly and my peace of mind 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.” Right, as tempting as that was we pushed ourselves out of the hotel plonked helpfully on the Ringstraße, Vienna’s ring road that wraps itself around its old town. In front of the iconic Vienna State Opera, we were accosted by a man in a white wig, yellow brocade waistcoat and breeches to buy hideously expensive opera tickets that would make you scream something obscene. We wound up watching Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) instead at the Vienna State Opera 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 of good opera.
In its aftermath, enveloped in a haze of operatic enchantment, we armed ourselves with cans of chilled beer and fortified by Käsekrainer, those scrumptious Austrian sausages filled with cubes of cheese sold at street carts and spicy noodles rustled up by Afghan migrants, we explored the baroque beauty of Vienna. Everything was magnificent, and those palaces, fountain nymphs, gods and goddesses, churches, they cast an imperial aura over the city. Horse carriages clip-clopped by.
History lurked around every corner we turned. 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 essence 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 by her mother-in-law and the rigidity of courtly life. So she championed 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. She was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in 1868.
In front of the stunning Rathaus, we watched a Euro football match with a passionate crowd. How every experience adds to the memories of a place.
We met up with a couple of my friends in Vienna who were bound the next morning for Budapest. We spent an evening near the impressive St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its richly tile-glazed roof, talked politics and travel, drinking copious amounts of beer till the pubs shut down, and then gave in to late-night grub from 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 setting out on the museum route 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 Sigmund Freud. He had fled to London with everything he owned to escape the Nazis. The museum in Vienna has barely nothing to show.
My wish of meeting the Lippizaner Horses at the Spanish Riding School was in vain. “They are on holiday,” beamed the blonde girl behind the till. I dismissed it. What a joke! The girl reiterated, “They actually go on holiday during this period and return in August.”
I drowned my sorrows in cake.
We sat in the luxurious café of Hotel Sacher and sliced into Sacher Tortes, with dollops of whipped cream. We tried 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 where the family at the table next to ours snickered at the monstrosity of it.
A cup of Viennese coffee and a slice of cake go hand-in-hand at these traditional coffee houses which the UNESCO has listed as pieces of Intangible Cultural Heritage”.
In the late 19th & 20th centuries, Freud, Hitler, Lenin and Soviet politician Leon Trotsky were patrons of Café Central. Not to forget the chess players who met there regularly, lending it the nickname, Die Schachhochschule, or the Chess School. These old cafés, they continue to be sticklers for tradition with their marble table tops, bentwood chairs and gilded columns. There time stands still as you spend hours at leisure but pay just the price of coffee.