Grüß Gott aus Wien! It’s my first time in Vienna, the second station in my “three capitals” trip to Central Europe. Here are my impressions (with an update in the form of a short vlog from Schloss Belvedere, down at the bottom of the post). I arrived from Berlin on Wednesday, by train. It would have been quicker, and about a third cheaper, to fly. I enjoy train journeys so much more than air travel, though. A day aboard a DB ICE was too much to resist. So that’s how I came. Two long stretches, changing at Nuremberg.
Then, back at my seat, I was in the zone, editing video and working on posts for the site.
I also started to read the Kauderwelsch “Österichisch” volume. I bought this in Dussmann, the main Berlin bookshop. It’s co-written by Daniel Krasa, whom I know from his fascinating talks at the Polyglot Gathering.
As we were all preparing to leave the train in Vienna, the woman sitting opposite me asked me whether I made a hobby of filming the run-ups to train stations. There was I, trying to be a creative, only to be mistaken for a train spotter.
Once in the Hauptbahnhof, it took me a while to work out how to get by underground to the second AirBnB apartment of my trip.
It turned out to be a short and easy one-change trip to the Westbahnhof.
It’s difficult choosing which part of town to stay in when you don’t know the geography.
The location has proved to be a good one, though. It’s very accessible to the main central areas of the city by foot and public transport. There does appear to be a house of ill repute lower down the street but, hey, we are near a major station.
The apartment is in one of those amazingly solid and expansive Habsburg apartment blocks with high ceilings. It was built in 1870.
The first night I went into a local bistro for goulash, Czech beer and a slice of rye-bread. To me, goulash was something Hungarian, but it turns out it’s a staple here as well.
Beyond the Mozart, the intellectual and cultural explosion just before the First World War, I come at Vienna from several mental angles.
One of them is Hungary. Ok, so I’ve been to Budapest a number of time and my parents live in Kecskemét for a year.
Before all that, though, it was Habsburg history. That started at school with Metternich and the Vienna Congress (we didn’t cover anything before that). By the time I was a history student at university, it was the multinational and multilingual complexity of the Dual Monarchy that fascinated me.
There seemed to be so many languages to learn: a great plus!
The linguistic landscape here still reflects that geography and history.
I’ll explore the German they speak here at a later date.
II’ve heard Slavonic languages on the streets and nationalities of the former Habsburg Empire are still among the largest minorities here, minus the Jews.
As in Germany, Latin is just under the surface. All that “Holy Roman Empire” heritage and professorial conservatism.
When I first became interested, the obvious parallels and telling differences with the multinational “English empire” at home in the British Isles exercised my thoughts too. (I mean Ireland, Scotland, Wales). How come Slovenia or Slovakia have come out of it all so much better than saddo, basket-case Wales
In my imagination, the second way to Vienna was through the dank fog of post-war noir. It’s the Bezatsungzonen, spies, thick cigarette smoke. It’s The Third Man (1949), refracted through the cold-war stories of my inimitable doctoral supervisor, Professor Norman Stone. He spent time here as a young researcher here fifteen years after Carol Reed shot his film.
My final Vienna resonance: coffee and cake. Two of my favourite things. On Friday morning, leaving the apartment late morning I took my first großer Schwartzer (double espresso). The matron behind the counter served me in German. Before long she was on the phone speaking Slovak.
There were three billiard tables in the café.
Over the road, there’s a billiard school.
Big thing in Vienna, billiards, it seems.
Julius Meinl seems to be the roast of choice, stylish, with it’s famous “Boy in a fez”logo.
Yesterday morning, I went to Café Sperl. Like my local, it had wood panelling (Holzvertäfelung), a billiard tables and a table laid out with newspapers. Another großer Schwartzer and, this time, Apfelstrüdel. Just as I was preparing to leave, a pianist struck up a tune on the upright behind me.
Yesterday afternoon after a 20 minute queue outside first in the strong afternoon sun, I was admitted to the café at the Hotel Sacher. I did my own selfies but half the room asked the a waiter or waitress to take photos of them. I somehow think the friendly staff were used to this. Were there any locals in there?
I was there to try the chocolate and apricot jam Sachertorte.
Next up: the rival version available at Café Demel. The two establishments fought in the courts for decades for the rights to the brand.
They finally agreed out of court: Hotel Sacher’s version is the “Original Sachertorte” while Demel has rights to decorate its cake with a triangular seal that reads Eduard-Sacher-Torte.
Look out for a “torte wars” head to head on the YouTube channel before too long.
For all its splendour, the city feels poorer, tattier and dustier than Berlin. The roads are in fair worse shape. The place isn’t as clinically clean. There are lots of exclusive shops in the centre. There are lots of closed down shops but a few blocks away, too.
Like the Germans, the Austrians have great original shop signage. I particularly love fading neon and there’s just as much of it to photograph here as there is in Germany.
There is a quirky newspaper vending system: small wads of papers hanging in lampposts, with a little tin to put your money in.
They also have a chain of glass book exchange cabinets dotted around town.
Much more modern curiosity was a defibrillator at the side of the street.
At the other end of the health spectrum, they still have cigarette vending machines here. I remember the surprise at seeing those on the streets in Germany when I first lived there in 1991. It used to be four marks a packet. Same price for adults and children.
As for “sights”, of course there’s much to see in six days especially at when you move at my leisurely pace.
On Friday I took the twenty-minute walk to the Museum Quartier. That’s the complex of museums in the former Imperial Stables.
Just over the road from there is Maria-Theresien-Platz. Both times I’ve been by, there’s been an Austrian Socialist Party stand and speakers pumping out loud music at the foot of the famous statue of the Empress.
I spent a couple of hours in the Kunsthistoriches Museum which faces off the equally huge Naturhistorisches Museum over the square.
Inside the world-famous art gallery, a woman was doing a copy of Bruegel’s famous Tower of Babel painting (c. 1563). She said she hoped it would be finished in a year.
Back over in the Museum Quartier, I may have time to visit the Leopold museum today or tomorrow.
Then I hope to see art inside the Oberes Schloss Belvedere.
Once I arrived in Vienna, Budapest suddenly had more architectural context.
The huge pre-First World War pastel coloured apartment blocks remind me of those in Moscow and St Petersburg, too.
Older apartments have the double windows I know from Russia (with a full second frame about twenty-five centimeters back. On one side my apartment has even got fortochki (little windows you can open for ventilation).
In further echoes of Russian cities, I’ve come across those strange rough-hewn boarded/tarmac pavements.
As befits the capital of a great Catholic Empire, the city is full of churches.
There was, incongruously, a gospel choir in Stephensdom.
On Friday evening, as I walked down one of Vienna’s most famous shopping street, the Kärtner Strasse, clerics were out in force inviting us in to the Knights of St John church to be blessed.
The Karlskirche is a huge Baroque cathedral, with two striking pillars at the front. Inside a huge scaffold houses a glass life that takes you up the inside of the dome. I suppressed my fear of heights to see the dome frescos by Rottmayr and Fanti and the view and (mainly) to get some footage.
Last night, I came across the Schottenkirke. It was founded by Irish monks in the twelfth century.
There’s an even older Celtic back-story to Vienna. This was all once Celtic territory. One theory about the meaning of the name “Vienna” is that the city takes its name from “Vindobona”, the Celtic name the Romans gave their settlement here (“fair village, white settlement” with “vindo-“, meaning “bright” or “fair” (gwyn in Welsh, fionn in Irish)).
Filming, filming, always filming. I start off on a trip with material for the site and YouTube channel already lined up and no particular plans to reflect this trip. On the road, though ideas bubble up.
You’re out on the street, without ideas and filmable things just seem to happen…. I’m not always quick or bold enough with the camera. But sometimes, I am.
In Berlin I did a bookshop safari. I’m doing one here in Vienna, too. There’ll be vlogs on both. There’ll be a travel vlogs from here too. When they’re ready, I’ll let you know.
The bookshop landscape here reflects the Hapsburg heritage. I found Polish and Serbian specialist shops. Then I ended up in the language section at Thalia, via the University bookshop. The window there was full of textbooks about the new General Date Protection Regulation. Is there no escape? (Members of the email club will know what I’m talking about. Do join if you haven’t done already: sign up box at the bottom and you can get my free video course as well).
At home, I’m not really a street food person but here in Vienna, I’ve been trying the local offerings.
On Friday afternoon I visited the Naschmarkt, a long row out out-door market stalls, overlooked by decaying Judendstil apartment blocks and smart-looking cafés.
There I had Mohrzelten (sweet poppy-seed paste encased in a small, flattish baked potato pastry cake
On Friday night I had a sausage at the Bitzinger Würstelstand by the Albertina (another palace, now a gallery).
Last night, I unexpected stumbled on a full-blown beer festival. The ageing rockers on stage were playing middle of the road American rock but the patter between songs was my first blast of full-on Austrian dialect.
I bought Tiroler Gröstl (a bit like tartiflette, without the cheese) and drank dark beer.
The food stall called itself a “Speck Standl” (the “-l” ending is a typical Austrian diminutive). When I pulled the receipt out of my pocket back home last night, I noticed that this was only a trading name. The company itself was called “Porcus tumultus” or (as google tells me) “Pig Riot”. What was that I said about Latin being just below the surface here….?
A couple of blocks more and I was unexpectedly back in the centre, at the Hofburg palace. I’m still not quite used to the shape of the city. I still don’t have that satnav in my head, yet.
I’m not attuned to the irritatingly short opening hours here, either. yesterday, I was caught out by the six o-clock shutdown.
Last night as I made my way home, I could hardly claim to need something to eat. I did need mineral water and fruit.
Luckily, there’s a supermarket underground at the Westbahnhof. In the evenings, the queues are always very long but this time I had no choice. As I left, I notice the first public use of the Georgian language I’ve ever seen, anywhere outside Georgian restaurants in Moscow. Polyglot supermarket owners?
One final observation: where’s the river? The centre of the city quite a distance west of the Danube. The river here is split into several arms. The western-most one was made into the Danubekanal but even that lies way out on the eastern edge of the city centre. Unlike London, Paris or Budapest, the city doesn’t bestraddle its river. Neither, unlike in Bratislava, does the river feel like a strong presence.
As I explore the city, I’ve been using German all the time. My exchanges have been pretty minimal, matter of fact (buying tickets, ordering food and drink). I’ve been preoccupied and I haven’t been seeking out deeper conversations. Yet my first proper trip to Austria will, with time, open up a whole new dimension to my engagement with German.
In the meantime, back out from the apartment and into the city, camera batteries recharged.
Three days here and I haven’t had a Schnitzel yet. Tongiht’s the night.