The Second Of Four Cities: Vienna

From the window of the tour bus between Budapest and Vienna, the Hungarian countryside had a vague strangeness to it. Open farmland broken by the occasional tree line, by distant red-roofed villages, the larger towns marked by dreary Soviet era concrete apartment blocks. The landscape itself seemed oddly different, the greens, just a bit grayed and muted.

Once across the border into Austria, the windmills appeared, hundreds and hundreds of gigantic hi-tech windmills, all facing east into the prevailing winds that blow from the not-so-distant steppes. It was once written of Vienna that Asia began on the Landstrasse, a street on the city’s eastern suburbs. Our guide told us that Austria is one of the world’s leaders in the production of wind driven electricity.

The hotel wasn’t ready for us, and we stopped for lunch, decent, at a large railroad station on the outskirts of the city. We were now on the Euro and the prices were at least comparable to those in the states. The first thing I picked up on was that the people generally were much better dressed than those in Hungary. Once in the city itself, the contrasts with Budapest were even sharper. No graffiti, no trash, and again a prosperous looking crowd. The cars were now large, almost as large as those in the states, many of them high-end Mercedes and BMWs, and most were relatively new.

With still a bit of time to kill, we walked the grounds of The Belvedere, the 18th century palace built by Prince Eugene of Savoy, a general from Italy who saved the Hapsburg empire from the Turks. Interestingly enough, one of Nazi Germany’s WW II heavy cruisers was named the Printz Eugen, in honor of the Italian who is Austria’s national hero. The magnificent Belvedere, built to rival Versailles, appears to be another case of  Hapsburgs trying to keep up with Bourbons.

Later, on the ten-minute walk from our hotel to the Ringstrasse, we passed the Soviet war memorial.  Atop a great pillar stands a statue of a larger-than-life Red Army soldier in a golden helmet, greatcoat and carrying the iconic Russian submachine gun. The memorial celebrates the “liberation” of Vienna from the German Nazis, and neatly sums up the deal Austria cut with the allies in 1945.

The Austrians were occupied by the four powers from 1945 until 1955. At that point the Allies withdrew and the Austrians pledged themselves to neutrality. The mythology that permitted half of Austria to escape the fate of East Germany, forty-plus years under Soviet guidance, was that Austria, like so many other European nations, had been a victim of Nazi aggression. It was conveniently glossed over that Adolph was a local boy, and that the 1936 Anschluss with the Third Reich was welcomed by a sizeable proportion of the Austrian population, not that they could have done much to prevent it. A joke about Austrians is that they’ve spent the last half of the twentieth-century trying to convince the world that Beethoven was an Austrian, and that Hitler was a German.

If the myth of Austrian wartime innocence was to be sustained, then the accompanying myth of a Russian “liberation” also had to be honored. In reality the arrival of the Soviets in 1945 had been a nightmare for Austrians. For over sixty years complicit Viennese have had to grit their teeth, looking the other way, when passing the giant Red Army memorial in the center of their city. Appropriately enough, the person who came to symbolize the Austrian dilemma, Kurt Waldheim, died a year or so ago.

Given all that, Vienna is a wonderful city. The Ringstrasse, a U-shaped thorofare encloses the central historic section of the city. The open end of the Ring borders on the Donau canal which is watered by the Danube. We rode the tram around the loop several times on our first afternoon in town. The Ringstrasse, I believe, was laid out by Haussmann, the same architect who gave Paris its wide boulevards during the Second Empire, another case of the centrality of things French in 18th and 19th century Europe.

On the tram going around the Ring, a flash of color through the trees caught our eye and we discovered on the grounds of a small palace an extensive public rose garden with a variety of roses that far exceeded my powers of floral imagination. The garden was crowded, with a preponderance of highly respectable-looking Viennese women of a certain age.

As in Budapest, the hotel’s buffet breakfast was lavish. Our first morning was given over to a guided bus tour of the city; all palaces, history and parks. Taking leave of the group, we headed for the “Secession” building, a turn-of-the-century, art nouveau retreat for the city’s then avant garde, now a museum celebrating the indulgences of what passes for an avant garde, The presentations were truly awful, installations of old clothing laid out on the floor, large canvases with indecipherable markings and artist’s manifestoes full of pretense and hot air.

However, in a series of small screening rooms on the second floor were short films by a Lithuanian-born, British documentary filmmaker. Skeptical as ever, I got myself drawn into his explorations on themes of the relationship between accepted versions of history and personal memory. I came away with my head swimming, usually a sign that my biases have been challenged.

We strolled a large open-air market and had an excellent lunch in a seafood restaurant among the locals. The menu made no concessions to English. I had calamari grilled in garlic with a couple of drafts of wonderful Viennese beer.

One aspect of Vienna that caught my attention was the presence of a motorcycle culture. In Budapest, as in the cities of Spain and Italy, motorcycles and motor scooters are a practical form of cheap transportation. Little attention is taken in keeping them clean, or in their display as statements of personal identity. In Vienna, and later in Prague and in Berlin, the kind of bikes seen in the U.S. were everywhere, large chromed V-twins, Harleys and luxurious Japanese knock-offs of Harleys. The number of young people riding beautifully maintained sport bikes; BMWs and new Japanese “crotch rockets,” seemed an indicator of a generally high level of disposable income.

Vienna’s café scene is a delight. We had the requisite Sacher Torte mit schlage and coffee while exploring the immense pedestrian shopping area inside the Ring. It is the largest such expanse of car-free upscale shopping I’ve encountered, and it’s embedded within some of the most attractive urban architecture imaginable; from eighteenth and nineteenth century overhangs and facades to a central square with an dramatically imposing medieval cathedral.

We returned to the Belvedere Palace which has been turned into a museum for the city’s large collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century painting, lots of stuff by Gustav Klimpt and Egon Scheile. At the Museum of Applied Arts, the exhibits paled when contrasted to the décor of the museum café where we had an excellent and expensive lunch. But the café itself was nothing next to the design of the restrooms. They were in blue for the herren and pink for the damen, all curved porcelain surfaces and mirrors with plumbing innovative enough to challenge an uninitiated user like myself.

We couldn’t leave without visiting the Vienna Ferris Wheel, site of the memorable Orson Welles/Joseph Cotton scene in 1948’s “The Third Man.” The Ferris Wheel itself was a letdown and a bit of a tourist trap, but in walking there through the beautiful, and well-kept, Stadtpark, we did get out portion of noir by witnessing what appeared to be a drug deal going down. 

We attended the obligatory Mozart concert in a lavishly ornate music hall. All of the usual suspects were covered; the Jupiter, the overture to the Barber of Seville, the Eine Kleine Nacht. Mozart now seems to serve as a kitschy tourist experience with the musicians compelled to deck themselves out in eighteenth century satins and wigs. It’s a high-culture analog to the calypso beach bands in the Caribbean that repeatedly play the same songs, “Jamaica Farewell, et al,” as background for the sale of pina coladas. Grump. Grump. Grump. And I am getting worse. We capped our Mozart with dinner in a cheery café, crowded even late on a mid-week night.

After a three-night stay in Vienna, it was back on the bus and off to Prague!





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