After reading Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, I was determined to go and visit Vienna. He made it sound like an absolutely beautiful city, with a fascinating history and cultural life. I’d always heard good things about it, and imagined it to be a majestic place, famous for music and royal palaces and its mixture of Western and Eastern European influences. I expected it to be somewhat like St Petersburg, and I had a picture of myself in a fur hat, wandering through deserted palaces and floating in and out of fancy shops, against a soaring soundtrack of Mozart waltzes. Inspired by these romantic notions, I booked myself a cheap short break to the city over half term, and started planning my visits to coffee houses, museums and sights of architectural interest with much excitement.
I arrived in Vienna on a Sunday morning, and was shocked both by the extreme cold weather and the silence of the city streets. Feeling like the star of a zombie apocalypse movie, I wandered the streets between my hotel and the main square, Stephansplatz, amidst a background of eerie quiet. Despite my increasing concern that I had missed some major world disaster that everyone else was hiding from, I still managed to take notice of the unbelievably gorgeous mixture of architecture around me: from the art nouveau work of the turn of the century, to elaborate Baroque palaces, Gothic churches and more simplistic 17th century structures, everywhere I looked provided a treat for the eyes. When I finally made it to Stephansplatz, I was heartened to find not only a seriously impressive Gothic cathedral, but also several tourists, which reassured me that the world hadn’t ended while I’d been flying across Europe. Clearly, Vienna was just not the same kind of buzzing capital city I’m used to. I popped into the Stephansdom, which is a hauntingly beautiful church, before stopping for a traditional Austrian lunch of Tafelspitz at the delicious Plachutta, which was my first real taste of Austrian cuisine. Once fed, I wandered down the main shopping street, Kohlmarkt, which has many expensive shops as well as some of the most historic establishments in Vienna, which retain their beautiful original 19th century and art deco shop signs and frontages. At the top of Kohlmarkt is the Hofburg, once the palace complex of the Austrian Emperors, and further walking eventually leads to the now public palace gardens, where there was a big winter festival going on, and the stately Museum quarter. By this time it was late, and I had seen a huge swathe of the city, so I headed back to my hotel, both enchanted by what I had seen, but also surprised at how different from my expectations the city was. For it is certainly a city with impressive, stately buildings and a good deal of culture, but it is also one, in my experience, that is remarkably sterile. There was no life, no buzz, no sense of the throbbing heart of a nation that you get in London, New York or Paris. It very much feels like a showpiece for an Empire rather than a place for people to live out the drama of life on the huge scale one would expect of a vibrant and diverse capital city.
Over the next few days I saw all the main sights. I loved getting the lift to the top of the Stephansdom and seeing the skyline of Vienna. I thoroughly enjoyed touring the elaborate Hofburg Palace and finding out more about the doomed Empress Sisi. The Belvedere Museum offered lovely views of the city and has a wonderful collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings. The Opera District is very beautiful, and it was fun to walk through the long Naschmirkt market stalls and see the beautiful decoration on the famous Wagner Apartments that overlook them. The Secession Building is the most breathtaking example of Art Nouveau architecture I have ever seen. The Ringstrasse is a phenomenon; to think that this street of palaces and public buildings was constructed within such a short period is awe-inspiring, and gives Vienna its stately, elegant quality. I was thrilled to find the Palais Ephrussi, as read about in Edmund de Waal’s book: I could not truly comprehend the fact that one family used to live inside this enormous building. I spent a very pleasurable morning looking at the world-famous Hapsburg art collections in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, my favourites being the Velazquez portraits of the Spanish Infanta Margarita. I had a night at the opera. I ate lots of goulash and potato dumplings, and had wonderful coffee and cake at a number of famous Cafes and pastry shops. I wandered down many ancient cobbled streets and found a number of fascinating little alleyways and courtyards filled with beautiful shops and cafes. I spent a day at Schonbrunn, the Austrian Royal Family’s summer palace on the outskirts of Vienna, which was absolutely beautiful. It was a lovely, lovely trip. But I couldn’t help but feel that Vienna is not really the city I expected, nor the city for me. I like my capital cities buzzing with life. Vienna felt cold and slightly artificial, to me, and while I’m glad I visited, I don’t think I’ll be rushing back.