Vienna

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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.

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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.

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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.

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14 comments

  1. Thank you for your very interesting text and nice pictures.

    In addition to Edmund de Waal, there is a wealth of readable books on Vienna (you may be familiar with most of them): Janik´s and Toulmin´s Wittgenstein´s Vienna, Frederic Morton´s Thunder at Twilight – Vienna 1913/1914, Stefan Zweig´s autobiography The World of Yesterday, Joseph Roth´s novel The Radetzky March, etc.

    I recognize your reluctant response to Vienna: I remember how pleasant it was, many years ago, to leave this snobbish, cold and extremely expensive city for warm and nice and open Prague (and inexpensive, though that may have changed drastically since).

    Austria´s procrastination in coming to terms with the years between the Anschluss in 1938 and the end of the war seven years later (its chaos admirably summed up in Graham Greene´s novel and Carol Reeds film The Third Man) is not very appealing, with stolen art brazenly on display in its museums, and the reappearance of political parties on the extreme right.

    And a shady Austrian figure with a murky past elected to the post of secretary general at the United Nations.

    Elfriede Jellinke´s novels are enlightening in their criticism of Austrian affairs and attitudes although I find her a not very sympathetic writer, and even more wortwhile in this and other respects are the ones by Thomas Bernhard.

  2. What a pity you didn’t enjoy it. I had such a different response to the city, which I loved! Friendly locals, watching ballet live on the outdoor bigscreen….there was so much I loved, and I felt a warm and vibrant city. Sundays aren’t the best days in Europe! Don’t think you’ll like Geneva much either now lol. You’d better just plan a trip to NY! xx

  3. Vienna is super boring. There’s really no way around that. I love some things about it – Schönbrunn made me giddy with joy – but otherwise it’s a bit dull for tourists (even the famed opera house is pretty soulless). I think it would be a lovely place to live – there is much to be said for peace and prosperity – but it’s not a place I’m eager to visit again and again. And I have to agree with Ivo’s comment above that it does not compare well to Prague – but then I’m more than a little biased!

  4. I have been to Vienna twice, and I had a similar reaction to it the first time that I visited. I enjoyed it much more the second time, though I am not really sure why. It does not have the same buzz as London, Paris or New York, but I think the problem is that it was built to be the capital of a large empire which fell apart in 1918. It is now a big, grand capital of a small country. I have seen grand Austrian buildings in Ljubljana and Trieste as well. The latter is now very quiet indeed, but it was Austria’s main port, until it became part of Italy.

  5. As a resident of Vienna, I love the fact that it’s so peaceful. Some people say that Budapest (where I also lived for many years) has more charm, but as place to live, I find Vienna far, far more pleasant. The weather has actually been very mild this year:)

  6. I’ve never been to Austria, but my favorite German teacher was from Vienna and on days when we were particularly stupid and unresponsive, she’d drop her lesson plan and just chat with us in Viennese dialect. It always did the trick! Nevertheless, idea of Austria, at least post-Sigmund Freud, gives me the creeps.

  7. Sorry your trip wasn’t what you expected! I have been to Vienna several times, mostly in spring, which makes a difference, I guess, and I liked it a lot. For musicians it’s one of the best places on earth – I enjoyed the opera and the concerts very much.
    Is it possible YOU missed a cemetery? The Zentralfriedhof is a very large and beautiful one. But I am not sure if it would have lifted your mood in this situation…
    But I understand your reserve. I think it’s mainly due to the fact that you live in the most beautiful, most vibrant city in Europe. Everything else must seem dull to you. (No joke.)
    And: the opening times of stores are completely different in your country. In Germany, everything is closed on Sundays and holidays, and I have the impression, in Austria even more so. Shops close around 6 p.m. on Saturdays (in Germany it’s at least 8 p.m.), and after that, the streets are quickly deserted. Maybe that was the Sunday morning impression you got?
    Lovely to read your impressions, though, and I am curious which/ if you will give another European city a try!

  8. Rachel, the pictures of the Art Deco house are amazing! Have you seen the ones in Brussels? They are super too!

    Sent you email.

    Btw for anyone near London I went to see Electra at the Old Vic last night and I would highly recommend it. Kristen Scott Thomas and the whole cast were super!! Best production I have seen this year – although still to attend my annual Matthew Bourne production at Sadlers Wells in December. Rachel if you can go…. It is truly worth it!

    Jane

  9. May I ask if you travelled solo or with a companion? My experience in Vienna as a single female was a most unhappy one. I had the most horrendous B&B experience and was routinely ignored when trying to get served in cafes and restaurants. My grandfather was Jewish Viennese and never completely lost his love for the city in spite of the many atrocities he experienced and although I can admire the beauty, I felt no emotional connection towards it at all. I was there in the baking heat of August and it seems air conditioning has yet to catch on – horrible! I adore Eva Ibbotson’s tales of old Vienna but I think that Vienna has long gone (if it ever existed at all).

  10. I’ve been to Vienna twice and loved it but I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to know something about its history to truly appreciate it – I have a real interest in Austrian history and I think that helped as I would agree its somewhat cold etc.. But I would truly love to go back. I loved reading about your trip as it brought back great memories – thank you

  11. My mother was from Vienna. I remember visiting when my grandmother was still alive. I enjoyed going when I was very young, mainly because I enjoyed being with my mom. I wasn’t as thrilled to be there as a teenager. I was, quite frankly, bored. I enjoyed it more as an adult because I was finally able to appreciate the history. However, I have to agree with you. Vienna is a cold city. It has no pulse. It always felt somewhat unoccupied to me and lifeless. I’m sure it was a glittering city in its heyday, when it was the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alas, those days seem long gone.

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