Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Monday, April 1, 2013

Vienna (and getting lost in the hills of The Sound of Music)

(From The Last Word and The Weekly Press, 2011)

When the opportunity arose to visit the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Haydn, Kafka, and Sigmund Freud, I set to work to orchestrate the best trip possible with the help of the Austrian Tourist Board in New York.

I arrived at JFK Airport on the rainy afternoon of Thursday, October 15 happy to have survived the reckless driving of a shuttle bus driver who had exceeded the speed limit in weather that can only be described as treacherous. The shuttle bus clanked and shook as the driver sped past Mac diesel trucks as large as small houses. I expected to arrive at JKF DOA as wind and rain pelted the shaky van from all angles.

On board Austrian airlines, air traffic control problems caused a one hour takeoff delay, however the seven hour flight went reasonably fast. It didn’t hurt that Austrian airlines has a policy of distributing free wine, positively the best remedy for soiled “traveler’s” nerves

At the Vienna airport, I hailed a cab driven by a helpful Middle Eastern man who reminded me that Western Europe in 2009 has become a melting pot possibly on the verge of boiling over. We drove to the Hotel Aldstat in Vienna’s 7th district, my temporary home for three days. (The City of Vienna is divided into 23 Districts).

The Aldstat is Old World grandeur. My suite consisted of two large rooms and a private rooftop garden. The staircase to the rooftop was nothing short of a precarious climb, three dozen or so small steps that zigzagged up to a small door that, once unlocked, led you to a fascinating postcard view of the city. In the United States, hotel steps like this would be prohibited because of potential law suits (the proverbial ‘what if’ accident), but here in Vienna occupants of the Otto Suite are expected to behave responsibly (and not tumble down the steps after too much Austrian wine). The suite also contained the largest roll top desk I’ve ever seen.

The weather, rainy and overcast, was just as it had been in New York, although the lack of sunlight created an overall feeling of poetic melancholy (think Goethe and ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’). My guide Diane, a former au pair from London, suggested I put on an overcoat for our first venture out.

After an introductory walk around the 7th District and ride on the subway, Diane pointed out a mammoth bunker built during the WWII Nazi occupation. The multi- story edifice, or Esterhazy Park Tower now home to the Vienna State Aquarium, was built by the Nazis in the west end of the city to impede the flow of American and British bombers. The fascist monolith is an imposing structure, with odd-shaped semi circles jetting out on each of the building’s top four corners. Arterillery was once positioned on top of this huge block structure. “The Americans flew by day but the British had to fly by night because they couldn’t fly very high,” Diane told me, adding that smaller backup bunkers held generators, hospital beds, and doctors, or everything that was needed to back up the main tower.

During WW II, Allied bombers destroyed nearly 30% of the city during the 56 or so major air raids of the war.

We headed over to St. Stephen’s cathedral. The massive church with the multicolored roof was built on two earlier churches (the first was established in 1147). St. Stephen’s is known as the church of Mozart. It was here that Mozart worshiped and was married. “He never lived far from the cathedral,” Diane told me, “he was very religious, almost superstitiously so.” The cathedral was nearly turned to ashes and debris by retreating German armies in WW II but a local Captain ignored demands for its demolition. Unfortunately, restoration scaffolding currently covers the front of the cathedral but still in evidence are numerous bullet holes embedded into the stone. During the war, 90% of the cathedral’s 14th century Gothic glass stained windows were destroyed except for three long panels behind the high altar. Resistance fighters held regular meetings in the cathedral’s catacombs.

Viennese Catholic churches are epicenters of light. Clusters of candle operas, hanging chandeliers and votive candles give many of the churches here a Russian Orthodox look. The post Vatican Council stone altar tables positioned in front of the magnificent Romanesque-Gothic high altars in many of the churches I visited seemed comical and even out of place. Who needs these ‘Julia Child tables’ in front of such historical beauty? The cathedral is home to a reputed miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus. When the so called Maria Pocs Byzantine-style icon, painted in 1676, first shed tears in 1696, Emperor Leopold I had it moved to the high altar, where it remained until 1945. After 1945 the icon was moved towards the front of the church where it once again began to shed tears. A large number of people prayed before the icon as tourists made their way to one of the cathedral’s 18 side altars or formal side chapels.

“During the war, the whole roof collapsed, it was just burning for ages,” Diane told me, pointing skyward. She indicated where the new roof had been joined to the old one. The fire that nearly destroyed the church was a result of nearby burning buildings set by plunderers trying to make hay before Russian troops marched into the city.

Nearby, in the church of Saint Peter-- an Opus Dei parish as rich in ornamentation as the cathedral-- a wedding was in progress. Electric votive candles and hanging chandeliers framed a priest in old vestments reciting prayers in both Latin and German. The bride and groom, in a freeze frame that was its own kind of icon, knelt before the altar as incense wafted towards the door. Through it all a guard at a desk observed the heavy coming and going.

Inside a former Jesuit church dating from 1365 (but now given the generic name, The University church), we viewed what appeared to be the interior of the church’s huge dome. The so called dome, however, is really a work by Andrea Pozzo, painted in 1703. One does not perceive the dome as a work of art until one walks from the high altar to the vestibule. It’s then that one sees that the heretofore sky high ceiling is nothing but a flat surface

When Adolph Hitler roamed the streets of Vienna as a young man (1906 to 1913), he lived in several rooming houses but mostly he was homeless, sleeping on park benches or staying in homeless shelters. With hair down to his shoulders and a scruffy beard, the future German Chancellor was a vagabond nobody, spending all his time drawing watercolor postcards and attempting to hawk them to the affluent habitués of coffeehouses like Café Central, where Lenin and Trotsky once planned the Russian Revolution.

At Café Central (where we sat three tables away from Lenin’s perch), we had a Melange, or coffee with milk served on a small tray, a glass of water, a small spoon, balls of white and brown sugar and a small piece of chocolate, and imagined a scruffy Hitler going from table to table with his postcards. Coffee is a loadstar enterprise in Vienna. There are not only upscale coffee houses like Café Central and Cafe Imperial, but cheaper, bohemian cafes where full meals and desserts can be ordered.

Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard called Vienna’s addiction to coffeehouses the “Viennese coffeehouse disease.” The Viennese take coffeehouses so seriously that patrons are free to sit all day reading or writing (or staring into space). There’s no push to order a second cup, and free second, third and fourth glasses of water can be ordered at no extra charge. Try this in your average United States café and chances are you’ll be asked to order something, or head for the exit.

Coffee was the only positive legacy left to the Viennese by the Ottoman Turks, who attempted to conquer the city in 1529 and again in the 1600s. Had Vienna not resisted the Turks Saint Stephen’s would have followed the fate of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The threat of a second Turkish invasion in the 1600s (the first attempt failed because the Turkish cannons got stuck in the mud, the result of too much rain) forced the city to build impenetratable walls. The city fathers poured so much money into the walls they had to stop their pet project: rebuilding Vienna in order to make it the greatest Gothic city in the world.

“During the second invasion, the French were nasty because they were giving the Ottoman Turks all the support they could because they saw their chances. They thought, if Vienna falls, the Turks are going to need our help, so we’ll just help them take over the rest,” Diane told me, before we headed over to the Museum Quarter.

The Museum Quarter was built where the Hapsburg rulers of the Austria-Hungarian Empire had their imperial stables. Here one can hop from one museum to the next. Whether its architecture, the visual arts, dance or theater, the Quarter holds it all, including an abundance of cafes and restaurants. Later that evening, in fact, I headed out from my suite in Aldstat to the Café Restaurant Halle, the site of the former emperor’s Winter Riding Hall, and sampled a favorite imperial dish, Tafelspitz, or stewed beef and root vegetables, the favorite meal of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. .

From the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts, just outside the Museum Quarter, I soaked in a panoramic view of the stately government and cultural palaces (called the Holfburg) that had so enthralled Hitler. These were the buildings that Churchill wanted to bomb because he knew they were Hitler’s favorite. With so much history surrounding me, I imagined the eerie echoes of hundreds of thousands of cheering Viennese who, on March 14, 1938, greeted the Chancellor when he made his triumphal entry into the city. Hitler stood in Heldenplatz (or Heroes Square), an area surrounded by various wings of the Holfburg.

In Vienna, eye contact is easy, people are friendly, and a majority of people speak English, even the few who happen to be homeless. One day while making my way to the Museum of Fine Arts, I was approached by a youth (who looked as unkempt as Hitler must have looked in 1905) who said he needed money for food. In broken English he told me that he had just been released from prison. I gave him a handful of Austrian coins I knew I’d never use, but he scowled at them contemptuously, demanded two Euros, and called me “Stupid.”

The Austrian way, however, is one of friendliness, as I’d discover a couple days later when I rented a car and attempted to drive into the Wachau wine country for the second league of my journey. Driving out of Vienna can be a nightmare for anxiety-prone drivers, as exits are labeled in small discreet letters and numbers. There can be multiple exits beginning with the letter A for instance, causing the mind to play tricks with the eyes, and vice versa.

I was due to meet my second guide and take a small boat trip down the Danube, but I never made it because I got lost in the mountains. Driving through Black Forest like configurations and ‘Sound of Music’ rolling hills and mountains, it began to rain and sleet and finally there were glimmers of snow. Austrians drive fast, the speed limit is between 80 and 90, so most people were passing me except for the big trucks that would move up silently behind me and flash their lights.

As a lost soul, of course I was traveling at a snail’s pace.

Would I survive my Austrian adventure? Nervously, I thought of the icon in Saint Stephen’s and made the appropriate supplications. Shortly after this, miracle of miracles, I noticed a small restaurant supply house and café, the only building I’d seen for miles. I knocked on the door, explained my situation—a lost journalist with a dead cell phone—and was promptly invited inside for coffee or beer, my choice. Friends of the woman who invited me in (and allowed me the use of her phone) joined us for conversation until I was safely redirected out of the mountains, and arrived safely at the Loisium hotel some hours later.

My getting lost meant that I had missed a tour of the W.H. Auden house in Kirchsstetten, but once in the bosom of the wine country, my trip once again came alive. My wine country guide, Hans Christian, drove me to the famous Leo Hillinger winery, where we sampled some of the best stock, and where we met the winery master himself, Leo, who’s a celebrity throughout Europe.

We also traveled into Hungary, and spotted an abandoned Communist station house where thirty years before guards with guns took aim at Hungarians escaping into freedom. (Hans Christian told me that the Communists in Hungary were much nicer than the ones in East Germany, who’d shoot first and ask questions later.) At the Hungarian border we couldn’t resist the impulse to step out of the car and walk into the surrounding forest, where the ground beneath our feet holds countless dark, untold secrets.

Thom Nickels can be reached at