A day in Vienna and you don’t even scratch the surface of all those amazing buildings that look like they’re cakes, nay gateaux, decorated with magnolia icing. A bit of a fairy-tale city, too much really. Could not be more different from Istanbul.

We had a day. I suppose we could have had longer but having turned for home we find ourselves keen to get home. So a day will suffice as a taster for Jim who’s never visited the city before, and a brief reminder for me. I was here in my teens on one of our family caravanning holidays, too long ago to remember much.

Priorities were: walk into St Stephensplatz and see the Dom, taking in some of the ambience of the city centre; have coffee and cake in one of the old coffee houses; go and see Egon Schiele works at the Leopold Museum. A goodly plan for a day with time enough for adding the odd extra if needs must.

The Tulip is about a mile or so from the city centre and you quickly see the emblems of this grand city as you walk the streets: the old red trams, countless cafes and Konditorei selling cakes like works of art, buildings of stunning proportions, many dfrom the Hapsburg building boom of the 19th century. You’re in and amongst them in no time and they seem to appear around every corner. It is a helluva lot of grandeur to take in. Heaving with tourists, including lots of school trips, it’s a tourist city and it’s difficult to find the seedier side of Vienna, if such exists, or to recognise, in all the crowds, a Viennese.

We came across one in the St Stephensplatz. Vienna’s version of Ahmed the carpet man, this was Johann looking to sell us tickets for a concert and dinner that very evening, a selection of Mozart und Strauss with Schnitzel und Kartoffel, no doubt. He was dressed up as a Mozart look-alike, all silk, lace, knickerbockers, a powdered wig and buckles on his shiny shoes. Looked ridiculous. Gave us the spiel. Having dealt so decisively with Ahmed and Mr Big in Istanbul, Jim was strangely reticent, apparently wondering if I would like to go (still wondering if I should really be insulted by this). So I plunged in and said, Sorry, but my husband can’t much bear Mozart. Judging by his expression, someone not liking Mozart had not passed Johann’s way before.

You can take in a certain ambience in the streets but the city is like a gallery of amazing buildings. The real Vienna, whatever it is, eludes. Away from the big crowds by the Dom, it seems like a calm, spacious city with plenty of room for cars, trams, bikes and people and no sense that they are tripping over each other in any way. Drivers are very gracious and unhurried, always ready to let you cross the road; pedestrians are very obedient, always waiting for the little green man.

The Griensteidl coffee house was old and very quiet with a few Viennese intellectuals deep in conversation over fabulous coffee. We shared a slice of Sachertorte, rich but not flamboyant, and relished every sip of the coffee. Jim sketched and we imagined.

A man called Raymond Leopold collected many of the works of Egon Schiele, the controversial, supremely talented and tragic protege of Klimt. The Leopold Museum, a stark new building with the most superb exhibition space houses many of Schiele’s works and those of Klimt and other Austrians working mainly in the early 20th century and up to the second war. This was such a treat, an unmissable item on the ‘Must Do’ list if you’re visiting Vienna. Apart from the Schiele, the great find was Albin Egger-Lienz, never heard of him before; fantastic studies of soldiers and peasants, suffering, effort, agony and a lot of death. Wow!

That was our day in Vienna – a sunny morning then the rain came on so we U-bahned back to the Tulip in the late afternoon. We learned an odd thing about Vienna and the Viennese on our brief day trip. They have a thing about excrement! Sorry to be blunt but it’s true. I have three examples. Example one: the city has lots of wonderful, immaculate Landau carriages that give tourists a trip around the main sites in Hapsburg style. Someone has designed very clever little poop sacks that fit in just the right place to catch the offending effluent as gravity does its work and the horses’ tails are fitted with a sort of leather thong arrangement to ensure the tail is lifted and perfect pooping is achieved every time. Example two: some of the more elaborate and bigger statues are covered with a subtle cream-coloured netting, merging almost imperceptibly with the statue itself. This is very effective at keeping the pigeons from perching and pooping as pigeons are prone to do. Ingenious. Example three: is the Hundzone or Dogzone, a fenced-off area where dogs are taken to poop – and in a sign if the wit of the City Council, and in a tribute to its many English-speaking visitors, the Hundzone is completely covered in ‘bark’. Oh, I know, it’s pathetic but Jim quipped it and we both fell about laughing.

Vienna was great and a longer visit beckons – maybe in winter or early spring when the crowds are smaller and the Viennese can reclaim their streets so we can meet them and converse.

  • Hilary Ivory
    Posted at 08:45h, 27 June Reply

    I’m caught in a speed wobble! In the space of a single early-morning coffee and Ryvita, I’ve now been to Sofia and Plovdiv, and thence to both sides of the Bosphorus. (Was playing catch-up thanks to an irritating deadline that got in the way of super-enjoyable vicarious travel.)
    What an epic – it ranks among the best of travel writing, with a cast of characters that I feel I’ve met! Move over Paul Theroux. Jim’s sketches are a clever way of bringing situations to life in a very personal way, beautifully.
    Enjoy the moules et frites in Calais, chéris!

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