”In order to understand a society you must find out how the people live, eat and die.” That’s a quote by … well, me, although somebody else might have got there first. In my previous blog I took you on an unlikely tour of Vienna and in this instalment I’m heading south east to the 11th district Simmering to explore the altogether weightier issues of life, death and lunch.
A lot of people live in Vienna and it turns out they need somewhere to live. In a city boasting such a wealth of grand period buildings it takes a trip out on the U-Bahn to “escape” this period drama – except that the newer buildings I have come to see are no less dramatic.
Many towns are burdened by a contaminated and run-down industrial hinterland and at the centre you will commonly find some unsightly gasworks buildings. It’s no different here except that the four brick gas tanks constructed in the last gasp of the 19th century survived the bulldozers only to be reborn a thoroughly modern urban complex.
Collectively known as “Gasometer” each of the four towers was re-purposed by a different architect a century after its creation. Today almost 2000 people live in modern gasometer apartments and while the purpose-built U-Bahn stop makes this an ideal commuter village there’s a real community here and Gasometer is a destination in itself.
Offices, shops and a cinema contribute to a unique community. Kevin McCloud would have something to say about this regeneration project.
Perhaps most remarkable of all there is a 3000 capacity concert hall within Gasometer B. I didn’t get to go in but a walk of fame set into the walkway above catalogued famous names such as Alice Cooper, Slade, Boney M, Suzi Quattro, Deep Purple and of course Racey…
The people here know how to live.
They also know how to die. The vast acreage of Vienna’s famous central cemetery – it is served by 18 bus stops – is impressive for more than just its size. The Zentralfriedhof as it is called locally provides a final resting place to 3.3 million people – a statistic that hints towards the size of the population but also reflects the unpopularity of cremation here.
Unlike British Graveyards (I’ve already written about one or two – what’s wrong with me?) the Austrians don’t shovel over the last spade of dirt and then let trails of ivy consume the burial site. Here the memorials of loved ones are more likely to be kept fresh and honoured. Florists thrive in this neighbourhood as those left behind (or perhaps those who are forgetful) can pay somebody else to remember their loved ones for them.
Floral tributes aren’t just administered remotely. Many visitors come to pay last respects in person and with a couple of dozen burials every day this is still a living cemetery. The appeal of Zentralfriedhof as a tourist draw becomes apparent as soon as you enter via the main entrance and spot the ubiquitous horse-drawn cart.
The fag-toting horseman certainly looks the part, like some brother-in-law of the uncle of one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The domed art nouveau Karl-Borromäus Church proves well worth a visit. This Monday it is eerily quiet and as we sit awhile on the pews a ghostly melodic incantation drifts through the stone floors from some subterranean chamber, perhaps the crypt … or beyond …
Candles are lit in the side chamber and mercifully today there is no corpse on display. Besides this building is best appreciated by the living. It has a beautiful ceiling and you know the recently departed just aren’t going to get into the spirit and appreciate this sort of thing.
All of this of course is a side-show to the main event. The reason most of the tourists decide to venture out of District 1 and into this headstone metropolis is but a semiquaver away. A cacophony of composers lie buried in close formation – Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms and Falco. There’s also a monument to Mozart who is buried elsewhere but here in spirit I’m sure.
One of the defining characteristics of the cemetery is the demographic variety of incumbents. The graveyard is split into sections specifically for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc, etc. It would be hasty and shallow to merely ogle memorials to the composers and leave without exploring some of these dedicated areas. But the old feet are a bit jaded. And we are hungry! If only there was somewhere to eat this far out of town…
Schloss Concordia is a café / restaurant situated on the Simmeringer Hauptstraße a headstones throw from the cemetery. The quirky nature of this eatery can be readily explained by the fact that it is under the same ownership as the barking mad Villa Aurora restaurant situated at the other end of the city.
On the approach a massive statue of Jesus welcomes you and I’m hoping it’s not another of these bread and fish events. The café has seemingly established itself on the former site of a stone mason’s yard. This may explain the unfinished (or unpaid for) headstones we came across in the back yard, if not the presence of Jesus Himself.
Inside it’s a different affair. The classy but dated interior carries the echoes of a former existence, perhaps as some happening ballroom or maybe it served as a summer-house for the Habsburg imperial set. Now it serves a legendary schnitzel and with the obligatory side order of ambience it attracts a mixed clientele. Locals, students and a few tourists dine here plus, today, a fully decked out “trolley dolly” en-route to her shift at the airport a few stops out. I wonder where one flies to from Vienna. Or, more precisely, why?
In my third and final account of Vienna I will attempt to prove that this is a worthy question…