Goodnight Vienna

You are in the lobby of Vienna airport. Do you head for Departures or queue for a taxi into the city? It’s the sort of hypothetical question that iconic resident Alexander Schrödinger might have moved onto if he had ever progressed beyond the classic (but frankly less weighty) feline survival paradox. It’s also the question I poked a stick at in my last blog before getting distracted for weeks by modern life.


I’m reasonably well travelled, within Europe at least, and each destination leaves an impression. It seems that there is a general trend for places to gravitate towards bland uniformity, but in the face of globalisation the question I find myself asking is “could I live here?” – language aside. I haven’t visited many places with a strong tick in the “Yes” box but here is a snapshot view of the city and it’s people, broken down into the most important considerations.

Eating

As somebody sitting in the “live to eat” camp this is an important factor. Let’s get something straight – the Viennese appreciate good quality wholesome food. They want to eat fresh produce and you simply don’t see anybody stuffing their face with crisps in the street.

Fresh please!
Fresh please!

They aren’t going to put up with much of the chain-driven dross inflicted upon the British public. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bakeries where even the most indulgent of snacks is produced to be consumed that day, then binned if not sold by closing time. They don’t pump preservatives into the breads and pastries in order to extend shelf life.

Choices choices...
Choices choices…

Furthermore they use a wide range of interesting flours and grains to make for a better tasting and healthier experience. I’m now a big fan of Stroek which, despite being a local chain is still superior to most independent bakeries in the UK.

Move over Greggs
A Master Stroek

The shame is that most tourists will never get to try any of the everyday bakeries here because they are drawn inexorably to the undeniably beautiful displays in the over-priced big-name outlets (Demel, Sacher, etc).

Food as art
Food as art

But man cannot live on bakery goods alone. At least not for long. Well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Man should get himself down to a nice restaurant for something like this…

Worth the calories!
Worth the calories!

OK, this savoury dumpling is arguably life shortening but oh so wonderful. It’s an Austrian speciality and the outdoor courtyard ambience of Restaurant Mill added another dimension to its consumption. My starter of Wild Garlic Soup was the stuff of dreams. Great smile-inducing food in a beautiful setting. Though for belly-laugh levels of culinary entertainment may I recommend Villa Aurora. Visual pranks abound from the moment the entry sign claims to herald a Coffee House – Restaurant – Beer Garden – Ice Rink. The night garden is curiously decked out with sofas and a vertical lamp…

Dining under the stars
Dining room under the stars

… while you have the option to dine in a two man greenhouse (so small that the waiter has to pass your food in through the window) or a fishing boat, stranded improbably on a hill in a land-locked country.

A long wait until high tide...
A long wait until high tide…

The food is no joke however and traditional dishes like kaiserschmarrn are a real treat to share in the candle light.

There is always room for pudding
There is always room for pudding
Drinking

Austrians love beer. There are many breweries here in the capital and in just a few days I visited several of them without really trying, including Fisher Brau, 7-Stern, Kolar and Steigel. Think of superior Bavarian beer and you are in the right ballpark.

Fischer Brau
Fischer Brau

I could go on and on about the beer but that would be a British thing to do. More notable is the Viennese coffee house culture and their reputation for serving a good coffee is not without merit. It’s not just the coffee itself but the whole experience. The following picture sums up what to expect – tray service with a side-biscuit and always a glass of water to cleanse the palette.

A fine tradition
A fine tradition

The global coffee chains would have you think that coffee is served in a paper bucket but the Viennese believe that quality surpasses quantity. I’m with them. Furthermore there remains a proliferation of successful independent coffee houses while the large chains are barely in evidence outside the touristy first district.

Civilisation

In general terms I must applaud the locals for their good taste when it comes to what they eat and drink. Clearly they have their heads screwed on. Perhaps one reason for this affinity is the seemingly ageing population. My perception might be skewed but there seems to be a larger than average elderly population. This might explain the rather traditional and conservative outlook that permeates every day life here.

Take dress sense – the people you see on the street are classy and never trashy. This may not be a fashion mecca but you don’t generally see too much skin (certainly no tattoos) or crippling high heels. Vienna remains a place where a hat remains a stylish way to keep your head warm rather than a “fashion” statement for the look-at-me generation.

A man around town
A man around town

It has to be said that the senior citizens here do have something of a reputation for misery and intolerance. They aren’t likely to smile in public and won’t think twice about admonishing a stranger if they decide some social more has been transgressed. I’m hesitant to be critical at this point as it’s my aim to behave likewise at this age.

Bah humbug!
Bah humbug!

In the central First District the rules are different, as the people on the streets are more likely to be tourists. You wouldn’t judge London based on Buckingham Palace or Ireland based on Dublin.

A big welcome
A big welcome

But there’s a welcome regardless and people have got time to help if asked.

Its a fair cop
Its a fair cop

When my German failed me from time to time (ie: the times I tried to speak German) the locals were generally friendly and keen to respond in English.

There was something else too – something from a memory. People here seem to have time to stop and talk. The modern phenomena of scowling faces marching head down and focussed towards who knows what, oblivious to their environs, has yet to make it here. Could this be related to the prevalence of local businesses that line the city streets? Imagine working where you live, shopping where you live, knowing your neighbours? That no longer happens in suburban Britain but here outside the heart of Vienna it feels like this is still a way of life. For now at least.

Take this simple sighting of a coffee grinder in the foyer of a local supermarket…

Easing the daily grind
Easing the daily grind

This is remarkable for at least two reasons. (1) The supermarket freely offers a facility for customers to grind their own coffee beans after purchasing them. (2) It’s not locked down. A business promoting the principles of civility and trust. When did you last see that in your home town?

The community spirit doesn’t stop there. The local transport system is superb – integrated, reliable, efficient and cheap.

As easy as A to B

How did we ever fall so far behind in the UK? Privatisation? The consequences of such a good public transport system include fewer cars on the street, less pollution and more time spent alongside your fellow man as opposed to solo journeys in sealed metal boxes.

Viennese society is geared up for sociable co-existence and the locals respond to this environment accordingly.

One for all
One for all

One of the aspects I particularly like about city life here is that you can go for a beer of a coffee on your own without any stigma, and that applies for women as well as men. Indeed many regular coffee house customers will go for a quiet drink on their own but within a shared environment where they can watch proceedings from their table. People understand this unwritten social contract, none more so than the waiters who know all the rules.

All for one
All for one
The airport dilemma

Departure gate or taxi rank? That was the question posed and I think don’t think there’s a simple answer. On one hand I love the civility of this place, the standards it aspires to and the values shared by its people. A few days here only goes to expose so many failings back home. On the other hand I’m used to a slightly more outward looking environment. For a capital city there’s not the cultural diversity I’m used to nor the internet connectivity one takes for granted at home. It’s almost like some grand old village on a massive scale with this rich history that still sets the tone for modern living. I wonder how long it will be before the bubble bursts.

An eternal fountain?
An eternal fountain?

So for now it’s Goodbye Vienna but I want to return before too long. If I get nostalgic I’ll just watch a DVD of The Third Man with cake in one hand and beer in the other.

Vienna Calling

It is only after we disembark flight BA0706 from Heathrow to Vienna and spot the German language airport signage it actually hits home that I really know precious little about my destination. Normally I would rigorously research my travels but since my partner spent 10 years living here on and off I haven’t lifted an investigative finger. It therefore dawns upon me that
(a) I have never been so ignorant about a travel destination,
(b) I’m very lucky to be getting an insiders guide to the city, and
(c) I better not irritate her because if she dumps me and makes a run for it I’m up the Danube without a paddle.


So what does a tourist do in Vienna? According to google the big draws include…

…except none of these will feature in the 4 food centric days we will be spending here prior to our journey south west up into the alps – more of this to come. In my first two Viennese blogs I’m going to poke a stick at some of the places we visited and then I want to try to describe the softer side of the city, its people and (inevitably) what they spend their time eating and drinking.

Central Vienna
Many visitors never leave the central first district and indeed many locals rarely visit it. This may be a large city (population c.2 million) but the historic Innere Stadt is comfortably sized and rich in attraction. There don’t appear to be any unremarkable buildings here.

Vienna University of bearded thinkers
Vienna University of bearded thinkers

Take the palatial university – founded in 1365 it has spawned 15 nobel prize winners and mentored countless luminaries, such as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Pope Pius III. It’s all a far cry from my academic experiences at Sheffield Polytechnic (as was) with its drab 60’s buildings, although I did get to meet alumnus Nick Park whose Wallace & Grommit legacy must surely outscore that of Vienna’s Schrödinger & his cat.

But make no mistake this is tourist territory, as is soon apparent…

Taxi!
Taxi!

The churches are beautiful and yet struggle for attention within the grand architectural landscape that looms over you from every angle. The archetypal six storey apartment buildings that form the basis of residential living appear to have been built with an emphasis on form over function. Intricate stonework and ceilings high enough to bear chandeliers yet devoid of central heating or electric lifts.

St Peters Church
St Peters Church

Not far away we come across the imperial greenhouse which, being of Habsburg origins, is predictably magnificent. Today the gardens have gone but there is a butterfly house and a rather lovely café.

Meanwhile there’s a festival on outside the town hall to mark the 40th anniversary of the Styria region.

All together now - "Knie up Mutter Braun"
All together now – “Knie up Mutter Braun”

The folk band were enjoyably ridiculous although this gentleman seemed to be taking them seriously.

Taking it Styriasly
Taking it Styriasly

To the outsider it just looks like an excuse to drink beer and eat wurst. Nothing wrong with that of course.

Naschmarkt
The Wienfluß flows beneath central Vienna except you wouldn’t know it. The Naschmarkt (translation “nibble market”) is a mile long local market that has been open for business for 300 years and it sits atop the river concealing it from view.

erhalten Sie Ihr Fruit und Veg hier
erhalten Sie Ihr “Fruit und Veg” hier

Today it caters for locals and tourists. A large section is dedicated to food stalls and regional produce features strongly, including massive asparagus heads, wild garlic and globe artichokes. One regular here is the farmer selling his home made sauerkraut from wooden barrels.

Roll out the barrel of sauerkraut
Roll out the barrel of sauerkraut…

About one third of the site is occupied by a Turkish market selling bric-a-brac (translation “junk”) as opposed to food.

...down at the old Bull and Bush
…down at the old Bull and Bush

This is more than a market however as there’s something of a café scene emerging which attracts locals at the weekend. We grab Saturday morning breakfast at the Naschmarkt Deli which features a DJ inside. Fortunately there’s heating and relative tranquillity outside.

Donau Canal
Formerly a branch of the Danube prior to an acrimonious split the “Donaukanal” borders the first district and isolates the 2nd and 20th districts into an inner-city island. To call it beautiful would be an exaggeration but it’s a popular highway for joggers and cyclists, plus there’s a kiosk where you can buy tins of horse meat.

It's a tough city for horses
Tough city for horses

Less controversially it is the setting for an innocuous looking music club called Jazzland that has played host to many greats, including the late great Joe Zawinul of Weather Report fame. What do you mean who?! Oh do get with it…

.......nice...
…….nice…

This modern concrete eyesore may be kinder on the ears than the eyes but mere yards away stands Vienna’s oldest church. St Ruperts is certainly over 800 and possibly over 1200 years old. Either way it looks ancient and refreshingly modest in scale and finish when compared to its Viennese peers.

Old St Ruperts church
St Rupert

Once inside you feel transported back to the middle ages. It’s totally silent and to call the interior sparse would be an understatement. It all serves to amplify the powerful stained glass windows. Apparently the oldest glass windows in St Ruperts date back to the 14th century. No ball games then.

Everyone knows his name
Everyone knows his name

And here endeth today’s sermon. I have no idea if there’s any moral to the story. In my next blog I’ll be finding out how people live and die in Vienna. ‘Wiederschauen!