Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that the city of Vienna pops up rather often. I grew up listening to Mozart and other classical composers, so I sort of knew that Vienna = good music. Vienna was not my first overseas city.* That would be Melbourne, Australia, followed by Canberra and Sydney, then London, Zürich, and Luzern. But Vienna imprinted in a way none of the others ever did, and I have been back there, um, (wiggles fingers) five times, maybe six. I’d have to check. Dad Red has been there far more, because Vienna was/is a gateway into the former Soviet Union. When things get especially irritating in the real world of here and now, I let my imagination roam east, to Vienna.
Vienna was the first truly ancient city I ever visited. The whole family was going on a group trip, and Dad and Mom decided that we’d fly into Vienna first, spend a few days, then take the train west to Salzburg and then Innsbruck. At the time I spoke no German. Dad and Mom knew a little German and Mom remembers a pinch of Yiddish, so we could get by (early 1990s). Dad found a book entitled ViennaWalks which had four magnificent history walks through the city. The first was medieval and Roman Vienna, and I got hooked hard. The tours have instructions like “duck through the durchaus at number four, go up two flights of stairs, and knock on the second door. This is a museum with late medieval frescoes still in situ. Look in the corner by the window for the rabbits being naughty,” and bits about Duke Heinrich Jasomirgott Babenburg, so called because he began almost every proclamation with “Ja, so mir Gott hilft,” Yes, if G-d will help me. That’s when we discovered the Roman ruins under the bakery-café, and when I fell in love with Austrian pastries.
Salzburg was nice, I like Innsbruck, but Vienna had caught me and I just didn’t know it yet. Over the years I kept finding myself back there, and became interested in Central European history, and then sucked into a lot more than I could have imagined at age 18-19. To this day, when the taxi from the airport reaches the Danube Canal and I catch my first glimpse of the north tower of Stephansdom, I feel as if I’ve come home. And it always feels like the first visit, even though I know a great many things have changed.
The Roman ruins how have their own museum and the café is no more. Prince Eugen’s winter palace has been wrested from the Finance Ministry and is a museum, although the security police still have an office in the building. You see women in the hijib and burkas, although not nearly as many as in Germany, and none in winter. There are large herds of American tourists in summer, alas.
On the other hand . . . Stephansdom is still the heart of Vienna 1. The breakfast bakery is still at the edge of Schottenring and the Freyung, on the back side of the Schottenkirche. Bullet holes still pock the facade of Sts. Peter and Paul (Soviet muzzle control was poor). The music is still wonderful, and the city at night is a delight. And Rupertskirche, on the old bastion above the Danube Canal at Salztorgaße and Judengaße remains ancient and quiet, overlooked by the tourists. Likewise Maria am Gestade. Once you get away from the Graben and Kartnerstarße, into the little alleys and corners and neighborhood churches, Vienna is mine once more, especially at sunrise in summer, and in winder nights when the markets open and big fat flakes of snow drift down onto the pastel streets of town houses and churches. There’s a smell of wood smoke and roasting chestnuts and spiced cookies and hot cider, and a bustle of smiling people going to and fro, window-shopping as they drink their cider and nibble cookies from one of the markets.
Vienna is human scale. Paris, London, they overawe with wide spaces and lots of traffic. Prague is nice but feels a little too crowded for my taste. And there’s a language problem, in that I don’t speak Czech. Budapest also sprawls a bit, although it has old roots like Vienna (Roman and before). I know Vienna, I can navigate Vienna. Over time I’m sure I could learn other cities, but Vienna’s comfortable. I can blend in there, and in other parts of Austria. The old city is meant for walking, with courtyards to peek into, lovely churches tucked away here and there, medieval and Roman and all sorts of bits waiting if you will go look for them, and places to stop, nibble, garden-stroll, or just sit and people watch. When I walk through the green and white Hofburg gates into the Michaeler Platz and see the Roman ruins and the statue of St. Michael tucked against the wall, as a horse-drawn carriage clops past, something inside me turns happy. I know where I am, inside and out.
Does my memory give the city a rosy glow that reality collides with? Yes. Right now Vienna, and Austria, Hungary, and the rest of eastern and Central Europe have a massive problem that my imagination can’t wish away. But I can walk alone in Vienna, something I wouldn’t risk now in Munich or other German cities, and some Austrian cities as well. Vienna is not cheap, although it’s not nearly as wallet-gutting as Paris or London or Berlin. And Vienna trades on its past in ways that can feel cloying. I got seriously overloaded with Empress Elizabeth “Sisi” back in 2009. The museum, the hagiography, come on. I probably ended up feeling more sympathetic towards Franz Joseph than history warrants just because of the Sisi overload. In summer, the large numbers of tourists make me grit my teeth. I’ve become a bit of a travel snob over the years. I’m glad people want to travel and like to visit Vienna and other places, but I want to see the cities on my terms, not peering over heads of people peering at Vienna through a smartphone screen. (I wish I was joking. I get the feeling that some people really do not see anything that does not fit on the phone screen.)
But come winter, when the snow starts trickling out of grey skies, and the Rathaus windows turn into an Advent calendar, and music fills the churches and markets spill into the squares, and I can have the museums to myself for hours at a go, and no one minds one more tucking into the pew at mass, I want to go back, just once more, put on a warm wool dirndelkleid and boots and spend the day and evening drifting, dancing, learning, walking back and forth through time, and savoring Vienna.
*No offense to my Canadian readers, but Canada is more over-border than over seas.