PBS aired the re-run of the 2019 Vienna Philharmonic mid-summer concert this past Friday. It was quite good, although they did a lot of American music. (Their playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” without the usual US “slow down here” and “resume tempo here” made me blink a little.) The last major selection was Strauss, the “Wienerblut” waltz. Literally “Vienna blood,” a better translation would be “Vienna hearted.” It’s not my favorite concert waltz of his, but it’s quite good.
As the music played, PBS inter-cut shots from the Altstadt at night. I happened to glance up at just the right moment, saw two doorways, and without thinking said, “Michaelerplatz.” The next shot confirmed it. Note, there were no street signs, no house numbers, just two stone-rimmed doorways taken at an angle. I think it’s safe to say that I know that corner of Vienna pretty well.
For those not familiar with the city, Vienna centers on St. Stephan’s Cathedral, Stephansdom. The roads in the old city radiate out from there, except for the old Roman part of the city between Rotenturm Straße and Markus Aurelius Straße. That district lies between the cathedral and the Danube Canal, and is the oldest old part of Vienna. The Ringstraße follows the line of the medieval and early modern walls of the city. Butted up against the wall, on the north side, was and is the Hofburg, the imperial palace. The road from the Burg to Stephansdom starts at Michaelerplatz, St. Michael’s Plaza. St. Michael’s church is the parish church for the palace, and is built over a Roman ruin. Other Roman wall bits are exposed in an open-air display in the center of the plaza. You are now in “my” turf, and I know the area from St. Michael’s to the canal very well. There are still corners and crannies I have not explored yet, because it’s an old medieval city with lots of crannies and nooks, but turn me loose from the Burg, Stephansdom, or the canal and I can get to where I want to go fairly easily (traffic and tourists permitting).
So, the concert began just at sundown. A camera had been set up on the faux-ruin on the hill over looking Schoenbrun Palace, looking east toward the old city. Stephansdom stood out, an asymmetrical shape that dominates the skyline of the Altstadt. No structure is permitted to be taller than the north tower of Stephansdom. You have to cross the canal and the river to find high-rises. That helps keep Vienna human-scale. The human-scale and walkability is part of why I like Vienna. Being fluent in the language, loving history and music, and appreciating the city for what it is also helps.
My mental images of Vienna come from a 25-year span, and cover three seasons. Spring, high summer (not my favorite time) and late December. The city is lovely in spring, borderline uncomfortable in summer, and icy-cold and beautiful in winter. The wet cold and snow combine with winds that race from Siberia straight down the streets and between buildings, cutting through cotton and fleece. When I was there, it got down to 12 F, so cold that they lost power to the subways. I lost weight just from keeping warm as I walked around the city, even though I assure you, I was eating more than my share of the hot roasted chestnuts, pastries, venison and other game, and so on. My Mom hit one of the bakers’ stalls in the Christmas market in front of city hall so often that the fourth time the gent saw her coming, he smiled, handed her tongs and a bag, and got out of her way.
Spend late June in Vienna and you understand why people died in medieval cities in summer, in the days before filtered water. All that stone reflects heat. It also traps cold in winter. Fall is wonderful, spring is beautiful. I can close my eyes and stand in Michaelerplatz, or wander the Graben and people watch, or imagine myself in front of the pastry case at Demels or Cafe Schwarzenburg, or . . . Not Sacher. In my opinion, their quality’s not what it could be. Vienna at sunrise, after the delivery trucks but before the tourists, is beautiful. Vienna at night coming back from a concert with the streetlights and shop lights reflecting on rain-washed paving stones is everything you think a European city should be.
It’s not perfect, and tourists have become a nuisance, at least in my opinion. If I could go back, I’d freeze the city in 1993, in terms of people and number of tourists and the old, locally owned restaurants and shops still in business. Even if you still had to go through the cafe to get to the Roman museum near the Anker Clock. Things change, especially since 2015, and I greatly resent some of those changes. Happily, from my perspective, Austria is not Germany or France, and there’s been a reassertion of European culture and morés since 2018. I’m a little nervous about what this past spring did to the stores and museums and music groups, although Austria opened up earlier than almost anyone.
Do I want to live in Vienna for an extended period? Probably not. I’m not a city mouse to that extent. Do I love having a place where I can walk back through time in the hours before dawn, traveling past the 1683 Siege, the 1200s church, to the Roman past and the river, the ageless, ancient river, the river that winds through the heart of Europe to the sea?
Yes, even if it only exists now in my memory.