I don’t know exactly what I was expecting.
A fantasia of prancing Lippizaner stallions? Baroque opera performances? Tooth-achingly sweet cakes eaten with decadent clouds of whipped cream and cups of dark, delicious coffee?
Well there was cream and lots of it. And we did see the famous horses put through their paces one morning, and in the evening, an updated, no-frills performance of La Traviata in the gilt and red velvet opera house.
But the beauty of Vienna was startling, especially in a week of sunny May days–and that was the surprise.
It’s hard to overstate the architectural pleasures of the Austrian capital.
From the sweetly smiling harpies guarding the formal gardens at the Belvedere, an airy baroque palace turned easy-going museum, best known, perhaps, for Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, the celebrated golden painting that embodies the fin de siecle Viennese Secession…
…to the spires of St. Stephan’s cathedral, Vienna is a city in which the visual impact of buildings spanning nine centuries serves as a constant reminder of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s past splendor, and the artistic and intellectual ferment that defined the city in the early 1900’s.
More to the point, it is the way the architecture is integrated into everyday life that makes a visit to this small European capital such a civilized experience.
For instance: Early one evening we ambled through the narrow streets of the Innere Stadt, or inner city, to the broad plaza where the glories of St. Stephan, founded in 1137, were fully revealed. The striking south tower, a soaring gothic confection 445 feet tall, can be seen from vantage points all over Vienna and in fact, marks the heart of the historic city.
The cathedral is famous for the 230,000 glazed, diamond-patterned roof tiles, which on one side incorporate the Habsburg double-headed eagle, and for other fascinating architectural details, such as an intricately carved stone pulpit that features toads and lizards attacking each other, an allegorical battle of good and evil.
But the real wonder was inside when we stumbled upon an evening mass–one of the most exquisite experiences one could hope for, as ethereal voices filled the high, arched nave and banks of candles flickered in the twilight. This is a living church, where anyone can go to mass–7 to 10 times a day.
St. Stephan narrowly escaped total destruction in the last weeks of World War II, when a German captain disobeyed his commandant’s orders to “fire a hundred shells and just leave it in debris and ashes.” However, a raging fire later destroyed the roof and the carved altar ; contributions from the citizens of Vienna helped restore the damage and reopen the cathedral in 1952.
Walking through the Innere Stadt, I often felt dwarfed by monumental public buildings, many of which were built in the latter half of the 19th century as testament to Austrian power and the glory of the monarchy.
Often my eye was drawn to rooflines populated by larger than life mythological and religious figures: Poised along the edge of the many Hofburg roofs are gods and goddesses, saints and winged angels, warriors and a fierce eagle atop a golden orb, symbols of the Habsburg monarchy which ruled Austria for centuries. Most of these blindingly white statues gaze downward, watching with blank marble eyes as we scurry like mice on the sidewalks below.
Yet the effect is less intimidating than it is theatrical. It reminded me of a Greek tragedy I saw in the ancient outdoor theater at Epidaurus: while humans were caught up in the throes of hubris-induced drama, stony-faced gods and goddesses circled slowly, in and out of the shadows, around the perimeter of the stage—reminding the audience that divine will is ever present, exerting a distant, yet constant pull on our affairs.
In Vienna, though, the effect of all those people standing on the rooftops is to bring the massive buildings a little closer to our own level.
In a completely different vein is the Secession, a human-scale Art Nouveau exhibition space designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich in 1897 to showcase the works of Gustav Klimt and other rebellious artists who broke with the state-sponsored artists’ association, in hopes of creating a new style of art unconstrained by historical precedent.
We came upon the building unexpectedly, drawn by a glimpse of a cupola rising like a golden orb over a grove of dark trees.When it was first unveiled, critics blasted the space as a “mausoleum” and “Temple for Bullfrogs.” Perhaps they were angered by the stylized flowers painted on the exterior, or by the intricate surface of the dome which is composed of 3,000 gilded laurel leaves and 700 berries. At any rate the Secession is dramatically different from any other museum in Vienna.
The attraction for most visitors is Klimt’s remarkable Beethoven Frieze, a 34-meter-long mural hung on three walls, now permanently installed on the basement level. Painted for the opening of the Secession, it was based on Richard Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Although the mural looks unfinished, the empty spaces are said to be intentional.
Many of the two-dimensional gilded figures symbolize man’s yearning for happiness, but the ghoulishly erotic depiction of “hostile forces” such as Sickness, Madness and Death stirred up such outrage that the work was denounced by some as “painted pornography.” Although never intended to be a permanent installation, the Frieze was saved from destruction by an admirer of Klimt and, after languishing in storage for many years, returned to the museum where it is currently undergoing a lengthy restoration.
But Vienna’s architecture isn’t all about the past. Industrial cranes soar above the city’s skyline, and cutting edge design is booming. The dysjunctive glass-topped (and -bottomed) Sofitel on the banks of the Danube was designed by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel, while Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid’s Library and Learning Center at the University of Economics twists a rectilinear exterior into swooping, curvaceous walls that “create a free-formed interior canyon.”
One dramatic contrast of old and new is located right in Vienna’s historic center, where the bold, post-modern Haas Haus, designed in the 1980’s by Hans Hollein, is sited so that its curvaceous mirrored facade reflects St. Stephan’s medieval cathedral. Originally intended to be a department store, the controversial complex (one observer described it as “a Romanesque spaceship…ready for lift-off”) now houses a hotel, restaurants and a fashion showroom.
But let’s get to the whipped cream. Kaffeehaus culture is often touted as a distinctive feature of life in Vienna. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described the coffee house as “a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.” No one is pressed for time. In fact, the great luxury of the traditional Viennese coffeehouse is staying as long as you like for the price of a single cup.
It is there that you will find mountains of whipped cream floating atop hot and cold coffee drinks, such as the Einspanner (“single horse carriage” or strong black coffee with whipped cream) and Eiskaffee (iced coffee with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.) A stiff dollop of cream also comes with decadent pastries such as the chocolate and apricot jam Sacher Torte created for Prince Metternich in 1832.
Here’s the shocker: the coffee isn’t very good. Both watery and bitter, it needs all that cream to be remotely drinkable. Here’s another shocker: Many of those drinks are made of bad espresso.
As the story goes, coffee came to Vienna courtesy of the Turks who left bags of roasted beans behind after their unsuccessful siege of the city in 1683. According to Lonely Planet, some suspected that the beans were camel’s dung, but a Polish military officer, Jerzy Franciszek Kulcyzcki, who had spent time in a Turkish jail, knew he was looking at gold. Kulcyzcki not only showed the Viennese how to brew and drink the stuff, but also opened Vienna’s first wildly popular coffee house.
(Other accounts say that an Armenian merchant or spy named Diodato was the first to serve coffee–but who really knows?)
Café Sperl, established in 1880, is one of the oldest of the traditional Viennese coffee houses; it was added to Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011. The language of the “inventory” is almost elegaic, describing these onetime fixtures of urban life as “places where time and space are consumed but only coffee appears on the bill.” Although Sperl’s patrons once included a cosmopolitan mix of artists and military officers—it was the headquarters of the Russian army after World War II—these days the worn cut-velvet banquettes and marble top tables appear to be occupied mostly by students and portly, grey-haired gentlemen, reading newspapers as they linger over their brauners, eating hearty dishes such as mushrooms and boiled potatoes topped with a fried egg—and yes, the mushrooms are cooked in cream.
Incidentally, when I ordered the same dish at Sperl a few weeks ago, I asked the waitress to explain the complicated three-line description on the German menu. Instead she glared at me and snapped, “Ist gut.” (That is, “It’s good, dummy. What else do you need to know?”) But it was pretty good, better by far than B’s mystery vegetable which turned out to be asparagus cooked to death.
The rise of the espresso bar, incidentally, may have contributed to the decline of coffee house culture in Vienna. We ourselves were guilty when we crossed the street to go to Phil, a hip cafe with fabulous espresso, a for-sale collection of retro light fixtures and furniture, and a great selection of books and CDs. We came away with a buzz and a cool volume on (what else?) books as art objects.
Yet I would be the last person to dismiss elegant dinosaurs like Cafe Sperl. Gruff servers aside, these leisurely spaces continue to serve as bastions of civility in an increasingly uncivil world. In 1918, Viennese writer Peter Altenberg composed a paean that still rings true: “If you are worried about something, go to a cafe! If you hate and detest people but nevertheless cannot do without them, go to a cafe! If nobody pays you credit any longer, go to a cafe!”
Home away from home, indeed–if home is the place they always have to take you in.
In the next post, more about what makes Vienna a civilized city: food, wine, opera and public parks.