Sometimes you visit a city that feels truly different.
In Vienna, celebrities can amble down the narrow streets or linger in restaurants for hours without being noticed, let alone being asked for an autograph. “But if the opera’s musical director or one of the stars goes out in public, they’ll be mobbed,” our friend Katherina laughed. “People go crazy over them.”
Opera crazy? Take that, TMZ. Here are six more reasons to love the quirky but beautiful Austrian capital.
1. Opera for the People
In a way, it was fitting that in this music-mad city, we would stay at a hotel right across the street from the Wiener Staatsopher, or Vienna State Opera, which produces a mind-boggling 350 performances every season—and that we would pay a staggering number of euros for seats at a sold-out performance of Verdi’s La Traviata.
That Thursday evening B and I joined the throngs flooding into the Renaissance-style opera house. We discovered that our seats were upstairs, in the front row of a plush red velvet box, an all-too-perfect vantage point for what turned out to be a starkly modernist version of Violetta’s travails.
The opera was performed on a nearly bare stage, with scattered chairs and tables set before a few backdrops that rose and fell as the scenes changed. There were no costumes to speak of. But if the details were basic, the voices were often stirring—and in the intermission, we watched elegantly dressed locals down flutes of champagne at stand-up tables in the bar.
Cut to Sunday afternoon: B and I were lounging in our room, sipping a chilled white wine we’d brought back from the Wachau Valley, when I gradually became aware of magnificent singing voices floating up from the street. I flung open the French doors to see a rapt crowd on the sidewalk, gazing at a giant video screen displaying a live feed from inside the Staatsoper. I’m not sure what was playing on stage, but the music was exquisite—and absolutely free.
The opera even provides 180 folding chairs for outdoor spectators. Do you know of any other city like this?
2. Horses with Hats
Horse drawn carriage tours aren’t top of my travel list—though I did take Serendipity and a friend for a jaunt through Central Park when she was five years old—but in Vienna, I found the carriage horses strangely endearing, especially their hats.
This pair of greys, standing patiently on Stephansplatz near the ancient cathedral, wore quirky red caps that covered their ears like close-fitting gloves. The caps gave the stolid ponies a rakish air as they waited for their driver to wangle a family of tourists into a 50 euro-ride around the Innere Stadt.
We saw other horses wearing black and white caps. The real question is: Why wear them at all? (If you know the answer, please tell!)
The carriages are called fiakers, after Rue St. Fiacre in Paris where fleets of horse drawn cabs were based in the 1700s. As Vienna grew, so did the number of public carriages: By 1900, it’s said that there were as many as 1,000. The number plummeted after World War I; today only 50 or so remain, mostly for the tourist trade.
At Vienna’s famed coffeehouses, however, the fiaker lives on, at least on the menu: Order one, and you’ll be served a glass of black coffee laced with rum or cognac, topped with whipped cream.
(Regarding the famous Lipizanner stallions who perform at the Spanish Riding School: We attended a morning training session, which is more casual than a performance but still all about the show. Here you can see these magnificent animals put through their paces, dancing like wind up toys, mincing backward, forward and sideways in time to one Viennese waltz or another.
Now observe the single stallion in every training session who is forced to walk hugging the wall of the ring as he is led around by a uniformed martinet. Notice how often that spirited animal tries to break free. Decide for yourself whether the rigorous training devoted to perverting these handsome creatures’ natural gait is a good thing.)
3. Learning to Say “Spice” in German
Vienna’s Naschmarkt was the last place I expected to find spices—traditional Austrian cuisine is light on seasoning—but there, amongst the white asparagus and rosy-cheeked apricots, I met several German-speaking spice traders who could as easily have been hawking their wares in the markets of Istanbul or Marrakech.
Dreaming of fresh sauerkraut flavored with caraway, I picked up a tiny plastic bag of crescent-shaped seeds at Feza Obadai’s stall and asked, “Caraway?” Mr. Obadai looked a bit vague and said, “Kreuzkummel.” “Cumin?” I countered. “Kummel,” he said, gazing into the distance. Then he repeated both names, raising his eyebrows. As the hot sun beat down on my head, I began to feel as if I’d stumbled into a nightmarish souk where you had to know the password to get what you wanted.
By the way, the German word for spice is gewurz.
Actually it’s all too easy to confuse caraway with cumin: They look alike, but the flavor is completely different. Cumin is warm and earthy, while caraway is cool and aromatic. Mr. Obadai was not offering samples, so I took a chance on the Kreuzkummel—mainly because I liked the name—and also on some Wacholderbeeren, plump dried purplish blue berries that looked a lot like—and in fact, were—juniper (also for the sauerkraut).
Naturally, a few meters on, I ran into Mostafa El Hamrawi, a voluble English-speaking spice trader who, plucking a bag from his vast display, told me that caraway was most definitely kummel. I bought some of that, along with tangy barberries, sweet Hungarian paprika and Arabisches-Kaffeegewurz, ground spices for Arabian-style coffee.
Kim Kocht, a sleek lunch counter and “studio” near the top of the Naschmarkt, sells the most intriguing and expensive spices. Sohyi Kim (kocht means “cooks,” hence the name of her business, Kim Cooks) is a one-woman culinary phenomenon who has not only written 5 or 6 cookbooks, but also runs two restaurants, offers frequent wine classes and heads a foundation that helps young immigrants—she is Korean—find jobs in Vienna.
After a gorgeous lunch of asparagus and sautéed scallops in passion fruit sauce, we pondered Kim’s unusual flavored salts, finally picking two jars: Hibiskus-Kokos-Salz, a tart pink blend of chunky sea salt salt, chili, coconut and hibiscus flowers, and Mandarinensalz, flavored with grated organic mandarin peel, lovely for seafood.
4. Beyond The Kiss
I once worked for a man whose private office was distinguished only by a very high quality, expensively framed reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. I used to imagine this man (a small-time corporate raider), closeted alone at night, gazing at the shimmering gold mosaic painting of two embracing lovers, captured in a moment of transcendent rapture, and wondered what it meant to him.
Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter and co-founder of the Vienna Secession movement, whose works were characterized by allegorical, often erotic images that flouted the conventions of academic art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The paintings of his “Golden Phase,” such as The Kiss, are said to have been inspired by trips to Venice and Ravenna, where he immersed himself in the intricate mosaics and Byzantine imagery for which both cities are known.
The prospect of viewing the original Kiss at Belevedere Palace was alluring—and yes, it was quite beautiful. But for me, the real discoveries were Klimt’s landscapes of the Austrian countryside. Not much gold leaf—in fact, there was none at all—but dreamy vistas of sunstruck poppy fields and of a yellow summer house poised on the shores of Lake Attersee, where the artist vacationed for several years.
The landscapes are only so idyllic, however. In Avenue to Scholoss Kammer, the trees surrounding the summer house are alive with restless spirits and the entangled limbs seem to writhe, almost in agony. Not surprisingly, Kilmt was known by the locals at Attersee as Waldschrat or “forest demon.” He died of a heart attack at the age of 56 in 1918.
5. The Pleasures of Civilized Green Spaces
In recent years, Vienna been called one of the best places in the world to live. In its 2014 Quality of Living survey, Mercer, an international human resources consulting firm, ranked the Austrian capital as number one out of hundreds of cities around the globe. Similar studies conducted by The Economist and Monocle have put the Austrian capital squarely among the ten top cities in their own live-ablity indices. According to Wikipedia, the city is often used as a case study in how to do things right by urban planners.
The expansive green parks along the 19th century Ringstrasse, a ring road mandated by Emperor Franz Josef I in 1857, and smaller squares throughout the city are a big part of what make Vienna so liveable. Again and again we found ourselves straying into these lush, grassy spaces with magnificent old trees, fountains and statues—ideal places to walk a dog, to toss Frisbees or play tag with your children, to eat a sandwich or just to lie on a blanket and nap in the warm sun.
It’s that natural beauty, manicured though it may be, that contributes mightily to the the city’s civilized atmosphere.
Memo to all our local planners who can’t wait to obliterate another stand of trees in order to pave a parking lot for yet another non-descript office/apartment complex: Vienna knows better.
6. Only in Vienna…
The case of the curious “incident” at The Black Camel…
For various reasons we were suspicious of this 1618 restaurant, but warmed up quickly when we found ourselves in a beautifully preserved art nouveau dining room favored by Vienna’s movers and shakers. The food was lovely, especially the plump white asparagus and seared mountain char with red caviar.
But this is not about the food.
No, it’s more about the people-watching, which was fantastic that night, not least because of the older couple across the room. Though distinguished looking, he was wearing a sweatshirt and sneakers; his curly haired wife was dressed in a similar non-descript but comfortable clothing. Under their table a large, elderly black Scottie snoozed quietly, emerging only for occasional tidbits from his mistress.
The pair had clearly settled in for the evening, which we discovered, is never a problem in Vienna. In fact, we were told it is considered the height of bad manners to tell patrons that they have to “give their table back” after only two hours. You’re expected to stay all night. And so they nursed their coffee and after dinner drinks, occasionally chatting with each other or the waiter, but mostly enjoying the restaurant just as if they were in their own home.
But this is still not the real story.
After we had been there about an hour, a burly old gent in a black overcoat and homburg entered the dining room, carrying what looked like a suitcase. He laid it on top of a round table in the middle of the room and opened it up to reveal an old-fashioned portable Victrola. He thumbed his way through a collection of 78rpms in brown paper slipcovers and selected one. The turntable began to spin, the needle dropped and the scratchy sounds of a cabaret song issued forth.
Was the music from the 1930’s? The 1950’s? I have no idea, but we felt as if we had dropped down the rabbit hole. Perhaps this is the place to tell you that the maitre d’ was wearing a long frock coat, handle bar mustaches and a pocket watch on a gold chain. Everyone in the place, especially the couple across the way, was enchanted. Even the waiters were snapping photos.
After the man played three or four selections from his collection, he closed up his Victrola and exited the dining room, headed for the bar where I later saw him tossing back a shot of something clear, maybe vodka. He winked when he saw me looking.
As Serendipity texted when I described the scene, #onlyinVienna.