Sunday 4 December 2016

Vienna: Viennese whirlwind

It's carnival season in the Austrian capital so what better time to visit, asks Pól Ó Conghaile

Published 13/11/2011 | 06:00

Vienna's Christmas market
Vienna's Christmas market
A spectacular opera ball
Cafe culture in Vienna

I've listened to taxi drivers getting exercised about plenty of subjects in my time, but 'The Blue Danube' is a new departure. Yet that's exactly what's happening. On the way home from a night out in Vienna, Johann Strauss's waltz to end all waltzes is playing at full volume.

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"This is the king of waltz," the driver gushes, launching into a biographical note on the composer. As he talks, he taps his cigarette into an empty can of goulash on the dashboard.

In any other city, I'd be surprised at the exchange. But this isn't any other city. This is Vienna, an imperial masterpiece from Europe's top shelf. This is a place where you wouldn't be surprised to find binmen whistling Wagner, or Riesling served at McDonald's.

The Viennese love of the finer things in life will be on full display as carnival season gets underway, ushering in winter's balls and Christmas markets.

Everything in Vienna, it seems, involves a touch of class. At night, when the palace lights come on, when the Opera House releases its dapper crowds from the latest opus, it's almost cinematic. This is a capital where high-brow is not a derogatory term; a city Leopold Bloom might have been hard-pressed to cross without passing a gallery, rather than a pub.

Crossing it, incidentally, is easy to do. Vienna radiates like a spider's web from the historical centre, and most of its big hits -- the Opera House, the Spanish Riding School, Hofburg Palace -- are all within reach of Ringstrasse, a looping boulevard tracing the route of the old city moat.

Vienna's golden age appears to have stretched from 1890 to around 1918, when the First World War signalled the beginning of the end of the Habsburg Empire. In that heady period, Vienna was the fourth-largest city on earth, Gustav Mahler was directing its opera, Gustav Klimt painted 'The Kiss', and some bloke named Freud was analysing clients on a couch in the ninth district.

The fin de siècle was a high watermark, and, walking the city today, you can't help but feel Vienna has never really let it go.

Of course, the early 1900s were probably as full of poverty and horse poo as they were poetry and psychoanalysis, but nostalgia recalls them as one of the great historical sweet spots, and a defining period for Europe's most elegant metropolis.

There's no shortage of opportunities to dip into that golden age -- including the Klimt collection at the Belvedere Museum (where you can see 'The Kiss'), and Freud's apartments and studio on Berggasse (€8/€4.50; freud-museum.at).

Freud's couch is, alas, in London, but the waiting room remains as he left it in 1938 -- as do the atmospheric home movies.

Vienna itself, of course, was here long before its golden age. Near the front gate of the Hofburg Palace at Michaelerplatz, I stumble across a section of the square sliced open to reveal the city's intestines -- the Roman ruins and ancient sewers beneath the current, classical streetscape. In Roman days, apparently, this classy little junction was a red light district.

That old sewer system was made famous by 'The Third Man', the noir thriller starring Orson Welles. The film was shot in 1949, but you can still see several of its moody locations on a Third Man Tour (€7; drittemanntour.at) of post-War Vienna. Stops include the sewer system, which dates back to 100AD, and the spot where Harry Lime met his grisly end.

"You just have to be confident," as one local tells me about another Viennese institution -- the city's balls. The dancing season officially gets under way with the Imperial Ball on New Year's Eve, ushering in some 300 dances that can attract anything from 200 to more than 5,000 guests.

And this being Vienna, these balls are no casual affairs. Headline events at the Opera House or Hofburg Palace are rich processions of evening gowns and tuxedoes. Each has its own traditions and decorum (at the Bonbon Ball, for instance, society journalists select a Miss Bonbon, whose weight in confectioneries is donated to charity). You'll need to know your waltz from your foxtrot, too.

Other institutions, for which no dancing steps are necessary, are Vienna's legendary cafés. Grand old dames such as Cafe Demel, where you can watch bakers at work through glass walls in a converted courtyard, are like second living rooms to the Viennese.

I could have sat for hours in Café Landtmann, with its wintery glow and tall ceilings rising over clatter of coffee spoons. "As long as a guest behaves respectfully, they will be treated like a king in my café," as former owner Konrad Zauner wrote.

The sprawling café was a favourite spot of Freud's.

Much as the Viennese love life, it should be said, they're also pretty fond of death. This may not be unusual in the birthplace of psychoanalysis, but it can be disconcerting.

Is this the only city in Europe with a funeral museum (sample exhibit: an 18th-century hatch-bottom coffin)? Vienna's huge central cemetery also doubles up as one of the largest recreational areas in the city, and there is something of an obsession with schöne Leich ('beautiful funerals').

There's nowhere like it for death by chocolate, either. Vienna does a superb line in decadent cakes and pastries, excruciatingly displayed in every bakery, hotel or café you enter.

Take Hotel Sacher, one of the grand old dames of the city. Inside, there's a gallery of the celebs who've visited over the years -- Queen Elizabeth, Rudolph Nureyev, Liz Taylor -- and I'm willing to bet every last one of them gobbled up a sachertorte.

Franz Sacher, the father of the hotel's founder, invented this quintessential Viennese cake in 1832 and the recipe remains a secret. Swathed in a thick skin of smooth, dark chocolate, it consists of two layers of sponge gelled with apricot jam -- a simple, luxurious creation that feels, when you swallow it, as if it's descending into your heart, rather than your stomach.

I got stuck into its savoury fare, too. Vienna is right at the crossroads of Europe (Bratislava is 65km by car; Budapest is nearby; Prague too), so you'll find everything from schnitzel to sauerkraut and strudel on the menu at wow-factor restaurants such as Palmenhaus, housed in a beautiful old conservatory in the palace grounds.

The Christmas markets are laced with the scent of roasted chestnuts, sausages and freshly baked breads.

Vienna's foodie crossroads-within-a-crossroads is the Naschmarkt. Dating from the 16th century, I found the place surprisingly lively at 5.30pm on a weekday -- already, the good-lifers were out with cigars, supping generous glasses of wine as DJs set up their decks, and the thin walkways between stalls reeked with the smell of cheese, bread and barrels of honking sauerkraut.

It's not all high-brow, fin de siècle frolics, in other words. Take the rooftop bar of the Sofitel, overlooking the Danube Canal, or the interactive museum at the Haus der Musik (if you want to play the baby grand in the atrium, just ask for the keys).

There's a maze and a zoo at the 1,441-room Schönbrunn Palace, and the Museum Quarter is as full of skate kids as culture vultures hob-nobbing in al fresco cafés.

Half of greater Vienna consists of green space. Ultimately, Vienna works because there's always a grubby ashtray beside the pontificating hands, because there's always a taxi driver behind the waltz. I like this place. I like that it refuses to dumb down yet, most importantly, it's not afraid to have fun.

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