Inside knowledge. It’s not as important in some places. Paris, for example, is hard not to enjoy, as are Tuscany, and sunny happy places like Byron Bay. Travel is easy where the sights and culture of destinations reveal themselves spontaneously. But there are other places where what lies on the surface is only a fraction of what is available underneath – in Bologna, for example, Melbourne, Dubai. And my latest to add to the list, Vienna. I needed a stop-over on my way to Dubrovnik this year – a difficult place to reach directly from Dubai – and rather than flying Al Italia or Air Croatia from Rome, I opted for Vienna (and the better reputed Austrian Airlines). When friends and acquaintances discovered I was going to Vienna, they generally erupted in glee. “I LOVE Vienna!” they would tell me. “Ooh the music!”, “Deliciously old-fashioned!”, fun, beautiful, genuine, they would say. They had lived there, studying, working, spent two months shacked up with a ski instructor in the off-season. One would say they built me up.
I found a pretty and clean city. Crisp and pristine. And might I say, just a little bit boring.
But of course, I understand that I just didn’t “get” it. You see, what can be seen on the surface of Vienna is a little too squeaky. No grit, no grunge, no dirty culture, no swindlers and petty cons, beggars, or trashy locals, rudeness, swearing, fetish shops in inappropriate places, or drunks on the streets at 11am. It’s just too perfect.
I’m a bit hard to please, aren’t I? One would think that the lack of all those things would make for a perfect holiday, but for me, it feels like I’m living in a cardboard cut-out. It’s all a bit Truman-Show-esque.
I do like Vienna. I just don’t love it. When I was in my twenties I worked for a half-Austrian man named Dan Murphy (yes, I know, a very Austrian sounding name). He was a little the same. He was charming but hard, quaint but conservative. A man of cut crystal. Many of the Austrian wines share these characteristics – they are elegant, but also austere, sweet-smelling and full of promises, but oh, so dry.
Maybe its because the Lipizzaners were on holidays. In a princess fairy town like Vienna, it seems criminal not to see the pretty dancing horsies. My children were very disappointed. Instead we delved into the equine by taking a fiacre around the main sights. The price is fixed. No bargaining, no rip-offs. (€40 or €65 depending on time). It’s worth it – so much more ethereal than a double-decker bus tour. True to Vienna form, the streets are un-befouled with manure because each carriage is fixed with a poop-catchment. The kids marveled at the ingenious contraption, until it was splattered with olive-coloured farmyard excrement.
The food was no great disappointment, and in fact, Wiener Schnitzel lived up to its rap. I finally figured it out, and thanks to the paper-thin piece I indulged in with artisanal sienna-hued ale at the oldest pub in Vienna (Griechenbeisl on fleischmarkt), I will forever-more cook a good one myself (recipe here). Café Le Bol, opposite our hotel was another treasure – they do a superb breakfast, complete with a glass of Prosecco, much to Hambone’s delight. Judging by the crowds we saw lining up to eat at lunch and dinner, this little French eatery is a known gem.
The cakes were by and large as I had hoped, except for Sachertorte. Foodiva had tweeted her love of this famous chocolate-orange cake to me, which I later sampled at the pretty Café Mozart. It was dry, completely forgettable. The cakes and pastries at Café Central more than made up for that unfortunate tasting. Famous for it’s ballroom-like arched interior and previous patrons such as Trotsky and Lenin, but not resting merely on reputation. It is eerily silent – the only sounds are muffled whispers and the tap of the waiter’s leather-soled shoes on the marble floor. The booths are warmly circular, and it’s easy to imagine plotting a revolution in whispers in a cozy corner. The patisserie is marvelous. Brioche filled with light custard as soft as a cloud, vanilla sponge-cake with rose petals bejeweled with a single drop of dew-like toffee, perfection, perfection, perfection. Considering the quality and experience, it’s wonderfully inexpensive. The Vienna coffee I’m still trying to understand – a non-blending blend of hot hot coffee with an iceberg of whipped cream – hot chocolate was often much better, smooth and bitter-sweet, rich and warm enough to fight those winter drafts upsetting our summer vacation.
We tried to eat at Braunerhof, Thomas Bernhard’s preferred kaffeehäus. But an angry little man who looked exactly like Freud slapped down menus as if he was spanking bottoms while sneering at our children. We escaped while he was not looking and went back to the hotel, veering through the food store (Billa Corso Herrnhuterhaus) beneath Pension Nueur Markt for some gourmet take-out. It’s a Viennese version of a Galeries Lafayette food-hall, but cheaper, and with a superb wine collection downstairs, extensive deli and grocery, plenty of tasty prepared food and three levels of architecturally intelligent space.
The gardens and Palaces are stunning, but after being subject to an obscene number of international ornate interiors as a child, I have made a promise to myself that I will not do that to my children, at least until they are old enough to appreciate the material wealth and architectural splendor left by people who died hundreds of years ago. We tried to be a little more child-friendly and have a picnic beside the roses in Volksgarten instead. It rained. We tried again. It rained again. Maybe I should blame the weather – it was summer, but never got over 22°C.
For another outside trip, we took a train to the Alte Donau, where the tourist information had suggested we could hire a boat and putt-putt on a waterway beautiful enough to have a waltz named after it. Under a cloudy sky, the Danube is not blue, but a bleak mirror of the heavens. The area is also drear – no signs from the railway station, just bitumen paths and graffiti leading to a back road with no pavement. If not for the iPhone map, we would have been convinced we were in the wrong place. The waterway itself was not lined with elegant manors or castles like the Loire or Dordogne, but instead with eclectic and ramshackle boat houses. Not ugly, but no better than taking a canoe on Melbourne’s Yarra River. It rained.
We stayed at the Ambassador Hotel. This, I can rave about. It’s position close to St Stevens (and pretty much everything else in Old Vienna) is alone enough to take you there, but the rooms are enormous and carefully furnished with what appears to be keepsakes from Mozart’s attic. We took connecting rooms but could easily have fit the four of us in the one. It’s a tripadvisor favourite, usually a fairly good guide.
But what does the location mean when the city itself is hibernating? Where were the music, the life, the people? I’m sure they were there, just not where I stumbled around, and certainly not where the tourist information desk sent us. Since going, I have remained troubled. I have asked many people what they loved so much about Vienna, and I can’t help but think they are talking about a different place. So all I can assume is that there is a Vienna existing in a parallel dimension that cannot be accessed in three days on foot.