Readers of a certain age may remember Midge Ure moodily singing ‘Vienna’ on Top of the Pops way back when. So embedded in our consciousness did it become for H and me that whenever one says ‘it means nothing to me’ the other pipes up ‘Oh, Vienna’. We both managed to keep it under control on our hols but H failed miserably with the other inevitable earworm, zithering away under his breath just loud enough for me to catch it now and again. I spotted The Third Man playing at one of the many cinemas we walked past as I’m pretty sure it always is somewhere in the city.
Vienna seemed like an extension of last summer’s Baltic jaunt in a way, inhabiting as it does that area nineteenth century Germans called Mitteleuropa. After what felt like months of rain in the UK we were looking forward to a bit of chilly, snowy weather which is just what we got on the first day when we strode out along the Ringstrasse for breakfast. Much of our four days were spent on this horseshoe of streets stuffed full of imposing architecture. Vienna is very much the grand imperial city, looking back on its past glories rather than forwards. We were both struck by how conservative it felt, very different from Berlin. It’s also a city famous for its café culture – politicos and intellectuals pontificating about the world. Truth be told, we were more interested in cake than pontificating although we did do a bit of that. Whenever you walk into a Viennese café the first thing you see is an array of distractingly delectable cakes, impossible to resist and pointless to try. Our favourite was Cafe Central, a temple of delight with its lovely arched ceiling and enough history to have its own Wikipedia entry.
When not eating cake, looking up at art nouveau embellishments or the ubiquitous Hapsburg double-headed eagles and trying to avoid earworms we were visiting museums the best of which for me was Secession named after the movement, co-founded by Gustav Klimt, which designed it. The Vienna Secession was akin to Britain’s Arts and Crafts Movement, turning its back firmly on the art establishment and its obsession with the past. It’s a lovely building, crowned by a globe of golden laurels and gorgeously decorated on the outside. Unsurprisingly it was greeted with horror by the Viennese bourgeoisie when it was first built. Now it houses Klimt’s beautiful frieze, inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. MAK, Vienna’s equivalent to the V&A, was my other favourite with its delicately painted arched ceilings, somewhat marred by the giant inflatable figures squatting in the entrance hall as part of an installation. Great café, though! Our last day was bright and sunny so we headed for Palmenhaus – a bit like having your lunch in one of Kew’s glasshouses – and very fine it was, too. Our final stop was the Central for hot chocolate and cake, surely the only way to finish a Viennese holiday.
Appropriately enough, my favourite holiday book turned out to be by a Viennese native, Daniel Kehlmann’s Me and Kaminski translated by the late great Carol Brown Janeway. It’s a smart, very funny novel which lampoons both the worlds of art and journalism with its story of Sebastian Zöllner, an arrogant, vain whippersnapper of an art critic hoping to make his name by writing the biography of Manuel Kaminksi, once the protégé of Matisse, now ageing and blind. Kehlmann takes us on a road trip in search of Kaminski’s lost love in which Zöllner manipulates, cons and lies to all and sundry only to be outdone at his own game. Excellent!
Back to real life now with all its attendant chores. Missing those breaks for kaffee und kuchen, particularly the kuchen.