(for Mam, who loved a bargain holiday, and Dad, who loved Yugoslavia)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Vienna Roll

In all fairness to Vienna I shouldn’t be posting my online graffiti about it here. I spent a long afternoon in the place, most of that in a museum. It wasn’t so much a skite as a chip off a skite to Bratislava. They make it so easy. The shuttle train goes over and back all day between the two cities for about 8 Euro return. They are only 65 kms apart and the trip takes about an hour. In fact Bratislava airport is the RyanAir airport for Vienna.

The day I went, during Christmas week, the train was boarded by boisterous, clear-skinned gangs of twenty something Austrians in expensive sports casuals who may have been on an adventure, or just doing some budget Christmas shopping. Whatever it was, it was done and they were on their way back home early enough on a Sunday to be in time for church. There was also a more subdued scattering of non-Austrians. Bratislava is something of a late Saturday night to Vienna’s Sunday morning, a little more dishevelled in spots. But then Titania’s palace would look rough and ready next to any plain public building – never mind an opera house or palace – in downtown Vienna, all cream stone and painted railings. As for the Christmas decorations! The city was dolled up like Liberace on concert night - not a burnt out bulb in the rows and wreaths of sparkling lights.

At the Christmas market in Rathausplatz the same ornaments displayed in every Central European city at Christmas – decorations, candles and wooden puzzles, as well as gingerbread and toasted almonds and sausages - were on sale for a premium. And the mulled wine was twice the price of Bratislava (same quality too), plus you had to lay down a mortgage deposit on the ceramic mug. None of your plastic beakers in this here green postcard metropolis.

I happened to have a book with me on this trip, a volume of Arthur Koestler’s earliest memoirs that I had bought at a car boot sale a few days before in Spain – the only English language book I could find. It wouldn’t be your average airport fare, but it had a kind of musty relevance on this trip, since he had lived in Budapest and Vienna, and Vienna is an up-river sandblasted version of Budapest. Almost a hundred years later, the contrast between the two cityscapes and cultures probably hasn’t changed much.

Koestler writes of venturing inside Gerstner’s luxurious tearoom, aged around 15, in 1920, when the “misery of the post-war inflation years in Vienna was at its peak”

“The air inside Gerstner’s was hot, perfumed, and sweet; the sounds were muffled to a low murmur by the thick, soft carpets on the floor, the silk tapestry covering the walls, and the velvet curtains on the doors; it was like the padded interior of a chocolate box. The people who sat chatting and smiling at the small, polished tea-tables all looked wealthy and well-groomed and happy. They were mostly nouveaux riches, speculators and profiteers, for the old bourgeoisie of Vienna had been destroyed by the inflation as finally and completely as if it had been buried by a landslide; nevertheless, this new clientele of Gerstner’s looked perfectly civilised and did not even try to assume blasé manners. The people of Vienna had never learned that an air of boredom is an essential part of savoir faire; and so warmly saturated with tradition was the atmosphere of their city, that the parvenus had already acquired the unique Viennese art of being not only rich but actually enjoying it. They had that courteous gaiety and amused self-mockery and warm malice and flickering erotic spark, which had prevailed at Gerstner’s in the past Imperial days.”

I didn’t get anywhere near the inside of the padded chocolate box. I stayed outside on the cream vellum exterior. But I thought that commentary from an insider-outsider more than compensated for the poor rap the Austrians get today in the soundbite media. I had my bag lifted down from a train for me (not this trip) by a man in full business garb, and it wasn’t because he wanted a date. Three people got involved to help me get a ticket from a machine in the tram when I didn’t have change. The driver had shrugged when I sat down anyway to fiddle with my fiver. One of the three told me there were padded cells in Austrian jails for the likes of me and had a good laugh with his girlfriend. All in English, by the way. At the museum two men stepped aside and held the door.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum had so many Egyptian artefacts, including mummies, giant sarcophagi and even a full height granite pillar, that I couldn’t help but think it is time every country gave everything back. This museum is only in the halfpenny place on that score by comparison with the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan et al. I just hadn’t been in a major museum for a long while and had forgotten. There were so many Old Masters upstairs – Rubenses and Reynoldses and Rembrandts and Dutch Elders and Youngers and lighter French and Italian fare – that I left bog-eyed. In the end what I can bring to mind easiest are the ghastly – sorry! - fruithead and fishhead paintings of Giuseppe Archimboldo and Jan Steen’s Beware of living the Good Life, a louche scene of vice and disorder. There was a wonderful portrait of Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt and a beautiful portrait of Mary Magdalene by Titian or Tinoretto. But too, too many paintings to see in one day.

All these paintings and artefacts were acquired and assembled by the Hapsburgs, whose origins and achievements were celebrated in a separate exhibit of paraphernalia and thick-crusted brocade capes which could have stood up without help. Most outstanding exhibit of all was the massive shelf on the nose of Maximillian I, which either gave him the martian energies to carve out an empire and found a dynasty or the complex that needed all the trappings of empire to enable him to find a wife.

The Kunsthistorisches is a bang for your buck museum, but far, far better if you live in or around and use one of those season tickets. Having said that, I don’t know if I would be running back every Sunday to see hall after hall of massive, dark religious scenes – crucifixions and transfixions and sermons and sacraments. I was relieved ten minutes walk from the front door to be looking at bling up town in the Rathausplatz, at trees festooned with red heart balloons and falling icicles. I felt like the bespectacled secretary character who throws off her glasses and shakes out her hair at the office party and hits the dance floor. 
Vienna seemed to be a happy place at Christmas, where people were looked after well by their city and kids kept innocent and warm.