Spurned by cats in the City of Dreams
27.10.2013 - 04.11.2013 10 °C
I like Vienna from the word go. It's Sunday, sunny, and the city's residents are all out for a stroll. The buildings around me have an elegance and gravity that's not from this century nor even the one before. There is a similarity to Paris or even parts of London, and it's a similarity that is most pleasing. As a tourist fond of moseying in arbitrary directions, I can already tell that I will enjoy myself here.
The capital is ten times the size of Salzburg from a population point of view but doesn't really feel it. It's also surprisingly walkable and I rarely bother with the extensive (and excellent) public transport. Cyclists are still the menace that they were in Salzburg, with trams something else for the pedestrian to watch out for, but the width of the main roads mitigates against jaywalking.
At the heart of Vienna lies St Stephen's Cathedral (Stefansdom), a Gothic and Romanesque construction with an eye-catching multi-coloured tiled roof, one angle of which sports a double-headed eagle pattern. It's just metres away from a whole string of high-end luxury shops, the house of God facing off with Patek Philippe watches costing tens of thousands of euros. Nearby, despite a rash of cafés, is a worryingly busy McDonald's. It's impossible to forget that this is a 21st century European capital, yet that modernity has settled in around the city's history rather than obliterating it. There is something from the past round every corner.
Much as I enjoy the cathedral and the ludicrously overwrought Baroque interior of the Jesuit church, they are clearly of their respective ages and could never be mistaken for more recent creations. Similarly, the State Hall (Prunksaal) at the National Library, a truly awesome mixture of wooden panelling and vibrant ceiling frescos that ranks as an absolute must-see in Vienna, is a product of centuries past. I'm no architecture or design student but the one style that seems ageless to my eyes, wherever it occurs, is Art Nouveau, and the city has some peerless examples that I seek out.
Vienna's version of Art Nouveau was called the Secession. The movement had its own purpose-built exhibition hall, the distinctive white Secession Building topped with a dome of sculpted golden leaves and with walls bearing details such as three stone owls clustering together. This local flavour of Art Nouveau has left its mark throughout the city.
The Secession's most famous exponent arguably was the painter Gustav Klimt, with his most famous work being "The Kiss", an oil painting featuring gold and mosaic effects that looks strikingly modern over a hundred years on from its creation. It hangs as part of a small collection of Klimt's work in the Upper Belvedere, a palace whose decor is a fine example of the OTT Baroque era. I arrive at the Belvedere shortly after it opens and am able to admire the painting in the company of only a couple of other visitors - less than an hour later, the place is swarming with tour groups and it's difficult to get into the room, let alone within ten metres of where "The Kiss" hangs. The painting is one of the Vienna tourist industry's mainstays, with everything from snow globes to umbrellas bearing its image. I remember being slightly disappointed by the Mona Lisa when I visited Paris four years ago, as the painting, however iconic, just didn't move me in any way - for me, "The Kiss" possesses many more dimensions.
The architect Otto Wagner is another representative of the Secession but I'd be lying if I said I'd heard of him before I started planning this holiday. His works are dotted about Vienna and unerringly draw one's attention, from the silvery studded front of the Post Office Savings Bank to the wonderful floral details on Majolica House. The look of the latter in particular is distinctive but timeless, and reminds me of Gaudi in that respect (though not in style).
Perhaps Wagner's greatest masterpiece though is more off the beaten track. I travel to the western end of the U3 U-bahn line then strike out on foot. It's a dull suburban part of Vienna and the walk becomes even less appealing when a steady drizzle starts to fall. I trudge up a hill and past a cemetery, the graves looking bleak under a grey sky. Then it's through a residential area and into the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, where trees provide a bit of cover from the rain. There have been occasional glimpses of a golden dome through the trees and then, after labouring up another incline, there it is - Kirche am Steinhof, an exquisite little church with green and gold angel statues praying over the entrance.
The inside is equally gorgeous, with a clean design encompassing stained-glass windows, mosaics, and a gilt altar canopy ringed by angels' heads. Mindful of the congregation for which the church was intended, Wagner minimised the number of sharp edges in the interior, amongst other custom features. I spend an hour inside, marvelling. Many of the churches in Vienna are built in styles that can be seen elsewhere across Europe, but this place is unique and a gem. For anyone with even a vague interest in Art Nouveau, Kirche am Steinhof should not be missed.
The Secession is but one movement to have provided inspiration to architects and and artists in the city and I visit many other locations of interest. The sprawling Hofburg Palace was the winter residence for the Habsburg dynasty, and today is the official home of the President of Austria. It contains umpteen exhibitions, including the previously mentioned State Hall in the National Library. I carelessly don't notice that these all require separate tickets, thinking that everything is included in just one, and thus end up doing an audio-tour of the Imperial Silver Collection, Sisi Museum, and Imperial Apartments, none of which frankly would have been amongst my first choices. However there's always some interest available in seeing how royalty lived, even if much of the opulence and luxury is similar to that enjoyed by royal families the continent over. I learn that, at imperial dinners, guests were only allowed to speak to their immediate neighbours, and a course was considered finished only when the emperor put down his utensils. More intriguing is the napkin arrangement called the "imperial fold", a secret known only to a couple of people in the royal household even now, that was (and still is) used at state dinners for holding bread rolls. The Imperial Apartments are as awash with paintings, drapes, and ornate furniture as you would expect.
I supplement this brief immersion in royal life with a wander around the Upper Belvedere palace, built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of Austria's greatest military commanders at the end of the 16th and start of the 17th centuries. Though my main reason for visiting is the Klimt collection, I get another dose of frescos, sculptures and gilt decorations. By this point, I have seen enough of the high life, and my subsequent visit to the Schönbrunn Palace (the old summer residence of the Habsburgs) is simply to see its grounds.
On the subject of grounds, one great boon for Vienna's keep-fit enthusiasts is that the grounds of the Belvedere and Schönbrunn palaces are free to enter, and both resound to the steady crunching noise of joggers on gravel. Schönbrunn in particular looks like an excellent place to run, with plenty of flat paths but also a few climbs up to the Gloriette, from where there are views over the palace itself and to the city beyond. It's certainly a step up from my usual circuit in Northallerton through a housing estate. Though neither palaces' gardens have much in bloom at this time of year, there are still statues and trees and fountains to look at, as well as the buildings themselves.
The Viennese architectural scene has had some innovative additions even in the last few decades. The 1980s saw the construction of a couple of idiosyncratic buildings designed by the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Hundertwasserhaus is an apartment block like no other, with a garden on the roof, trees growing out of the walls, uneven floors ("a divine melody to the feet", according to the man himself), a higgledy-piggledy multi-coloured facade, and few straight lines. The KunstHaus Wien nearby is an art gallery and museum in similar style, though somewhat toned down by comparison. Hundertwasser was inspired by the Secession movement but his architectural designs superficially seem to have little in common with the clean lines of Wagner's work.
Though the country obviously has a lot to offer in the way of landscapes, architecture, and culture, my main reason for first considering Austria as a holiday destination was Café Neko, one of the first cat cafés in Europe. Loving cats as I do, but with a flat that has insufficient room for one (and a lease that precludes them anyway), my cat interactions have been restricted to the occasional meeting with the suspicious neighbourhood cats in Northallerton. So the concept of a cat café, with the opportunity of meeting some cats whilst drinking a cup of coffee and munching on a slice of chocolate cake, is appealing indeed.
The café itself is a pleasant place to while away some time, down a small side-street not far from the cathedral. It's spacious enough for the cats (and customers) not to feel cramped, and there's a feline jungle gym, not to mention walkways and shelves up high on the walls so that the cats can survey their domain. There's a small selection of food and drink.
The cat population numbers five: cross-eyed and curious Thomas, two gorgeous Maine Coons, Luca and Moritz, a quiet tabby Momo, and black Sonia, whose bio on the menu warns that she is not for beginners due to her inflicting the occasional nip or scratch if she gets cheesed off. Sonia aside, they all seem even-tempered, and it's relaxing to watch them plodding about, sleeping, and sometimes scampering along the walkways.
However it would be difficult to describe them as friendly. I visit the café on three occasions, and on none of those visits does any of the five show the slightest interest in voluntarily interacting with the customers. I say "voluntarily" because some customers are quite happy to scoop a cat up, or stroke it while it's sleeping, but I never see a cat actually wander over to say hello to anyone. Thomas comes over to have a sniff around my bag, but he ignores my proffered hand and, when I move to stroke him, he doesn't look at me but gradually lowers his back so as to avoid the contact. I only want to meet cats on their terms, not mine, so I'm not going to just grab him and force him to put up with being stroked, but I can't help but feel a little disappointed that I'm so unappealing to him and his friends. I guess my expectations were that cats in a cat café would be interested in humans, but I suppose it's possible that they're simply fed up with us. Or maybe I just have an off-putting English smell.
Cafés, with or without cats, though, are very much a staple of Viennese culture. The concept of reading the paper whilst drinking a coffee, and spreading the activity over several hours, is firmly entrenched here. Though I tend to visit in the evenings in order to have dinner while writing up my journal, it's still a most pleasant environment - refined surroundings, waitstaff in uniforms, and no hassle whatsoever to get out when you've finished. The only slightly disturbing aspect is that, a couple of times, sellers of the local equivalent of the Big Issue come in to try to find custom - though I have no problem with them trying to make money, it's annoying when they don't take no for an answer. I'm not sure whether it's my friendly face, or the fact that I'm a foreigner, that encourages them to keep trying.
Though Vienna is famous for its coffee and pastries, I'm not a big consumer of either, and there are other elements of Austrian cuisine that attract me more. I'm not normally much of a meat eater but it's necessary to suspend that constraint in order to try a selection of traditional dishes - Schnitzel of various kinds, Zwiebelnrostbrat (beef with roasted onions), and Rindsgulasch (beef goulash) among them. Most of my custom for these goes to Phoenixhof, a restaurant that happens to be both near my hotel and extremely good. You can tell when an order for Schnitzel goes in, by the subsequent bout of hammering from the kitchen.
As a food-related aside, there doesn't seem to be a single decent Japanese restaurant in the city. In particular, there is nowhere selling proper ramen. I find this astounding - two million people in the city and yet not enough demand for even one genuine Japanese restaurant? Shame on you, Vienna.
My travels elsewhere have revealed that cemeteries can often be surprisingly interesting places, and Vienna has a whopper - Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery). It's enormous, so big that there are roads running through it and a local bus route stops at several places within. It's multi-denominational, including sections for Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and all kinds of Christians, as well as the default Catholic section (this being a Catholic country). Though most of the graves don't possess the spectacle of those in, say, Recoleta, the sheer size of the place is awesome. There are many musical luminaries buried here, from Beethoven to Strauss (Younger and Elder) to Schoenberg, but the only one whose compositions are even vaguely in line with my own musical tastes is Hans Hölzel, better known as Falco, who had a couple of Top 10 hits in the UK in 1985 with "Rock Me Amadeus" and "Vienna Calling". His grave is a most peculiar construction, with a small obelisk standing next to a glass screen depicting the singer in a flowing robe.
Speaking of '80s music, for the first time in years I see a poster advertising an upcoming Roachford concert. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that most of his chart success in the last decade has been in mainland Europe.
In recent years, Vienna has ranked at or near the top of many global surveys of quality of life. Though such surveys include factors that a traveller will only encounter tangentially (such as the standard of education, levels of political corruption, etc), there's enough evidence from just a week spent in the city to support these rankings. I don't see any crime (though that's true of most places I've visited in my life), however it says something that the luxury shops in the centre of Vienna leave their stock in the windows overnight - in London, expensive items would be stored away out of sight. Public transport is excellent, certainly better than the UK, and it appears to run on an honour system - the one time that a ticket inspection takes place while I'm on the U-bahn, no-one is caught without a ticket. Recycling bins can be opened using a pedal, so you never need to get your hands dirty. There's clearly an emphasis on cycling and other outdoor activities, though there are many more smokers than I would have expected and smoking regulations seem to be rather laxer than in the UK. And coming from the UK, where I can shop at a supermarket until at least 10PM every day of the week, it's frustrating to not have any supermarket access on Sundays or public holidays, and even when they're open it's only until 7:30PM or so.
If I were to consider living in Vienna, though, one of the factors of most interest to me would be the friendliness (or otherwise) of the local people, and that's not something I can draw any conclusions about after just a week here, as I have little meaningful interaction with anyone. One waitress I speak to says that the Viennese are not very nice at all, but in the next sentence she says that when she visited London she found the people there friendly and welcoming, which doesn't really tally with my experiences of both living in London for several years and visiting umpteen times as a tourist. Obviously, being a foreigner can sometimes work to your advantage and other times makes you a target - I would be inclined to think that the former would be the case in Vienna. Certainly in my time here I don't have any nasty experiences, but I can't really leave with anything other than a neutral view of the city's inhabitants.
All told though, Vienna is an excellent tourist destination. I don't get through even half of my to-do list and yet I still see enough sights that will stick in the memory. That's also without having much interest in either the classical music or theatre scenes in the city, which would no doubt consume considerably more time for fans of either. Vienna is rewarding for idle potterers - it's perhaps not as vibrant as Paris, albeit cleaner and safer than London, but there is so much to see even for visitors who don't want to spend their vacation in museums and art galleries. I had wondered beforehand if a week here would leave me bored, but that turns out to laughably understate what the city can offer.
However after a week my time runs out, as holidays are wont to do, and so it's back onto the train to return to Salzburg and thence England.
[I have some logistical information about visiting Vienna (and Salzburg) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]
[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account here.]