I last visited Vienna fifteen years ago, when I was over here for a computer industry conference. To be honest, I didn't see much of the place at the time: the conference was a residential affair in a Center Parcs-style resort hotel, some half dozen miles out of the city centre, and we barely got to leave it in the week I was there. The team's one night in central Vienna was a rather boisterous affair, which included eating at a restaurant which served the biggest Wiener Schnitzels in the world (allegedly), spending several hours drinking dubious Eastern European spirits in a private house, and cruising the gay district at an ungodly hour for the benefit of Nigel, who wanted to kill a couple of hours somewhere prior to his 6am flight home. We did all this only knowing one word of German between the six of us: and that word was - I'm attempting the spelling from memory here - zweigangschlagbohrmaschine, which we only knew because Paul spent most of his weekends in B&Q looking at power tools. You never know when the German for 'twin-speed hammer drill' might come in useful, do you? As a chat-up line, if nothing else.
Fifteen years on, and The Belated Birthday Girl and I have decided to prepare ourselves a little more for this visit. As the journey from Venice to Vienna involves an eight-hour journey on a rather comfortable OBB train that includes - hooray! - a power socket in our compartment, we use some of the time to listen to Teach Yourself One-Day German on my laptop. We've actually brought three of the One-Day audiobooks with us, so that we can also bone up on French and Italian just before we visit the relevant countries. Listening to all three courses in succession is a very strange experience, as author Elisabeth Smith has used an identical structure across the whole range. The courses are set up as a series of dialogues with fellow plane passenger Andy Johnson, a self-confessed hopeless case when it comes to languages. The way that the same cheesy jokes are repeated across all three courses grates a bit, but it does do the job, teaching you a practical series of key phrases in a mere 75 minutes. Though it's worrying how the small amount of German that Andy knows already seems to come directly from German war comics. Gott im Himmel! is an expression used for surprise or shock, confirms Elisabeth: yes, like when Tommy Atkins runs you through with his cold steel. (See also "Aieeeee!" in Teach Yourself One-Day Japanese.)
After our epic journey (though there's an even longer one to come in a few days), we're rather reliant on our hotel to acclimatise us quickly to our new city, and The Levante Parliament does the job admirably. Within an hour of our arrival we've been given a free glass of bubbly, had room service deliver us a rather nice dinner, and got reception to send up an Ethernet cable so I can post the Venice article on the site. Like Ca'Pisani in Venice, the design at the Levante is understated but classy, with a number of quirky individual touches. The main focus here is on a series of glass artworks by Ioan Nemtoi, which appear not only in the public areas but in your room too. (All very lovely, but it does put you on edge a little when you realise that accidentally breaking that vase in your room will cost you 600 Euros.)
Situated just by the Parliament building (hence the name), the Levante's ideally positioned as the base for an Easter weekend in Vienna. It's nice to finally see the city properly: The BBG's reactions are a delight to behold, as every few minutes she turns a corner and her jaw drops at another piece of breathtaking architecture. Of course, all this comes at a price, and it's interesting to note that when I withdraw 100 Euros from a central Vienna cash machine, it gives me the money as a single 100 Euro note, almost saying as it does so "hey, it's not like you'll be able to use anything smaller..." It's not as relentlessly touristy as Venice, so you can still get a feel for the place as a working city even on a holiday weekend like this one.
If anything, three days (technically two full days plus one evening) isn't enough time to do Vienna justice: there were a whole list of things on our shortlist that we simply didn't have time to visit. We barely got to see MuseumsQuartier, the cultural district where all the key museums are located, that turns into a gigantic social centre by night. We missed out on the Volkstheater, whose recent productions have included a stage adaptation of Lars von Trier's film Dogville and yet another translation of Cabaret. ("Wilkommen, wilkommen, wilkommen...") We didn't make it to Cafe Hawelka, where Kraftwerk were seen for a couple of seconds in the video that anticipated our holiday plans by more than thirty years. But my biggest disappointment was not getting to any of the places commemorating former resident Sigmund Freud, particularly Sigmund-Freud-Park located just south-east of a church shaped like a small penis. Coincidence? I think not.
Getting on to the things we actually did see and do, there was plenty of eating and drinking done in those three days. As far as restaurants go, Wrenkh is notable for being a vegetarian restaurant that's recently taken to throwing in the odd token meat dish on its menu, as if taking the piss out of carnivore restaurants and the way they treat veggies: but their snark is more than matched by the quality of their food. As for cafes, my favourite was possibly Cafe Weimar, where I had a veal Weiner Schnitzel purely out of sensitivity for the local culture, and not just because I'm a heartless bastard who hates baby cows. Here's an interesting fact for you regarding Viennese cafe society: both Leon Trotsky and Adolf Hitler spent part of their time as young men frequenting the city's coffee houses. Each of them had a favourite place that they visited regularly, and it's curious to imagine how these surroundings may have influenced their opposing ideologies. But which is best: Trotsky or Hitler? There's only one way to find out. FIIIIIIIIIGHT!
Cafe Central was the regular hangout of the artist formerly known as Lev Bronstein. Legend has it that when an Austrian minister was told that revolution was fermenting in Russia, he joked about who could possibly lead such a thing - "that Bronstein who sits all day at the Cafe Central?" It's a gloriously decadent palace of a caff, and has numerous pictures of regular customers dotted around the place (though we couldn't see any sign of Trotsky's image there). The service is impeccable, and the pastries and cakes are beautifully presented - it's a typical tourist experience, but a rather delightful one. (Useful tip: don't confuse this place with the much smaller Cafe Central Konditorei, the takeaway shop down the road from the main building.) Cafe Sperl, meanwhile, is much less willing to trade on its history as Hitler's former cafe, and is really only included here as a payoff to a setup that I put on the site some three months ago. It's a smaller and more joyless affair than Central, the pastries limited to a couple of wilting examples hidden away on a trolley, the staff grumpy and uncommunicative. At lunchtime on Easter Sunday afternoon, there were only a few tables occupied: to complete the unsatisfactory experience, the waitress left a coloured egg on our table as we were paying up, without saying whether it was empty, filled with chocolate, hard-boiled, raw, fake, or what. It's still sitting in my bag as I write this, a Schrodinger's Egg that exists in dual states of Chocolate and Rubbish simultaneously until we can bring ourselves to break it. So taking all that into account, Trotsky is better than Hitler. Glad to have cleared that up.
I may be being a bit harsh on Sperl for being virtually empty on Easter Sunday afternoon, because I've no real idea how Viennese families celebrate the holiday. But it certainly seems like a lot of them are happy to go out for the day to places like the Prater, whose funfair was crammed when we visited it. The other key attraction of that area is the Riesenrad, the big wheel that most people know as the location for a key scene in The Third Man. A small tourist industry has built up in Vienna over the best film ever to have been made there, but probably the best way to celebrate it is to just watch the damn thing again. Burg Kino has a number of screenings every week, including on Sunday afternoons: they have a rather good print of the movie, and it's a pleasure to get reacquainted with it in these surroundings. Carol Reed's love of the locations is still palpable in every frame, and Graham Greene's script is extraordinarily tight - try watching the hotel lobby scene early on where Joseph Cotten is carrying on three or four conversations simultaneously, and marvel at just how much of the narrative is set up in that one scene. And if there's a better final shot in any other movie anywhere, I need to know about it.
After a while, you come to realise that the tourist industry is based around certain key elements: and the biggest of these is Mozart. The best place to go to celebrate his legacy is the Mozarthaus Wien, a small museum set up in the Domgasse apartment where he spent the last three years of his short life. The problem with this as a concept is that there's very little memorabilia around that such a museum can be filled with, so for the most part we have to make to with other people's examples of the sort of items the house would be filled with, pictures of his contemporaries, and some modern art installations (the five-minute summary of The Magic Flute is tacky but very entertaining). An audio tour is included in the admission price, but goes a little too slowly for our liking - after a couple of minutes in a room you're itching to move on to the next one, and the narrator is still talking. Nevertheless, it's an enjoyable summary of the man's history.
Mozart also features in another tourist attraction, the Haus der Musik (you can buy a joint discount ticket for both venues, which is rather excellent value for money). It's a curious combination of a music history lesson, and a science museum concentrating purely on the concepts of sound: as you ascend the floors, it alternates between one and the other. The first floor documents the history of the Vienna Philharmonic, and includes hourly presentations of their most recent New Year's Day concert: the second floor is a sound lab demonstrating the science of hearing, with lots on hands-on and ears-on experiments: the third floor looks at the lives of the great composers, including the inevitable Mozart: and at the top there's a whole series of sound generating machines looking at the future of music. It's open till 10pm every night for the kiddyphobic, but be warned that some of the more interactive features stop at 8pm, including those which allow you to generate your own musical scores and CDs. Be prepared to spend several hours here: there's a huge amount to see and do.
As with The Third Man, probably the best way to experience Mozart in Vienna is to just listen to his music. We end up catching two performances during our weekend: one of them turns out to be a gloriously kitsch mistake. The Musikverein had announced a Good Friday concert of Mozart, but when we booked it there was no indication of what the programme would involve. It eventually transpires that it's a performance by the Wiener Mozart Orchester, and it's literally Mozart For Tourists. A thirty-piece orchestra in wigs and period costumes performs all the hits to a crowd that doesn't really care how they sound as long as they're recognisable. Throughout the performance, people in the audience are taking flash photos, wandering around the hall, and chatting to each other: it wouldn't have surprised me if they'd started applauding two bars into Eine Kleine Nachtmusik because they recognised the tune. To be fair, the orchestra themselves are perfectly fine, though the singers are a little more uncertain: but it's as typically Viennese as a medieval banquet is traditionally English.
On Easter Sunday we have a much better experience, seeing The Magic Flute at the Volksoper. There are two major opera houses in Vienna - the Staatsoper is the more traditionally opulent one, while the Volksoper (as the name implies) takes a more functional and less expensive approach to allow the common Volks to enjoy it. (We end up with rather splendid middle stalls seats for 50 Euros apiece, which you certainly wouldn't get back home.) The auditorium has fewer gilt curly bits than you'd normally expect in an opera house, but that's the only place where corners have been cut. Certainly the production itself is an excellent one: design-wise it makes ingenious but understated use of the revolving stage, while musically it's top-notch, with special praise going to understudy Mathias Hausmann for taking on the role of Papageno on the night. Some of the Volksoper's future productions may raise a few eyebrows - musicals like The Sound Of Music and La Cage Aux Folles, and a ballet based on the music of Queen - but if it helps them subsidise stuff like their Magic Flute, I don't see how anyone can complain.
Meanwhile, getting back to our one-local-film-per-country scheme - for a while, I was assuming we were going to cheat and treat The Third Man as our Austrian film. But while looking over the website for Vienna listings magazine Falter, we discover a film called Vienna's Lost Daughters playing at the rather pretty Film Casino. There have been plenty of documentaries about the Second World War before, but this one takes what I think is a new angle: interviews with a number of women who were evacuated from Vienna as children during the Anschluss, and who are living today in New York. They talk about Hitler's arrival in Austria in 1938, and how people suddenly refused to have anything to do with their Jewish neighbours, or actively victimised them. They reflect on the decision their parents had to make: to send their children away to England, knowing they may never see them again. They talk about how they've settled in America, and how memories of the past have affected both them and their children. This could have been relentlessly grim or needlessly sentimental, but it's neither: these old broads are survivors in every sense of the word, and their stories are hair-raisingly inspiring. The film is split roughly half-and-half between English and German (and the reasons why individual interviewees choose a particular language is revealing in its own right): it means, unfortunately, that around half of the film went over my head. But the bilingual official site for the movie seems to suggest that a subtitled English language release is on the way, and I'll definitely be giving this a second look when it happens.
It's been a fairly crammed weekend, hasn't it? Lots of food, lots of culture, lots of tourist attractions. But in the end there's always the simple pleasure of just wandering round the streets of Vienna and marvelling at everything you can see for free. Particularly on Easter weekend, when the markets all open up and there are loads of places where you can browse. Just in the streets around Freying, we find an arts and crafts market selling all manner of unusual items, a bio market with tons of organic produce (including sausages and beer), and the Easter market with chocolates and eggs decorated with everything from fluffy bunnies to images of the crucified Christ. As long as you keep your hands safely in your pockets, even the markets can be free things to do in a city where a 100 Euro note is treated as small change. Though it might have been a different story if any of the markets had sold zweigangschlagbohrmaschines.