The morning after we topped 600 new daily coronavirus infections, I fled to Vienna. I hadn’t travelled outside Czech Republic since borders re-opened in June and now options were dwindling: Austria still welcomed Czechs without restrictions, and Vienna is my go-to escape from Prague, anyway.
I found a city with COVID-19 precautions equal to Prague’s but residents taking them more seriously, just as few foreign tourists, and a calming vibe reminding me how good our good old Europe remains. I’ve visited Vienna 30 times in the past decade, and I wasn’t seeking something new. Given the pandemic, I wanted comfortable old routines within safe limits.
On the sparsely peopled Thursday train I plotted my visit. Czech Railways departs 16 times daily to Vienna, but best is the Vindobona, leaving Hlavní Nadraži eight times daily without transfers every two hours from 4:44 a.m. to 6:44 p.m. and arriving at Wien Hauptbahnhof in slightly over four hours. Student Agency/RegioJet offers another seven buses or trains daily to Hauptbahnohof or adjoining Sudtirolerplatz, and FlixBus runs two dozen times daily to Wien Erdberg bus terminal.
Prague and Vienna have long, close connections. Czechs belonged to the Habsburg empire from 1627 to 1918, but they sort of colonized it, too: the old joke used to be, what’s the biggest Czech city? Vienna, whose Czech and Slovak population peaked in 1900 at around a quarter million, according to some estimates. The cultural cross-pollination that started before Mozart continues to this day. Vienna remains familiar, yet seductively different.
You have troubles of one sort or another – to the Coffeehouse!
She can’t come to you for some reason no matter how plausible – to the Coffeehouse!
You have holes in your shoes – the Coffeehouse!
Your salary is 400 crowns and you spend 500 – the Coffeehouse!
From “The Coffeehouse”, Peter Altenberg (1859-1919)
Vienna has a 300-year-old love affair with coffeehouses, especially since the 1890s when the Griensteidl and Central vied for literary stardom. The former was resurrected in 1991, the latter never closed; both are too touristy and expensive for me and my Czech income. As a working writer, I build my Vienna trips around coffeehouses, and I need them quiet, well-worn, and normally priced – which means around 3.80 euros for a grosser brauner (large coffee with milk) when the writing starts and 2.80 for a Grüner Veltliner (the iconic Viennese white wine, aka Veltlinske Zelené) when it ends.
Café Merkur in Josefstadt (8th district) is not a classic kaffeehaus, but it fits the bill perfectly. It’s run by a Kurdish family, reflecting the city’s new multi-ethnicity (as opposed to its old multi-ethnicity). They offer Arabic, English, Greek, Kurdish and Turkish breakfasts, but like a good American on my first morning I got ham and eggs. Lunches include falafel, tabouli and halloumi wraps, but dig around the menu and you’ll also find Viennese standards like schnitzel and eierknockrl. It’s an airy place, perfect for writing with breaks for a scan through Die Presse’s weekend calendar and messaging with a local literary magazine editor.
Next evening, though, I wanted something new. Or rather, something old but new to me. Café Ritter in Vienna’s 6th District (Mariahilf) proved a nice surprise on a little square adjoining Mariahilferrstrasse, often thronged with shoppers.
Tonight, though, awaiting a thunderstorm, all was sweetly peaceful. A couple elderly Viennese ladies inhabited outside tables, and I took a red leatherette seat just inside the open window and near the piano, which according to my guidebook was supposed to have a player.
“Where’s the piano player?” I queried the young tuxedoed waiter, who effused apologetically in German, mentioning coronavirus.
“But maybe you would like to play?” he asked.
“Alas, not,” I answered. So I just sipped Grüner Veltliner. Clouds gathered, the wine worked, and by the time I left, those two ladies were becoming friends.
I am surprised by how quickly you can meet Viennese. I met the owner of the venerable Café Diglas in the Innere Stadt (1st District), the now ex-wife of a classical music star’s personal assistant, and an Ottakringer resident from far enough outside the Gürtel (Vienna’s outer ring) that she hadn’t spoken English to anyone since 1964, all in my first week a decade ago. Admittedly, that is less than half a real Viennese a day, but still it exceeds what one might expect from a town with a special word to describe its residents’ snarliness, Schmäh — go ahead, snarl it: Schmäh ….
Now that I know these places better I don’t feel so much Schmäh. Only once did an Innere Stadt waiter, at Café Hawelka, toss sarcasms so large as to be comical, delighting me to be the victim of such abuse and before a crowd of Viennese, no less. That hurt, sweetly — a perverse Viennese pleasure. Even more delightful was its centenarian owner, Leopold Hawelka, at his usual stammplatz – a Viennese Czech who moved from then-Bohemia at age 14 in 1925 and died just a few months after I visited in 2011.
I’ve never been mocked in another Innere Stadt hangout, the Kaffee Alt Wien, which is actually more a two-room bar with two sizes of gulasch until they run out in the nonsmoking back room, and then that too becomes just a bar, only slightly less smoky than the thinly partitioned front smoking area.
The Alt Wien is funky, plastered in posters overlooking half-plastered scholars from the Alte Universität farther down Bäckerstrasse, the one built with bricks from the old synagogue destroyed when Vienna massacred its Jews the first time, in 1421. Next to me, a young woman reads a handbook on effecting social change through volunteering. Nearby, an old couple who clearly lived the 60s huddle charmingly, he either a little drunk or a little senile, she correcting and doting over him.
Then the small gulasch comes. It differs from Czech gulaš: three hunks of spicy beef fall apart in a paprika-based sauce that spanks your mouth, with bread, not knedliky. Unlike Pilsner Urquell, theGösser beer that mates perfectly with it bubbles from the glass’ bottom. My Czech friend Vladimira argues that the bubbles prove its inferiority to Pilsner, but whatever. I feast, drink, read posters, study faces, and let others study mine.
The Viennese beisl is a cousin of the Prague hospoda, both oozing gritty authenticity when done right, but with differences more interesting than their similarities. The Innere Stadt’s Gasthaus Rheinthaler ranks high on everyone’s list for spartan authenticity and no-nonsense food, two beisl prerequisites. Its underground room fills to a uniform satisfied chatter over plates like mine, Hühnerbrust Gebacken with Vienna’s greatest gastronomic gift: a salad of slowly boiled young potatoes, dilled white asparagus, shredded cabbage, lettuce and tomato, sweet and tangy and creamy to go with my chicken breast schnitzel.
A shinier but equally authentic beisl in trendy Neubau (7th District) is the Gastwirst Schilling. I chose the marvelously named Fleischlalerl Natur gebraten mit Röstzwiebeln und Erdäpfelpüree and will never call such a dish Swiss steak with mashed potatoes again.
A proper beisl can intimidate an outsider, just like my regular Prague 8 hospoda.However, I’ve been coming long enough to Reinprechtsstüberl in Margareten (4th District) that I feel accepted. Its clientele know their way around the cuisine of Upper Austria, bordering Czech Republic. Again, differences accentuate similarities. Meals are often roasted meats, boiled sweet and sour cabbage, but instead of knedliky they come with one big round knodl. Or else little dumplings that with the house pride, Muhlviertel Bauernbratl (roast pork with cabbage), pop from a minature cannon. The hostess seems impressed that I order this every time, so last time I decided to act like a stammgast.
“And with the Grüner Veltliner again?” she asked.
“No, Grüner Veltliner is from Lower Austria,” I answered knowledgeably. I’ll take an Upper Austrian wine.” She laughed.
“It doesn’t exist. We drink beer and schnapps, like Czechs,” she answered.
Lately I have a new favorite beisl, the impressively named but nicely frayed Gastwirschaft Blauensteiner “Zur Stadt Paris” in Josefstadt. This time it was my first stop, luggage in hand, to make a reservation (strongly recommended). Then I headed up the street to my usual lodging, the Hotel-Pension Lehrerhaus. Vienna abounds in two- and three-star pensions with high Austrian cleanliness and service standards plus prices that won’t overly shock a Czech, but I’m a habitual creature and anyway the name means “Teacher-House”: it was founded in 1906 for the many visiting scholars and teachers who still come along with others.
Regarding Czech incomes and Vienna prices, after bleeding too many 20-Euro notes, I was happy for Saturday: market day! After a quick run through Karmelitenmarkt in Leopoldstadt (2nd District) for a bargain 5 euro Grüner Veltliner and a hunk of discounted Tirolean Ureiiskase cheese, I rode the U-Bahn south to Reumenplatz in Favoriten (10th district), outside the Gürtel.
Here where poor Czech and Slovak immigrants once lived, now Balkan, Turkish and Near Eastern migrants throng the Favoritenmarkt. I made a haul: Bulgarian kashkavali cheese, Serbian ajvar, Syrian olive oil, Iranian dates, Turkish hummus and beans, Arabic pita. Lunch was burek and ayran, the Balkan yoghurt drink, for 3 euros at Mrs. Dragisa Rajkovic’s Srpski Merak Grill.
I didn’t just eat, drink and write in Vienna. Friday evening I visited the Innere Stadt’s Albertina Museum, home to one of the world’s largest old masters’ print and drawing collections, and one of Europe’s largest Modernist art collections. I focused on their special exhibit “Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse,” loaned from the private Hahnloser collection (until Nov. 15). Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Sower” and “The Night Café in Arles”, Paul Cézanne’s “Peasant”, Henri Matisse’s “Woman in Green” belonged to wealthy Swiss collecting couple Arthur and Hedy Hahnloser-Bühler, who also bought works from and promoted Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Latrec and even Félix Valloton with his once shocking nudes.
Sometimes it’s best not to have a plan. On Sunday I wandered under a light drizzle through Volkspark, realizing I’d never entered the massive Nationalbibliothek.
Here I found the Ephesos Museum of ancient sculpture and the new House of Austrian History, sharing the same 8 euro admission. The former displays objects from ancient Ephesos, excavated by 19th Austrian archaeologists. The bronze “Athlete” and Parthian Monument are most famous, but the “Sphinx Devouring a Youth,” depicting the fate awaiting those who could not answer the monster’s riddles, fascinated and terrified me.
Modern Vienna has seen both terror and exhilaration, too. Nazi Germany’s first victim was also its first accomplice, and this new museum proposes a “critical exploration” of Austria’s troubled recent past. A defeated empire emerged from World War I in poverty and Spanish flu pandemic, stripped of its subject states; it tried democracy and progressive reforms, but descended into left-versus-right street battles escalating to civil war; Austrian Fascist Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss promised law and order but delivered totalitarianism, until Nazis assassinated him in 1934; then Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 with throngs cheering him in Heidenplatz right outside this museum, and then some 200,000 Jews were humiliated, hunted, chased away, murdered en masse. The city was devastated by Allied forces in the war’s final weeks. Then followed 75 years of Cold War, social upheaval, revelations about Nazi pasts, and refugees from Hungary’s crushed 1956 revolution, then from 1990s wartorn former Yugoslavia, and now from the Near East, all changing Vienna’s face.
It’s an overwhelming historical trip, enlivened by everyday faces and voices. Czechs may find a couple moments especially interesting: first, voices from those heady October 1918 days when the dream of Czechoslovak independence became real.
“All of us jumped from the tram,” recalled Prague actress Leopolda Dostalová. “We were truly one. Unfortunately it didn’t last long. But it was a wonderful moment.”
At the exhibit’s other end, 70 years on, you re-live the exhilaration of Czechoslovaks helped to freedom by Austrians, no longer afraid of Communist watchtowers on their borders as the Iron Curtain tumbled down in 1989.
Afterwards I made one last café stop, Josefstadt’s handsome old Eiles, where the Specknorckerln was delicious and the Grüner Veltliner soothing. I couldn’t escape history, though: here Nazis had planned the Dollfuss assassination.
Next morning, I stopped in Judenplatz, the medieval Jewish quarter until that 1421 pogrom. Here Rachel Whiteread’s stark Holocaust memorial to 65,000 murdered Austrian Jews shares the square with the gorgeous Baroque Böhmische Hofkanzlei, where Austria ruled Czechs for nearlt three centuries.
Then I boarded the Vindobona back to Prague. After 30 visits, Vienna remained for me sweet, with a bitter tinge.
You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW