Suppose a finger came down from the sky one day with a voice saying, “The bad news is, you can’t live any longer in the greatest city on earth (London, obv); the good news is that you can choose anywhere else on earth to live” – well, it’s Vienna, no contest. I have many reasons for saying this.
- It’s both old-fashioned-grand and laid-back-modern. Where else can you sit all afternoon with one drink in an ornate and historic café (try Central but there are many) listening to live piano, trying to decipher the local newspapers, failing to resist the astonishing array of cakes and even playing chess – aside from the polite conversation with strangers and general good behaviour which are more or less compulsory in such surroundings?
- It has both confidence and perspective. On a visit back in 2008, with the capitalist world besieged by that financial crisis, the driver who picked us up at the airport wanted to be sure we understood there was a fundamental difference between Austrians and Germans. We said we knew there was a difference, but asked him how he would describe it. “Put it this way”, he said. “The Germans think the present crisis is serious but not catastrophic. The Austrians think it’s catastrophic but not serious.”
- It’s both proud and matter-of-fact. It surprises you by underplaying its historic sights but then, wandering the ancient streets behind the cathedral you suddenly look up and see an unassuming plaque: ‘In this house Mozart wrote The Marriage of Figaro‘ (greatest of all operas, obv) and you sense holy ground.
Try finding the house where Schubert died (1828, syphilis) and you’ll search for a long time before you find a simple apartment with a few mementoes and nothing much to distinguish it from the outside. I like that.
- It’s got the Kunsthistorisches Museum, elaborate and decorated but small-scale compared with, say, the Louvre and so the strike rate of masterpieces to slightly more ordinary stuff is high, preventing fatigue. Stroll around and you are surrounded, without warning, by all the big Brueghel paintings you ever heard of. Nothing prepares you for them – vivid, moral, compassionate, gloriously brought to life by tiny details showing the imperfections of real life – the dogs lapping up the spilled eggs, the inn sign hanging off, the broken window.
Not far away is a Madonna by Raffaello, whose models may have been the most beautiful women who ever lived: no identifiable imperfection.
- The Old Masters are only the start. A short museum hop takes you to the Albertina, the Belvedere, the Leopold and a dozen others. You go back to the mediaeval and baroque and forward to Vienna as the doorway to the 20th century: flamboyant Kokoschka, tortured Schiele, exotic (if not downright weird) Klimt – and that’s not even to make a start on Sigmund Freud who fired the Vienna crucible from 1891, and whose home/workplace is now another unassuming museum.
- It’s both east and west. Browsing the open air Naschmarkt for unusual herb and spice combinations, you sense how closely the city has been a bridge between cultures – solid Teutonic heartiness competing for attention alongside all the exotica you never heard of, from Hungary and beyond. Personally I have to ration the amount of cash I take, just as I do in the (vastly more expensive) Borough Market here in London.
- It knows how to relax. Try one of the many Heurige: small wine bars that serve the youngest available vintage of the local, mainly white wine. They were established in 1784, two years before Mozart wrote that opera, and look as if, quite rightly, they haven’t changed much since.
A short metro/bus journey, or a pleasant walk, takes you to Grinzing, a small town on the outskirts, which is not only picture-pretty but has rows of Heurige. Pick one that attracts you and you may find Schubert or Beethoven drank there. If the weather’s good you can sozzle your way through a long and drowsy afternoon under the trees, sampling the wines they bring round on trays and stoking up on the (mainly pork) barbecue which they sell by weight. These are rewards such as I expect to enjoy in heaven.
- They can’t ‘arf do boiled beef and carrots. In Vienna they know how it goes, and Tafelspitz has to be one of the great dishes of the world – served in a kind of three-part cabaret, a whole menu in itself and totally satisfying. You can get it in many places but I happen to recommend Plachutta, which has three branches and I like the one at Wollzeile. Add the cold appetiser of beef done three ways and you’ve had enough protein for a week. Austrian red wines are a well-kept secret, by the way: I imagine they just don’t feel strongly enough to market them effectively abroad.
Did I say ten reasons? Yes, I can count – eight so far. I have plenty more but just go there – you’ll easily find two more of your very own.