Vienna, A City Beyond Time

I stepped off the train and into the golden light of Autumn, armed with a book and a single change of clothes. Vienna in October has a bright glow to it, as if the city were recovering from summer’s blaze. Weaving through the platform crowd I was reminded of a film that begins here, in this very station, shot twenty three years ago. Before Sunrise (1995), directed by Richard Linklater, follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as they walk, eat and sleep their way through Vienna’s many parks and cobbled streets.

Towards the end of the film, Jesse recites lines from a poem by Auden (an ex-Vienna resident), ‘As I Walked Out One Evening:’

But all the clocks in the city

Began to whirr and chime:

O let not Time deceive you,

You cannot conquer Time.

Perched happily in the small space between the old and new worlds, Vienna gives the immediate and powerful impression that it has conquered the inevitable change that comes with Time. ‘Throw what technology, transport or architecture you want at me,’ the city seemed to say to me as I left the station. ‘I won’t budge.’

The poem also serves to remind us of Jesse and Celine’s inevitable parting at the end of the day; the film a lesson in the value of spontaneous encounters, however bitter-sweet the ending.

Beyond its message, Before Sunrise acts as a unique tour guide for a city with many hidden jewels. So I retraced the steps taken by Jesse and Celine, adding the occasional cafe, restaurant or museum along the way. The result was one of the most charming short trips of my life.  

Vienna is made up of twenty three small districts, and my first stop was the Zollamtssteg bridge which sits at the intersection between the Wien River and the Danube Canal, connecting the first and third districts. Across the Danube stands a proud row of modern buildings, one of them being the Sofitel Hotel, famous for its rooftop view. I took the lift up to the top floor and saw for myself a remarkable horizon of old buildings interrupted by the occasional spire. I sat at the bar with a drink, trying to make sense of the city below as though it were a puzzle. I was aching to go in. 

Das Loft rooftop bar at the Sofitel Hotel

Given the Austrian national sport is (probably) the consumption of schnitzel, I felt it was necessary to find one for my first meal. Both locals and tourists pointed me to Figlmüller, an old Viennese restaurant in the centre of town which prides itself on its particularly large, “spill-over-the-plate” schnitzels. I’m no schnitzel connoisseur but, unsurprisingly, it was easily the best I’ve ever had.

No matter how much I ate, most of it was walked off immediately after the meal. Vienna shares this useful quality with Paris, being small enough to walk almost anywhere without being more than twenty minutes from the centre.

One cannot visit Vienna without seeing its museums. The following morning I strolled the MuseumsQuartier, ending up at the city’s opera house. The Vienna State Opera, like the Met in New York, has accorded a status as great as the city itself. If, like me, you’re not a Baron with three estates and an offshore bank account, I suggest €3 standing tickets, which provide just as remarkable an experience as the balcony. 

Culture sits at the heart of Viennese life. Cities today will wear their cultural hat as a badge of sophistication. Vienna’s love of music, architecture and art is, like Berlin, evident on every corner, bound to the city’s identity like a birthmark. Vienna’s museums host exhibitions on such a variety of periods, schools and artists that you’ll find something to enjoy whatever your taste. I went to the Leopold Museum, where I saw a presentation on Gustav Klimt as part of the city’s festival on Viennese Modernism. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine wander to the Albertina museum, located at the charming intersection between the opera house and the Hotel Sacher Wien, which offers one of my favourite views of the city.

North corner of the magnificent Vienna State Opera

I encourage you to look up when you are in Vienna. Much of the city’s splendour exists around its windows, roofs and spires. Down below, Vienna’s citizens spend much of their time at coffee shops, which, like in Amsterdam, often double as wine bars in the evening. Among the most famous is Cafe Central, a 19th century wood-panelled coffee house in the heart of the city. There I decided to rest my feet for an hour, sipping coffee and watching as the locals smoked and smiled at one another.

Up the road from Cafe Central I found Burggarten Park, filled with students lying on the grass and ducks bathing in the pond, both enjoying the year’s last warm days. At the end of the park, adjacent to the Albertina museum, I found a large greenhouse-type structure with groups of  trendy types sat outside eating lunch. This is Palmenhaus, “House of Palms”. The interior is a satisfying mixture of greenery and marble opening to a floor of old tables and chairs next to a long art deco bar. Palm trees rise up to touch the glass ceiling, giving you the impression that you’re eating in a sophisticated jungle. It was lunchtime, so I sat down for a delicious plate of seasoned sardines atop a creamy ratatouille and herbed potato.

Dining at the elegant greenhouse that is the House of Palms

Craving something sweet, I walked down a cobbled road to Cafe Sacher for their famous torte, before making my way to Vienna’s centrepiece, St Stephen’s Cathedral.

Like much of the city’s architecture, the cathedral, more commonly known by its German title Stephansdom, is a fusion of romanesque and gothic form. Vienna moves to the rhythm of its loud bells, and a pleasant ringing can be heard in the background throughout the day. Ludwig van Beethoven is said to have discovered the totality of his deafness when he saw birds flying out of the bell tower of Stephansdom as a result of the bells’ tolling but could not hear the bells.

After a stroll past the line of majestic imperial palaces (the Schönbrunn is particularly striking), I passed by the gorgeous Joseph Brot bakery to pick up a delicious apple pastry, before finding a sunny spot in a little park and falling, almost instantly, into a deep sleep.

Clean and cool at Joseph Brot bakery

I woke up to the sound of Italian being spoken by a nearby circle of students on the grass. They watched as I stumbled away, their faces struggling to work out whether I was a well-dressed homeless man or just another drunk tourist.

Vienna’s dusk lingered for what felt like hours as I wandered along the banks of the Danube. It was only then, while ambling past the houseboats and restaurants packed with chattering Viennese, that I realised just how romantic this city is. Jesse and Celine had fallen asleep in a park and wandered the canals; I’d done the same without realising it. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dozen other curious creatures were following close behind.

This is the feeling of Vienna’s timelessness. Not in the sense that it lies outside of time, rather that time doesn’t seem to function here in the way it does elsewhere. Time stands still, but the city flows onwards. Mozart moved to Vienna when he was 25, the age I am today. Had I been dropped in one of the city’s deserted plazas then, in 1781, it would have taken me a while to notice a difference. This is the charm of a place so consciously indebted to its history, that the preservation of its heritage – its art, its buildings, its coffee – sits above all else.

Park Burggarten, looking onto the Palmenhaus, and the Albertina just behind it

It was dark now. I dipped back into the city’s central districts, asking for directions to Naschmarkt, a mile of restaurants in the 6th district serving global cuisine.

Tonight, like every other night apparently, the market was packed with well-dressed locals chatting over tapas and a glass of wine. One restaurant in particular stood out. Neni’s is an Israeli-Mediterranean fusion that has taken the city’s gourmand culture by storm. I had the sakuska, their speciality, which consisted of wood oven roasted tomatoes, aubergine and peppers on homemade sourdough bread, a dish that went perfectly with their signature hummus plate and warm pita bread.

Afterwards I took a short trip to the fairgrounds on the other side of the Danube. The city’s ferris wheel was made famous by Orson Welles’ film The Third Man (1949), a post-war thriller written by novelist Graham Greene which paints the city in a desolate black and white. I rode the wheel with a group of Japanese tourists who kept muttering the words The Third Man, giving me the unsettling sensation that I might share in the fate of one of the many characters in the film.

At ground-level again, alive and well, I slipped through crowds of people eating Halloween-themed sweets, enjoying the unseasonably warm evening. I had one last stop to make before saying goodbye to the city.

In perhaps the most famous scene in Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine sit at a booth in an old coffee house. Why Vienna, she asks. “I just wanted to be a ghost,” Jesse says, pretending to talk to his friend on the phone. “Completely anonymous.”

Cafe Sperl, a traditional Viennese coffee shop near Naschmarkt

It’s easy to feel like a stranger here. Even the parks and coffee shops, with their colourful crowds, have a kind of comfortable anonymity. But if you’re moved to the role of observer here, you’re an observer who belongs. That’s a key difference. “Within and without,” as Nick says of New York in The Great Gatsby. The same rings true of Vienna. 

The coffee shop that Jesse and Celine go to is Cafe Sperl, and, like the rest of the city, it remains identical to the cafe as it appeared in the film. Opening in 1880, its velvet booths have been occupied by many of Vienna’s most famous authors, composers and artists.

I sat at my little table with a cup of tea, admiring the crowd: a couple enjoying a quiet, intimate conversation sat beside larger groups, one sparring in heavy German tones across tables. Chaos and calm in one. It comes as little surprise to learn that this most Viennese of cafes is said to have been a favourite of one Adolf Hitler.

But perhaps this is the essence of Vienna’s charm. That it houses so comfortably the many sides of the thing we call ‘culture.’ I’ve only spent a few days here, but I’m not surprised in the least why the men and women of the great Western Tradition, those who shaped the way we understand music, philosophy, politics, architecture, proudly adopted Vienna as their home.  

Early the next morning I ambled to the station to catch my train to Budapest. The city doused itself in the woolen light of sunrise, casting a haze over the domes and spires of its celestial buildings. I watched as Vienna wiped the sleep from its eyes, preparing itself for the daily shuffle of rush hour. Like Jesse, I needed no excuse to be here. I just needed to get lost, and that I did. Vienna hadn’t asked for my attention. I’d willingly surrendered it, and in return I got a portrait of a city perfectly removed from time.

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