Coffee helps the town keep turning
Living like a local in the Austrian capital turned out to be a very pleasant task, writes Andrew Mccarthy
DESPITE her sensible shoes, her granite-stern features reveal a constant, low-level strain. She is well past 50. But when she breaks into a rare smile, her face lights up.
Her name is Annelies, and she, not Mozart, nor Beethoven, nor even Empress Sissi, has come to embody Vienna for me.
Annelies works as a waitress at Cafe Sperl, on Gumpendorfer Strasse. The Sperl has become my base, Annelies my anchor.
I have arrived in Vienna with a plan: to live as local a life as possible. Instead of discovering this famously imperial city from the comfort of a hotel, I’ve decided to rent an apartment in one of the outer districts.
My goal is to dig deeper than the Mostly Mozart tours and carriage rides around Hofburg Palace. But first, I have to fill my refrigerator.
I make the joyful mistake of shopping while hungry and I couldn’t have found a better place to do this than the Naschmarkt, with its scores of open-air stalls. Vendors selling fresh fish and sausage, warm breads, cold meats, cheeses, just-squeezed juices and endless varieties of olives stuffed with garlic or cheese or peppers vie for my attention.
The scene stretches for blocks along the Wienzeile and teems with life – Viennese life.
Just past a woman selling pate, I’m corralled by the sauerkraut man. Leo Strmiska, a formidable gent with an open face and a direct manner, began working for his grandfather at the age of six.
Holding court behind two large, wooden barrels filled with fermenting cabbage, he tells me more than I thought I could ever know about sauerkraut. When Leo is midway into disclosing the old family recipe, my focus wanders.
‘‘ Pay attention,’’ he admonishes me. ‘‘ Write it down, come on now.’’
Finally, he hands me a clear plastic bag filled with a pound of the stuff and I make my way over towards the No.1 tram.
Apparently, a clever combination of the No.1 and 2 trams will give me the same tour around the Ringstrasse – Vienna’s Ring Road – as the tourist Ring Tram playing Viennese waltzes.
Since 1865, red-and-white trams – first horse-drawn, then electric – have ruled Vienna’s streets, weaving a spiderweb of routes through this city of nearly two million people.
Sitting in a wooden seat as No.1 travels the broad Ringstrasse, on which hangs so much of Vienna’s imperial past, I gawk. I have my first look at the renowned Vienna Opera House, the grand facades and gardens of the Hofburg Palace and the Parliament building. After a full loop, I get off at the Volkstheater (people’s theatre), which will become my stop whenever I come into town. Here I grab the No.49 tram and in six minutes I’mdropped at my front door.
Vienna is divided into 23 districts, radiating from the original first district. I’d settled on the seventh district, in Spittelberg. It is a neighbourhood that transformed itself from a base for factories and industries in the past century to a place of small shops and restaurants, artist galleries and work spaces.
The temporary home I chose is a space with wood floors, wide windows, and high ceilings in a converted silk factory. When I pull out my keys and pop the lock, I feel my new life beginning to assert itself.
The streets around my new home are filled with characters who become recognisable as the days pass.
Ready to launch myself into the city centre, I start with the imperial Vienna of the Habsburgs, from where much of Europe was ruled between 1273 and 1918, and its Hofburg Palace complex, which is a city unto itself.
I make my way through vast courtyards, beneath monuments to Emperors Franz and Josef II, and past horse-drawn carriages waiting for tourists, to a door just off the ornate main palace entrance on Michaelerplatz. It’s here, under crystal chandeliers and Corinthian columns, accompanied by the music of Strauss, Mozart, and Chopin, that I watch the renowned white Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule) rehearse their highstepping classical horsemanship.
The prancing, preening discipline on display has varied little in 430 years, epitomising the Old World grandeur that Vienna still trades on today. While the performances often sell out in advance, a shopkeeper had tipped me off that the morning exercises were open to anyone.
The spectacle is a lesson in patience and precision.
Around the corner from the stables, the narrow, irregular streets funnel down toward the Gothic masterpiece that is St Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), its 140m-high steeple towering over the city centre.
TASTY TOWN: A young artist paints a picture at the Museum Quarter in Vienna (top); and famous old-world coffee shop Cafe Diglas. Pictures: National Geographic Society