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

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - CHARMING VIENNA -

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

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