Posted on December 31, 2010
Vienna has been everything we imagined, baroque buildings and grand Hapsburg palaces and culture galore. Here are some of the things we are also coming to appreciate:
1. The people are not all that friendly and warm. They are less stiff than their German brethren with whom they share a language (and they take great pains to distance themselves from the Germans), but they are more formal and direct than Brits, the French, and obviously the Italians. In short, they seem like the New Englanders of Europe. Not unfriendly and certainly eager to help when asked, but respectful of psychic and social distance. We’re pretty okay with that sensibility.
2. Things seem to run well. No surprise given the German/Austrian penchant for efficiency, but it is nice to be in a city that has street cleaners out late at night and whose cabs are actually well maintained and clean and whose trams are designed by Porsche. When we consider the breakdown of American infrastructure with lousy public transit and broken down bridges, it’s nice to be in a place where things work. No surprise that Vienna year after year tops the list of Most Livable Cities and gets awards for innovation.
3. Wine. Everyone knows the great Austrian white, gruner veltliner, but the chardonnays and reislings have been terrific — dry and complex. Have also had very good pinot noir and a cab as well. We found this little wine bar run by a husband and wife and went back last night after the organ concert in St. Stephen´s — cozy and warm, just the kind of place to sit and sip wine and chat late into the night. Warm is a key word here — it is COLD.
4. Speaking of cold, getting no higher than the twenties each day, Vienna is a PETA nightmare. No reservations about fur here. People are parading in all manner of animal fur and the city doesn’t slow a bit because of the weather. Tonight is First Night and the avenues will be mobbed. Outside, under great faux chandeliers strung across the Graben, there will be waltzing to The Blue Danube at midnight (with teachers from all the local dance schools available to help those of us with two left feet). Tomorrow the Vienna Philharmonic will be broadcast live on a massive screen in one of the plazas, performing its traditional New Year’s Day concert.
5. We have eaten pretty well, but central Europe is a real meat and potatoes sort of culinary landscape. Not exactly the center of the food universe when it comes to new cooking. Had wiener schnitzel last night, which is now more often pork than veal, and sausage stands are everywhere (which they call hot dogs, by the way). However, the desserts, for which Vienna is famous, are amazing. We had to have the apple strudel, of course, but the dessert cases in the cafes are a fantasy for the sugar (and butter) addicted. It is a good thing we walk everywhere or I would come home looking like the Hindenburg. The coffee house was invented here, it is said, when after the landmark Battle of Vienna in 1683 the fleeing Ottomans left behind sacks of coffee beans. In any event, the culture of great coffee served with a sumptuous sweet and a pile of newspapers invites us to often take breaks from walking in the cold. It seems very, very civilized.
6. There is much to love about American informality and I think Europeans come to really admire and enjoy it when they travel to the US, but it has been refreshing to be in a place where people dress. We have not seen a baseball cap, white sneakers, and certainly not pajama bottoms (SNHU students — where is your pride?!) anywhere.
Vienna seems to have got it right in a lot of ways. One can sit in a coffee house that dates to the 1860s and walk past quaint old storefronts and listen to music in medieval cathedrals, but also know that the city is modern and clean and runs well. It is old world and new world, with enviable civic pride and yet personal space. We could learn a lot from a place like Vienna.
Sunday we take the train to Salzburg and I’ll next report from there some time next week. Until then, Auf Wiedersehen.