Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A City to Experience in December

There are cities best experienced in the warm spring and summer months, and there are cities that shine brightest when snow starts to fall. Paris and Rome are famous for their sidewalk cafes filled with people watching other people – most of whom are scantily clad wearing very expensive thin bits of leather on their feet. Very nice in May; very cold, wet and miserable in December. Parisians and Romans don't do puffy down parkas and sensible shoes. The trouble is you can not even warm up by going inside, where you are often greeted with the incredulous attitude ‘This is Paris. You want central heating too?’

Then there is Vienna. This old imperial city is pleasant in the summer but doesn’t really display all its finery until December. The Christmas markets, the concerts, the decorations down Karntner Strasse, and, perhaps most of all, the welcoming, warm coffee houses where you can fill the long hours between breakfast and lunch by indulging in rich coffee topped with thick cream and a few of the ever-so-delicate pastries. You are welcome to stay as long as you want, and most coffee houses provide newspapers to pass the time while you sample the Sachertorte or perhaps the Esterhazy Torte.

Unlike Londoners, the Viennese do not go wobbly in the knees at the first hint of snow. Streets and sidewalks are cleared faster than ladies can get their fur coats out. One of the best views of the ornate, imperial architecture decorating Vienna like an operatic stage set is from the inside of a warm tram as it rattles gently around the elegant Ring in a light snow fall.

But most of all, December in Vienna is a peak of the music season. Vienna is a city that takes music very seriously, indeed, and it’s best to book tickets at least two months in advance. One December we forgot which venue had our particular concert. When we asked at the main concert hall, the Muzikverein, the clerk put on a sympathetic smile and reminded us that there were concerts in 40 different locations that evening.

One wants to be very careful in Viennese Advent concerts where there is the possibility of audience participation. We were at such a concert looking forward to joining in a rousing rendition of Silent Night when the father of the family of four next to us pulled out a pitch pipe and made sure everyone was in tune and prepared to sing in harmony. Right. We decided it might be best if we just listened.

Vienna is one of the few cities we have visited where the churches are packed on Sunday morning. The ancient Gothic masterpieces may lack any heating, but this does not stop the well wrapped crowds from getting there at least half an hour early. While the Catholic liturgy undoubtedly draws a good many parishioners another attraction is the full orchestra and chorus and enormous organ performing any one of the great masses of Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Handel, Beethoven – just to name a few. These churches are wise enough to put the schedule of masses on their web sites.

It is easy to forget that not that long ago Vienna was the intellectual and musical capital of Europe. The musical legacy of Vienna speaks for itself, and a brief walk around the courtyard of the university filled with busts of famous scientists reminds us of the intellectual power of a city where Sigmund Freud attended concerts directed by Gustav Mahler. The 20th century was not kind to Vienna. The tottering Hapsburg Empire collapsed after World War I leaving Vienna with the architectural accoutrements of an empire and the political power of New Jersey. The rise of the Austrian Nazis revealed the darker underside of the society, and haunting walks through the Jewish district of the city bring home the horror of those atrocities. While there are some who would like to pretend those events never happened (Beethoven, of course was Austrian while Hitler was German), modern Vienna has become a vibrant melange of cultures that were once a grudging part of the political empire.

Even the Turks, who twice besieged the city, have become an integral part of the city in many different ways. Those people who miss the lazy lunches alongside the Bosphorus need go no further than the Kervanseray restaurant in the middle of the city to get the same quality seafood and service. After a few days of Central European meat and potatoes – however disguised – it’s nice to taste the fresh vegetables and green salad more common to the Mediterranean than the Danube.

Vienna might be a member in good standing of the European Union, but at least one part of the city is a very reluctant member of the 21st century. Enjoying good cigars is as much of the city’s life today as it was in Freud’s time. Bars that in the rest of Europe would ban smokers to frigid gardens offer a welcome haven to cigar smokers.

Somehow, in Vienna this fits. It is not California with its brash, thrusting modernity and cadres of self -righteous politically correct zealots roaming the streets stamping out any deviations like red meat and cigars. This is Vienna, a city that has seen it all, lived through it all and has found a way to combine the best of the past with the reality of the present.

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