Smokin’ Vienna

13 Oct

I had not been to Vienna before last week. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914, sparked the First World War. Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 – the Anschluss – was a murky prompt for the 2nd WW. The Austrians were major players in the 20th Century and their last Emperor Franz Joseph with his superstar wife Elizabeth (SiSi) were the darlings of late 19th century Europe. Now where is all this taking me?

Well Vienna, I thought, would be a rather upright, uptight formal place – you know riding schools, big boring buildings and plenty of cake and waltzing. And don’t mention the war – or at least don’t scratch away too much at the surface.

Not true. Well -there are plenty of nods to a grander past. Yes – huge show-off buildings built by this Kaiser or that. The Hofburg Palace complex alone outsizes anything we have in dear old Blighty. Even Blenheim seems like a poor relation in terms of large-scale masonry. But the cultural diet is an affecting blend of old and new. We stayed in the museum quarter where the chic Leopold museum and  The Mumok gallery, all black modernity, sits a stone’s throw from the enormous, palatial neo-classical Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches). Along with so many of Vienna’s grand buildings the big K was commissioned by old Franz Joseph in the 19th Century to celebrate and cement the longevity of the Hapsburgs. When you get over the fact that each street corner heralds another edifice of concrete at which you’re supposed to click your heels and salute the Kaiser, you discover that there’s a bar which has old-world charm and cheap Gosser beer running like water. Student dives abound and the babble of conversation and the great mix of ages makes stopping off regularly to get a buzz of modern life an infectious habit.

My favourite moments were mostly in bars and restaurants where people-watching and the unaffected charm of the Viennese made the wine or cocktail-  or even the overrated weinerschnitzel – go down so well. My clothes took an unexpected battering, however. Every bar – and we tested plenty – allowed all inmates license to chainsmoke. At the delightful Alt Wein Bar, the punters on the bar stools stacked up several  packs of 20 on  the assumption that a long Sunday lunchtime session would see their weedy resources decimated. And our jovial host had his lips clamped to a roll-up as he spat instructions to an overworked chef. The latter had the manners, at least, to have his fag in an ashtray at the kitchen door. The place heaved with life – families, oldies having liquid lunch, students, blue-rinsers…you name it. And two old friends who smiled and sank Gossers and Riesling all afternoon – long may the euro be subdued against our mighty £.

Two more mentions. The underrated ‘Arsenal’ – the Vienna War Museum – is a must. And at only 5euros a cheap shot of history. And what history. The first room has the car in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was travelling with his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo on the fateful day in 1914. Opposite is his tunic, still spattered with his blood. Wow. Worth the entrance money. There’s much more and Austria’s darker moments during the second WW – and after – are given a natural light touch.

Secondly the Film and Novel The Third Man is a Viennese favourite. The central cinema reruns the Joseph Cotton/Orson Welles classic each Friday night. And my buddy, the eminent historian Terry Charman, took me on the famed Ferris Wheel ride where Harry Lime (Welles) was confronted by Holly Martins (Cotton). This is the main attraction at the revamped Prater, Vienna’s Tivoli. The views, the rattle of a century old rotting wooden cabin and thoughts of Harry Lime were a treat for my birthday. Happy hour martinis later in the day completed a memorable excursion into Graham Greene’s murky world.

Back to smoking. Vienna airport – all modern and shoppy, in the Dubai give-us-yer-money sense. Cheek by jowl with Versace are smoking booths. Telephone boxes redesignated as cancer coffins. The chic bar at our departure gate had a smoking pod into which two people could squeeze. It was Perspex so as its inhabitants drew on their fags the windows fogged up The incumbents disappeared in the mist of their own nicotined carbon monoxide. Extraordinary. Just an element of ‘Whatever they tell us to do in Brussels, we’ll do what we bloody well want anyway.’ Nigel Farage would love it.

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