I don’t know how it happens, perhaps it’s due to a kind of subconscious political affiliation, but I always seem to end up in post-communist countries. For me, those places hold a special pull; the aura of first generation freedom, and ugly functionality intertwined with pre-regime beauty, never failing to charm me. As a country lucky enough to escape the clutches of 20th century communism, Vienna could not be more of a contrast to this: white stone and imposing architecture rising up wherever you look in a seemingly never ending display of wealth. Perhaps this meant that the city would never be a complete winner in my books, the kind of beauty that really appeals to me usually having a faded glow rather than a blinding radiance, but there is certainly something about Vienna which I can’t identify with.
However, prior to my first visit it seemed that I was innocent of preconceptions, and if I think about it now I doubt that I’d ever actually thought of Vienna at all, except to take a cursory glance at my mental image of a slightly romanticised city, with a troubled past. It was only when I met a guy on my summer travels who studied in Vienna that I really started thinking about the place, a thought process which probably increased when he evolved into my boyfriend.
This is how I found myself on a £40 Ryan Air flight to Bratislava, Slovakia’s convenient capital, which is a bargain to get to and a stone’s throw from Vienna. When I say my boyfriend lives in Austria’s capital people usually react in one of two ways: ‘oh that must be difficult with the distance’ or ‘what a lovely place to have to visit.’ The words might vary, but the sentiments are the same, and arguably both are true. It isn’t exactly convenient, but he could have chosen a worse place to live, right? This is where the plot thickens. Popular to contrary expectation, he is actually not Vienna’s greatest fan, and after doing some asking around among Erasmus students, this opinion doesn’t seem uncommon. The consensus appears to be that the city itself has a lot going on, but there is a cold, impersonal feel to the place, creating an unfriendly atmosphere.
I was inclined to agree with the general opinion when a woman angrily told me to take my feet off the opposite seat, as I took the train into the city for the first time. Although I’ve never been one for sweeping generalisations (not negative ones anyway), this kind of attitude I have since recognised to be quite common, although this is not totally un-counter balanced by kindness. However, that morning I resolved not to let this cloud my judgement, instead turning my eyes to the glass to take in my first view of the city. The aforementioned architecture rushed past, and it became increasingly obvious that the grand designs were not confined to a charming but limited ‘old town:’ stretching on into infinity stop after stop. It’s not that the sights did not impress me, or continue to do so; on the contrary I find my mouth open in wonder more than it is closed, but it is just not for me. A few evenings ago we were on our way to a night out when I casually looked across to the right to be faced by what looked like the Taj Mahal (if you had very poor eye sight and the day was particularly foggy you could genuinely make that mistake). My shock may have been greater because I wasn’t expecting to see it, and when I mentioned its over-sized presence to my esteemed tour guide he casually said that it was just another church, and we carried on our way.
Clearly the city is full of surprises, and thankfully these do not only come in the form of wild opulence. Despite the uptight atmosphere, it is undeniable that the city has many gems to offer hiding among the expanse of white stone. One of the greatest surprises for me has been the mass of ethical products, in shops and restaurants alike, creating a contrasting, progressive feel when it comes to human rights and fair trade. ‘Dumpstering’ is also common (apologies for the Americanism), and we recently enjoyed a meal with friends which was made almost totally from perfectly good food which had rescued from the bins, after being thrown away unnecessarily. Even now I’m sitting in an ethical Viennese café, sipping cardamom-infused coffee, and this is a mere drop in an ocean of quirky coffee shops grinding their own beans, and restaurants based on sustainable ethics. Those who know me well would tell you that this sounds like my idea of heaven, and that isn’t all the place has to bargain with. The nightlife is quirky and the beer culture is relaxed; there is a broad range of galleries and photography exhibitions, many of which are free; and the music scene is alive and kicking, hosting gigs in all manner of innovative venues (I got my ska on in an old ship container a few days ago). However, for a reason that I cannot quite put my finger on, I just can’t quite connect and love the place. I love my time here undeniably, and there are a remarkable amount of positives, but for some reason the city hasn’t captured me, and when he leaves I doubt I will be longing to come back.
Yesterday we were wondering through a market in a poorer part of the city, each side of the street bright with vegetables and spices; the air crowded with happy chatter and eager advertisement. We were reminded of Turkey or somewhere further east, and as I tasted cheeses and purchased some unknown greenness, my heart stirred. I began to feel that treasured sense of home in a far off place, a feeling I love more than anything. But then it occurred to me that it was strange that I was most comfortable in a place which did not feel like the city I was actually in. Was it Vienna that I was loving, or was I loving it because it did not feel like Vienna?
It would appear that I have reached a stale mate, and although I don’t mean to moan, it really is tricky writing about a place which doesn’t resemble Marmite in its provocation of emotion. However, in all the lack of clarity, I can’t deny that Vienna is filled with charms and, judging by the range of fair trade products to rival the shelves of October Books, the city has ethics. But there is something undeniably cold and impersonal about the general atmosphere which creates a barrier; the place so aesthetically perfect that it becomes impenetrable. Perhaps it’s just those big city vibes, but there are so many capitals where, even though I’m still only a small fish in a huge pool, I don’t feel this tiny. Here, standing in the shadows of the huge buildings and determined bustle, it is hard to feel part of the whole. So I apologise that I cannot provide a black and white answer, but I can certainly say that the place is worth a visit. Who knows, maybe the negativity is all me and you’ll fall in love with the unfailing grandeur, meaning it’s probably time to take advantage of one of those cheap Bratislava flights and see for yourself what all the confusion is about.
A potted list of gems:
- Welt Café – for the aforementioned cardamom coffee and dreamy vegan banana cake
- Ragnarhof – a club where, if you’re lucky, you’ll get secretively swept off the dance floor to watch a play
- Deewan – a pay as you feel Pakistani restaurant which is my absolute favourite place!
- Lainzer Tiergarten – the ideal place for an inner city country escape, with the added bonuses of deer and wild boar
- City Bikes – Vienna’s bike service is dotted around all over the place, offering the first hour’s ride for free. I am a big fan of seeing cities from the saddle!
- Burggasse street and the surrounding area – stroll around here for cool bars and individual vintage shops
- Loco Bar – admittedly this place is a hole, but 50 cent cocktails make it so much more appealing (happy hour is between 7&8)
- MAK Library – if you’ve got work to do, this place has pillars and decorated ceilings which put Hartley to shame.
- The Landscape Photography Exhibition – beautiful depictions of nature in the heart of the city.
- Kahlenberg – grab a few trams out of the city, and a bus into the mountains, to look down on Vienna from on high. The view is unbelievable.
- That mere wallet grazer of a flight to Bratislava – you can’t go wrong at £40, and get the chance to look around the Slovakian capital while you’re at it.