Saturday, 12 November 2016

Oh Vienna

Vienna skyline from the Leopold Museum
Vienna is probably my favourite city in Europe after a second visit this week. A tribute only accorded in the past to established favourites like Athens, Rome, Paris, Florence and Venice. Winter is a good time to go as the cold clear air sharpens the outline of the magnificent city buildings and makes walking the streets a bit like rediscovering the magic of childhood. We were there on the night that Donald Trump became President elect so the melancholy of american democracy was diluted by the extravagant and timeless beauty of Vienna.

Post Brexit there are some remarkable deals for city breaks and despite the parlous state of the pound, it was possible to manage 5 days in Vienna, hotel included, for only slightly more than it would have cost for the rail fare down to London on Virgin Trains. It was also quicker than a trip to London with Vienna airport seamlessly linked by a fast train to the city centre and costing only a quarter of the price of the so called Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted expresses. Flight paths into Vienna sensibly avoid the city so that it remains a quiet city, even the trams have suppressed the sound of their bogies.

The hotel was on the edge of the city centre close to the museum quarter and had a level of comfort that was exceptional. The Austrian attention to detail and cleanliness is evident in buildings and the external environment. We found a local cafe so that I could fuel myself with apple strudel and coffee  for the long days on our feet. Despite an excellent public transport network of underground and trams we walked to almost all the attractions. The streets are spotlessly clean and, apart from the longish wait to cross the Ringstrasse, pedestrians more or less have the streets, gardens and squares to themselves.

Our previous trip to Vienna four yeas ago had allowed us chance to visit just some of the many attractions. I had half read the 'World of Yesterday' by Stefan Zweig an autobiography of his life in Vienna from the turn of the twentieth century until his exile in London and New York. He covers the collapse of the Habsburg dynasty with references to all the leading artists, composers and philosophers who were part of Vienna's Cafe culture early in the twentieth century. I battled through more pages but as always on city visits I preferred gathering impressions by walking, observing, listening and visiting the endless range of attractions.

We spent a day in the Kunsthistorishes Museum, a monumental building opened in 1891 to display the impressive Habsburg collection of antiquities. The Italian and Dutch collection of paintings with Pieter Bruegel the elder prominent was the highlight and the cafe under the cupola was the epitome of elegance. The collection consumed most of the day leaving only time for a saunter round the historical centre with its parks, palaces and cafes. The city is going through a massive phase of refurbishment of its impressive array of buildings along the Ringstrasse. The parliament is to be moved to a temporary site for 3 years to allow the modernisation of the building. The streets in the centre are largely car free apart from government limousines, horse and carriages and an occasional hybrid bus. The massive open car park by the Hofburg palace is the only blight on this people friendly city.

Over the next couple of days we visited the Albertina museum with ts collection of Picasso and Monet together with an exhibition of Pointillism including a good range of Van Gogh and Seurat together with an inspiring collection of woodcuts of Viennese Art Nouveau from the secessionist period.  An evening at the Volk opera was a revelation with the comparatively low prices allowing hundreds of school children and young people to enjoy their Mozart heritage.

We had saved the Leopold museum for the last day having visited before. It is a modern building at the heart the museum quarter purposely designed to display the work of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt along with their contemporaries from the secessionist movement. It is one of the best curated museums and the exhibits are shown to best effect in the minimalist salons. On a quiet late November afternoon I could think of no better use of time with Professor Leopold's widow providing a filmed explanation of the outstanding collection of Egon Schiele paintings.

On our last day the Christmas markets were opening with tented bars, decorative baubles, fine local foods and a warmth of welcome that surprised us. Alas our time was up but we had witnessed the peerless intimacy of Vienna, a place that is regularly voted as one of the best cities in the world to live in. As well as its magnificent buildings, green space, outstanding museums and pollution free streets; the urban realm panders to people and the worst excesses of corporate retailing have failed to take hold. There is a palpable egalitarian feel about the city that would have been anathema during Habsburg dynasty. Representative democracy has shifted that sort of outmoded hegonomy to the United States.

Traffic free roads

Secessionist Toilets on the Graben 
Stephansdom church
Winter street markets
Festive florists
Shopping on the Graben
Rathaus from the Volksgarten
Ceiling in the Freyung Passage
Parliament Building

Rathaus quadrant
Kunsthistorishes Museum
Cafe in the central concourse of the Kunsthistorishes Museum
Täufers -Salome. A lost parable on the day that Trump became President
Picasso line drawing
Picasso from there Batliner collection
Norwegian Blue, not dead just reproduced
The Leopold museum hosts Egon Shiele and Klimmt
Egon Schiele self portrait
Schiele -
Leopold window

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