Every year, on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, the Vienna State Opera becomes the setting for the Vienna Opera Ball – a major event in the Vienna Carnival season. First held in 1935, it has been a feature of the social calendar every year since, apart from a break during World War II. It is now twinned with a similar event in Dubai.
Vienna – Long Read

Shaking off its enduring nostalgia

Photo by Martin Schalk

Vienna – Long Read Shaking off its enduring nostalgia

Hello Vienna, which has traded on its clichés for decades as visitors come in search of Baroque palaces and the Blue Danube. Now a new generation of entrepreneurs and immigrants is reinventing the city’s beloved icons. As the missing link between German efficiency and the southern European love of life, can the city shake off its enduring nostalgia?

Sue Bryant
Sue Bryant Travel Writer

I’ve just laid a rose on Beethoven’s grave. I feel slightly embarrassed, like a groupie. But his story seems ineffably sad; foul-tempered, struggling in his later years with profound deafness, unable to hear the applause at his own concerts and evicted by one Viennese landlady after another until his death in 1827.

Not that Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof is a gloomy place today; in fact, it’s lush and green, sunlight dappling through the trees, the air filled with birdsong, red squirrels scampering through avenues of stately horse chestnuts. As one of Europe’s most star-studded cemeteries (and with 2.5 million inhabitants, a population larger than that of Vienna itself), a visit here is all part of getting to know Vienna, a city that lives in the past, celebrating the dead as much as the living. The big names are all clustered together in their own VIP corner of the graveyard; as well as Beethoven, there’s a memorial to Mozart and the tombs of Schubert, Gluck and the entire Strauss family.

Composers are huge business in Vienna. Souvenir stores are piled high with gold-and-red Mozartkugel, foil-wrapped chocolate and marzipan balls bearing the young composer’s likeness on the wrapping. In the underpass of the Opera U-Bahn subway station, a special ‘Opera Toilet’ plays Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube while you pee. Touts in slightly tatty 18th century costumes, sweating under their powdered wigs, approach likely-looking tourists to attend daily Mozart recitals in one of the city’s many ornate palaces.

Bombed out, shell shocked and crumbling

Vienna is a city of clichés – clichés that, through tourism, provide a healthy chunk of its income. Waltzing in the Stadtpark. Clattering past the extravagant Baroque palaces of the Ringstrasse in a horse-drawn fiaker. Riding the ferris wheel in the Prater, trying to remember the plot of The Third Man, set in a different Vienna, bombed out, shell shocked and crumbling. Sipping coffee piled high with whipped cream in a coffeehouse. Swigging young white wines in a heuriger in Grinzing, where the fringes of the city meet vineyards snaking up the hillsides to the Vienna Woods.

The Viennese have been living the dream for more than a century now, cashing in on the glory days of the fin de siècle, a time when Gustav Mahler was conducting the Wiener Philharmonic, another Gustav, Klimt was experimenting with erotic sketches, Sigmund Freud was inventing psychoanalysis and the coffeehouses were abuzz with the banter of middle-class intellectuals.

But what are the Viennese of today really like? The post-war years, after all, was not exactly a golden era, the city largely deprived of the Jewish population that contributed so much to its cultural and intellectual life. Are the Viennese overwhelmed with nostalgia, playing out their roles in this glorious Baroque fantasy on which visitors gorge themselves? Tentatively embracing their new, post-Iron Curtain multiculturalism? Or, as their fellow Austrians (and their German neighbors) would have you believe, grumpy, culturally snobby, rude and xenophobic?

According to journalist Benedikt Mandl, founder of the all-things-Austria website tourmycountry.com, it’s more that the Viennese are outspoken than grumpy and xenophobic. “Partly, it’s the Austrian mentality to rant openly about whatever bothers you. The openness in talking about pretty much anything will at least allow you to listen to people and get a direct handleon what they honestly think (be it rubbish or not).”

In fact, Viennese themselves admit that they lack self-belief. “We’re charming. We have a good sense of humor. But we have no self-confidence,” suggests my friend Beatrice. “We have high self-esteem with regard to culture but when it comes to making it personally, we always feel we have to leave the country. We feel we have to succeed abroad before we can earn respect.”

There’s no literal translation

If one word could sum up the feeling most enjoyed by the Viennese (all Austrians, in fact), it would be gemütlichkeit. There’s no literal translation – cozy, comforting, familiar, perhaps. Traditional coffeehouses are gemütlich, with their racks of free newspapers and their glass cabinets displaying cakes piled high with chocolate swirls, fruit and cream; the artificial, homogenous interior of the Starbucks on Kärntnerstrasse is not.

But Vienna is changing. It’s less conservative, less traditional, less introspective and far more multicultural than it once was. The presence of several United Nations headquarters in UNO-City, its glass towers looming over the Danube to the east, has long since created a big international community that expanded further in the early days after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Multinationals would base regional outposts here to oversee operations in the newly-hatched countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Vienna 20 years ago was considered an easier posting than Warsaw or Bratislava and had the infrastructure as well as a covetable ex-pat lifestyle.

The evidence of this growing multiculturalism is, as always, in the food. Take a stroll through the Naschmarkt, the city’s principal fruit and veg market, and inhale the aromas of Chinese noodles, Indian curries and sizzling Turkish kebabs. Borders mean less nowadays. Slovak and Austrian workers commute from Bratislava. The fast boat from Schwedenplatz on the Donaukanal takes under an hour, although these days, property in Bratislava is so expensive it’s cheaper to live in an Austrian village outside Vienna and commute in.

Some would argue that Vienna has always been multicultural. “We got our coffee from Turkey. Our musicians came from all over eastern Europe and Germany. Our food comes from Hungary, Czech Republic, northern Italy,” says one local, sipping an Aperol Spritz, the Venetian aperitif of Aperol, white wine and soda with a twist of orange peel. The garish orange cocktail has migrated from Italy and is the thirst quencher of the moment.

Even the most fashionable snack du jour, open sandwiches from Trzesniewski, has been borrowed from another country. The delicate slices of black bread in this hole-in-the-wall Polish sandwich shop, an institution on Dorotheergasse since 1902, are colorfully spread with chopped egg, horseradish and peppers. Locals queue outside to get their lunchtime fix – each cheap sharply-flavored slice is washed down with a ‘Pfiff’, an eighth of a liter of beer. An order from Trzesniewski is the ‘in’ canapé for office parties. Ironic, really, when its concept is derived from poverty, from the times when two slices of bread were too expensive and artfully smothering just one slice with whatever was available became the accepted way.

Do they want a multicultural city?

Perhaps it’s the visitors themselves who perpetuate the myth of a city suspended in time, of waltzes, golden palaces and glossy chocolate cake. Do they want a multicultural city? Or a picture-postcard Vienna? “Tourists always come to us in their white socks and sandals, asking for a coffee shop where there are no tourists, where they will only see Viennese,” laughs a worker at the tourist board office in Stephansplatz. “But I have to tell them, all the coffee shops are full of Viennese. That’s what we do. We sit in coffee shops.”

Despite all the sitting and all the coffee, Vienna has been quietly reinventing itself over the last 20 years, although much of this reinvention seems to be taking beloved Viennese themes and introducing them with a new twist. I visit Wladyslaw Stopa, a soap-maker, tucked away in Hintzerstraße, a side street in the third district. Rows and rows of scented, hand-made soaps in pleasing pastels line the walls. I sniff a bar of ‘Wiener Duft’, which translates roughly as ‘scent of Vienna’. What, chocolate and horses? It smells like a meadow.

“In the old days, the maids who did the washing would lay the sheets and clothes out in the meadows beyond the city to dry in the sun,” Wladyslaw tells me nostalgically, a faraway look in his eye. “This is the scent of Vienna.” I leave with a small bar of Sisi soap, perfumed with violets, the favorite scent of the legendary Empress Elisabeth, almost as big an earner of tourist Euros as Mozart. I’m impressed. Not many cities would dare to bottle their own scent.

Even the legendary coffeehouses are undergoing a revolution. Yes, the famous ones such as Café Demel, Café Central and Café Schwarzenberg are thriving, city institutions with their elegant art deco interiors and their extensive coffee menus. But there are newcomers on the block. Cutesy Cupcakes, on Josefstädterstrasse, in the eighth district, has captured the renewed Austrian appetite for baking, its many thousands of Facebook fans drooling over cupcakes piled deep with chocolate ganache, or, for the connoisseur, wasabi-flavored frosting.

In contrast, Alt Wien, near the Naschmarkt, exudes spectacular aromas of roasting beans, industrial-sized hessian coffee sacks scattered around the compact shop, a giant coffee mill at the center. This is where hardcore coffee aficionados come to sample the brew of the day at a tasting bar, and to buy beans imported from as far afield as Hawaii and Sulawesi. Nearby is one of my favorites of the ‘new’ cafes, Babette’s, a bright and airy store dedicated to cookbooks, spices and food (with plenty of titles in English) and, of course, coffee and cake.

A sign on the door says “No dogs”

An enterprising Japanese woman, Takako Ishimitsu, has even opened Europe’s first ‘cat café’ in Vienna. Café Neko emulates the cat cafes in Japan that serve as a comforting environment for people whose urban lifestyle doesn’t allow them to have pets. The café is tucked away in Blumenstockgasse, a side street behind St Stephen’s cathedral, an area positively heaving with glassy-eyed tourists. A sign on the door says “No dogs”. Visitors are entertained by five cats rescued from a local shelter. Thomas, a friendly ginger tom, weaves in and out of patrons’ legs, while Moritz, a magnificent Maine Coon cat, snoozes in a basket. As well as green tea ice cream, the menu features little bags of cat snacks. There’s an air of reverent calm in the café; the cats really do seem to have a soothing effect on frazzled sightseers and pet-deprived urban dwellers.

Of course, Vienna has its problems, like any other city. But generally speaking, life is pretty good. Austria’s socialist history means anything from healthcare to education is free, and many luxuries, like the arts, receive massive state funding. Opera, for example, is heavily subsidized and is open to all; standing tickets are available on the day for all performances for a couple of Euro. In summer, a giant screen outside the State Opera House broadcasts the performances, with benches and rugs laid out by uniformed lackeys for the spectators, a mix of tourists and the after-work crowd.

“If we can’t get opera tickets for Vienna, we just go to Bratislava,” shrugs one fan as we congregate outside, waiting for the overture of Don Carlos. “They have a good exchange of singers between the opera houses. I can drive there in 45 minutes and still be in bed before midnight.” I spot couples with baby strollers, picnicking students and a man with a spaniel in the audience, all (except the spaniel) applauding enthusiastically once the performance starts.

Even the famous ball season in January and February seems to defy socialist sympathies. Everybody goes to one or more of the 500 or more balls, and pretty well everybody can dance. When kids reach 16, they’re packed off to the Elmayer Dance School to learn the foxtrot, cha cha cha, polka and above all, the Viennese waltz, a kind of supercharged version of the normal waltz. A six-week course costs surprisingly little. “Everybody goes to classes,” says Caroline, a local 20-something. “If you go to a ball, there will be every kind of dancing – waltzing, disco, foxtrot.” Elmayer himself says: “Young people come to dancing school to meet people, to learn to dance, and importantly, to learn a little bit about manners.”

One of the hottest tickets in town

Some balls are snootier than others; the Jagerball (the hunting ball) is a hearty affair to which everybody must wear national costume, while the Opera Ball, the Big Daddy of all balls, requires floor-length gown and opera gloves for ladies and tails and white tie for gentlemen (white tie to avoid looking like a waiter). On the other hand, the Life Ball symbolizes the ‘new’ Vienna. Founded 20 years ago to raise money for HIV/Aids, it’s now one of the hottest tickets in town, even offering discounts to those sporting the most extravagant interpretations of the year’s theme – ornate headdresses, body paint, feathers, sequins, wigs and fetish outfits.

It seems to me that Vienna is gaining a new confidence in this blend of nostalgia, reinvention, gemütlichkeit and a fair smattering of decadence. And the boundaries between gemütlichkeit and decadence are blurring. For example, coffeehouses are gemütlich, although anyone from a country with a more driven work ethic might find it decadent that people have time to lounge around in them, chatting. “It’s true that we are not running all the time,” says Beatrice. “Perhaps we’re the missing link between the strict punctuality of the Germans and the more easygoing southern Europeans.”

Viennese fashion certainly has a feeling of excess – ironic, in a culture where the national costume derives from a tough, farming background and consists of functional leather shorts and for women, variations on a pinafore with apron. I visit the atelier of Lena Hoschek, a dirndl maker who trained under Vivienne Westwood. She’s in Spittelberg, in the seventh district, an area so hip, and so concentrated with fashion designers that the community produces its own ‘style map’ every year. Hoschek has famously developed a twist on the traditional dirndl, using luxurious silk and heavily embroidered satins, and more avant garde, figure-boosting designs, selling each piece for more than eye-watering sums Her windows are lined with retro, 1950s-style polka dotted bikinis and jaunty, structured summer halter neck dresses, with Katy Perry and Burlesque star Dita van Teese written all over them; both are big customers.

Good for a wedding

Those who can’t afford designer still wear lesser dirndls, though, with no fear of looking like an apple-cheeked Tyrolean hausfrau. I check out Trachtenoutlet, where costumes are a mere few hundred euros; a gold one is actually quite sexy. “Good for a wedding,” says my friend approvingly, fingering the silky fabric. But who wears a dirndl? Isn’t it just a show for the tourists? “Not at all,” says my friend. “I would wear one to a heuriger. You kind of agree with your friends that you’re going to dress up.” Does that mean the guys wear lederhosen? “Not really,” she says. “They would stand out like a spotted dog, especially in town.”

So dirndls are gemütlich but some of the city’s more upscale outlets are quite definitely decadent. I call in on glovemaker Nina Peter’s flagship store, just off the Kärntnerstrasse. Peter is famous for creating the black, studded bondage gloves favored by Lady Gaga. I try a pair on. In the softest black calf, adorned with gold hoops and studs, they stretch over the elbow and cost a price that is even higher. I’m losing perspective on cost and value as the shop assistant pulls out gloves in python, distressed goat and finally, a shimmering purple pair adorned with real salmon scales, “perfect for a ball”.

But somehow, I get the feeling that the Viennese enjoy this excess for what it mainly is – frivolous. The city doesn’t aspire to be as edgy as New York or as avant garde as Tokyo and despite all the changes, there’s still an old-fashioned feeling of safety, and politeness. But Vienna’s not boring or staid. The growing multiculturalism has shaken things up in a positive, gently quirky way.

I stroll along Burggasse, where I’m staying in Neubau, a district in which leafy squares and elegant streets are lined with grand old Biedermeier houses. I pass a restorer of antique watches, an Indian restaurant and an old-fashioned bäckerei that in the mornings, sells fresh semmel, the round Viennese breakfast rolls with a squidgy, doughy center. There’s a pub with outdoor benches under a clambering vine, its chalkboard trumpeting enchiladas and fajitas alongside Wienerschnitzel. A studio offers classes in chanting and bongo drumming, while two artists share a joint as they stand back to admire their day’s work, propped up on the sidewalk to dry.

The busy city center is only minutes away, but here, there’s a sense of quiet contentment. Gemütlichkeit, even.

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