The Malta Independent 16 January 2018, Tuesday

A Paella in Vienna

Tuesday, 9 January 2018, 10:04 Last update: about 7 days ago

From the travel diary of Arch. Robert P. Cachia.

Friday, 15 December Arriving through the outskirts of the city one immediately notices that the Danube, the mythical river of Vienna, has been replaced by a meandering canal tucked neatly out of sight under the main city motorways. Instead of romantic riverside meadows thronged with picnicking families as in the golden years of its past, the right bank of this so-called Donau Canal is nowadays choked with modern steel and glass tower blocks, one of which tilts eerily to one side as if on the point of falling over. The real Danube, we are told, snakes its ponderous way some 3kms beyond this modern district. So Blue Danube: out of sight.... out of mind!

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Anyway, our Egyptian-looking taxi driver next takes a hairpin bend to our left and drives straight into the old city itself and in a few instants we find ourselves in the old University quarter near Fleischmarkt, deposited in front of the most charming of hotels - the Kartnerhof). Its location in a wide cul-de-sac just a few hundred metres from St Stephen's Cathedral turns out to be the perfect position for our imminent sightseeing fatigues. For the same price we could have taken a glitzier hotel on the Ringstrasse to be sure, but with all the traffic going round, it would have taken all the charm out of our four-night stay.

Saturday, 16 December  The first thing that hits you as you come out after breakfast at nine is the sharp stinging cold - 4 degrees is not exactly the minus 17 we used to endure when skiing in the Alps but, with an overcast sky that threatens to rain, the prospect of going sightseeing suddenly seems less than cheerful.

Nonetheless, as soon as St Stephen's comes into view, my heart misses a beat, for this church is simply magnificent with a towering belfry that is a symphony of gothic tracery all the way to the summit. Right in front of the Cathedral, the Graben, Vienna's most famous street, is lined with buildings that exude the effervescent flamboyancy of the Belle Époque, that interlude at the end of the Victorian era, when everyone had decided to have one last fling at pleasure, before the Austrian Empire committed hara-kiri in the First World War of 1914.

 

The Hofburg - Vienna's Imperial Winter Palace situated at the end of the Graben /Kohlmarkt area greets us with a mug of gluhwein that we eagerly gulp at a small Christmas market stall conveniently erected right in front of its main gate.

If there is anywhere in Austria that is imbued with the presence of its last Empress Sissi, the Hofburg overflows with memories of this much-beloved, tragic woman who, at the tender age of 16, was married off to the emperor Franz Josef I and came to live here for the rest of her sad life close to a man old enough to be her father. Life with Kaiser Franz must have been forbidding, for the man in his later years had the physical attributes and habits of a humbug right out of a novel by Dickens and occasionally, as befitted his high status, the philandering instincts of a Roman emperor. Sissi, born princess Elizabeth of Bavaria was, by contrast, sweet, graceful, and so utterly charming that she soon became the darling of her prince who, despite his family's hostility to his country girl wife, loved his Sissi immeasurably. She on the other hand, much like Diana a century later, was frivolous and totally lacking in that cynicism so essential for survival in an Imperial court. She also suffered from an obsessive neurotic disorder that eventually turned her into a health freak and slowly alienated her even from her own children. Her eldest daughter Sophie, in fact, died in infancy, a fact the Imperial family attributed to her lacking maternal instincts. Then in 1889, when news reached her that the heir to the Austrian throne, her dear only son Rudolf  had committed suicide with his secret mistress in the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling, it must have seemed to Sissi that her world had started to collapse. But the ultimate tragedy was yet to follow: at the age of 60, she herself would be assassinated, stabbed in the heart, by an Italian anarchist on the quayside of Lake Geneva, the tragic princess Di of her time till the very end.

Right out of the Hofburg we find ourselves walking on the left side of the Volksgarten, but our noses tell us that somewhere very, very near there are ruddy-faced Madchen offering sauerkraut and sausages with lots of gluhwein. And so it is. In front of the Rathaus we bump into the largest Christmas market of all, literally overflowing with wurstels, knoedels and boiled cabbage into which we dig our teeth with the relish of hungry wolves.

Back in the historic centre, we next home in on one of Vienna's more renowned coffee houses, the Café Hawelka right off the Graben. While not as universally known as its more illustrious neighbour, the Café Demel,  the Hawelka has a more atmospheric interior, and can boast a clientele of some of Vienna's historic intelligentsia among them Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud and later greats such as Andy Warhol and Arthur Miller. Their apple strudel is as delicious as any I will ever taste, but it is its low-key bourgeois ambience that gives the Hawelka its unique charm and deserved popularity.

 

Sunday, 17 December... and talking of food: Some of the most renowned traditional restaurants of Vienna lie within a 100m radius from our hotel, one of the reasons why I had chosen it in the first place. Yesterday we went to dine at the nearby Zwolf Apostelkeller (Cellar of the Twelve Apostles!), a warren of red-brick underground halls plunging into the bowels of the city. As soon as we entered, it seemed like we were into something out of Dante's Inferno, with the temperature rising uncomfortably with every step we took down. The place was extremely popular and was heaving like an anthill.  One good thing about this place was the impromptu musicians playing traditional pieces on their accordions and violins. As for the rest, the service was run by sweet but fumbling waiters from Croatia, while the food was mainly Scnitzel (fried breaded veal escalope), Tafelspitz (boiled veal served with horseradish and apple jams) and Goulash... and more Schnitzel and Tafelspitz and Goulash. The red wine, however, an Austrian Cabernet called Marko, was wonderfully delicious, which made amends for the blandness of the food.

The beauty of Google is that you get to discover the restaurants of a city in all their fine detail even before you have arrived there. And so it is with the oldest tavern in Vienna, the Griechen Beisle. We go there rightly expecting to find a place exuding all the charm of its accumulated history since the time of the first Turkish sieges of 1529 (as old as that!), its dark oak-paneled walls, its small whitewashed rooms decked with carpets and ceramic stoves, its most intimate room, famous in all of Vienna for the signatures scribbled on its walls by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Rainer Maria Rilke, Egon Schiele and, lately, Luciano Pavarotti. And this evening, would you believe it, we had this room all to ourselves, with my wife sitting right under Schiele's own signature!

Talking of Schiele, today we saw some of his most disturbing paintings exhibited at the Schloss Belvedere. Gustav Klimt's The Kiss (among many others) is also there, proudly exhibited as the centre piece of the collection. The Schloss is a gem of a place, not as grand or as ostentatious as Schonbrunn.

Monday, 18 December: So... Schonbrunn, which, to be perfectly honest, this morning has left me quite cold (not just literally). I have seen grand summer palaces before, Versailles, Vaux le Vicomte, Chatsworth House, and  Caserta, to mention a few.  But above everything else, Schonbrunn lacks an appropriate front esplanade on the scale and richness of Versailles or Vaux. Schonbrunn's is a dull, unkept expanse of gravel dotted with the odd fountain basin and a few weary-looking box hedges. But, worse still, it is directly accessed from a very busy motorway, which kills its supposed romantic aura even before you enter. Nonetheless the palace itself is still breathtakingly impressive, its central Hall of Mirrors rivaling in grandeur the original at Versailles itself.

Tonight I was bent on discovering a tiny Spanish Bodega a few metres down from yesterday's Beisle. As it was early evening, the place was still empty but as soon as my pal Xandru and I came in the front door, I somehow felt repulsed by a faint acrid smell as if someone had been chewing tobacco. When the owner, an old badly made-up hag of a senora right out of Carmen came in to greet us with a reluctant grin I knew outright this was not what I had been expecting. I tried to cheer things up by saying buenas tardes but both the senora and her South American waitress looked at me as if I had spoken Japanese! At this last provocation we boys looked at each other, turned on our heels and bolted out of the front door as eagerly as we had come in. So evaporated into thin air my wild idea of eating paella in Vienna!


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