A postcard from Vienna, where common sense reigns supreme – ‘No hysteria, no virtue-signalling’
In Austria, Alexander Fiske-Harrison found a completely different atmosphere to the UK
Vienna is at, indeed perhaps just is, the very heart of Europe. It was capital of the Holy Roman Empire for the majority of its thousand-year existence – until it confronted Napoleon at the Battle of the Three Emperors at Austerlitz. It was the “city of music” that made Mozart; it was the “city of dreams” that bred Freud. In 1938 the French author Albert Camus wrote, “Vienna stands at the cross-roads of history. Around her echoes the clash of empires. Certain evenings when the sky is suffused with blood, the stone horses on the Ring monuments seem to take wing.”
And yet, less than a decade later, Graham Greene would write, “I never knew Vienna between the wars, and I am too young to remember the old Vienna with its Strauss music and its easy charm; to me it is simply a city of undignified ruins.”
There was dark romanticism even in the ruins, as Greene knew, hence he made the city the third character in his and Carol Reed’s film The Third Man (although the great Orson Welles added a few lines of his own, including the famous one about the Borgias and cuckoo clocks.)
From the Second World War until its independence, whose 65th anniversary was celebrated on Monday, Vienna was indeed the city of spies. After all, the country of which it is capital borders seven others, of both Western and Eastern Europe, with its predominant northern border being German while its southern is Italian.
I arrived in the city fleeing the coronavirus, or rather its consequences. My beloved Seville, from where I wrote <a href=”https://fiskeharrison.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/my-travel-column-in-the-daily-telegraph-seville-rises-again/ in these pages, became intolerable during the reopening when the police demanded you wore a mask even if you were walking down an empty street in 42 degree heat.
On my return to Oxford I found, with the noble exception of Jeremy Mogford’s “Oxford Collection” of hotels and restaurants – The Old Bank Hotel, Quod, The Old Parsonage and Gee’s – an air of resignation and quiet death, which gave the lie to the word “hospitality”. And, what was worse, was the way the staff themselves seemed so unsure of how to enforce their new roles, more bouncer than bartender, which had been forced upon them – “put on your mask sir”, “wash your hands madam”, “step away from the bar”. More often than not a sense of mutual resentment built up.
It was then that I thought of Vienna. A place I loved and wrote about before I ever visited. In my twenties I wrote my Master’s thesis on the logic of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the physics of Erwin Schrödinger at the philosophy faculty of LSE founded by Karl Popper, all three sons of the city. In my thirties I wrote a play set in an earlier, fin-de-siècle Vienna which made it to the West End.
However, I had never even seen the city until my fiancée, Klarina, brought me there last year. It was from her family that I heard, as she and I suffered the impossibilities of lockdown of rural village Spain, that Austria took a different approach to the coronavirus. Not the famed “Swedish experiment” – on which the jury is still out – but one in which they instituted the earliest, but shortest, lockdown in Europe. What was more, unlike Spain, they encouraged outdoor exercise rather than banning it.
So, I asked myself two questions. First, was there any chance of a vaccine this year? Second, given the answer to that was a definitive no, was limiting the contagion to the point that hospitals were empty in the summer months so when the virus returned it would be winter, when the lethal and virulent comorbidity of influenza invariably fills up the UK’s hospitals anyway, a sound political decision?
I got my affairs in order and booked my ticket to Vienna last week.
On arrival I found a completely different atmosphere to the UK. No one wore masks in the streets, but everyone slipped them on as they stepped indoors: no fuss, no hysteria, no virtue-signalling. If someone forgot, a member of staff would politely and unemphatically say a single word: “Maske.”
The famed Viennese coffee houses, like the Café Central were bustling. Perhaps not as much as 1913 when you could find Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Tito rubbing shoulders at the bar – before they were famous – indeed the city’s population has still not quite recovered to that period’s peak, but still the place had life.
One evening I would find myself discussing Kant with Boris, a Catholic priest in Café Aumann in the leafy suburbs of the 18th district; the next night the genetics of the response to the Sar-COV-2 virus with a Palestinian surgeon outside the still fashionable (after 112 years) American Loos Bar, named for its famous architect Adolf Loos.
My greatest discovery, though, has been the Hotel Imperial. I have written about grand hotels for almost exactly half my life – I wrote about Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakech for The Times in the winter of 1998 – and have stayed at many beautiful and impressive places along the way: The Peninsula in Hong Kong, The Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires and The Gritti Palace in Venice all spring to mind. And, of course, the Alfonso XIII in Seville.
However, I have for the first time a clear favourite. The Hotel Imperial reminded me of something that I had either forgotten or never really knew, which is that five stars really should mean a level above the rest.
Built as a palace for an Austrian Prince in 1863, who found its location too central for a residence, the Hotel Imperial opened its doors to guests at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873. It has hosted Emperors from the 19th century – Franz Joseph of Austria, Wilhelm of Germany – to the 21st – Akihito of Japan.
I was given the tour by their archivist Herr Moser, who Wes Anderson tried to cast in his movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, but, as he remarked, “I was head concierge at the time, and who would have looked after the hotel while I was away?”
(And the Wiener Schnitzel is the finest in Vienna.)
Obviously, such luxuries come at a high price, but the other great thing about Vienna is there are a multitude of cheaper options, of which I chose a stylish and spacious AirBnB apartment just around the corner.
While I have been writing this article, as predicted, the UK announced its return to lockdown on Thursday, while Vienna – always quicker off the mark, but lighter as well – has moved to curfew and bar closure beginning on Tuesday.
I made my choice, and I am happy with it. Let’s see how it all pans out.