Passing Palais after identical Palais from Passau to Bratislava, Austria certainly sets the style of architectural design amongst it’s annexed neighbours. The Hapsburgs once monopolised this vast swath of Europe; from Spain to Romania the empire built grandiose stone-hewn structures to celebrate their nobility and dominance, just cycle the Danube and you’ll see what I mean. By European standards, the Hapsburgs were the alpha-males of empirical tact, expanding and conquering with all the finesse of professional Risk players.
The empire however (as empires so often prove) could not withstand the sands of time, and after brief resurgences in the mid-18th and early-20th centuries, effectively withdrew from their sprawling empirical roots to settle in a whimsical bubble of historical reminiscence. With wine. Lots of wine.
Forgoing the obvious music and art references for which Vienna, and indeed Austria, is world renowned, to walk through Vienna is to pass back through time, to an era where village ‘curtain-twitcher culture’ exists hand-in-hand with a more modern, technological city pulse.
Pick any grid on a map of Vienna and you’re never far from the shadows of awe-inspiring Cathedral spires or monolithic Romanesque churches, or even the arching doorways of cream-stone governmental structures, each grandiose masterpiece casting imposing scars on the surrounding cityscape.
But turn a corner from these tourist hot spots, away from the hordes of Black Mirror cultists and old-money fur coats, and one discovers a Vienna of antiquated cobble-stoned streets bustling with wooden-decked tabacs and pokey red-leathered wine bars spilling cigar smoke and Gemischter Satz from their slightly ajar single windows.
Delve deeper and one discovers antiques stores harbouring skeletal remains of Austria’s shady past, where only next door the trendy young twenty-somethings spend new money at the latest McShark and Spar Gourmet.
Vienna is a fascinating European city to explore on foot, but treat yourself to a tram ride in an original 1970s High Floor tramcar (Type E1) and you really have travelled back in time. The #1 to and from Prater Hauptallee is arguably my favourite, whilst other routes to Grinzing and Baden come in a close second.
From a social perspective, the daily routine in Vienna is just that; routine. Public transport runs like clockwork, refuse is collected frequently and on-time, the streets are clean, the air is fresh and the water the cleanest in the world. Or so I’m repeatedly told by the locals.
The city consistently tops-trumps in global leader boards for standards of living, perhaps even offering a lifestyle for which there is no ‘better’ alternative. But dig deeper and one finds an all too familiar elitist conservatism nurturing nationalist idealism, born, no doubt, from historical pride and, indeed, failure. Racism is arguably rife amongst certain strands of the city hordes, propelled and fuelled by the fear-mongering far-right, spreading questionable vitriolic monologues throughout all seams of society.
Being British, I’m no stranger to this type of political propaganda, I’m fairly sure our politicians conceived the vile marketing scam, and with daily Austrian headlines invariably targeting foreigners and their ‘inherent threat’ to ‘traditional Austrian values’, this is a sickening social disease to watch unfold. The thing is, I can’t help but think this collective hatred for foreigners is nothing new, that perhaps it’s been here all along, lurking in the shadows just waiting to be stoked again by deluded martyrs. Perhaps that could be said for all countries. Still, if this fear and hatred is the the social cost of creating utopia, well I think I’ll settle for somewhere a little less liveable.