An exceptional article on Vienna by Guy Martin in Conde Nast Traveler
He doesn’t mean just the Opera Ball, Vienna’s obligatory winter-season strut of the peacocks; he means the freight train of parties that rolls year-round. He knows what he’s talking about. Several dozen generations of Schwarzenbergs have powered the monarchies, commerce, and battlefields of Europe since the twelfth century, logging hundreds of years of the stiffest Viennese dance-card duty. “The Hapsburgs wanted to be the world but couldn’t quite manage it,” he adds, stuffing his briar with tobacco. “The empire was too big to hold together. It was ridiculous, in fact.”
Schwarzenberg crushes a few tons of European history into his delphic sentences. With Vienna as their imperial engine, the Hapsburgs pulled together a hydra-headed behemoth of countries, duchies, and alliances from Serbia to the tip of Spain, including the Holy Roman Empire, Africa, the Spanish colonies in Asia, and even Mexico, where they made a quixotic joust at installing the kaiser’s brother Maximilian as emperor from 1864 to 1867. The monstrous holdings grew, and shrank, according to Vienna’s fortunes in dozens of wars over seven hundred years. It took World War I, triggered by the assassination of the Hapsburg archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serb separatist, to derail the idea.
The Schwarzenbergs were there for the whole party. The prince’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Field Marshal Karl Philipp zu Schwarzenberg, fought Napoleon three times in defense of the empire, then in 1812 fought alongside Napoleon en route to Moscow and back. Napoleon liked Schwarzenberg: In 1810 Schwarzenberg brokered Napoleon’s marriage to Austrian Emperor Franz II’s daughter Marie-Louise, but, as the dice rolled, four years later found himself fielding his fourth army to contain the French madman. Napoleon took Vienna twice, but in 1814, Schwarzenberg took Paris.
Two centuries onlet’s call it a neo-post-post-Hapsburg momentthe prince and I are sitting on hardwood benches at the back of a huge tent at a sodden Bierfest out by the Prague airport. A Czech-Swiss dual citizen, Schwarzenberg, seventy-three, is a child of the bedrock Vienna-Prague axis. Born in Prague, he spent his childhood in the former Czechoslovakia until the Communists impounded the family estates in 1948, when he was ten. He fled with his parents to the ancestral seat in Vienna, the Palais Schwarzenberg, on Schwarzenbergplatz, south of the Ringstrasse. In his bespoke tweeds and trademark blue bow tie with tiny white polka dots, he’s here to stump for his new Czech political party.
The fall of communism in 1989 meant a lot for the former Hapsburg lands, so I ask the prince, now serving his second term as foreign minister of the Czech Republic, whether the region has re-coalesced around Vienna. The evidence of Vienna’s market-town reach is not just of the big, hard sortsuch as the $75 million Austria Trend Hotel, opened two years ago in Bratislava, or the $100 million that Austrian firms invested in Slovakian enterprises overall in 2009. The soft indices reveal as much: A new fast-boat ferryunabashedly called the Twin City Linershuttles five times a day between Bratislava and Vienna. Falter, Vienna’s weekly paper, publishes the cultural listings in Budapest, Brno, and Bratislava on a page entitled “Nachbarn“”The Neighbors.”
“Central Europe’s getting to be one place again,” the prince says. “Vienna doesn’t rule anymore, but Austria’s commercial power inspires the economies that suffered under communism.”
What’s up with the palais? I ask, meaning the Baroque palace on Schwarzenbergplatz. The Palais Schwarzenberg was begun in 1697 by Lukas von Hildebrandt and worked on into the 1720s by Johann Fischer von Erlach, the two master architects who created the face of imperial Vienna under Kaiser Franz I. It sits in a mile-long formal Baroque garden that abuts the gardens of the Belvedere palaces, which now house the Austrian National Gallery.
Schwarzenberg long ran the palace as a luxury hotel, closed it, and since 2006 has been fighting for permission for a major expansion. One look at the massive embrace of its facade, the portico awaiting a line of carriages, the low skylight over the ballroom, the three-hundred-year-old tracework of paths in the garden, and it’s easy to see why the Baupolizei (the “building police,” who issue Vienna’s construction permits) have delayed the project. “We have most of the permissions that we need to proceed,” Schwarzenberg grumbles. “But in Vienna, anything this size takes a long time.”
He pauses. I expect he’s about to smack the Baupolizei with a pejorative likehidebound, but this attribute cuts both ways. In empire-building and empire-losing, of which Vienna has done plenty, the idea is to keep the best things hard by, in the treasure chest, close to home. The impulse is crucial to Vienna’s luxe courtliness. It’s why Viennese chocolate isforeverrich, the Lipizzaner stallions so balletic, and the Opera Ball such an unstoppable dreadnought. Instead of bashing the Baupolizei, the prince issues me another trademark haiku. “It’s a funny old town,” he says.
If we can say of Moscow or Paris that there is a culture of bemused forbearance born of the difficulties that life in those cities sometimes presents, Vienna’s response to its colorful history is a jollier, more satiric take on itselfit is, after all, the town where Mozart wrote and premiered Così fan tutte in 1790. This spicy Austro-Hungarian irony is visible in the posture of the voluble Fiakers, the hansom cab drivers, who lounge trading wisecracks in their oilskins as they strap the feedbags on their horses behind St. Stephen’s Cathedral; it’s legible in the calls of the falafel-stand owners and vegetable-hawkers in the open-air Naschmarkt, behind Karlsplatz; it’s in the whiplikeRaunzen, the fond but shredding repartee between café waiters and their regulars.
“The Viennese audience doesn’t take anything at face value,” says the cabaret star Florian Scheuba. “Whether I’m making fun of Kim Jong-il or local politicians, they’re ready for it.”
Vienna was extremely funnyin the Schwarzenbergian connotation of quirkyas the sweet spot for European espionage during the Cold War. The KGB particularly loved Vienna for its connections to its sister Eastern-bloc cities of Prague, Brno, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Belgrade, and Budapest. Literally thousands of Eastern European agents were dispatched to Vienna.
“For God’s sake, manread the Vienna telephone book!” says the excitable French-Austrian journalist Christian Desrues over a drink at Café Engländer. “Half the names are Czech, the rest are Hungarian, Polish, or Yugoslavian. It’s no wonder everybody was a spy here. Vienna is the Drehscheibe.” By Drehscheibe Desrues means the railyard turntable, a junction on which the locomotives can be turned to one of many tracks. He uses it here as a metaphorical approximation of all roads lead to Rome.
We can experience Vienna as the Drehscheibeas a polyglot of Hapsburg peoplesfirsthand in a stroll down the Wollzeile, the graceful little street just fifty yards west of Café Engländer. The hatter’s name, Nagy, stands in the tradition of the Hungarian purveyors to the Austrian court; the tobacconist, Filipiak, bears a Czech name; the tiny, elegant haberdashery Turczynski carries one from Poland. Morawa Books gets its name from Moravia, the Czech region an hour north of Vienna; Ewald and Mario Plachutta, who run the eponymous temple of pot roast and schnitzel, bring with their family name a whiff of the Italo-Austrian border; Café Diglas, the red-velvet-lined literary salon, echoes the Napoleonic occupation; and Café Aida, just down the street, is owned by the Czech-Austrian Prousek family. All of these namesthe sediments of empireare compressed within two hundred yards of excellent eating, drinking, and shopping north of the Ringstrasse.
The Viennese still pamper themselves with eating, drinking, and shopping as they pampered the royal family, in many cases with the same eighteenth- and nineteenth-century purveyors who held imperial warrants. Trooping out now for a new two-thousand-dollar loden coat at Plankl (founded 1830), just across from the entrance to the Hofburg, means you’re going to get the fabric made by the firm that tailored the last four kaisers.
At Wollzeile 9 is a beloved court-appointed purveyor, the chocolatier and pâtissier L. Heiner. The sign on the cornice reads: K. & K. Hofzuckerbäcker L. Heiner. The characters K. &. K. are the abbreviation for kaiserlicher und königlicher, the designation for the unified thrones of Austria and Hungary. Translated, the sign reads: “The Imperial and Kingly Court Sugar Baker L. Heiner,” a ridiculous, splendid name for a chocolate shop.
The supply of chocolate bars in my rucksack is low, so I drop by one afternoon. Heiner’s handgeschöpfte (“handmade”) chocolate bars are organized by the cacao beans’ origin: two kinds of bittersweet, one from Ghana and a second, called Criollo, from Ecuador, Trinidad, and Venezuela. I take one Ghana, one Criollo, and then start looking around the vitrine.
“Perhaps you’d like me to prepare something else?” says the attendant. Heiner’s uniformed ladies are not so much patisserie workers as spa nurses, who, instead of slathering you up with a kelp mask or a mud pack, simply want to give your insides the perfect chocolate bath.
“It might not survive.”
“Our Sacher Dice stand up well to travel,” she says.
I buy a couple of dunce-cap-shaped things called PariserspitzenParis Points, beautiful little cones of dark chocolatecovered confection. She wraps them in a little wax-paper envelope, and I carefully zip them into the inner pocket of my rain jacket. Which is where I discover them four days later, mashed into a pancake about the thickness of a crêpe. I’m about to throw them away when I think, no, let’s see how they tasteluscious, dark, richand I begin to grasp the innate toughness in perfection. You could run over Heiner chocolates with a car or drop them out of a plane and they’d still taste good. I stand on the street licking the mashed-up wax paper like a dog.
Vienna has a population of two million, about a fourth that of Paris, but its imperial bones are big: The Hofburg, the Court Palace, alone encloses two and a half million square feet. If you’re not running to absorb the immense holdings of the Kunsthistorisches MuseumRaphael, Veronese, Correggio, Caravaggio, Titian, Rembrandt, Brueghel, not to mention the whole wings of Egyptian artyou’re dashing to the Albertina to gawk at Prince Albert’s 35,000-volume gilt-bound library. In just about any era of Hapsburg rule, even in military and political defeat, the regime threw tons of money at festooning the monarchy with art, architecture, and music created by the very best people, including Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Strauss, and Brahms, all of whom lived and composed heredrawn by the Hapsburgs’ bright and churning ATM.
From the 1890s to the First World War, Vienna arguably approached the levels of cultural and intellectual ferment that Paris and Berlin achieved in the twenties and thirties. Under the nose of the last kaiser, the Viennese bohème launched their version of modernism: Artists Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Klimt, and Solomon Moser, all of whom “seceded” from the Vienna Artists’ Society, were at the height of their influence. Sigmund Freud, whose theories of human drives were largely complete by 1905, honed the intellectual cutting edge of the day.
One can best grapple with Vienna’s twenty-five jam-packed years between 1890 and 1915 in the Leopold Museum, the anchor tenant of the MuseumsQuartier. The seminal postwar Vienna collector Rudolf Leopold concentrated his energies on Secession artists until his death last June. Leopold’s prime focus was Schiele, the white-hot star of the Secession school, but not exclusively; he bequeathed some $400 million worth of diverse art and antiques to Austria in 1994. The collection is now estimated at a billion dollars and draws 300,000 visitors per year.
One of the museum’s signature paintingsSchiele’s portrait of his mistress, Wally Neuzilwas returned to the Leopold just last August after spending twelve years mired in a U.S. Customs warehouse near JFK airport as the result of an unresolved restitution dispute from the Nazis’ Holocaust dispossessions. Basically, in 1953 the Austrian government restored the painting after the war to the wrong Jewish family, who promptly sold it. The Leopold Museum finally stepped in and corrected the government’s error, paying the rightful heirs some $19 million.
Standing ramrod straight at the unveiling ceremony, Mrs. Elisabeth Leopold, eighty-three, plucked the red silk drape from around Wally’s frame. “The main thing is,” she proclaimed, “Wally’s back.” Beyond the epic legal to-and-fro over Wally, Mrs. Leopold was expressing a fundamental Viennese sentiment: Money, be damnedthings are now as before.
No institution epitomizes the city’s ferocious maintenance of tradition more than the Spanish Riding School, so named for the powerful Arabian and Berber stock that the Hapsburgs imported from Spain in the sixteenth century. In 1580, Archduke Karl II established the first Hapsburg stud with the “Spanish” Arabians in the Slovakian village of Lipizza, from which all Lipizzaners descend. In Vienna, the RenaissanceStallburg, or stall castle, immediately to the west of the Court Palace, has housed the horses and the equipage of the court since 1564, and the galleried Riding School itselfwhere the Lipizzaner stallions performwas completed in 1735. The stallions’ precise, breathtaking dressage maneuvers and grand leaps, based on the athletic requirements of horses in war, have been passed down since the 1730s. The school’s renowned adherence to tradition pays offthe Lipizzaners draw 300,000 visitors per year.
“There’s a Viennese word, Ewiggestrigen,” Vienna Film Festival director Hans Hurch tells me over coffee. “It means those who live ‘forever yesterday.’ When I was growing up in the country, all I ever wanted to do was to come to Vienna, but after I lived here for a while, I discovered a sweet backwardness, a resistance to the progress of time. A ‘forever yesterday’ person may not grasp that the present exists because he or she lives on the forever and the yesterday sides of it.”
The forever, the yesterdayand the todayof Vienna are wrapped in its cuisine. It’s as important to eat big in Vienna as it is to eat big in Siena or FlorenceTuscany did belong to the Viennese for a couple of hundred years. The kitchen is the cultural bridge left standing from the great empire’s stretch from Budapest to Madrid.
I ring up Dr. Werner Gruber, my Viennese eating specialist and general Austrian polymath. It’s all very Viennese: We will meet to eatin Café Landtmann, the high temple of Viennese pastryin order to decide what to eat immediately after we eat at the café.
By day, Gruber is an experimental physicist at the University of Vienna and a chef, author, TV talk-show star, world-class origami- and paper-airplane folder, and most gregarious gourmand who knows everybody in Austria. By night, he’s a cabaret artist, one-third of the Science Busters trio, who engineer aluminothermic fires at 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit onstage.
A trencherman of epic proportions, Gruber himself has put together quite a few moleculeshis weight is unknown, but should one hazard a guess, it might be north of four hundred pounds. “As you see from this,” he says, parting his cloaklike blue blazer and patting the frontage, “I’m an enjoyment human. When my fans see this body on a talk show explaining the perfect browning process in goulash, they know I’ve been in a kitchen.”
In his latest pop-science best seller, Die Genussformel (The Enjoyment Formula),Gruber explains to the layman the molecular physics of cooking, while delivering excellent traditional recipes from the Austrian kitchensuch as goulash, dumplings, and, not least, eight awe-inspiring variations of schnitzel. The book also contains an actual trigonometric formula for the enjoyment of food, worked out by Gruber and his girlfriend, the theoretical physicist Dr. Natascha Riahi.
“Apropos tourism,” says Gruber, master of the agile café-table conversational leap, “I assume you are aware of the Viennese affection for death.”
“It’s crossed my mind,” I say, thinking of Gruber’s own aluminothermic conflagrations, not to mention Freud’s explication of the Totestrieb, or death wish; not to mention Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, Schiele’s, or Klimt’s very rough last days here in town.
“Vienna has three museums devoted to death,” Gruber says. “The Funeral Museum, the Criminal Museum, and the Pathology Museum, which is a museum of medical deformities. To combat such melancholic traits, there is Genussenjoyment. The fight against melancholia is the key to the Viennese love of luxury. As we await the inevitable, we indulge.”
Gruber’s thesis is borne out here in Café Landtmann’s opulent marble foyer. Opposite the vitrine in which the café’s delectable pastries rest are two six-foot-tall dark-wood columns, on which are carved strange faces in bas-relief and dark little sermonettes: “What is honor but a word”; “To be or not to be”; and my personal favorite, “A great leveler is death.”
So, now that we’re all going to die, I ask, “Who’s got the best Sacher torte?”
“That,” says Gruber, conspiratorially firing up another cigarette, “has been a subject at issue in a years-long legal battle that the Hotel Sacher lost. As a result of the case, anybody can make a Sacher torte and sell it as such. But the answer is simple. Café Demel has the best Sacher torte.”
I’m stunned. “But the hotel . . .”
“The hotel makes many wonderful things, but no,” he says with an impish grin. “Demel’s recipe is top secret. Although I don’t say it’s theirs, I published it in my new book. I can’t tell you how I got it, because I’d have to kill you, which would delay lunch.”
We’ve decided to lunch at Vestibül, the restaurant that has been fashioned in the south wing of the Burgtheater out of what was originally Kaiser Franz Joseph’s carriage entrance and his own marble-lined dining hall. The architecture of the dining hallthe massive black marble columns, the coffered ceilingis relatively untouched.
The Burgtheaterin which Mozart premiered Le nozze di Figaro and Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Hapsburgssits diagonally across the Ring from Parliament and a stone’s throw from City Hall; thus, Vestibül draws a steady crowd of leading politicians and businesspeople for lunch and a well-heeled pre- and post-theater crowd at night. The chef-owner is Christian Domschitz, fifty-two, who earned his epaulets in Paris and St-Tropez before returning to Vienna.
“How many courses?” Domschitz asks, breezing up to the table in his crisp French-cuffed chef’s shirt.
Having worked on the Côte d’Azur, the chef fearlessly torques traditional Viennese cuisine with un-Austrian ingredients. He serves his schnitzel with whole dried capersa garnish you’d definitely find on a fillet of fish in St-Trop but which is heresy in Vienna. We have no idea how many courses we’d like. So I say, “A lot.”
This is dining as paragliding: You strap into the harness, and then you step off the cliff. Domschitz smiles, nods, and walks off.
He opens by serving us Presswurst, a slice of lean homemade terrine sausage made from Mangalitza pork, the “heirloom” Austro-Hungarian free-range breed. He follows the pig with a silky-sweet green-pea soup, garnished with fresh pea-shoot runners, then sends out razor-thin slices of tangy marinated beef fillet with Parmesan and mustard sauce. He then ups his game with three of what I would call swimming and crawling courses, sending us a bright clear fillet of char, the sauerkraut lobster, and a dark, intense plate of two snails, the sauce for which is so buttery that we lick it off the blades of our knives.
We’re eating in the front room, which means we’ve got a great view of the door and the comings and goings of the clientele. Tout Vienna, in other words. “That’s Heinz Fischer, the president of Austria,” Gruber says offhandedly, indicating a rather distinguished-looking gray-haired man who salutes Domschitz and walks out. Gruber points out, across the room, a commanding, intensely handsome woman with a mane of swept-back gray-blonde hair: Elizabeth Gürtler, owner of the Hotel Sacher, former chair of the Opera Ball, and the directress of the board of the Spanish Riding School.
Our actual “main” courseso far our seventhis the chef’s take on vitello tonnato, namely, a sushi-quality yellowfin tuna steak and a slice of organic veal tenderloin over a dollop of the classic capered mayonnaise and some fresh greens. The two-course dessert is a Baisera meringue with homemade bourbon ice cream and a vanilla saucefollowed by a tiny but sharp portion of apple torte and coffee. Domschitz emerges in a civilian shirt and leaves to take a short siesta at home before the dinner shift starts. We’re done, we think.
Gruber and I had a program mapped out: We wanted to hit the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s open-air food-and-spice market, then have a glass of wine at a Heurigera wine pub specializing in young wines, local cheeses, and sausages. But it’s rainy and cold. An hour later, we’re still sitting in Vestibül as Domschitz strolls up to the table in his kitchen whites.
“Gentlemen?” He can barely contain his laughter.
We nod: Bring dinner or, more accurately, more lunch. Instantly, a new tablecloth, fresh glasses, and a pair of menus arrives.
“Do we need menus?” Gruber asks rhetorically.
“A formality,” Domschitz says. “Staff must stay on their toes.”
Some small schnitzels appear. We understand them as a sort of siesta, a refreshing schnitzel break in the long day, paired perfectly with a sharp Veltliner and a gentle, vinegar-laced potato salad with some curled cucumber shavings and watercress on top.
At about 11 p.m., Domschitz sends us chunks of a “wreath” sausage with a couple different kinds of mustard we haven’t tried, our twelfth course of the day. Our thirteenth and final course is dessert: long bits of fennel bathed in dark chocolate served with coffee.
Midnight. Domschitz drops by the table with a bottle of red wine and a box of laughing gas capsules. We’re going to try to make some red prosecco. Domschitz wants to know whether it’s possible to gas up your own wine rather than living with the too-sweet whites the prosecco people are gassing up. The nitrous oxide won’t stay in the wine. “The molecules don’t like the other molecules,” says Gruber.
We drink the red wine after the gas evaporatesit’s fantastic.
“I think,” says Gruber on our way out, “we’ve eaten well.”
“We’ve done better than that,” I tell him, putting my arm around his massive bull-like shoulders. “We’ve eaten like the kaiser.”
Photographs by Brigitte Lacombe