This was my first trip to Vienna, and after three days, I fell 90% in love with the city. I also fell 10% in irritation. If you ask Vienna how it enjoyed my stay, that ratio may be a little different.
Let me say first that if you want to go, try to go in the autumn. Vienna is a city that does October well: horses and carriages clattering across the cobblestone square in the Stephansplatz; muted golden sunshine on the garden statues at the Belvedere Palace, the tiny flower shop behind the cathedral with its reds, oranges and golds in pots outside the front door, and the frosty snap in the air as you walk through the lamplit streets to dinner at night.
And the church bells. The bells of St. Stephen’s seem to ring everywhere all the time, and strangely, you never mind it.
Vienna in October was so perfect that every now and then, I glanced up at the sky, thinking that I might poke a hole in it and find Ed Harris from The Truman Show sitting in a control room, wearing a black beret and cuing the carriages and the breezes and the pigeons ruffling their feathers in the square outside the cathedral.
Our time in Vienna, however, was not entirely peaceful. I blame Ed Harris, who was clearly taking regular coffee breaks and letting a few things slide. In the afternoons, our hotel was flanked by two separate protests: to the left was an anemic “Occupy Vienna,” which lacked the blood and fire and poor hygiene of its Wall Street counterpart. To the right of us was some sort of a Turkish protest, which I found funny, since we were there to shoot a story about the Viennese thrashing of the Turks in 1529. Nearly 500 years later, it seems the Turks, mobbed outside our hotel with bullhorns and posters, still hadn’t learned their lesson: mess with the Austrians, and you will be Viennese-waltzed right out of the city.
Vienna is beautiful and Baroque. Very Baroque. Which is fine, unless you’re trying to do a story set in the medieval era. If you don’t understand why that’s a problem, Wikipedia can explain it here and here. In 1857, the Viennese destroyed the medieval walls and moats that surrounded the old city, by order of that old sellout Emperor Franz Joseph I, who pompously decreed, “It is my will.” Where the walls once stood, there is now a circular road designed to relieve traffic: the famous Ringstrasse, the length of which, it is said, Sigmund Freud walked every day.
So my whole story on the 1529 Siege of Vienna is about walls and moats, and I had no walls and moats. Here’s where my 10% of non-love for Vienna starts to creep in. Thank you, Franz Joseph I.
Online, I discovered a place outside the city called Neugebäude Palace. This was a summer palace built on the site where Sultan Suleiman pitched his tent during the siege; it was sort of a slap in the face by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II to the Muslims: you pitch a tent on my land, and I’ll build a palace over it.
Neugebäude Palace, the falling-down, deserted mess that it was today, gave us the medieval walls we needed for some pretty shot. Unfortunately, its website was as much of a ghost town as the building was, with no working contact information for filming permission. So I decided to try in person. When my camera/security crew arrived for a site survey, we found a group of dancing people in Technicolor leotards in what looked like a rehearsal for a Renaissance fair. (And let’s face it: how much rehearsal do those things really need?) The scowling man in charge listened to my request then offered us five minutes to scout the location. When we took six, he chased us down, yelled at us in German, then managed to switch to English long enough to tell us that we now had to pay him 200 euro in cash to shoot there.
Fat chance, screaming Renaissance fair man. Big. Fat. Nein.
We soon discovered that on the other side of the castle walls was a public park from which we could still get marvelous views of all that medievalness… for free.
Eating in Vienna was an adventure, one that started online with much careful research. This time, we went for history over gastronomy, which you really have to do in a country whose national specialty is some sort of beef that’s boiled into a state of grayness. The Austrians call it tafelspitz, which I’m pretty sure is the thing that happens to you after you eat it. On our trips, we all like to try local foods and have new experiences, but not one of the five of us would touch that boiled beef. One night, we went to a restaurant that’s supposedly famous for tafelspitz (and even dares to admit to it); Gordon Robertson, our on-air talent and semi-fearless leader, kept hinting that he wanted someone else to get it so he could try it risk-free, but no one caved. It is against my religious beliefs to eat things that are gray, and if I go against my religious beliefs, it is going to be for something better than gray meat.
Another night, we had dinner at a place called Zum Schwarzen Kameel (“The Black Camel”) solely because it was Beethoven’s favorite place, and how many times can you say you went to one of Beethoven’s hangouts? For that matter, how many times can you say that one of Beethoven’s hangouts is still standing? The food was excellent, and the restaurant was cozy and charming and all the things you might expect of one of Beethoven’s hangouts. But they really should change the name to “The Black Tortoise.” I’ll leave you to figure out why.
One of the places Gordon asked me to book was lunch at the Hotel Imperial, which was Adolf Hitler’s favorite place in Vienna. Creepy and unappetizing? Yes. I don’t want evil Nazi ghost-vibes hovering over the table as I eat lunch. I’m funny that way. But Hitler wasn’t the reason Gordon wanted to go to the Imperial. Hitler was the reason Simon Wiesenthal wanted to go to the Imperial. And Simon Wiesenthal was the reason Gordon wanted to go.
If you’re not up on your holocaust history, Simon Wiesenthal is a Holocaust survivor who became a famous (and very successful) Nazi hunter, almost until his death in 2005. On his 90th birthday, he threw himself a party in the Hotel Imperial ballroom, because he said he wanted Adolf Hitler to know that he, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, had outlasted the dictator by nearly 60 years and was now having a kosher dinner served in Hitler’s favorite hotel. How can you not love a man like that? I don’t have many personal heroes, because I think, for the most part, the human race is screwy. And if I do choose them, I make sure they’re dead, so they can’t do anything more to “de-hero” themselves. Simon Wiesenthal is one of my heroes.
Because of Simon’s memory and the delicious, non-gray food, I very much enjoyed that lunch, and at the end of the meal, I left with a complimentary chocolate truffle Imperial Torte in a pretty white box.
So what did I learn about Vienna? The Austrians want to charge you for filming their medieval walls (even though the Germans let you do it for free), gray beef should be avoided at all costs, Beethoven was apparently fine with waiting three hours for the Black Camel to bring his dinner, and Adolf Hitler may have been a genocidal monster, but he knew a good dessert when he saw one.
And I like Simon Wiesenthal. That cannot be said enough.