Vienna (and a short visit to Bratislava)

August 12, 2019

After a 16 day bike ride, mainly camping, to Vienna I met Anna at Vienna Airport to spend seven days exploring the Austrian capital with a brief day trip to Slovakia. My bike ride is covered under a  separate post, please seek it out.

There really is a lot to like about Vienna and, as I thought, it is one of the most delightful capitals in the world. I’ve been here twice before – once as a teenager with my parents and then in the early 80s I drove here with two pals in a Morris Marina Estate. On the second trip we also took in the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix. Holidays with friends live long in the memory even when, with no little heartbreak, one of them recently died at 59 years old.

My last memory was of large pedestrian areas between grand buildings, super weather and remarkable cake. As regards this memory then things haven’t changed. The Danube runs through the city, in fact bisects it and there are tributaries of the river in the form of a canal. It’s beside the Donaucanal that Anna booked an apartment on the 5th floor of a very grand block built in 1910.

We were here for a week and saw the sights as well as drank the beer, looked in the shops, enjoyed the weather and walked and walked. It seems today that we’re all counting our steps and each day I accumulated between 12 to 18,000 steps. Yes, I am now one inch shorter.

A long walk took us to Prater Park. There was a fun fair here. The main ride, for me, was the historic Ferris wheel that has been here since before WW2. This setting was used for a famous meeting with Harry Lime in the 1949 classic film The Third Man. This was based on Graham Greene’s book. The film is an all time great not just because of the acting of Orson Welles but the evocative black and white photography.

The Metro took some working out such as where to get the tickets and what was the best deal. However it was quick, efficient, direct and accessible. The Austrians seem very diligent at paying their fares with few checks and needless to say the whole system was calm and clean.

The sight of a London made Brompton folding bike is always heartening. They are enormously popular throughout Europe. A great British manufacturing success.

Vienna personifies ‘café society’ for me. Wide boulevards, tree lined streets and many bars and restaurants. The balmy evenings bring out people and they linger at these tables eating and drinking. 

We always take in a walking tour. We’ve done this in many cities. The tours are advertised as free but the tariff is about €10/person. Not bad value for over two hours of information and banter. I’m still horrified about mean and duplicitous people who disappear at the end without paying or you hear mumbled excuses about having no currency: I promise you that these guides would take US or Canadian dollars. This is how the guides pay their bills and have a life!

However the history told is about the 17th and 18th Century monarchy and the earlier creation of the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The latter included what we would call today Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Serbia, parts of Poland, the Ukraine and Italy. The matriarch, Maria Theresa, had 16 children but only 10 survived to be adults. The Hapsburg way was to marry off children to other monarchies. This seems brutal to ship off a 15 year old to a foreign country to marry an older stranger in order to procreate and to never come home again. One of these unlucky females was Marie Antoinette who lost her head, literally, in France.

The Empire was poor at winning wars but had various strategic alliances. The second to last, Frank Joseph, was on the throne until 1916. He is seen as a great figure not least because he was on the throne for 68 years. When Austria lost WW1 his brief successor, Karl, stepped down as Austria declared itself a Republic. He died shortly afterwards in exile in Madeira.

In fairness to our guide she talked a little about the 20th Century. I think you know the story. After WW1 The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered and the small rump of Austria remained. In 1938 the Nazis drove in and took over. It was an invasion but ‘Anschluss’ was popular and the Austrians embraced Hitler. WW2 was a genocidal catastrophe for the Axis powers. After the war the ‘Four Powers’ occupied Austria until 1955 when the Russians agreed to exit providing the Austrians agreed to become neutral. This difficult status led to Austria having to wait until 1995 before joining the EU.

The guide talked of ‘Kristallnacht’, which was the night the Nazis initiated a move against the Jews in Germany and Austria. Jews’ businesses were burnt and trashed or burned. Of all the synagogues in Vienna only one survived. Even if you weren’t a Nazi it beggars belief at how ordinary Austrians allowed this racial hatred, destruction and appropriation to take place. Remember after the Jews had been driven out of a business other Austrians took it over. How could justify this appropriation?

Vienna’s population at the time was 10% Jewish. From here many Jews escaped Austria to the USA, Australia, Britain, Israel etc. The remainder ended up being transported to ghettos in, say, Poland and further afield (before Auschwitz awaited), or were sent direct to concentration camps including one in Austria (Mauthausen). Some remained if married to ‘ ryans’. They continued to live in Austria but with their money, possessions and property stolen. A population of 180,000 dwindled to 5,000.

If this makes Austria wicked then the Slovakians (see below), which became an unwilling ally of Nazi Germany, were equally depraved with 85,000 being deported to concentration camps. The Germans themselves shipped off 180,000. (The often quoted figure of six million murdered is mainly comprised of Poles and Hungarians).

Today’s Austrians, Germans or Slovakians have absolutely no responsibility for these heinous crimes and it seems by their pacifism and open hearts to immigration that they are an antithesis of those times. Heaven knows how much the Germans have paid for these times and are the generous sponsor of the EU today. Around Vienna there is a visible Orthodox Jewish community and boys rushing around in yarmulkes. I genuinely don’t think these nations hide this history but it is an ‘elephant in the room’ for me when they talk or make money from their interesting past.

When I cycle through a German town and noted the statues to to some medieval knight or note the pride of the Austrians over the glory of Schönbrunn Palace I reflect on the fact that history is not a selective pursuit and whilst the 20th Century had little of any good for these nations then the story should be told.

Another thought I had was why so many nations covet the EU. It probably was the only significant good development in their recent history. Either they lost wars, had economic devastation, were forced to relocate, were occupied by hostile and ruthless aggressors, driven into penury and lived in fear of further conflict. Not least they wanted a new safe haven (certainly true for the small nations of the former Iron Curtain block). How could you not be pleased to be a member of the EU that gave them a voice often despite their small stature? For the UK it has only ever been a tariff free trading block with none of the ‘comfort blanket’ benefits.

There are a few monuments to these Holocaust times and near our lodgings was one commemorative installation to the hell that was wreaked:

The inscription above these door keys reads:

‘In memory of the expelled and murdered Jewish people of Servitengasse, who lived, ran businesses or owned houses here”

Moving on, we caught the Metro and tram system out to a suburb where Schönbrunn Palace is located. It was magnificent. A tour through the Royal rooms was instructive about the family and the lives of the monarchs and their entourages came to life. Sadly no photography was permitted.

We toured the grounds with the hundreds of other tourists.

The vistas were never short of staggering. Only when the Allies had occupied northern Italy by 1944 could Allied bombing start as the airfields were close enough. Quite a lot of Vienna was hit but the destruction of other larger German cities is incomparable to the minor damage Vienna suffered.

I do scratch my head at the Chinese and Japanese parties having guided tours. Trying to place all this detailed Austrian history in the context of Europe in the 17th and 18th Century must be baffling.

Due to the proximity of Slovakia to Vienna we caught a sublime train to the capital, Bratislava. This was an important part of the Hungarian realm in the 19th Century with a population of many German speakers. The ethnic mix changed firstly after WW1 and then WW2. Today it is Slovakians but it is only a relatively recent development.

Catching a train was cheap and the quality of the railway stock was exceptional. In the UK this is an area that needs vast investment. I think spending the money will appeal to everyone and is a major asset as well a move to get cars off the road.

A quick trip to the centre is not a remotely thorough investigation and all we saw were the tourist haunts. There are low cost flights from the UK and Ireland. I imagine when the pound was stronger against the Euro there were greater visitor numbers (and more lager louts and embarrassment for the British nation). The old town is a series of souvenir shops, restaurants and bars.

 Thai massage is a long practised Slovakian art, no doubt introduced at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire…

The outskirts seemed to appear of a very communist era construction with soulless concrete tower blocks. The city has around 400,000 residents and VW and Audi have factories to enjoy the low labour rates (and well educated Slovaks). No doubt other Western European manufacturers have bases here. (I seem to recollect that Jaguar Land Rover are building a plant elsewhere in Slovakia to enjoy the economic benefits). No doubt in time the standard of living will increase and these cost advantages will dissipate.

The city centre buildings with many very grand buildings need  some makeovers but obviously this costs lots of money.

 But why?

The castle was a showpiece and beautifully turned out.

From here we caught the train back. The intervening landscape was flat and featureless (apart from wind turbines) and only took one hour on the train.

For all the beauty in Vienna then the level of graffiti was staggering. Our walking guide said it was confined to certain areas. This wasn’t our experience.

To do to such a beautiful place should be met with a very uncompromising punishment.

On the last day we hired the equivalent of ‘Boris bikes’. It really was straightforward. You first had to download the App to help you find the locations. Then register with a debit card and then present the card at a pay station and wheel away your bike. Between us it cost €1, had I been more timely it would have cost nothing. It was an easy way to get around the city in a leisurely way. After a few detours we eventually got down to the Danube.

The present Mrs Ives was sporting the latest in ‘Texan’ helmets and I bought a hat in homage to the lead singer in AC/DC (Brian Johnson).

Sadly it was time for my last Schnitzel. (I can safely say I’ve eaten so many that I should stagger into 2020 on my existing quota).

Because I had a very heavy and full bike box we had to book a taxi and part with €48 to get us to the airport south of the city. 

A van turned up with a youngish Romanian driver and he ferried us to Terminal One and the welcoming arms of easyJet (I jest). On the journey he asked me about Brexit. My first question about the subject since leaving the UK over three weeks ago. I said I was fine about it and that it would happen. Surprisingly he then asked a rhetorical question “Immigration”? I said that wasn’t why I voted. He then went on to suggest that Austrian state welfare benefits weren’t generous. He should know having been there for 19 years. He said and that you had to learn German or could be deported and advised of an Austrian friend with a Filipino wife with this pending crisis. He opined about our UK system and said “London, free money!”It’s always interesting to know what people think. 

With this he delivered us to the Airport and we joined the throngs, busied ourselves trying to find a €1 coin to release a trolley and getting through Security and Passport Control to get a coffee.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.