Vienna Riesenrad Oct 2013

In October 2013, once aboard the plane to Vienna, I would have fallen asleep right away but for having to stay awake to order the breakfast. Awake all night with an upset stomach and then a long drive to the airport, I got less than an hour after that. At the Schweizerhof I had a shower and then slept for another three. Then it was time to head off, a bit like a zombie. That changed at Harry Lime’s doorway, by the smooth, sloping cobbles of Schreyvogelgasse. There was still daylight but lights shone from scattered windows. They reflected in others. Evening traffic hummed and rumbled on the nearby Ringstrasse, beyond which the university rose in the dusk.

Under the pale, yellowy pillars and ceiling arches, the Café Central was a temple for reflection on some of the characters – Freud, Hitler, Lenin, Trotsky, Tito – who had taken a pew there in the space of just one month, a hundred years earlier, in January 1913. That was the month Stalin too turned up in the city, under the now comical name “Stavros”, though they were probably not all at the same table. I didn’t manage to record the piano man playing the theme from Phantom of the Opera. I didn’t want to get him playing the Harry Lime theme.

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The next day, I walked to the Prater park to go up on the Riesenrad Ferris wheel. There was fog on Vienna and fog on the windows of my flying hut. The autumn trees were unspoilt. The long walk back led up through the Bermuda Dreieck, which was just around the corner from the hotel. Ruprechtskirche was an especially beautiful little church with the autumn foliage. In the tight local Shakespeare & Co., there wasn’t enough elbow room for browsing in peace. Some of the shelves were high enough to risk neck strain. Two cops were guarding a Jewish restaurant, around the corner from the bookshop, and that night all the Dreieck bars were full of youngsters. Most were closed during the day. Spaces like Graben and Stephansplatz were thronged, day and night. The beauties of Vienna tend to look demure.

On the third day, I found Falco’s grave in the sunshine and falling leaves of the huge Zentralfriedhof, the main cemetery, which was peppered by the smell of sewage wafting up from the shores on the lanes. Despite Claudio Magris’ Danube being largely pretentious verbiage, he couldn’t ruin everything with his waffle. Some of the material is just too strong. The funniest part of his book is set in the early hours in the Zentralfriedhof, in the company of Herr Baumgartner and his shotgun. The weapon is used, for example, on the hares that have a “passion” for tearing up and eating the pansies left by mourners. It is not quite a free-fire zone, though, as Herr Baumgartner has to answer for any graves or offerings damaged or shattered or bloodied or peppered by stray buckshot.

That night I revisited the Café Central after a spell in the unusual spot that is the dark, onyx Loos Bar, where a normal drink is essentially impossible to get. Back in the café, one young French girl came back to my table, blushing, looking for her annotated city map. I offered her mine but hers had “mes notes” while another, alone at the next table, read Freud. Trois essais sur la théorie sexuelle. I’d read somewhere that France had six hundred thousand psychology students.

The last night ended in the Vulcania bar in the Bermuda Dreieck, talking to two brothers from Croatia – one behind the bar, the other an off-duty Viennese cop. The former asked me not to mention to the latter that he’d revealed what his brother’s job was. I’d have quit earlier only it was my last night. Sitting in an airport toilet cubicle the next day, sweating, I was left trying to get my head together in my only Kater of the trip.

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