Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Vienna - Back to the Start

It’s interesting visiting a city again after a ten year absence. I’m on a bunpy flight back to London at the moment, after a very nice few days in Vienna. I hadn’t been there since I went on a trip with my high school band in 1998. Vienna was actually the first city I had ever visited in Europe. Given that this city was my first ‘introduction’ to this continent, it was interesting to go back there now that I’ve lived in Europe several years and have travelled extensively through it. Needless to say, my impressions were far different this time around.

I don’t remember much about that first visit – actually the main impression I remember from it was of a city full of sex. I was just 17 at the time and I remember me and the other high schoolers being amazed when we turned on our TV the first night in the Vienna hotel and saw – get this – breasts! We couldn’t get over it, there were breasts on a main Vienna network! Then we looked out of our window and saw a real live prostitute – or at least a person who we convinced ourselves was a lady of the night. Exploring the city I remember us seeing a few scattered sex shops and thinking truly Vienna was some kind of throbbing sex-obsessed mecca.

It’s amusing to look back on because in reality, Austria is one of the most conservative countries in Europe, and Vienna is known as one of the continent’s more staid and prudish major cities. But to some band geek teenagers from conservative America, it seemed pretty wild!

During the year I lived in Prague in 2002 I kept meaning to take a train down to Vienna but I never made it, which was a shame because I was there studying Central European history. Much like Prague, Vienna is a city reflecting many different eras of European history, from the glory days as capital of the enormous Habsburg empire to its awkward cold war role as a supposedly neutral zone. Because if this Cold War confusion Austria has never really had a period of national soul-searching about its Nazi past, unlike Germany. It remains a staunchly conservative country with an especially hostile attitude toward foreigners. It maintains the toughest asylum rules in Europe and getting a visa to work there is notoriously difficult.

Vienna is a bit like Prague on steroids. It's jam-packed with massively intimidating counter-reformation architecture. But thought it may look like Prague architecturally, the vibe is very different. Miraculously spared the ravages of Soviet domination through sheer luck, Austria is a prosperous country that maintains the third highest GDP in the EU. Despite the fact that it was once part of the same country as its Central European neighbours to the North and East, Austria today bears much more resemblance to Switzerland than to Hungary or the Czech Republic. The two Alpine countries are both beautiful, efficient, prosperous and, above all, uncompromisingly conservative. Austria had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the EU in 1995, and public approval ratings of Brussels remain among the lowest in continental Europe. Obsessed with its Catholic Habsburg heritage, Austria is also one of the more religious countries in Europe.

Over the past few days I couldn’t help continuously comparing Vienna to Zurich, where my father lives. Though the ethos and culture may be very similar, of course the size of Vienna dwarfs that of Zurich, as does the monumental scale of its public buildings. Switzerland, after all, was never the centre of an empire. The Habsburgs left some monumental mementos from the days in which they ruled over nearly 70 million Europeans. It’s often been said that if Martians came to Earth, they would mistake Vienna as the capital of the world.

At the same time there were plenty of reminders of the Swiss mentality, particularly in all the Christmas markets around the city serving Gluhwine. It made me excited that I’ll be in Zurich next weekend for a Thanksgiving dinner at my dad’s house. Zurich at Christmastime is beautiful, and the gluhwine aint half bad either!

Over the weekend I was able to do the three main tourist attractions – the Belvedere, St. Stephan’s Dome, and the Hofburg. I reluctantly went to the exhibit about Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) rather than the treasury, but actually I’m really glad I did. It was a fascinating exhibit about a monarch who, though legendary in Austria, I actually didn’t know that much about before. I did know quite a bit about her husband Emperor Franz Josef, and it was really interesting to see the state apartments where he conducted the business of the empire. You could see he was really consumed with the business of running the massive state. According to the tour he rose at 6am every morning and worked tirelessly until 10pm. Of course I took all this information with a dose of salt given the Austrians’ proclivity for glorifying the Habsburgs.

Perhaps the highlight of my trip though was just earlier today, when I stopped in to the crypt of the Kapuzieur Kirche, where all the Habsburgs were buried after 1633. The church itself is small and unassuming, but down in the crupt lies some absolutely massive tombs, including the largest containing the remains of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband. It’s a gigantic iron box mounted with angels and flourishes, and on top sit effigies of the imperial couple, who seem to be sitting on a bed embroiled in some kind of marital tiff. Further along are the tombs of Franz Josef and Sisi, along with their son Prince Rudolph, who died in the Mayerling suicide pact. Sisi’s tomb is decked out with the Hungarian flag and regalia, a testament to her sympathies for Hungarian independence (it is said it was she who finally convinced her husband to make Hungary a co-equal kingdom with Austria, creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Of course it wasn’t all fun and games, I was in Vienna for work – attending a conference on upcoming changes to an EU law on biocides. The conference actually went pretty well, I’ve been covering the subject area for a bit so I felt comfortable talking with people there about it. This is in marked contrast to how I used to feel covering private equity conferences for my old job. It wasn’t a subject I was particularly interested in so it was hard to feign enthusiasm for it at the cocktail receptions. It’s so good to be covering politics again!

On my way to the airport today I also stopped at Donau City, Vienna’s version of London’s Canary Wharf or Paris’s La Defense. Like those two it was built in the 1970’s to form a business area outside the city centre where skyscrapers could be built with impugnity. However unlike the other two it doesn’t seem to have ever gotten off the ground. It was built around the United Nations Centre, which was constructed after Vienna was made the third seat of the UN in 1979. I have to say my heart goes out to anyone who has to work in this monstrosity, it is monumentally ugly. The whole complex just has giant grassy holes in it too. It looks like there were intended to be building sites but they never got around to it. The whole thing just looks rather small and unfinished, yet I didn’t see any construction activity going on there at all. Has Vienna just given up on its La Defense?

The trip out there at least provided an opportunity to actually see the Danube, Europe’s largest river. Oddly enough Vienna’s city centre is nowhere near the river, so it’s quite a hike to get over there. But ti was worth it to see these mighty waters flow south toward Bratislava, Budapest and Romania.

So all in all it was a good trip. I spent a near fortune though – museums in Vienna are not cheap. I’m looking forward to a few days at home back in London before Thanksgiving in Zurich next weekend.

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