If you want to escape turkey and mince pies, or simply have no extended family to share such delights with, Vienna provides a perfect haven at Christmas.
In the hundred years that Vienna has been a republican capital, it hasn’t lost many traces of arguably one of the greatest empires – and definitely the most musical. If you agree that music is the quintessence of Western culture, then Vienna is the most Western capital.
From Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, from Bruckner and Mahler to Schönberg, Berg and Webern, Vienna is only bettered by one musical city, Leipzig, and only because of one man, Bach.
A city is made great by the inspiration behind it, and this came from the Habsburgs, Europe’s most magnificent dynasty. Since for several centuries the Habsburgs were not only Austro-Hungarian but also Holy Roman emperors, their capital was perhaps the most significant city of continental Europe.
To this day it exudes the quiet grandeur, restrained taste and understated self-confidence of the great empire that once was. Though Vienna, like most other European capitals, still coasts on its past, its present is less objectionable than most.
Contrary to Voltaire’s typically lightweight quip, the Empire was indeed Holy and Roman, which is why Viennese Christmas is still Christmas, not a shopping binge with jingle bells on. Church bells were ringing all over the city, and there were Christmas markets at every corner, with names like Baby Jesus or Christ the Child.
Can you imagine such markets in Paris, London or New York? It’s easier to imagine, or rather anticipate, a summary fine or perhaps even imprisonment for wishing someone a merry Christmas.
The markets sold sweets, roasted chestnuts and above all punch and mulled wine. An hourly stop at one of those kiosks was guaranteed to maintain one’s blood alcohol level between two undesirable extremes, too high or too low.
Everyone was drinking steadily, yet there were no incidents of drunken or rowdy behaviour. Call me anti-British, but I didn’t feel any pangs of nostalgia for half-naked slags publicly relieving themselves through every available orifice, their boyfriends calling me “sunshine” and asking “What you lookin’ at?” – why, I didn’t even see one pavement pizza, nor a single street brawl.
Having said that, Vienna is full of things I normally dislike – but somehow it can get away with most of them.
For example, Baroque architecture – in fact, Baroque anything, other than music – leaves me cold or, more often, appalled. Yet, though Vienna is predominantly a Baroque city, it pulls it off with epic élan.
We celebrated midnight Mass at a fourteenth-century Augustinian church featuring a Baroque altar. My normal reaction to such aesthetic desecration is to turn around and walk out. Thus I physically couldn’t spend more than five minutes inside one of Christendom’s premier churches, Rome’s St John the Lateran, such was the eye-gouging Baroque vandalism of its interior.
But our Vienna church looked as if it had the foresight to provide for the aesthetics of three centuries later. Its altar didn’t necessarily attract; but then neither did it distract.
The German liturgy was something else again. Somehow Vater unser doesn’t quite have the same ring as Our Father, never mind Pater noster. The priest also cracked a few jokes, which I didn’t understand, but the rest of the congregation laughed on cue.
I’m sure the wisecracks didn’t have the lavatorial slant favoured by Germans, which reminded me that, though Vienna is Germanic, it isn’t German. That’s hardly surprising, considering that it was largely shaped by such cosmopolitan Habsburgs as the Empress Maria Theresa, who freely used the term ‘German swinishness’, even in reference to Mozart’s Singspiel operas.
Also, I prefer cities that develop organically and somewhat chaotically throughout history. However, not much of Vienna is organic and none of it chaotic – the city shows every sign of large-scale urban planning.
Yet the same things I find off-putting in much of Paris and all of Petersburg somehow work in Vienna. Whoever did the planning there had an unerring eye for the interrelation of elements in space. Music too is about arranging elements, in time, and in that sense Vienna’s stones are largely musical.
The stone music is full of pomp. Everything is on a lofty scale: Piccadilly is the width of a Vienna side street. Yet boundless squares fed by impossibly wide streets somehow manage to cut down to size vast apartments blocks that look as if they could withstand a direct hit from a low-yield nuclear bomb.
Vienna is a city of impeccable proportions – so impeccable, in fact, that after a while it may appear staid. But that effect would take longer than a few days to start getting on one’s nerves. Having walked 50 miles over four days in the city, I never felt bored or irritated.
Even massive institutional buildings that would look smug anywhere else come across as modest, almost diffident. They’re overwhelmed and humbled by the vast spaces they fill so sparsely.
And speaking of institutional buildings, the Viennese refer to their House of Parliament as Rathaus. Personally, I wouldn’t push the rodent parallel too far, but the Viennese have clearly grasped the nature of modern parliamentarism.
The clickety-clack of hooves is everywhere, with scores of horse-driven carriages whisking tourists from one place to the next. Normally I despise such pseudo-retro pretensions, but what looks ludicrous in Manhattan or even London somehow doesn’t irritate in Vienna. Perhaps, though London lost its erstwhile imperial status later than Vienna, its vestiges have been more thoroughly expunged.
The Viennese look and act utterly civilised, and one sees many people my snobbish friends call PLUs (People Like Us) even in the very centre. Many women wear fur coats, and they don’t seem to fear violence.
Years ago, I recall, we were in Amsterdam, where a friend commended my wife for her courage in wearing a fur. “You may be attacked,” she said. “The attacker would end up in the canal,” I replied.
Now, a quarter-century later, my flesh is no longer strong enough to inspire such self-confidence, but the spirit is still willing to espy any signs of opprobrium at my wife’s sartorial preferences. Didn’t see any in Vienna – in fact, didn’t see any deviations from civilised behaviour.
No eyesores then? Well, that would be too much to ask. But I’ll save the unpleasant stuff for tomorrow.