Vienna was always a place that sounded classy. A place that sounded elegant; suited and booted. A city of waltzes and coffee shops, yet also a city of sausage and schnitzel. But it was also one of those cities that lacked a firm trademark image or look. For most people when you say London, Paris, Moscow, New York they already know it. You say Melbourne, Tokyo, Madrid and people know the names but not the visuals. That was Vienna to me.
What I got was a city of such unrestrained grandeur and finery as to almost be absurd. Not since St. Petersburg, a city I couldn’t stop thinking about on this trip, had a city awed me with its architecture and bulk. Where Munich had been big and bolshy and at times cute, Vienna was royal money and all of its empirical wealth on show for the masses.
The older town, ringed by the Landesgerichtstrasse, was an almost comical jumble of truly massive palaces, libraries, administrative buildings - all of them be-domed - parks, statues and big long drives down which horse and cart and tourist washed.
Some of the old streets slid into charm - a gallery under a building here, a little old church there, a wall covered in climbing ivy, a small wine tavern - but generally the concept of Vienna seemed to be ‘vastness’.
But there was air. Spaces around the gorgeous mustard yellow palace and parks of the Schönbrunn or the quieter grace of the Belvedere. And also the 1.5km Nachtsmarkt with its food stands, grocers and flower shops.
Vienna was a city to peruse, but I couldn’t imagine living there. It made me feel poor but it was truly beautiful. But what of the food?
Gasthaus Quell - Gulasch mit Semmelknödel
We were staying out of the centre in the somewhat workaday Rudolfheim-Fünfhaus neighbourhood. Not everywhere could be grand of course. There was a little traditional restaurant that I had read about on an online article - zero tourism, all wood beams and wooden chairs and old men smoking. A little place tucked on a side-street in a district with no reason to visit.
Gasthaus Quell was my favourite tavern in Vienna.
We ordered Gulasch, which Austria had adopted from its nearby Hungarian brothers and sisters. Big hunks of meat, slow cooked to soft, arrived in a piquant orange broth with a big white bread dumpling called a Semmelknödel. The secret ingredient of course was paprika. The meat was tender and juicy and the sauce was smoky and deep in its flavour. And it only cost €6.90! For Vienna that was a bargain.
Café Leopold Hawelka - Sachertorte
The legendary Sachertorte was the ‘tick off the list’ cake of Vienna. My parents had told me to have it, the guide book said to have it, there were postcards and keyrings with images of it like it were some religious egg, flour and chocolate-based deity. So, cake it was.
The origins say that it was invented in 1832 by a Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel von Metternich of Austria; though similar recipes date back to the 18th century. There was then, in the early 20th century, a legal battle between two businesses - Hotel Sacher and the Demel bakery - for which one of them could say they had the ‘the Original Sacher Torte’. Seven years of legal battles about jam in the cake, the use of margarine or butter, how it was sliced. Eventually Hotel Sacher won, and thus became the overpriced, tourist hotspot of the 21st century.
We didn’t want to queue for cake, so instead I found a local blog saying that Café Hawelka was a wonderful cafe from the 1930s and thus our decision was made. Maybe they had the cake.
Like all good places Hawelka was full of wood. So much wood. It was low, dark and cosy. Little marble tables were haphazardly arranged between hatstands, coatracks and felt side-sofas.
The cake wasn’t bad. I mean, legal chaos and family pride aside, it was a couple of layers of basic tasting chocolate sponge cake separated with apricot jam and topped with chocolate glaze. My mother makes a more impressive cake. But it was considerably cheaper than Hotel Sacher and the coffee was good.
Esterhazy-Keller - Schnitzel and Spargel cremesuppe
After putting it off for some time - finding the right place was important; a mixture of quality vs price - we had alighted of the train of thought and indecision and made our minds up. Schnitzel time. Neither of us could afford the ‘best’ version, with veal, so we would have to opt for the simple pork version of the country’s most famous bludgeoned, battered and fried meat slab.
Esterhazy-Keller was a cool underground tunnel-type restaurant, that had been there as wine cellars since 1683 and the Turkish War. The service was clipped and friendly and the wine was cheap.
To precede the pork we opted for a dish using an ingredient that we had noticed being peddled since Munich. Asparagus. It was expensive white asparagus and most eateries, during Spargel season, offered a side menu of asparagus-based dishes. We ordered a beautiful creme soup. Who knew white asparagus could make such a profound creamy bowl of liquid hot brilliance.
The Schnitzel came with its slice of lemon and, though tasty, failed to impress and the mind still boggles how it became so beloved. The side plate of Erdäpfelsalat was delicious. A soft and warm potato salad where the spuds are boiled and then tossed in vinegar and chicken broth, red onions, mustard and chives. Life changing potatoes.
Die Weinorgel - wines
Not much to report here. Great little wine bar to try local and foreign varieties. For such a glamorous city the bar is unusual in that it has massive baskets of free peanuts on the tables that can you crack open, eat, and throw the husks on the ground.
Bitzinger Wurstelstand - Käsekrainer
On the last night in Vienna centre we decided to be cultural and head to the Opera. One can line up forty minutes before any show and buy very cheap standing tickets for a few euros at a side entrance. A tip for the cheap/casual tourist. I don’t like Opera, but, when in…Vienna.
It was boiling hot inside. We were standing, sweating, squished together like the povvos we were, alongside students, older Austrians (who had claimed there space by tying scarves to the rails) and had to watch Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Shostakovich. It kicked off with discordant screaming, sorry, singing, then there was a rape scene, more horrid vocals, all the time we had no idea what was happening as, stuck in the middle between the two rails, we couldn’t see the translation screens. Then there was another rape scene. We left after forty-five minutes. I still don’t like opera.
To make ourselves feel better we headed to a famous wurst stand opposite: neon-lit and professional. I opted for the Käsekrainer: the giant cheese-filled wurst served in a bun with sauces. That, a cold beer, and the Vienna lights playing off the rain-soaked ground, made the operatic experience easier to digest.
I shall keep this brief as, should you have made it this far, you are either at the point of collapse or your stomach is bubbling and gurgling.
Vienna is a wine region. It is the only capital city to have its own designated wine region within the city limits. I already knew my German wines prior to coming, but the time in Salzburg had opened my eyes and liver to the brilliance of Austria. Its crisp, clean, apple-y Grüner Veltliner wines, its dark Zweigelts and its juicy Blaufränkisch. But to be able to visit vineyards so easily was an opportunity not to be passed up.
Unlike the traditional winery set up, Austria has Heurigen: wine taverns set in or next to the vineyards. They were traditionally places where the townsfolk would come and taste the ‘heurige’; the current vintage. Nowadays you can drink all the wines and most of the Heurigen have food on offer: delicatessen stalls inside where you can choose various nibbles to go with your glasses and carafes.
We took a metro to the end of the line, walked along the actually rather blue Danube, turned inland and uphill at dinky Nussdorf and suddenly were surrounded by lush green vineyards and views back to Vienna.
Buschenschank Worseg - Schinken with horseradish
Our first stop was round the back, up a hill, past a cemetery, and smothered in ivy and vegetation. Surrounded by vineyards - lines of bright green new growth shoots glowing under an unprecedentedly warm morning - this Heuriger was barely opening when we arrived for our first wine of the day.
The friendly owner brought us huge glasses of incredibly cheap and tasty Grüner from his winery along with a plate of cooked ham and fresh spicy horseradish piled up on some dark bread. This was already turning out perfect. We ordered two more glasses and petted the friendly local ginger cats that came to curl up on our laps.
Schübel-auer - Bärlauch, Liptauer, Bratlfett
This next Heuriger we quite literally stumbled into, still feeling cognisant, in the pretty eastern streets of Döbling. Schübel-auer dates from 1711 and had a very attractive and leafy inner courtyard resembling some old English mews or stable block.
We ordered carafes of white wine and then some food. Inside specialty spreads were the order of the day here. Liptauer - that paprika cheese, Bärlauch - a bright green herb gloop made with wild garlic, and Bratlfett; a sort of lardy meaty fat spread: all served with a basket of brown bread. Idyll.
Mayer am Pfarrplatz - Bratwurst, Sauerkraut, regional cheeses
500m away, down and up the attractive streets of this quietly stately neighbourhood, we arrived at the main event: Mayer am Pfarrplatz. This Heuriger has been producing wine since 1683 and in 1817 Beethoven lived there a while and worked on his 9th Symphony.
The inner courtyard was large, full of tables, and had trellised vines and little lamps providing an attractive ‘ceiling’ to our stay. We stayed here for some hours drinking and eating. First outside, then inside, then outside, then somewhere else inside. It all got a bit lost.
It started off professionally with glasses of Grüner and food ordered from the jolly and sassy Austrian lady at the food stall. Bratwurst with pickled cabbage and a wooden board of blue cheese, a nutty sheep cheese and some grapes and walnuts.
Things got less professional and more sloppy as the friendly waiters kept managing to convince us to order more Blaüfrankish…or was it Zweigelt.
Under the now dark sky we made our way back to the metro. We thought the walk would do us good. My memories from this last part of the night are less clear. The route is lost in my mind. But somewhere between Mayer am Pfarrplatz and the station we found one last Heuriger. It was modern and the man who came to the door said they were closing. I slurringly said that was fine, it was just that I had been investigating their wine region and was loving it.
We were invited in and joined a group of smoking individuals, whom I only dimly recall being a mixture of Michelin star chefs, wine lovers, and people with money. About 8 of them. A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The chap I was talking to showed me the barrels downstairs. The rest of the group gave us wine. I know we didn’t stay long and I do remember waking up in my hostel; so we definitely got home. As proof I also took a photo of the winery, so I know it happened. But it’ll remain a mystery past that.
Vienna. Austria. You stole my heart and my liver and I can’t wait to go back!