Every city has its own scent. It's said that Vienna smells of roses. This can turn out to be true when its many roses are in full bloom, but at all times when Vienna might best be characterized by its extremes. The savour of excess permeates the city, so powerful that the Austrian metropolis will never fail to offer the traveller fresh fascinations on each visit.
Vienna offers tourists a fragrant bouquet of contradictions. The countless layers to be explored include the different Viennas of Mozart, Freud, Nietzsche, Klimt, Loos and Kokoschka, all possibilities still to be savoured. The capital of a great empire with its opulence and architectural pomposity lives side by side with Loos's modernism. The austere modernist aesthetics of the 1920s in the conceptualism of the villa built for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's sister at Kundmanngasse 19. The Bulgarian Cultural Association is located behind its poster-plastered fence today. The wild and above all colourful world of Friedrich Hundertwasser, called the Gaudí of Vienna, offers a contrast to that white, ascetic villa. A performance artist and painter who came to prominence in the 1950s and 60s avant-garde - and was rather often arrested for wandering about naked - Hundertwasser was no architect, which fact is evident in the crooked, crazy lines of the building he dreamed up on the corner of Löwengasse and Kegelgasse from 1983 to 1985. Though it appears to be torn from a sketchbook, the structure miraculously holds together and can best appreciated in the late evening, when the flashbulbs of admiring tourists are fewer in number.
Then there's Adolf Hitler's Vienna. This was the city entranced the notorious future Führer in his youth. Hitler spent hours admiring the Opera, Parliament, and renowned Ringstraße, fascinated as if by a fairy tale scene from One Thousand and One Nights. Vienna retained its medieval walls longer than most major European capitals, until the middle of the 19th century. The Emperor Franz Josef remade the city between 1858 and 1888, ordering the demolition of the walls and constructing the showy boulevard. The Parliament and Rathaus as well as the University, Theatre and Bourse were built during his reign, as were the Art and History Museum buildings and the Opera, opening with Mozart's Don Juan. The Ring can be seen as the incarnation of the achievements of the new bourgeoisie of that era. Hitler arrived at age 17, wanting to study architecture at the Academy of Arts. Flunking the entrance examination, he stayed in the city a year. Though he had his father's inheritance, he hid this fact and lived in poverty, swelling his watercolours of Viennese scenes to Jewish tradesmen. Failing to gain entrance to the Academy a second time, he left the city and detested it for the rest of his life. He did visit once again, in 1938, as the Führer responsible for the Anschluss that joined his native Austria to Nazi Germany.
The Vienna Opera closed its doors in July of 1944 with a performance of Wagner's Götterdämmerung. American bombers confused it with the railway station and essentially destroyed in 1945. With the restoration of Austria's independence in 1955, the reconstructed Opera re-opened with Beethoven's Fidelio.
The Burg Kino has been showing Carol Reed's splendid film The Third Man a few times a week for decades. First screened in 1949, this movie has even inspired its own tour routes. Set in a divided post-war Vienna with a thriving black market and corpses adrift in the Danube, much of the city's architectural grandeur had survived as if by a miracle. Martin, an American pulp writer, accepts an invitation to Vienna from his old friend Harry Lime. Upon arrival, he's told that his friend has died in a tragic accident. In pursuit of the truth, Martin wanders through the carefully plotted labyrinths of classic film noir. Harry Lime's death turns out to be a fiction; quite alive, he's been selling penicillin on the black market. The film unfolds like a series of black-and-white postcards, with nearly all of the main sites of Vienna presented in an inimitably disturbing urban atmosphere. Even the central cemetery with the graves of Beethoven and Brahms makes an appearance. The bourgeois glamour that seems to run in Viennese blood still flows despite the war. When Harry Lime's girlfriend Anna is asked to the police station because of a forged passport, the policeman does not neglect to remind her of her forgotten lipstick.
The Wiener Riesenrad - the Ferris wheel in the Prater Park - where Martin meets the living Harry Lime has become iconic. Though the 19th-century park has numerous contemporary amusements, the overall impression is one of a rather provincial, kitschy charm and a perhaps somewhat spooky authenticity. The great Ferris wheel, 65 metres high and weighing 430 tonnes, was constructed for the jubilee of Franz Josef's coronation in 1897. The cabins are wooden carriages painted red; one mostly stands as in a streetcar as the wheel turns very, very slowly, making a revolution in about ten minutes. The first American-style roller coaster in Europe was also opened here in 1897. No matter how banal such attractions may sound, the same rule that applies to the Eiffel Tower applies here - at least one ride on the great wheel is simply an essential. The view of Vienna is definitely worth it, though its association with The Third Man is what revolves in the mind.
Understanding Vienna in a couple of days is quite simply impossible. Abandon any attempt to check the box next to every must-see attraction in the hectic pursuit of an all-encompassing visit; such a strategy can cause the brain to short-circuit and leave the crystal ball of what's inviting about Vienna in shards on an ancient stone floor. Instead, give your brain a much needed break by freeing up one day for aimless wandering. Sleep in and start with a visit to a café, no earlier than ten. Those who say that every Viennese has his or her café could be right. The café is after all a Viennese invention. The café can be like a second home for many locals. A place to talk or a place for urban meditation, the café is where one can spend hours with a book or newspaper without placing another food or drink order. Unlike in many another city, no one will seem perturbed. According to legend, it all began with an Austrian spy who, after the victory over the Turks, asked the reigning Hapsburgs to give him a sack of the defeated enemy's "camel feed" - coffee beans - as a prize and opened the first café. The retreating Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent is said to have left behind thousands of tonnes off the precious beans. The golden age of the café came much later, at the dawn of the 20th century, when these institutions became meeting-places for the city's vibrant intellectual circles. Unlike in Paris, where the chairs of café terraces are arranged so that the habitués are an audience for the passers-by on the boulevard, Vienna's cafés were always more inward-looking. They're a place for conversation, reading, and thought at any time of day, in any circumstances; a trip to the café is just the right thing at any moment. As Stefan Zweig wrote, the Vienna café is "a particular institution which is not comparable to any other in the world ... it is a sort of democratic club to which admission costs the price of a cup of coffee." Times have changed, of course, but the essence of this principle is still palpable in Vienna. You can at least try for it! Even a tourist can get closer to the city than tourism usually permits. Despite the brute "corrections" of the 20th century, the rhythm of a different Vienna is still tangible, offering a perspective like a favourite pair of scissors you'd rather sharpen than toss away. Socks can also be so darned, and any other well-loved, old thing similarly renewed.
Keywords: Vienna, essence