Saturday, November 20, 2010

Travel Essay: Vienna

The drone of early morning traffic trickles in through the thick double-paned kitchen windows and into our apartment in the heart of Vienna. I hear buses, cars and a couple of motorbikes, usual fare for a modern city. Then, distinct from the mix, I hear a familiar sound from a long time ago—the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves. In an instant I’m transported to my grandmother’s house in Mysore, to the sounds of jataka gaadis packed with children going off to school.

The memory propels me to look outside. I leave the water for the tea to boil on the stove and open the windows wide.

A shopkeeper spruces up the display case
in a candy/pastry shop.
There are no bars or screens and I can lean out far enough to see the ends of the street on both sides. Crisp sunshine bathes the multi-storeyed building across from our window. The air is fresh and holds the promise of pleasant weather. Stylishly dressed women walk briskly on the pavement, jackets and sweaters swinging on one arm. The owner of the art store downstairs rolls up the shutters. A couple of taxi cabs roll by and then the horse carriage comes into view.

The driver, sitting straight on his perch, guides his two horses and the carriage between rows of parked cars on either side of the street. A bus and two cars follow slowly behind, their drivers seemingly patient, their pace forced but stately. Then, as the carriage slows for cross-traffic at the intersection to my right, one of the horses decides to answer nature’s call and deposits copious amounts of waste in the middle of the street.

The sight rings a discordant note in the otherwise harmonious tableau outside the window, only because the street is otherwise spanking clean. The carriage continues on out of sight, as do the cars and the bus, leaving a messy street and making me wonder how the street manages to stay as clean as it does.

Half an hour later, I get my answer. An enormous machine slowly rumbles up the street, spraying water, scrubbing the street clean and scooping the mess right up into its bowels.

The new has figured out a way to live with the old.

When the Viennale, Vienna’s highly anticipated annual film festival (first held in 1960, this year will see the 48th event), lights up movie screens from 21 October-3 November, judges and film buffs new to the city are likely—in addition to settling disagreements on their way to crowning the winners—to notice one or two or 10 such discordant notes. They are bound to discover, however, that in a city so comfortable in its skin, such dissonance merely forms happy interludes in the mellifluous magnum opus that is Vienna.

Nowhere is the push-and-pull of the old and the new more obvious than at St Stephen’s Square (Stephansplatz) in the old city. The jaw-drop inspiring 12th century church of the Gothic variety dominates the pedestrian-only city centre. Straight across the cobbled street stands Hasshaus, a modern edifice of the shiny glass variety, whose catoptric facade offers a resplendent mirror image of the church.

Vienna’s most visually striking (and popular) example of departure from the norm, however, is Hundertwasser-Krawinahaus, an apartment complex designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Nestled in a quiet street off Weissgerberstrasse, amid street upon street of identical, monochromatic, linear buildings, the apartments of Hundertwasser-Krawinahaus are a world apart. They appear to be stacked whimsically one on top of the other—we don’t detect straight lines other than in the window frames—the walls and pillars coloured in as if by a child. The interiors are closed to visitors (a note on the front door politely explains how discombobulating it is to have strangers traipsing through their homes), but a few blocks away, Kunst Haus Wien, a museum, is a visual and tactile journey into Hundertwasser’s philosophy. The floor is bumpy and uneven; the walls are wavy; colours seem to explode, rarely ending in straight lines.

Hundertwasser-Krawinahaus confirms what we have been feeling ever since our jaunt around the old city on the day of our arrival in Vienna—this city likes to have fun. And it doesn’t hesitate to call upon monuments and other historical landmarks in its pursuit of modern versions of entertainment.

So what if Vienna is not on the sea? Its denizens are not about to pass up a day at the beach. The 21km-long Danube Island, the by-product of Vienna’s elaborate flood protection system, is the go-to place for summer fun.

For year-round fun, the city boasts an expansive fairground for children and adults alike, the Prater. The century-old Giant Ferris Wheel which has come to symbolize Vienna dominates the Prater. Not only is it not cooped up in a museum, it still functions well enough to offer rides. More than 60m off the ground as you reach the highest point, it offers a bird’s-eye view of the tile-roofed, chimneyed, steeple-chased inner city, the glass and steel high-rises and the apartment buildings in the outer reaches.

At Schönbrunn Palace, the magnificent summer residence of the Hapsburgs—itself an ode to the good life—we find workmen constructing a massive stage with floodlights and speakers for a concert the next day. Inside, the private rooms, salons, galleries and reception rooms are a remarkably well-preserved window into the life of an empire that lasted six centuries. They offer a view of a monarchy appreciative and encouraging of the arts—Mozart performed for Maria Theresa in the Hall of Mirrors when he was six years old.

Schonbrunn Palace

The gardens and the expansive grounds of the palace

Perhaps one may find warm, welcoming cafés, lively city centres, rich museums and palaces or a prolific artistic legacy in other world cities. But to find them all, and to find a love of tradition, an enthusiasm for innovation and a hankering for fun, all in one neatly wrapped brown paper package tied up with strings, is a tall order indeed.

The essay was originally published in Mint. The trip planner (by Ahmed Raza Khan of Mint) is here.