Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

The number of Germans living in Vienna has risen 78% since 2001, reported Die Presse recently. They are drawn by a quality of life that tied for international third best in Mercer Consulting’s latest survey, a standing which owes much to Vienna’s former role as capital of the Holy Roman Empire. After five centuries at the center of Western wealth, the city has an inordinately large number of palaces, well-kept gardens, and clean, beautiful streets. Meanwhile, that other German-speaking national capital, Berlin, is known for its scruffy patchwork appeal, a reconstructed flavor that speaks of bombed-out buildings, the Berlin Wall, and the misery of the last century. It is notoriously rough around the edges and lacking in Old World charm. As a resident of the latter city, I wanted to find out for myself what the Habsburg enclave to the south had to offer, and headed down for Easter weekend.

The necessary immersion in the great traditions of music, royalty, and decadent pastries began with an evening at the Konzerthaus. This is the venue where the Wiener Mozart Orchester performs a “greatest hits” rendition of the genius’ ouvre, including selections from A Little Night Music, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute among others. While purists might scoff at the alternation between beloved movements and roof-raising arias, these are also the context-snobs who made fun of you for buying the Beatles’ One compilation, so pay no mind and enjoy the music. Besides, this seemingly modern “Classics-Lite” approach is actually a tradition founded by similar “Musical Academies” at the end of the eighteenth century. The only challenge was staying alert during the rather drowsy stretch from the Requiem, which the composer worked on as he slowly succumbed to a mysterious illness.

To hear more about conspiracy theories surrounding this illness, as well as about Mozart’s inveterate extravagance in clothing and illegal gambling, the Mozarthaus near the Stephansdom cathedral is the place to go. Its barren rooms lack authentic objects but the curators have filled the walls with pictures and the audio guide is there to ensure that every detail of Mozart’s life is filled in. Their picture of wealthy patronage feeding the fanatically egotistical child star is much complemented by a pre-trip viewing of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, which won the 1984 Best Picture Oscar (and several more.)

True fans—or anyone in need of caffeine after an hour of biographical sketches—can walk a couple minutes from the museum over to the cafe Frauenhuber at Himmelpfortgasse 6, the coffee house where Mozart allegedly hung out. The typical Viennese drink is called a MĂ©lange, which Berliners will recognize as a poor man’s Milchkaffee, that is, coffee and hot milk mixed together, here with less milk than up north. That may, however, be to save room for the proud array of artery-clogging sweets sitting smugly behind the glass counter. The toughest choice visitors to Vienna must make is between Sachertorte, the triple-chocolate classic invented here—Oreo, take note—the hazelnut-flavored Esterhazy, and the dependable classic apple strudel, a less crusty version of our stateside pie.

After three days of such decisions, my sweet tooth began to ache. I wasn’t craving sugar any more, but rather spice—the controversy of Berlin, where modern history keeps the populace feisty and up in arms. Recent arguments include how to commemorate the Berlin Wall and how large the pensions of East Germany’s Draconian secret jails should be. Berlin’s most important palace is one they are ripping down, the Communist-era Palace of the Republic, to much outcry from former Eastern residents and historical preservationists. In contrast, Vienna’s palaces quietly became government buildings or art museums as the city slid genteel-y into modernity, its picturesque streets barely registering the last century’s catastrophes.

However, this rather charming transition does give tourists much to “ooh” and “ah” over. Since my capacity for looking at pretty things is no smaller than the next person’s, I thoroughly enjoyed gazing at masterpieces in the mansions of the titled families who once collected them. Of particular note are the Albertina’s spectacularly re-created chambers, open to the public only since 2003, and the Belvedere’s gorgeous halls, which house a truly impressive cache of Art Nouveau masterworks by Gustav Klimt, including his infamous The Kiss (1907-8). The Museumsquartier complex should also be on every culture hawk’s itinerary, especially admirers of recent and contemporary art who want to avoid the trips out to individual collections (and are perhaps sick of all the frippery.)

On the other hand, royalists of all flavors, particularly Habsburg buffs, will appreciate touring the apartments of Emperor Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) in the central Hofburg, as well as the Versailles-like Schönbrunn complex slightly outside of the city center. While the former showcase the modesty of modernizing monarchs, the latter exhibits such recent restraint as well as the earlier lavishness of Empress Maria Theresa, who spared no expense.

Many, many canvases, tapestries, statues, and manicured lawns later, it isn’t hard to understand Vienna’s attraction. It is a lovely place to spend a packed weekend, soaking up beauty the way one soaks up sun on beach getaways. But like Empress Sisi herself, I grew restless with all the courtly backdrops and was happy to be back in Berlin on Monday, where the newspapers were full of arguments and my taxi driver started a political discussion about the Turks. Only this time they weren’t the Ottomans laying siege at the gates of Vienna, but rather the community of families in my neighborhood. After a brief jaunt to the past, I was firmly and gratefully back in 2007.

1 comment:

Aquilifer said...

I visited Vienna 29 years ago & still haven't been to Berlin. Maybe I went to the right place after all....