A short visit to Vienna

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed – and I flatter myself there are a few regular readers – I haven’t been around much lately: I’ve been enjoying a few days in Vienna. And no – I won’t put up my holiday snaps: they aren’t, frankly, very good, and if you really want a flavor of what Vienna looks like, a quick browse through Google Images will give you a far better impression than any snaps taken with my cheap digital camera.

Oh, very well then – I admit it: I forgot to pack my camera. But really, there’s no harm done. Enjoyment of a place is by no means enhanced merely by pointing a camera and snapping. Indeed, one may argue – as I certainly did, very vehemently, when my wife reprimanded for not having packed the camera – that enjoyment of a moment is intensified rather than otherwise by our awareness of its transience; and that, as Louis MacNeice put it,

We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold

Not even, MacNeice may have added, with a cheap digital camera.

In many ways, Vienna is an endless celebration of kitsch. One knew that right away as the plane landed at Vienna Airport with the Blue Danube waltz piping out to the passengers. It’s all Viennese waltzes and Viennese whirls, chocolate cakes and apple strudels. And, like any major European city, tacky souvenir shops.

I have a fascination with tackiness: I love browsing through cheap and tasteless souvenirs. The souvenir shops in Vienna are dominated by Mozart: Mozart coffee mugs, Mozart fridge magnets, Mozart mouse-mats, Mozart t-shirts, Mozart ties and scarves – anything at all you may care to imagine, but with a picture of Mozart on it. Why this unremitting focus on Mozart I wonder? After all, Beethoven was equally a resident of Vienna, and was no lesser a composer. There are also Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, and many, many others. Had any of these other composers been immortalised in tacky souvenirs, I would have been tempted: if I had seen, say, a Gustav Mahler coffee mug, or an Alban Berg baseball cap, I’d have had my wallet out right away. But these, I admit, I viewed and passed on.

Of course, I had to make a pilgrimage to the Big Ferris Wheel at the Prater. I may not look or sound like Orson Welles, but I’ve seen The Third Man so many times over the years that I know Harry Lime’s dialogue by heart. I was going to recite the Cuckoo Clock speech at the foot of the big wheel, but at the last moment, decided I’d look something of a fool if I did, and chickened out. Perhaps I should have gone ahead with it: a few minutes of looking a fool is, after all, a fair price to pay for having been Harry Lime – if only for just those few minutes.

And then, there was the Wiener Staatsoper, where I had cheapish seats for Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. I was never was much of a ballet fan, to be honest, but I do love Tchaikovsky’s score, and, as far as I was concerned, hearing this music played so beautifully was worth the admission price on its own. So the restricted view didn’t really bother me much. However, when I stood up (I was at the back of a box with no-one behind me), I did get a pretty good view of them all prancing round to the music. And pretty damn good they were too.

And then, the art galleries. Vienna’s most famous artist, Gustav KlimtI have never really liked: I have no idea how to define “kitsch” or “schmaltz”, but whatever they mean, that’s what I see in Klimt. And seeing his works face to face did not, I’m afraid, change my perception. Egon Schiele I found far more interesting. But – cultural conservative that I no doubt am – the greatest pleasure was a whole day spent at the Kunsthistorischesmuseum, which has one of the most wonderful collections of any gallery –  Bruegel, Dürer, Holbein, Titian, Velazquez, etc. etc. And three splendid late Rembrandt self-portraits. And Vermeer’s extraordinary The Art of Painting. And some paintings by Caravaggio – most notably the Madonna of the Rosary – that fair took my breath away: I had seen this in reproduction before, but nothing quite prepares you for the experience of seeing this monumental work in the flesh, as it were.

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

And speaking of flesh, there was Rubens. Lots and lots of Rubens. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – he who is tired of large naked ladies in fur wraps is tired of life itself.

So I’ll leave you with one of the old boy’s most seductive works. (And hopefully, I’ll be back soon to writing about books.)

"The Fur Wrap" by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

“The Fur Wrap” by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

14 responses to this post.

  1. That museum is almost beyond belief.

    Salzburg is, as you might guess, even more full of Mozart kitsch, although with a bit more of an excuse. Maybe the dominance of Mozart in Vienna is just spillover from Salzburg.


  2. Posted by Alvin Rutledge on March 3, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    Being such a fan of the movie “The Third Man,” you may be interested in taking the walking tour of sites where the movie was filmed. Unfortunately, having never taken the tour myself, I can’t vouch for it.



    • Hello Alvin, and welcome.

      I hadn’t realised there was available a Third Man tour. I know one can take a tour of the sewers, but I decided to give that one a miss… Carol Reed made another film based on a Graham Greene script – “The Fallen Idol”, which, in its own way, seems to me every bit as good as “The Third Man”. Both films are among my regular ones for late nights on weekends.
      Cheers for now,


  3. Speaking of cliches, I wonder if the Rosenkavalier train is still running. I took it back in 1990 all the way to France. The major Mozart and fridge magnet fan that I am I can’t wait to go there and load up on Wolfie fridge magnets.


    • I’m afraid I have no idea of the Rosenkavalier train – but if it is what it sounds like – i.e. lushness and luxury – I’d be on for it. I am increasingly enjoying Strauss these days. A lush and opulent orchestral sound, beautiful soprano voices soaring upwards … what’s not to like? I think I’m becoming sybaritic with old age…


  4. Posted by Brian Joseph on March 4, 2014 at 6:44 am

    I really need to get to Vienna someday myself.

    In addition to what you mentioned, I find that over enthusiastic photographers actually make distracting and ever so slightly annoying travel partners.


    • I enjoyed Vienna, but it was, perhaps, a bit too chocolate-boxy for me. Of the great cities I have visited, I like London where I live; Edinburgh is very beautiful; and for historic monuments, you can’t beat Rome or Delhi. But then again, I’m not particularly well travelled.


  5. The Kunsthistorischesmuseum is fabulous. We spent so much time with the Vermeer back in October that I think the staff began to worry. Meine Frau remembered her camera, happily. We also went to the Haydn House, which was very nice, and close to our pension. I’m a big fan of Haydn so just being in those empty rooms was good enough for me. How is the weather right now? We had gorgeous fall days and a good hike through the Schwartzwald.

    We took the train from Prague, and so missed the Strauss serenade at the airport.


    • The weather was very pleasant – slightly on the chilly side, perhaps, but the big coat I took over from Britain stayed in the hotel wardrobe.

      I know what you mean about visiting the houses of people one admires. And Vienna is full of such houses – Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven – and Mozart too, of course. In London, there’s Dickens House (where he stayed for a few years before moving to Rochester in Kent), Handel House, Keats’ birthplace in Hampstead, and many others I am forgetting right now, I’m sure. I also enjoy Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere. The Bronte Parsonage i have visited quite often, as my mother lives not too far from there.


  6. Salzburg makes Vienna look positively gritty by contrast, it’s kitsch-central. It’s also lovely though and I highly recommend it for a weekend stay.

    There’s some great food in Vienna, though generally pretty heavy. I find it an impressive city, not one I love I admit but it has a definite grandeur.

    I missed the museum when I was there. I had no idea they had such an extraordinary Caravaggio. I’ll tell my wife, as it’ll bump it well up the revisit queue. We did, of course, do the ferris wheel.

    I agree on photos by the way. I don’t take them. I’m there, then, then I’m not. Taking a photo would simply make me less there then, I’d be there taking a photo then instead.

    As I get older my musical tastes run more to the abstruse, minimalist and discordant. Never solely that though.

    Glad you enjoyed the trip.


    • As an connoisseur of kitsch, I think I’d enjoy Salzburg!

      Yes, there was certainly god food in Vienna, but given that i have to look after my blood sugar these days, I’m on a no-sugar diet: which means I had to pass on all the cakes and pastries. Even more seriously, I have to limit my boozng!

      The art collection in Vienna was wonderful, but it’ seasy to take for granted the National gallery in London, which has a collection at least as remarkable, and is only a few miles from where I live. I really should make a point of visiting it more frequently!


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