Wednesday, 17 September 2008


"London. Vienna. Unreal City." That's (roughly) the way the line goes in Eliot's The Wasteland. It couldn't be further from the truth. Many of the cities we've visited, even some of the bigger ones like Rome, Paris and Amsterdam, seem to be merely giant amusement parks, designed to entertain the world's tourists. You had to struggle to imagine people actually living and working there, and not just passing through for a couple of days sightseeing. Not so Vienna: this was a real city, with a strong sense of inhabitation and purpose, existing for reasons other than tourism. "Come here if you like," the Viennese seemed to say, "but don't expect us to pay much attention." This reverse-psycohology aptly employed by the birthplace of modern psychoanalysis definitely works - unlike the half-deserted, almost ghostly campsites we'd encountered in Prague, Krakow and Bratislava, the one in Vienna positively buzzed.

Once we'd ventured in we could see why the tourists flock to Austria's capital. It's strange but after only days in Berlin we had the (probably totally mistaken) sense that we'd seen and done all it had to offer us, or at least all we wanted to do and see. Ditto Paris. Not so Vienna: we could have stayed a week and still felt we'd left significant bits unexplored. Yet why is hard to say.

Vienna lacks a defining monument - it has nothing to rival the status of the Eiffel Tower or the Berlin Wall - but that probably works to its advantage. There's no one thing you can do or see to feel that you have "done" Vienna. Go to Pisa, see the leaning tower, tick box. Go to Cordoba, see the Mezquita, tick box. The closest you get in Vienna is going to coffee houses for torte mit schlagobers, a box we ticked several times, though even those listed in the guidebooks had a larger local contingent than a tourist one.

We did go to the Belvedere Museum to see Gustav Klimt's "Kiss", though I was more taken by some of his other, smaller pieces, plus other assorted artworks. We did wander along the Danube, taking a ride to the long, thin, Island park that runs between two of its widest channels. (I was actually quite surprised at both the size of the Danube this far from its mouth - it's huge! - and also at the fact that old Vienna isn't actually all that close to the river so synonymous with it. In fact the city is named after the Wien river which flows through it to the Danube.) We admired the various parks, museums, palaces, monuments and churches. Kate bought some new boots - shopping is definitely a prime tourist pastime in Vienna. And yet, from the U-bahn and tram windows we could see miles and miles of intriguing unexplored city stretching before us.

I'd happily go back.

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