Somebody once described Vienna as a top opera performed by understudies. The remark was unquestionably witty, but utterly false when it was made. It is perfectly true today, however. During the 650-year rule of the Habsburgs, Vienna reigned supreme, an opera sung by its greatest stars. It is the present-day Vienna, which has lost its empire, its imperial family and its power, that is sung by the understudies. I’ve just spent three days there, in Harry Lime time.
Okay, close your eyes and imagine the Grand Canal with just a few gondolas and no behemoth floating horrors, the Bridge of Sighs without the crowds of visiting Chinese beneath it, the Spanish Steps with only Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, and Vienna with no tourists but a solitary Harry Lime lurking in the shadows. That was the Austrian capital last week. The only thing missing was the theme to The Third Man, played on a zither by Anton Karras. It was the first day of freedom and the usual deluge of visitors was still stuck behind the Great Wall of China.
With its baroque streetscapes and rambling imperial palaces, its winding cobbled lanes and art-filled museums, the city is a magnet for tourists. What the Turks failed to accomplish — they were stopped at the gates — our Chinese, American and Latin cousins have managed: Vienna’s Ring is permanently under siege by the 21st century’s most lethal virus, mass tourism. Last week, though, I had the whole place to myself, walking up and down the pedestrian-only Kärntner Strasse, along with a few bikers and some normally unfriendly Viennese.
Saying that Vienna is steeped in history is a cliché, like calling Emily Maitlis a left-wing publicity hound. The capital’s music heritage alone makes the city unique. Next to the Hotel Sacher I noticed a plaque saying that Vivaldi had lived there. Add Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler, and let’s not forget the Strausses, Johann and Richard. There were also a few pretty good sketchers collected by the Habsburgs — Dürer, Velazquez, Titian and Rubens — not to mention a guy called Klimt. As the hub of the Holy Roman Empire and the last bastion of the West against the brutal Turks, Vienna ruled from Portugal and Spain all the way to Bratislava and beyond: 650 years of benevolent Christian rule and high culture. The Austro-Hungarian empire made the EU look like the midgets they are, although some 20 years ago the dwarfs forced Jörg Haider and his Freedom Party to step down or else.
Six-hundred-and-fifty years of dead Habsburgs must have turned in their royal graves at such a humiliation. Belgian midgets forcing Austrians to capitulate. Gott im Himmel! Never mind, the place is a socialist republic and there’s no room for brave men to tell the bureaucrooks to get stuffed. The longest period of peace in Europe — 99 years — was conceived at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Metternich and the Prussians treating the recently defeated French with magnanimity, thus ensuring peace. Compare that with the greatest jerk ever, Woodrow Wilson, who not only brought America into the war for no reason, but then punished Germany unnecessarily in order to play the tough guy. His peace lasted 20 years.
My reason for coming to Vienna was my daughter’s new flat, situated between the Belvedere palaces of Prince Eugene and the Schönburg palace, which should rightly be mine but is now used for all sorts of functions that exclude the poor little Greek boy. I walked along Rainergasse, carpet-bombed during the war and hideously rebuilt with modern horrors after it, where the Schönburgs had put up their modest dwelling in the 17th century. It’s been painted recently and the gardens looked wonderful, but the fact that the place where my father-in-law and all his brothers and sisters grew up is now used for vulgar functions made me quite sad.
Again, never mind. I walked around the magnificent Belvedere and its sculpture-strewn gardens — the Klimt gallery and its masterworks were closed owing to you-know-what — and looked down on the beautiful capital that has seen so much for so long. The place drips with history, museums galore and famous cafés. The night before I had walked alone with Alexandra in Vienna’s magnificent Hofburg palace complex, and there was not a soul in sight. We smelled the waltzing horses of the Spanish Riding School, passed its distinctive landmark, St Stephen’s Cathedral, and contemplated how all this grandeur remains only as a museum.
Poor Sisi, the beloved wife of the last emperor stabbed by some crazed leftie in Geneva. She walked for a mile before dying. Franz Joseph himself lived long enough to see one son kill himself at Mayerling, a nephew assassinated at Sarajevo, and a world war that would bring down everything his family had done. I still think that, of all wars, the first world war produced the greatest tragedy. Three great dynasties fell — Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov — to be followed by such nice guys as Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. What they should have done, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, was round up ten Serbs and shoot them. Then all three emperors should have gone to Baden-Baden to take the waters and get drunk.
Vienna embodies this tragedy: the once proud capital of an empire that ruled benevolently is now a museum city of ghosts whose past splendours are goggled by people in funny hats. Still, I’d rather be here than in Minneapolis.
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