The following is part 1 of my sojourn through Vienna in search of art, culture and all things dulcet. Read on:
I totter at the precipice of a 352 m void with wind buffeting hard on my face and the prettiest girl in sight plastered to my body like second skin. The fact that I can’t see anyone else beside the girl does not vouchsafe much about the girl’s altruistic beauty, which in its mildest form would perhaps be ‘scintillating’. I stare deep into her hazelnut eyes and wonder why we hadn’t kissed yet since there remains no more than the gap of a hair between our lips. Her ashened face bespeaks of inner woes and unheralded troubles and she shivers wrapped around my body though the air up so high is warm. Her earlier boisterous mannerisms are now less obvious. I smile at her and grip her reassuringly. In the next fraction of a second we step off the platform and hurtle towards earth at spine shattering speed while we both scream till our lungs seem to burst – she in fright and I in exhilaration; for we had just jumped off from the world’s highest bungee pedestal. Welcome to the Danube Tower or ‘concrete needle’ as the locals call it. Shortly we are pulled up back on the platform and from there we find our way into the revolving restaurant from where, while sipping coffee and biting into delicious scones, we watch a majestic sun go down across the Danube marring the sky into myriad colours of orange and crimson. By now my companion has regained her courage and composure and urges me on for her to show me the night life of Vienna, which according to her, surpasses what I have witnessed so far.
Let’s now go back few weeks and retrace my path briefly to find why on earth, while in Austria, I am whiling away precious hours away from the majestic mountains and into the city that is synonymous with Baroque architecture and musical operas, not to mention the royal palaces and the wines and cafeterias. I have nothing against Vienna, mind you and it is among the very few real capital cities in the world that I like but if I had the powers over such things, for me the Austrian capital could be none other than Innsbruck.
That picture perfect township at the foothills of the snow covered ranges where I had my first alpine training is the one place where I always head whenever I head into Austria.
Sandwiched within the jagged ranges of Bavarian Alps and the Vorarlberg this headquarters of Tyrol province was solely created by God for the mountaineers and skiers and holiday makers who liked white over all colours. I have several friends in and around the area of Bregenz and in one such home, while helping myself to an oversized handmade clay oven baked pizza (which my much emaciated and bruised body badly needed) did I come across Cynthia of the auburn hair fame. Cynthia is the half sister of my friend’s wife and taught theatre in Vienna (where else could it be). She was visiting in the weekend for a show of her class in the open air theatre by the shores of Bodensee (Lake Constance). We were of equal age and we were introduced. Both my friend and his wife were seasoned climbers so Cynthia raises her eyes at me; not another alpinist for heaven’s sake, she gestures. My friend’s wife sensing that I was keen on Cynthia told her that I had other delicate and artistic inclinations as well. After which she quizzes me about Vienna where I fail miserably since to me Wien has always been an entry point into the country and nothing more. The delicate lady took pity on my ignorant self and managed to wriggle out a promise from me that on my way out through Vienna, I would for certain spend one day and night with her when she will show me the real world of art and culture. Later that evening we all go to see her play and is she brilliant! And was I looking forward to that day and night with Cynthia in Vienna!
Two weeks later as I haul my sorry ass into the train from Innsbruck heading east, I call up Cynthia to let her know of my impending arrival and that I do need an urgent and copious dose of art and culture to forget my near fatal fall in the company of her illustrious brother-in-law few days back. As I park myself sombrely into the bunk I wonder what on earth still makes me climb those insane mountains that were always conniving to kill me or maim me at the worst!
At the destined hour, late by two minutes only, the train rolls into Wien Main and I have no difficulty in finding the auburn hair flowing into the wind of my future Wien guide Cynthia. She chides me for my appearance and gives me a piece of her beautiful mind addressing me on behalf of all the climbers in this world as to what she thought of the likes of us. Which is not nice by any stretch of imagination and I promise to myself that I would do my best to upgrade my clan’s image and prestige in her world to the level of being ‘presentable’. Cynthia takes me home to her two room apartment and feeds me the nicest food on this side of Danube and then tucks me in a duvet bed that seems made of silk. I sink and slip into oblivion, grateful that my Austrian adventure for the year is finally over in this beautiful fairy’s home – little knowing what lay ahead in the day to come.
I rouse with the smell of strong coffee and open my eyes to glance at the radium dial of my climbing chronometer. It’s barely past seven in the morning and I hear my host stirring pots and pans in the kitchen that is connected to my room. Get ready, Cynthia coos handing me a cup of black coffee, and wear something nice, she adds. It’s the summer month of May and the day would be pleasant, so I pull on my only pair of jeans that had all its pockets in place and a round neck t-shirt of the Austrian Alpine Club. Cynthia quickly dislodges me off the t-shirt and supplies a full sleeve check shirt with blue and white raised squares that fit me well. We would breakfast on the way, my host says and off we go. She pulls out a funny contraption of a motorized bicycle and throws me a helmet as she straps into one. This is the only way we can see something worthwhile in a day (and night), she says. Even before I have managed to hook my fingers around the tail light, Cynthia dashes off into a lane and cuts across the tram line with the fury of a toreador. After weaving in and out of non-existent traffic we finally park outside Cafe’ Central. We enter the nearly empty coffee house and take up a two-seater table by an arched bay window. I am immediately taken aback by its vault like space and the high arched roof domes with long stemmed ceiling lamps and the columns.
I didn’t notice her order, but soon a pair of cups of coffee accompanied by two glasses of what looked like water and a newspaper appeared on our table served by a smiling waiter. What do you know about Wien, Cynthia asks in a tone that tells me that I better accept my total ignorance of such matters. I nod sideways in a fashion to show how worthless I feel at that moment. Viennese Cafes are an institution, a time bound tradition and don’t just sip your coffee but also look around; Cynthia says. I pity her students at her school. I look around and find the cafe warm, comfortable and nice to the point of being nostalgic. You may sit here the entire day and sip only coffee or read the newspaper or compose poetry or music and no one would ask you to leave; Cynthia says animatedly. I agree it has its advantage though couldn’t figure why anyone would spend an entire day inside a cafe unless he owned it or served in it. We order brown bagel and lemon tarts and wash them down with the coffee. Breakfast and a brief historical overview of Vienna and Viennese Cafe later we speed off into the cool day. The next stop takes my breath away in the literal sense of the expression.
We don’t have time to see all the churches and buildings worth seeing and you must absolutely see St Stephens Cathedral later so this we would see only from the outside; Cynthia gestures at a church that is perhaps the most spectacular form of Baroque architecture I had seen till then, and I had seen some. This is Karlskirche, one of the biggest Baroque style cathedrals in the world, my guide remarks. It is dedicated to Saint Karl Borromeo. All the different forms and elements of its facade collids with my vision and I can’t decide where to focus or from where to start looking at the entire canvas. The two columns engraved with allegoric tales from the life of the patron saint provide the perfect frame for the main cupola that is similar to Greek temples of the past. The front of the cathedral is taken up by an oval water tank that reflects the cathedral building in all its glory. Standing tall and regal against the blue azure, Karlskirche takes away my morning torpor and now I am ready for the Vienna wonders and lessons in art and music and all things dulcet.
Another mad dash through the now stirring streets and my guide literally dumps me in front of a square that I had seen before in movies though the name escapes me. Heldenplatz; Cynthia declares. This is our square of Heroes; she gestures, that’s Arch Duke Karl astride his horse, he defeated Napoleon in 1809 and there’s Prince Eugene of Savoy who repelled Ottoman Empire invasions. I look around endeavouring to grasp the enormity and magnificence of the square that stretches supremely symmetric in its entire dimension. From the square we walk to the entrance of Hofburg, Vienna’s erstwhile imperial castle. We enter and stride through the enormous complex where every possible architectural style—from gothic to art nouveau even medieval—jostles for attention. The library within along with the weapon museum lures me to stop and linger but my guide wouldn’t hear of it; as we have much more to unravel through the day. The butterfly glass house felt like a wonderland of its own and finally tucking in the world famous riding school we exit.
We rush along the Ring Boulevard, which would be the site of our evening promenade and possible soiree if I hear it right from Cynthia. We cross the imposing parliament building to our left with the erect statue of Athena and stop in front of the Burgtheatre. As I look at the imposing facade intricately carved colonnades of the white marble edifice I wonder at the rich tradition of such places. I am a man of nature and such display of opulence and man-made grandeur appears little out of taste to my senses. Cynthia bids me to move close to the walls and she points out the statues of Goethe and Schiller and many allegoric carvings of human emotions like love and despair. This is one of the finest theatres in the world; Cynthia utters, not only for its grand opulence but also for the quality of plays that it hosts, I guess you are not interested to see the interiors. I confirm that she guesses right. So off we go again taking in the turns and twists of Viennese street and fate, this time stopping in front of one of the most impressive and well known European facades – Belvedere Palace. Though the palaces stand far away from the street surrounded by a splendid park, there is no mistaking what I see. My guide is happy that I recognize the palace without aid. All is not lost, she murmurs as we dismount.
Belvedere Palace consists of two independent palaces; the lower was built before the upper one; Cynthia narrates as we walk through the garden. Commissioned by Prince Eugene of Savoy, the palaces are among the finest example of Baroque architecture in the world and presently house art museums showcasing Austrian Baroque art and paintings from 18th – 20th century. Arguably the Belvedere Park sported the finest alpine garden in all of Europe and as Cynthia confided has over 4000 plant species from the alpine ecosystem. I take in the garden and its resplendent plantations as we crunch atop the gravelled path. Tiered fountains, cascades and Baroque sculptures of mythological figures adorn the walkway. Cynthia orders me to pose in front of the fabled women-lion figure and clicks through her camera. As is customary, we hurry through the endless halls and corridors of both the palaces, I more impressed with the murals and ceiling frescoes and come out at the water basin where families with toddlers rest their weary limbs by the fountains.
As we walk towards the exit gates, Cynthia suddenly looks at her watch and utters a deep cry of anguish. No time to lose, let’s hurry, and off she goes like a vision on a mission. I sprint despite my torn ligament trying to catch her whiff in the air. We board her two-wheeled contraption totally out of breath. Through her heaving bosom Cynthia confides, it is almost noon. She doesn’t offer any further explanation and asking me to keep my mouth and mind shut, she races off, gunning her bike for all its worth. Is she a modern-day Cinderella I ponder; wouldn’t be surprised if she is, who would turn into a pumpkin at the strike of noon. We finally make it to wherever it is that she intended and Cynthia brings me hard against her back as she jams the brake at the corner of another ancient square of imposing presence. It is barely two minutes short of noon. Look, Cynthia gestures with her index finger raised to heaven where there is nothing but the same monotonous representation of Rococo architecture of two buildings joined by a bridge; beneath the centre of which stood a crowd of Japanese tourists, all gaping up at what seems from where I stand a clock made of mosaic motif. I run after Cynthia and join and wriggle through the Japanese tourists till we reach the ‘fish’ waving guide up front. And then the clock struck noon. Every neck in sight is raised up so do I and witness a strange spectacle.
The clock suddenly bursts out into extravagant music from bygone era, pipe organs, harp, violin, etc emanate from somewhere up there as a column of twelve figures from history emerge from one end and parades along the length of the bridge for our viewing pleasure. Cynthia excitedly points out the figure of Prince Eugen of Savoy, for whom she harbours a secret crush I vaticinate. This is the Anker Clock, Cynthia whispers into my ears, and it depicts the transition between life and death. Sure, I nod, and I am the grandson of Prince Eugen of Savoy, I add within the empty recess of my mind.