On the rebound: resilient Vienna nourishes body and soul through pandemic

Vehicle in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, Military History Museum. (Alan Behr / TNS)

I finally arrived at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna 18 months late, with three Pfizer injections on my file and with relief that I finally arrived from there with my body and mind intact. I had postponed this business trip just days before the pandemic sealed the borders as completely as war could. But I was there, basking in front of a real Viennese breakfast, feeding myself with a spoon from the hotel’s signature pastry, the Sachertorte, and washing it with the house sparkling wine.

The staff delivered to my suite the three packages I had sent to myself just before the lockdown began: a package of surgical masks still needed, a box of flashcards in German into Italian (for future adventures) and, the most importantly, the long awaited dark gray single-breasted wool three-piece suit from my London tailor, Henry Poole & Co.

I had only recently spent long months, either roaming a desolate Manhattan or quarantined, growing my beard and then shaving it off after my college boy said it made me look like an unemployed platypus. While gazing with mannered enthusiasm at the screens pampered by Zoom, I hadn’t worn any socks or shoes, let alone a bespoke suit cut by the tailors of Dickens, Disraeli and Churchill. And yet I was there, having breakfast in a grand hotel frequented by royalty, celebrities and the simple rich, looking quite normal. Only a crook on parole could have felt so implausibly grandiose.

The Sacher hotel is owned by the Leading Hotels of the World, which recently opened the Leaders Club rewards program to members for free – and that explains how I got involved in a therapeutic treatment in the hotel spa which consisted of being coated. of a chocolate cream that leaves your buttocks skin smooth. Then it was time to get down to business, somehow, with a visit to the Military History Museum (its slogan is “Wars Belong in a Museum”). It contains what I consider to be the most important automobile in history: the square olive-green Graef & Stift convertible in which the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was sitting when, in June 1914, he and his wife, Sophie, were fatally shot by a South Slavic nationalist. This set off the chain of events that led to World War I and, in dotted lines, most of what followed in European history for the rest of the century.

Dawn brought in a new round of Sachertorte and sparkling wine, which may sound even more therapeutic than a spa, but I doubled it all down by visiting the newly renovated and expanded Sigmund Freud Museum. The museum is housed in the apartment, famous at Berggasse 19, which was both the office and the residence of the founder of psychoanalysis. The exhibition spaces now encompass living quarters and the office, and you can start your personal tour in either direction and stroll through rooms with videos explaining Freud’s contributions. You’ll also see some of his personal artifacts, ranging from his signed doctor’s kit to a display case filled with selections from his treasured collection of antiques. The displays in the surprisingly airy and sunny rooms are sensitively labeled in German and English.

It was a compelling way to engage as a tourist with the style of therapy I grew up with. (Talking about his problems was considered therapeutic until, during this century, it was replaced by shopping and litigation.)

I remembered that on my first visit to Vienna decades ago, I called my grandmother and told her that when she lived in Vienna as a teenager, her apartment was a five-minute walk from Freud. “Grandma,” I asked her, “Why didn’t you go? It would have done you good. I have visited its old building now, and as with so many things in historic Vienna, the facade had barely changed.

Sigmund, a well-traveled comfort monkey, in the museum at the house of his namesake Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund, a well-traveled comfort monkey, in the museum at the house of his namesake Sigmund Freud. (Alan Behr / TNS)

The Vienna of my grandmother’s time was renowned for its intellectual and artistic vigor. It was possible, at the Café Central, to meet Dr Freud, the Zionist pioneer Theodor Hertzl, the novelist Stefan Zweig, a young Leon Trotsky (already plotting to overthrow the Tsar) and an even younger and resentful Adolf Hitler (already twice rejected admission to the Academy of Fine Arts). I refreshed myself there with a Grosser Brauner (analogous to a double espresso), which in Vienna is always served with Leitungswasser dazu (a separate glass of tap water).

Sculpture of the poet Peter Altenberg (1859-1919), a memorable regular, Café Central.

Sculpture of the poet Peter Altenberg (1859-1919), a memorable regular, Café Central. (Alan Behr / TNS)

As grandmother would have done, I spent the evening at the Volksoper for a performance in German of the classic musical “My Fair Lady”. Used here in place of the Cockney dialect that the main character, Eliza Doolittle, was trained to put aside both in the distinctly Shavian play and its lighter musical adaptation was a thick Viennese dialect that I strove to follow. But both the translation and the production worked in all respects.

With Austria being both the country of origin and the main exporter of many of the world’s top chefs, it was only natural that I would see a variety of dishes at an indoor-outdoor food festival, held in a fancy concert hall. Renaissance, the Kursalon Huebner, at the Stadtpark (city park). My favorite find: a made-to-order marzipan monkey, from the local Oberlaa pastry and confectionery.

I met Robert Pukenhofer, who did what is highly respected in Vienna: he carried on an important Austrian tradition. He relaunched the watch brand of Carl Suchy & Soehne, formerly watchmakers to the royal family and Dr Freud. The design of his first watch, the aptly named Waltz No. 1, refers to the work of Austrian modernist architect Adolf Loos. As I have repeated in legal texts, “the brand is a story”, and Carl Suchy’s skilful relaunch is skillfully based on this essential point. The wristwatch is both contemporary and respectful of its history, just like the table clock that the brand launched the day after my departure and that Mr. Pukenhofer kindly showed me in preview.

Robert Putenhofer of Carl Suchy & Soehne with a historic pocket watch and pictures of the new Waltz No. 1 watch.

Robert Putenhofer of Carl Suchy & Soehne with a historic pocket watch and pictures of the new Waltz No. 1 watch (Alan Behr / TNS)

It was supposed to happen, even in Vienna, but the professional part of my visit started the next day and kept me fully occupied for the duration. Fortunately, one of my contacts suggested that I have lunch at Steirereck, a sunny restaurant in City Park which, under the direction of chef Heinz Reitbauer, holds two Michelin stars. I had split lamb tenderloin from the restaurant’s farm, and for dessert, Java coffee – a chocolate dough lined with mousse and topped with coffee sauce. My colleague had Wiener schnitzel, Vienna’s signature dish that’s on the menu of the city’s great and humble restaurants, but which was prepared here to Michelin star standards, with fluffy breadcrumbs surrounding perfectly milk-fed veal. cooked.

Although I try to avoid indulging in two gourmet meals in one day (Tums tourism, I call it), this would be my last night in town, and everything would have been incomplete for me if I hadn’t. not done, as I usually do, my last dinner at the Rote Bar (Red Bar) in the Sacher. Despite its name, this is a full service restaurant offering Austrian cuisine and home to some of the most enjoyable piano music in the world. The meal started with hearty game and turned into a selection of homemade sherbet scoops. And that was it for Vienna – but not quite.

Realizing that I had once diverted my plane trip to avoid missing a last breakfast at the Sacher, I left plenty of time for that now. The hotel delivered me the Sachertorte that I had bought for the return trip (packed, by tradition, in wooden crates). They were loaded into a spare shoulder bag I had brought for this purpose, and it was goodbye Vienna for now.

I suggest that when planning your trip to Vienna you keep in mind that it is four times the size of Paris and almost as populated. Indeed, Vienna’s unabashed breadth and grandeur may surprise first-time visitors: it is a former imperial capital in a small country best known in North America for its earthy alpine charm (which is real but occurs throughout the world. ‘other end of Austria). In short, whatever time you think you need for Vienna, add at least one more day or you may come away feeling like you’ve been wrong.

While the pandemic may, out of necessity, temporarily dampen the Viennese party spirit, it was delightful to see this fully on display once again. The new attitude, both optimistic and practical, is that science has done what it can so far; let’s jump a cork as we would have done before and get on with our life. To go anywhere in town, you must show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test and wear a medical grade mask. But this is Vienna, where Europe has long come to talk, drink, eat, play Mozart, bathe in chocolate and maybe plan a revolution. And so it happily remains.

The nave of Stephansdom, Vienna Cathedral.

The nave of Stephansdom, Vienna Cathedral. (Alan Behr / TNS)


Sacher Hotel: www.sacher.com Where www.lhw.com.

Steirereck im Stadtpark: www.steirereck.at.

Cafe Central: www.cafecentral.wien.

Military History Museum: www.hgm.at.

Sigmund Freud Museum: www.freud-museum.at.

Volksoper: www.volksoper.at.

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