The warmth of your hand
And a cold grey sky
It fades to the distance
The feeling has gone only you and I
It means nothing to me
This means nothing to me
Ultravox – July 1980
Central Europe. December. It’s a long time since I’ve been here, and the feeling has eluded me recently, but perhaps it’s never quite gone away.
Cold, dark night. A clearing sky, with the promise of frost on the way. The screech of a tram rounding the corner behind me. Expensive shops, dramatically decorated for the season. Fantastic displays of pastries and chocolates, beckoning from warmly lit windows. Thronging Christmas markets, selling enough candles to light up the whole of Lower Austria. Elegantly dressed folk, scurrying through Stephansplatz on the way out to dinner, or lingering sociably in the street to drink steaming hot punch on their way home from work or shopping. We join them. It has to be done.
The veil of Christmas lights falls like a curtain down Kärntnerstrasse, leading my colleague and I to the Architecture Quarter. I’m sure it’s not actually called that, in any of the guidebooks, but that is what it is. A whole sector of Vienna, which is just stuffed full of the most superb and dramatic buildings that you’ll find, anywhere in the world. The glory of the Austro-Hungarian empire is not just preserved here – it lives. And if Mozart himself were to walk around the next corner to meet us, frankly neither of us could be in the least surprised, for this part of the city is surely just as he left it. It’s an architectural theme park of the highest order.
We stand outside the Hofburg Palace, gazing at the intricate gold relief of the roof, the million fine details which go to complete this picture, and we fall silent. For really, there is not that much which you can add to perfection.
We stroll on to Stephansplatz, dominated in the dark by the huge floodlit roof of the cathedral. A zig-zag pattern of precipitous tiles looming floodlit over the square. I can’t imagine who could have come up with this mad design feature, or even which audacious official approved the plans. It must have looked bizarre on the blueprints. But it works.
There’s no fixed plan this evening, but we have to find some food. Eschewing the tourist haunts with their international menus and pictures of uniformly unimaginative sausage and chip dishes, we search around for a restaurant which is somehow more, well, Viennese. But how to find it ? My Spanish profesora gave me the traveller’s secret, long ago one hungry evening in Zaragoza. ‘Just ask a fat policeman’, she said. ‘They always know where to eat’. We’d tried her strategy, that very night, and it had worked, brilliantly.
We hunt around for culinary advice, but there’s not a copper to be seen. They were probably toting their leather jackets and pistols on the fast Autobahn to the airport. I try the next best thing, and go into a baker’s shop, serving warm Apfelstrudel and Kirschentorte, and ask the roundest assistant behind the till. She’s not sure, still recovering from the laughable sound of an Englishman speaking German with a rich but rusty Swiss accent (think of Jan Molby’s comically broad Scouse, or Peter Schmeichel’s Mancunian, and that puts you right there). A friendly local comes to our aid, pointing us around the corner to find the marvellously welcoming Plachutta. ‘Man kann dort sehr gut essen‘, she says. They eat well there.
And I can tell you now, she wasn’t wrong. Two hours later, after a couple of the biggest Rindsuppen and beef Schnitzel Spezialitäten, we emerge warmer and wiser back into Wollzeile. We will never be Viennese, but in ordering Tafelspitz, my colleague at least has eaten half of Vienna itself tonight, and we are at one with the city.
It’s been seven years since last I was here. I was a new runner then, and Vienna offered the backdrop to some marvellous early runs. A couple of 7 am outings around the fountains and flower beds of the Stadtpark. And one day I’d taken a number 38A bus up to the top of the Kahlenberg, high above the city, and run many miles down through vineyards, past ripening grapes all the way to the banks of the Danube and then back into the centre. That was late summer, but this is a colder season, not so conducive to running, and in any case I’m still laid up at the moment.
Tonight, on my last evening, I decide to hail Shanks’ Pony for the return journey from the Luxmarkt back to the hotel. It’s only five stops on the metro, although it turns out to be the better part of an hour’s walk through the cold winter evening. There’s no snow, just ceaseless traffic on the Linke Wienerzeile as I head reluctantly out of this renaissance utopia and through the bleak fifties and blank sixties suburbs that inevitably must surround even the most perfect of architectural wonderlands.
The long, cold walk offers welcome exercise and reflection time for an injured runner. You can substitute as much swimming as you like, and I’ve splashed another fifty lengths today and there’s another hundred in the plan before I fly home, but it just doesn’t cut it as a catalyst to quality contemplation.
Sure, I can think about stuff when I’m swimming. But it’s hard to truly ponder whilst counting (imagine the torture of getting up to seventy-something and forgetting how many lengths you’d done), and whilst ensuring you don’t absent-mindedly drown amidst those breathless front crawl lengths. And the scenery doesn’t change much. This hotel pool is superb, with a waterfall at one end, and an outlook from the poolside across the roofs to the Stephansdom. But however great that view, you can’t actually see any of it when you’re swimming.
So now, in the long and cold December night, I can just walk and think. And I think I’ll be back. Oh, Vienna.
119. Schönbrunn, Vienna
74. God Jul: from Copenhagen to Crawley
149. In at the deep end – Stratford 220 Sprint Triathlon
56. Paris – a view from the Champs de Mars
63. Henry VIII’s consumption and the rocky road to running ruin