There’s always the sun
The Stranglers, October 1986
As I wake in my hotel in the eastern city suburbs at 7 am, I can still hear the strains of the Viennese Boy’s Choir departing from their programme to sing ‘Jerusalem’ at last night’s client reception. I can still picture the grandeur, imperial opulence and enormous chandeliers of Vienna’s Coburg Palace.
And I can still taste that final beer I slugged much later in the hotel bar. At the time, there had seemed no better way to wash down the five different white wines we’d enjoyed at dinner. But now I’m not so sure.
I try to envisage my day. A doze perhaps, a hesitantly edgy breakfast, and then a hot summer U-Bahn and tram journey beside the Danube and Prater ferris wheel to reach the exhibition centre. Long trade show hours stretching forwards.
The June sun is streaming past the curtains which I neatly failed to draw late last night. I won’t get back to sleep now. And so, half-heartedly at first, I stagger out of bed to rummage through my bag for running kit and trainers. I turn back briefly at the door to don my sunglasses, just in case I scare a colleague in the hallway, but there’s no one. The lift and lobby are equally deserted, and then I trot across the forecourt to reach the Linke Wiene Zeile, and stop gratefully at the first red pedestrian light to catch my breath.
It’s a dismal part of town here in many ways. Not much to distinguish it from any other central European city. Flats, shops, railway line, cars.
A lot of cars. The early rush hour traffic dashes past me out of the sunlight, pumping its citybound commuter bloodstream down the Meidlinghauptstrasse whilst I wait to catch the green before lurching a hundred metres further on to Schönbrunnstrasse.
In these quieter residential quarters the day is much more faintly stirring. The street is lined with trees and local shops, the highway behind is nothing more than distant hum now, and there’s a morning stillness in the air which belies anticipation of a summer day ahead. I shamble along the pavement with no great form or pace, past a mother walking kids and backpacks off to school, and nod politely to a pair of old men talking on the street corner as they await the bus. A delivery driver pulls over in front of me to unload beside the baker’s, but stops to wave me past, whilst outside the paper shop a casually-dressed businessman is gesticulating gently into his mobile phone.
Five minutes have gone by – the hardest part of any run. I pause to cross another junction, and then I leave the road, head through the wrought iron gates and into the palace grounds.
Schönbrunn. Austria’s own Versailles – and it nestles here, in the heart of this undistinguished and unlikely suburb.
Gravel paths and leafy shade reach ahead of me now. The track curves past an obelisk and steeply upwards. It’s just a minute’s climb, but much too hard for me this morning, so I pause halfway and take some air where an unexpected cut in the trees frames a narrow glimpse of the Vienna skyline and Dom far below. I stop a moment, then half run, half walk up the final stretch and at last I’m there. Atop the Katterburg.
Crowning the hilltop stands a fantastically grand imperialist folly, shining yellow in the sunlight. The famous Gloriette. To my right, a lake, and then a vast swathe of ornate gardens reaching out to the Schönbrunn Palace itself and the whole of Vienna laid out beyond. Begun in 1696 at the order of Emperor Leopold I, Schönbrunn was the very centre of Austria’s empire right up until the downfall of the monarchy in 1918. Today it’s a World Heritage Site, remembered also as the place where Kennedy and Kruschev met in 1961.
I catch my breath and look around a moment, at the details of the architecture, at the pattern of the gardens and the scale of the palace, and the view of the city unfolding far below. I’m not sure now if I’m here to run or wonder, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m here, and that’s enough.
I lope a little further along a smaller pathway through the trees. An uphill minute or so of leaves and dappled sunlight goes by, another clearing, and a moment later I’m deep in darkest green again, before turning right onto the broader course of a wider downhill path.
The Tiergarten (Zoo) is below me and a solid wall of trees above. A moment later, they open up to reveal another narrow cut. It’s ten metres wide, no more, undulating like some devilishly designed fairway rising up towards the Gloriette. I try to play that rifle-straight two-iron tee shot in my mind, but I fear I might just find the trees.
A minute later and I’m on the flat again. It’s a Canaletto view from here, of open lawns and pretty flower beds spreading out towards the palace, a fountain and the hilltop folly beyond. Runners are emerging from all the paths around – the summer heat must still be young and unaccustomed, I reason, for not one of them is running fast. Some are even walking, flicking cross-country ski poles elaborately in front of them with every stride, a laconically feeble upper body workout if ever I saw one.
The entrance to the maze lies just beside me, the German ‘Labyrinth’suggesting something far more mythically difficult than Hampton Court might offer. That sets me thinking, and it’s true as well that the linguistics of the Irrgarten (puzzle garden ?) likewise speak more volubly of deep confusion than the English ever could.
Ich habe geirrt – I’ve made a mistake, a foolish error – those are words which a repentant politician, or a hungover early morning runner might so easily say. A row of white stone statues brings me to the palace now, and perhaps indeed it’s time to head for home.
I trot past the palace and towards the city skyline, across the gravel glade, through the gates and back into the suburbs stretching ahead outside.
It’s gently downhill now, and I run a more fluid, more easily contented mile than the one which came the other way. Past the Metzgerei, just opening up as the Meidling clock strikes eight, then across the highway and to the hotel.
A colleague spies me then, as he stands there at the doorway.
‘Been out running ?’ he says (perceptive type), as I bound lycra-clad past him into the lobby, sweating freely from last night’s sauvignon and this morning’s summer sunshine. I turn around and smile.
‘Yeah. It’s only ten minutes out to the Schönbrunn Palace from here,’ I breathe. ‘Quite fantastic architecture – and wonderful gardens, too.’
‘Oh, really ?’ he offers blankly. And then he opens the taxi door and climbs inside.
He’s unaware – that half an hour, and a little effort, is all it takes to see a different side of any city. I’ve told him now, and yet still I’m sure he’ll never know.