Wednesday, February 07, 2007
I was warned not to expect too much craic in Vienna and it does not have the most obvious allure of a party town. In fact it is literally the quietest city I've ever been; even on Saturday afternoons while walking among dozens of people in the city centre the predominant sound is one of trams gently humming as they make their way along the Rings. The scale of the city is also a big excessive, or at least for its present situation. The grandeur and pomp of Vienna dates from a time when it was the capital of an Empire that stretched from what is now northern Italy to the Black Sea. Vienna was the centre of it all and that grandeur far better suited such a large trans-national Empire than it does a relatively small modern-day Central European republic. In this way it is similar to Trieste, its former chief port, which I visited last year, and which also lost its significance after the break-up of the Empire in 1918. If Vienna were a company it would have downsized; if it were a stately home it would have opened its doors to the rabble of the general public. Though, then again, Vienna has done that; it is effectively a museum city, most of the huge buildings that it has inherited from the Hapsburg era no longer as vital as they once were. The adverts on the U-Bahn for the Museum of the Imperial Palace (pictured) state 'We don't have aristocrats, just their jewels', which carries a faint note of regret as well as impudence.
But the Austrians are not unduly nostalgic for the Empire, one which was probably the most tolerant and enlightened of the European empires (Joseph Roth prophesied correctly that the protection the Jews enjoyed under the Hapsburgs, would soon crumble as the old hatreds of Europeans gentiles were again unleashed). Compared to the Turks and the Spanish (or at least the right wing in those countries) there is no infantile breast-beating about the long-lost historical might of the Austrian Empire. They are content with their modest, extremely well-administered Republic yet the street names are all the same from Imperial times, and there is no iconoclastic bent among present-day Austrians. Some people argue that the country has yet to come clean on its support for the Nazis, which may be true, but its Imperial past is something to be much less ashamed of.