Gate to the City

A stroll down Rotenturmstraße revives the memory of the Red Tower and Vienna’s once grand entrance

The Red Tower as it used look from the Donaukanal circa 1490 | Photo: WikiCommons

Coming out of the U-Bahn station at Stephansplatz, I step into a mild spring day, blinking at the bright sunlight, breathing in the fragrance of blossoming trees and the sharp smell of – is it really? – horses.

I look around. Through the shuffle of people, most ignoring the beauty of the day, nothing is clear but their blurred silhouettes. A snort comes from right behind me. Over my shoulder, a row of horses attached to elegant carriages stomp their hooves on the cobbles, and throw a head in vague boredom. Slowly time melts away, 100 years, 200 years…

Suddenly, all is changed. Down Rotenturmstraße, my mind begins to repaint the old buildings, dressing them in bright colors of yellow or robin’s egg blue. Plate glass disappears in favor of the framed, mullioned windows of a row of small shoemaker’s shops, coffee houses and bakeries, and modest homes hidden behind precisely carved stone facades.

The year is 1674.

I zigzag through the dense crowd, constantly brushing my shoulder against the passers-by and slowly progress toward the end of the street. A nut-brown Fiaker crosses my path, forcing me to dodge left to the opposite side and spraying me with mud. There are no sidewalks; my shoes are filthy. But instead of getting irritated, the carter smiles at me and tips his hat in greeting. I smile back and carry on. Vienna was different then.

In less than two minutes, I reach a lively square.

My eyes go over the crowd; from the homeless guy wearily raising the bottle of wine, to the children tirelessly running around, to the old lady calling out for her husband to whom the bar was now a second home… Suddenly, a loud growl fills the place. A mangy dog appears from behind a fallen barrel, dragging an enviably large piece of meat, drooling.

Everyone is here.

Located on the corner of the street with Ferdinands-Platz, the square people would later call Schwedenplatz, and in close proximity to the Laurenzertor, a Red Tower rises above the square and the masses of people below. Built in 1288, it marks the beginning of the city from the North and provides a spacious entryway for all, carriages, wagons and people, on foot and on horseback, a gate dividing the heart of Vienna and the adjoining marshland of Leopoldstadt across the Danube Canal.

The guards are also there; I can see them marching back and forth. I start along the square and my glance passes over the canal, bobbing with sails waiting to be loaded with steel, wine or fabrics like silk, linen and wool, on their way out the river’s main channel to head West to the Netherlands and England, or downstream to the Ottoman Empire. Over to the right is the Gate, with many carriages parked in front, awaiting passengers to either the Prater or The Emperors Mills beyond.

The apparent serenity of the place is hypnotic, until a loud noise stirs the calm, drawing my attention toward the tower. A man has placed a tall ladder on the side of the tower and is now climbing up, eyes fixed at an object at the top. Seeing my confusion, a passer-by in a cocked hat leans over: “That’s Wolfgang Troexl, the crazy shoemaker!” He gestures off to the left where I see a large wooden sign in the shape of a shoe swaying out over the front door, squeaking in the breeze.

A wooden plate hanging above the gate reads:

A man who dares admit he’s not inferior to his wife should be able to remove the plate from the top of the tower. 

And Troexl looks committed. He climbs the ladder in seconds, gets to the top and reaches out to the wooden plate. A moment later, he freezes. His determination melts into the air.

“The plate is so dusty, it will give him away,” the cocked hat tells me. “He’s afraid his wife will take one look at his dirty clothes, and know what he has been up to!”  I smile. Some things don’t change.

Troexl makes his way down the ladder, swallowing his humiliation under the gaze of the amused crowd.  He slouches away, a beaten man. I turn back up the hill…

The world comes back to life – people hurrying, tangled in the web of daily responsibilities, cars lining the Rotenturm four lanes deep along the Ringstraße and carriages breaking free from the brief halt.

Suddenly, a loud horn blares behind me. Startled, I turn around. I am standing in the middle of the tramline, staring into space, an ordinary corner that once had been a grand entrée to a grand city. I jump to the side, taking a moment to catch my breath.

The crowd is still here, although different from the one in my mind. But the Red Tower is gone and so is the Gate. I glance at the passers-by. No one is paying the least attention. I make my way up Rotenturmstraße once again; the name at least remembers; I feel a little less crazy.

I quicken my pace. Behind me, a muted snort comes from somewhere nearby. I turn and see a Fiaker approaching. This time, I know what to do; I wait patiently on the sidewalk and glance over to the side while the cart clears the narrow street.

On the façade of the high building on the corner of Rotenturmstraße and Fleischmarkt, I spot a mosaic of a soaring tower and a beautiful wide gate. There is my Red Tower, not lost forever after all! I smile to myself and cross the street. A memory of it is still alive for those who take a moment to acknowledge it.

And then a notion strikes me: What if no one does?

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