The Two Faces of Vienna’s Bermuda Triangle

Grätzl (Viennese dialect) a neighbourhood in Vienna contained by subjective boundaries and a coherent identity

Judengasse as seen from the Ruprechtskirche, with many places to ‘disappear’ | Photo: KF/wikimedia

Bermuda Triangle

Judengasse as seen from the Ruprechtskirche, with many places to ‘disappear’ | Photo: KF/wikimedia

There may be no place in Vienna that does more of a transformation when the sun goes down than this super-central corner of the 1st District. Ranging up the hill from Morzinplatz, next to Schwedenplatz, along Franz-Josefs-Kai on the Danube Canal, the area encompasses a handful of small streets and stairways up to the Hoher Markt. During the day, this Judenviertel, or Jewish Quarter, houses a Synagogue, Jewish social hall, restaurants (kosher and otherwise), boutiques and curiosity shops.

At night, tourists and (mostly young) locals flock to the various watering holes on Seitenstettengasse, Judengasse and Sterngasse where cheap drinks and a hedonistic atmosphere have given the area a reputation. Patrons have been known to disappear in Vienna’s Bermuda Triangle (Bermudadreieck). And most nocturnal visitors to the area know precious little of the neighbourhood’s daytime character and its partly-tragic, partly-entertaining history of city life.

By day

Starting at the bottom of Seitenstettengasse, the Stadttempel, or Central Synagogue, on your left, is one of the very few – some say the only – synagogue to survive the Holocaust in German-speaking Europe. In the 18th century, Joseph II had allowed non-Catholic churches to be built in Vienna, with the stipulation that they look like ordinary buildings from the street. This may have helped preserve this 1826 neo-classical structure, although it was looted and singed inside during the Reichskristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) of 9-10 November 1938. Today, with an appointment, you can join a group tour and see its magnificent, starry-blue ceiling canopy. Outside, police stand constant guard against possible threats, as in 1981, when four people were killed and 18 wounded in an attack on the synagogue, carried out by a Palestinian group under the infamous terrorist Abu Nidal.

Next door, just up the hill, at No. 2 (now the Jewish social hall), was the home of the synagogue’s architect, Josef Kornhäusl. He built the awkward tower, the Kornhäuslturm at the rear of the house, for himself, allegedly to get away from his domineering wife who couldn’t climb stairs.

Rounding the corner, you’ll pass Alef Alef, a kosher favourite for Shabbat meals, onto Judengasse. Here is Freistil Altwaren, a small shop that has existed for decades. The proprietor, Mr. Bauer has an eclectic and well-preserved collection of second-hand items, including men and women’s evening wear, opera and ball season accessories, props for the “good-life” on a budget.

Continuing onto the Hoher Markt you’ll find the Ankeruhr, donated by the Anker Insurance Company and designed by Gustav Klimt’s partner Franz von Matsch in about 1914. Tourists look ridiculous as they stand waiting, until 12:00 noon, when the clock begins its show, with figures like Marcus Aurelius and Maria Theresa, parading to appropriate classical chimes.

Back down Judengasse, go left onto the short Sterngasse, where a house called the Neustädter- Hof, at No. 3, displays a 79-pound Turkish stone cannonball on its façade to the left of the door. This treasure was fired from a mortar across the Canal in the then suburb of Leopoldstadt, during the last Turkish siege in 1683.

On your right is Shakespeare & Co., Vienna’s only English-language bookstore, named for and carrying on the tradition of Sylvia Beach’s famed shop in Paris, where Joyce and Hemingway held court. Often host to readings in English, the shop has a wide and discerning stock on offer, and the owners are happy to take special orders.

As dusk falls on the Dreieck’s main square, you might dine at the Salzamt, named for registry of imported salt once unloaded on the docks below. Just opposite the 8th-century Ruprechtskirche (a favourite venue for instrumental music, early to ultra modern), this unassuming, traditional eatery has comfy décor and prices to match. Mixing Austrian, Slavic and Mediterranean dishes, it is a pleasing and quiet venue perfect for a chat and tasty enough for your in-laws.

 

By night

While most of the bars exist intentionally to intoxicate – including the questionable Slammer Bar, Gnadenlos (merciless), the miniscule S’packerl, and the inspired hole in the wall, No Name – a few of the locations are seriously worth a drink, or two… or three.

At the bottom of Seitenstettengasse, a heavy door on the corner opens into a prime little piece of Havana. Ron Con Soda is a casual cocktail joint, with real pros behind the well-equipped bar. And, you guessed it, their specialty is rum cocktails, with 15 variations on a daiquiri. Next to the pictures of Fidel and Che, ski world championships on TV flicker to the soundtrack of Buena Vista Social Club.

Up the hill is a wooden door leading upstairs to the First Floor Bar. This may be the classiest joint on the street. The long sea grass in the fishless tank behind the bar waves back and forth, underlined by mellow jazz standards. The staff is cordial, but not too in-your-face; a great place for martinis and intimate conversations.

You’ll also pass The PUB, with self-service beer taps and touch screens, to order food and drinks and music electronically. Originating in Prague, the franchise serves Pilsner Urquell, and has a score board at which tables can “compete” with locals or those in other PUB locations.

Passing the bigger bars, Kaktus and Non + Ultra, at the top of the hill is a different kind of haunt, Philosoph. Its two rooms, with a bar and small seating area, attract what the barman calls “lonely souls” and vibrant groups of students.

This sliver of Vienna’s centre may be less glam than the other parts of the district, but with all its idiosyncrasies, the Bermudadreieck may be just the place you want to go to disappear.

Graetzl Bermuda Triangle Ron Con Soda & First Floor Bar
Seitenstettengasse 5
www.ronconsoda.at, www.firstfloorbar.at

Stadttempel
Seitenstettengasse 4, Tours: Jewish Museum, www.jmw.at

Shakespeare & Co.
Sterngasse 2, www.shakespeare.co.at

Ankeruhr, Hoher Markt

Salzamt
Ruprechtsplatz 1, salzamt-wien.at

Philosoph
Judengasse 11, www.philosoph1.at

Freistil Altwaren
Judengasse 4, freistil.at

 

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