Book Review: Only in Vienna, by Duncan J. D. Smith
Not just for tourists, this is an insider’s guide book for locals who thought they knew their way around.
Snooping in the Hidden City
Like many, I often have a dream in which I imagine I enter a room in my house and discover a door I never noticed before; opening it, I discover another room I never knew was there, filled with furnishings, books and pictures, and perhaps windows and other doors, all new and yet already known, and I recognize it immediately; it is my own world, only more so.
This is what I found a year or so ago in Duncan Smith’s Only In Vienna, a guide to Hidden Corners, Little-Known Places and Unusual Object, a guide book for locals who thought they already knew this old town, or any visitor with a sense of adventure. Either way you’re in for a very pleasant surprise.
This is a fun book, designed for the polite snoop who feels no shame at sliding inconspicuously into someone else’s inner courtyard, convinced that their irresistible charm (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!) will soften the savage beast. Like the one at Bäckerstrasse 7 next to the Café Alt Wien, little changed for easily a century, where the vaulted horses stalls and wagon sheds are still open to the cobbled Hof. The courtyard houses a piano factory on upper floors and among the vines along the walls of the 1st floor balcony is a fine display of ornamental iron works collected by the distinguished Biedermeier portrait painter Frederich von Amerling, who lived there. That is before he moved to Stiftgasse 8 in the 7th District, which you could also go check out.
Another place to sneak a peek is the courtyard of the Grosses Michaelerhaus at Kohlmarkt 11, dating from 1720, which also still has a row of covered stables for your coach and four. This, Smith tells us, was where composer Josef Haydn stayed in an unheated attic in 1749 and the court poet Metastasio died in 1782, which makes it a perfect shrine for would-be starving artists of any generation. Best of all are the wrought iron balconies, that double as corridors along the upper floors of what were ten tenements. The idea behind these graceful structures, we learn, was to pack in more tenants by giving individual access to all the rooms along the way, and as in Italy, providing a place to hang the clothes.
Most charming and, however, requiring the most tact, is the disarming, narrow courtyard at Langegasse 29 in the 8th District of Josefstadt. Hidden behind an anonymous wooden gate, “this is no tourist attraction,” Smith advises, “but rather a place where normal Viennese citizens have lived for the last 250 years,” single story terraces created probably for domestic servants, laundresses or coachmen, where the modern world has been kept blissfully at bay.
But there are treasures of all sorts. Like the mini-vineyard behind a stone balustrade on Schwarzenbergerplatz, the last and only one in the inner city. This one is maintained for love by the winery Mayer am Pfarrplatz in Grinzing, and it does produce wine served in the Heuriger at Pfarrplatz 2 in the 19th, one of the oldest tavern buildings in the city. Or conversely, the many shrines to the Viennese obsession with death from the Criminal History Museum (a favorite of my children when they were young!) where you can see a mummified head of 19th century serial killers and the skull of a victim spit by an axe, to the Undertakers museum with a reusable coffin and a pack of undertaker’s cigarettes with the label “Rauchen sichert Arbeitplätze“ – Smoking Protects Jobs!
In the end, Smith is an historian and some of the best parts of this book reveal a thorough grasp of Austrian history that spins rich tales around familiar sights.
Some involve the many scars of war, from the bullet torn wall “from some unspeakable execution” of the old Court Theater Depot on Lehargasse in the 6th District of Mariahilf , to the cryptic lettering “O5” I had once noticed carved into the stone near the entrance to the Stephansdom. This lettering, Smith explains, was the code name of the Austrian Resistance, the letter “O” plus 5, for the first letter of the alphabet “E” – together the shorthand for Öesterreich, the German word for Austria. Initially receptive to the Anschluss, Austrians could be said to have been naïve about the Nazis, although it is hard for us to relate not to their despair that their tid-bit of a country, left-over after the Treaty of Versailles, could survive on its own.
However we see those early years of the war, resistance grew as the agony deepened. By the spring of 1944, organized resistance emerged, establishing it’s headquarters right across from the Gestapo on Moritzplatz, betrayed by a junior officer in the final weeks of the war. Many of its leaders were tortured and publically hung.
And others – what Smith calls the Last Bastions – interpret the bits of ancient ruins, some dating from Roman times, others from the Babenburg Princes and still others from the Turkish sieges, where massive walls and fortifications went up to guard the city against centuries of enemies.
Only In Vienna, is a very special book, a Rosetta stone for tourists, and for the Viennese, an explorer’s guide to old familiar places, that with charm and erudition, gives us back an enormously richer part of a world we thought we already knew.