Vienna’s Sidewalk Gardens

The urban greenery of the city’s Schanigärten grace these most-visited venues – open again for the pleasure of Spring

Finding a free table might prove a challenge on a sunny day at Delia’s | Photo: Mina Nacheva

It is a busy Friday afternoon in late March in the center of Vienna: The crowd on Graben is buzzing, horses are clomping along on the uneven cobblestones as they pull the loaded carriages up to Stephansplatz and beyond. The sun is out; it’s one of the first warm days of Spring.

The year is 1754.

For some Viennese on this day, the Graben is just a background scene in the middle of their business day, for others – it’s the bustle of shopping for the meat, poultry and vegetables, the fresh loaves of thick bread or refilling jugs of milk or cider they will need for the weekend. Everyone’s on a mission, zig-zagging through the shuffle of people, taking care of business. Because when they’re done, they will head for the Kaffeehaus of Johann Jakob Tarone, at Graben 14–15, on the corner of Habsburgergasse, where chairs and tables are set out on the sidewalk in the Italian fashion – a perfect spot to watch the passing parade.

As he watches the hectic comings and goings, coffee shop owner Johann Tarone (the German version of his originally Italian name, Gianni Taroni) is biding his time. He is a patient man; it had taken years to get the special license – finally granted in 1750 – to put tables and chairs outside in front to begin with which. It had been an immediate success; the Viennese called it Schani’s Garten – as they could never pronounce Gianni quite right.

But on this day, he has another surprise: When the moment is right, he will break out the Erfrischungswasser (eau de vie) and Marillenbrand (apricot brandy) from his still over on Am Hof, which a new license just granted will now allow him to serve as well – and which he is sure will be very good for business. And thus the Schanigarten would take another step toward immortality.

Year after year, Vienna has become home to an ever-increasing number of Schanigärten – a term that more than two centuries later still preserves its meaning of chairs and tables set up on the sidewalk in front of or adjoining restaurants or cafés.

This year, Mayor Michael Häupl celebrated the new Schanigarten season on Mar. 16, when nearly 1,800 venues in all of Vienna were officially opened, with over 800 of them located in the center of town.

Walking down the Graben from Stephansplatz towards Kohlmarkt, I wonder how it is possible for the city center to be home to so many outside venues. And then slowly, I get my answer. Looking to my right, tables and chairs are quickly filling up one after the other. I start to feel my shoulder brushing the passers-by; it’s suddenly too much and I decide to find a quieter place to spend my afternoon. I turn right at the end of the Graben and in less than a minute I reach the corner of Tuchlauben and Brandstätte – where several streets come together in a triangle of open space around a fountain. It’s in the very heart of the city and yet wonderfully serene; the fiacres go by here and just a thin lane of traffic. In short, the perfect place for relaxation.

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, warm but still a little windy – the harbinger of the coming spring. The tables at the Café Korb are already full but I find a free table next door in the Schanigarten in front of Delia’s.

In order to operate a Schanigarten, an establishment needs a permit, which is valid from Mar. 1 through Nov. 15. The restaurant, bar or café pays a limited yearly fee of several euros per square meter and they can effectively multiply their seating area on public property at low costs.

Sitting down, I make myself comfortable in a woven rush-seat chair. It’s forgiving and comfortable, and comes with a lap rug, and is in fact made of a synthetic and thus weather proof. I look around: It’s a little of everything, young and old, native and foreign, people of slightly higher social status than others – all in one place.

At the table to my right, a couple of not more than 30, casually dressed, sipping on a mélange – or is it a cappuccino? The smell of strawberries hits my nose as a waiter walks around my chair to serve them a mouth-watering fruity desert. I look away.

In the meantime, his colleague takes my order. A chai latte, I have decided, after a thorough inspection of the menu and eyeing the drinks on the tables around me. My choice is one of the few that I can’t see in the blend of colorful cocktails, ice-cold refreshments and a variety of coffee, caramel and hot chocolate combinations already served. I take a closer look: chocolate donuts with vanilla icing, toasts with ham, cheese, eggs and lettuce, croissants.

The vast variety of smells and colors is close to overwhelming.

Several minutes later, I am already sitting behind my cup of chai latte, which has brought the scent of cinnamon to the mixture. I take a sip and for a moment, I wonder why there are so many people outside on a Friday afternoon. Don’t they work? Don’t they have any appointments? Nothing? Well, some of these groupings may in fact be business meetings, but mostly, it’s Friday in Vienna, and the world is taking its ease.

The door of Tuchlauben 8 flies open and a man in a suit and tie walks out; he seems to be in a hurry, briefcase in one hand. It is a workday after all, at least for some. But not in the same way for everyone, it turns out.

Across from me – two men, both in ironed trousers and blazers, discuss business over a cup of coffee. Their polished black shoes and the sleek hair do not go unnoticed; the red frames of one man’s glasses only adds to the eccentric look. They seem to know almost everyone or perhaps everyone seems eager to get to know them.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” one of them says to a woman pushing a baby stroller.

Neighbors and regulars, I decide.

Looking around, I wonder how many of those sitting around me have been there before. Return business is usually key and judging by the number of people waiting for a table outside, Delia’s seems to have plenty of regulars. I empty my cup and get myself ready to leave. Not even halfway off my chair, I see the next group of guests headed in my direction. I smile, as they hurry to occupy my table.

Fair enough. I have had my taste of spring. Their turn.

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