Charriots of Tradition

Coachman Alfred and his Matched Pair of Fiaker Horses

The fiacre is one of most beloved vestiges of traditional Vienna. The light four-wheeled carriages drawn by two horses stand in a row outside St. Stephens Cathedral in central Vienna. This, in effect, is a taxi stand, as it used to be.

On a cloudy morning in April, I was passing that way and stopped to pat the horses. The fifth carriage in line caught my attention, with its pristine white so different from the usual black and brown. The coachman, a tranquil man with a kind face, caught my eye and smiled.

“Can I help you,” he asked.  I smiled. People are always saying how grouchy Austrians are; I don’t find that, and certainly didn’t that morning.

“What are their names,” I asked.

“The one on the right, that one is Huzar,” he said proudly, glancing fondly at the horse. Huzar’s ears perked up as he heard his name. “And this boy to the left, he is Andy.” He patted Andy’s flank.

The coachman’s name was Alfred. He was wearing a black bowler hat, his graying whiskers groomed into a short tidy beard, and wearing a coachman’s livery of a crisp white shirt, black tailored pants and shiny black shoes, topped with a black vest, and a bright red tie. He was right out of a children’s book. The horses were a matched pair, both grays, but the lightest shade, with dark grey muzzles that felt velvet to the touch. Harnessed with black leather, the effect was striking.

The carriage was also white, with black fittings – seats of black leather, ornaments and spokes outlined in black as well. All in all, extremely picturesque.

Alfred clearly had strong feelings for his horses. You could tell by the way he looked at them and talked about them, his face lighting up as he told me about the stable where he kept them. It was a very comfy place, with a riding center connected to the carriage barn, and adjoining, a Hippo-therapy center for people with handicaps.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a job like his, spending your day with horses and showing off your city.

He smiled. “I love everything about my job, as unreal as it may sound,” he said. “I love my city, I love my horses, I love being outside everyday, all day.” I could feel myself getting jealous already. But how could you help it.  “It is wonderful to meet so many new people every day, who think your city is beautiful and who appreciate how special Vienna is,” he went on. All I could do was agree with him.

His favorite parts of Vienna are the Heldenplatz and the area around Volksgarten, he told me after a moment’s thought. There is more space than on Stephansplatz and the Graben, and more for the tourists to see. It is also less hectic for the horses.

I caught myself shifting towards the rump of one of the horses, and starting to gently pet it; I realized I really missed being around horses. I used to own a horse before I moved to Vienna, and was on my club’s show jumping team. Nevertheless, my attention quickly went back to what Alfred was saying.

The highlight of each Fiaker outing for him, is the part in which he gets to tell the tourists stories about the Hofburg and the Empress Sissi and Kaiser Franz. He admits that sometimes he exaggerates, telling about the pomp and grandeur of the Imperial couple.

“But who doesn’t,” he says with mock innocence. “They are one of the symbols of Vienna, so there is no harm in making it fancier for the foreigners. Like this, they have something to remember about their trip.”

The word “Fiaker” originated during the 18th century in France. In Paris there is a Rue de Saint Fiacre, on which Nicolas Souvage, entrepreneur and horse-trader, ran a small carriage rental business. The street was named for Irish St. Fiacre, patron saint of taxi drivers, people with hemorrhoids, venereal disease (who knows why?), and whose name means “battle king.” So it’s probably a bit of everything: battle chariots, taxis and the saint.

In the 1700s there were about 700 Fiakers in Vienna, and by the late 1800s there were over 1000 registered carriages. Nowadays, there are 58 registered Fiaker in Vienna, and they are mainly a tourist attraction that adds to the flair of this imperial city. The majority of the carriages are over a hundred years old, and every winter they undergo extensive restoration.

But my time was now up, I was expected elsewhere. I thanked Alfred for his time, and took his business card, stopping to pat Andy and Huzar on their silky foreheads. As I walked away, I wondered if I should start horseback riding again.

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