Vienna

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Stephens Dom

Vienna can seem like being lost in heaven. So much perfection, art and architecture at its most opulent and grand. There are times though, when you need an angel. I’m prone to cutting corners, just that bit off kilter. On such occasions the city orbits with bewildering intensity, an electron cloud of people, trams and buildings without horizon. I should have come for longer. I should have brought an angel.

I arrive in a heatwave in September. I am carrying Boris (my leather jacket) because my apartment is not secure and Boris holds my passport and camera, my pens and stuff. And besides, I’m weird like that. It insults cities such as Vienna to swan around in shorts and vests. Find a beach! One must look one’s best.

Vienna hugs a bend in the Danube river. The mighty Danube, famously un-blue, is generated by a leak from a faulty faucet in Bavaria, before meandering through mountains and past cartoon palaces to become the highway of central Europe. The river does not actually flow through the centre of the city. A slender offshoot, the Danube Canal, outlines the northern arc of the city centre. Historically, Europe’s super-highway, you can float downstream to Bratislava, Budapest and the ocean.

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The Opera House on the Ringstrasse

Vienna finds itself at the focus of Europe. Its old city walls converted into the Ringstrasse, a grandiose avenue that delineates the city centre south of the Danube Canal. Freud’s morning constitutional was taken along the throbbing thoroughfare. Grand public buildings and palatial houses line its extent. As the Main Street of empire the imperial buildings are emphasised , arrayed in formal parkland on the south-western radial.

Amongst the many jewels in this crown is the Kunsthistorische museum. The spectacular entrance staircase leads the eyes up to The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, a Belle Epoque imagining by Hungarian artist Munkacsy. The spheres of art history and the heavenly realm merge in a celestial depiction of the glories of the Renaissance. Gustav Klimt peeps mischievously out, supplying Egyptian and Greek goddesses for support.

   

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Breughel’s Hunters 

I cool my heels in front of Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow. We had a small copy of this painting in my childhood home. It is astonishing how an almost trivial ornament can evoke such a profound attachment with the real thing. Herself was overcome by Monet’s Impression Sunrise in the Thyssen Bornemisza (Madrid), as if the gallery knew she was coming and prepared a special gift. I knew Breughel’s masterpiece would be here, and more besides, but was not prepared for the shock of seeing it. I sat a long time before the real thing. I was in the landscape whereas, as a boy, I had only a postcard of it. The static, permanent power of the composition enthralls. It is a story of human endeavour and disappointment; keep on keeping on is its constant thread. With its bold line and vivid contrasts the painting looks modern. Perhaps timeless is the word.

There’s so much more. Vienna was the centre of Europe’s cultural web. Dutch masters with their fragile hues and robust folk, Italians with burning colour and burnished souls. Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Velazquez line the corridors and rooms, all hawking their wares for our attention. Such wonders under one roof. I could stay forever and feel as if I was never indoors.

Leaving the giddy globe for the pale imitation of life without, there are still more options to consider. The Museum Quarter is nearby, and all the pleasures it implies. Still, why wallow in excess? A feast is enough for know and I seek shelter from the heat in a sidewalk bar. I am sweating again. I occupy a high table and wrap myself slowly around a tall glass. Enough art for a day, I tell myself. I need to assimilate it all.

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Schmetterling Haus

Offbeat, and off kilter, I head back across the Ringstrasse. Passing through the Burggarten  I am taken by the elegance of the glasshouse and the words of a friend brush my cheek. Of all the must-dos of Vienna this was the most idiosyncratic. Visit the Schmetterling Haus, stand in the shimmering heat of a greenhouse and let giant insects land on you. It is weird that this oasis, out of the sun, is actually hotter. Yet, I had hardly taken two steps in than I was filled with elation. The glass confines form a bubble in infinity, illuminating one manifestation of flora and fauna at this intersection in space time. Butterflies in their team colours flutter unconcerned past us brief escapees from the physical dimension. Oh, if you want a touch of heaven, visit the butterfly house, angels supplied.    

From my base at the Kunsthaus, it’s a pleasant walk of urban variety by way of Unterviaductgasse, or Oberviaductgasse even, through my local square, Radetzkyplatz, and on to Wien Mitte, with its thronged shopping centre, its convenience bars and cafes, the tabac shop with its spectacularly rude service. Across the Wien River lies the actual city centre, the Inner Stadt, the old city within the Ringstrasse. This is the place for aimless meandering through medievel streets, being pleasantly lost in a strange place. The spire of Stephens Dom is at its centre. Exuberantly gothic, the church bears the marks of centuries of adjustment. Age radiates from it, modernity encroaches. There isn’t really a good point to sit and take it in. The square is cramped and crammed, the few outdoor bars crummy.  You can go up the spire to see all of Vienna, and maybe heaven too. I’m only going to see so much in three days on the ground.

  

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Stadpark, along the Wien River

Along the linear Stadtpark, I set out on a quiet morning all the way to the Belvedere. Clipped and coiffured gardens slope upwards in the shimmering heat, the Upper Belvedere a toy palace in the distance. The main attraction is Klimt’s golden girls, seductive capsules of beauty and love. The Kiss grows more iconic by the day. It is the canvas where we want to be, loving and loved, flushed in the afterglow of it all, naked and golden. In a way that is both sensible and comic, the museum, while prohibiting photographs, has provided a selfie station where tourists can immortalise themselves before a life-size print. Better, I think, to put yourself within the painting.

   

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Vienna from the Upper Belvedere

I am much taken too with David’s depiction of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. A vivid flash of a personal force of history if ever there was. Less impressive is the baleful manifestation of the curse of the curator. If you must push inept contemporary work, best keep it amongst its own. The view from the chapel balcony at the end of my visit would have been better left unseen. This crucifixion is a dismal work. It compares unfavourably with Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove which exhalted the spirit. Whereas this does not.

  

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and now for a pint

Beyond the gardens, Vienna beckons, a burnished mirage of domes and spires. The journey downhill is less arduous, though shade still eludes me. The clipped flora is so weird I feel I have been spirited, Alice like, to some imaginary world. Perhaps I am hallucinating in the heat, the surplus of art in my blood. Trams pass on the street where afternoon shade begins to creep from the buildings. There is a gap I noticed earlier. Time for a welcome beer in a shaded courtyard. Dappled shadows dance beneath the trees, brown timbered seating awaits, metal fittings of the bar glow and beckon. A traditionally clad dame welcomes me. Blond and tanned, clad in green, she smiles and takes my order. The feeling of fantasy persists. But then, where else would you find an angel, but in heaven?

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Visions of Scotland 4 – Inverness

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East out of Kyle we retrace the road to Invergarry where we pick up the rift valley route. As in Ireland, the east of the country is more gently scenic than the wild west. This is the Highlands still, though. Inverness, our destination, is the capital of the region.  Along the shores of Lough Ness, we are unmolested by the mythical beastie. In truth, there is no chance of dinosaurs surviving anywhere, let alone a busy narrow waterway. They were here once, as Dughal Ros told us yesterday, but only their fossils remain. Still, it’s good to have fantasy.

  Inverness has grown to city status with a population of fifty thousand. It’s centered on a low rise above the eastern bank of the Ness river where it flows into the Moray Firth, heading towards the North Sea. We stay at Carrig Eden on the western approach. The area is attractive, typically Caledonian in characteristic honey coloured stone with gable fronts. Our genial hosts, Caroline and Donald, have polished their home to a welcoming jewel. We are warned of two things. One, Daniel O’Donnell is playing that night in the Eden Court theatre nearby. Two, there is a bagpipes festival in town. Looks like it’s the bagpipes so.

img_1267   The Eden Court is a modern complex by the banks of the river. From the banks we catch our first glimpse of the city. Inverness Castle is the dominant feature. Built in red sandstone it tops a steep escarpment rising from the Ness. It is not, strictly speaking, a castle. The present structure dates from 1836. It  functions as a courthouse. The first castle to stand on the site was destroyed by Robert the Bruce in 1307. The next castle stood here until sacked by the Jacobites in the rebellion of 1746. A statue of Flora MacDonald stands at the entrance park, shielding her eyes to gaze meaningfully westward. Having aided the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and doing time for it, she headed out west herself, living in America before returning to die on the isle of Skye.

  Both sides of the river are pleasant. We pass the nineteenth century gothic Cathedral on the west bank before stopping for coffee in an Italian place with outdoor seating. We are entertained by a young woman making a major production number tying up her bike. Man, you must have to mind your bike real careful in these parts.

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The strains of the pipes beckon us east across the bridge. Before that, we take a look at the House of Fraser. I reckon I’ll need to kit up, the whole nine yards, on the off-chance of running into Claire from Outlander (as portrayed by Caitriona Balfe) somewhere about town. A convincing impersonation of Jamie is quickly conjured. You can go for a variety of rental of traditional outfits here. Full dress for that formal night, half-dress for the more casual, a dashing Jacobite attire for the full blooded Scot.

  High Street slopes uphill from the bridge. It’s busy and sporadically loud with the great yarp of the bagpipes. Something stirring about them, to be sure, if not quite the first music for the car stereo. Here, in this special place, I’d opt for the Waterboys. The attractive main street jolts to an unlovely close at the harshly modern Eastgate Centre. Still, probably better to have it in town rather than dragging people out to the periphery.

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After extensive shopping, time for a quick snack. Hoping to sidestep the inertia that can pass for service in the Highlands, we opt for McDonald’s – an ominously local name now that I think of it. Inverness McDonald’s is the worst McDonald’s ever. The till is abandoned just as we reach the head of the queue. After a couple of minutes we call the attendant from the next till. He says he’ll get the manager, who is standing conveniently nearby with other staff leaning on the furniture, chatting. She informs us, cheerfully enough, that the attendant will return soon, and rejoins her discussion group. A few more minutes and we give up.

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We attempt a trip down memory lane to find the lost hostel of our youth. Still lost to us, sadly. Having followed the signs through winding residential roads we eventually lose the trail. But it’s a pleasant walk in glorious sunshine. We’ve booked dinner at the Castle Inn and, hungry and thirsty, head for it early. Nicely situated, clinging to the cliff overlooking the river, the Castle visible to the north. Rustically traditional, the place is crammed, as any good place should be. We take our drinking and dining pleasures al fresco. Good food, service and company, perfectly passing the sunny afternoon into early evening.

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Afterwards, we potter around the Castle grounds. The place itself is not open to visitors but there are plans to remedy that. We follow Flora’s gaze up towards Loch Ness, back to the wild, wild west. We head down to the nearby bank as evening falls. This is a pedestrianised river walk leading to a footbridge that will take us back to Eden Court. There’s plenty of time to stop for drinks on the lawns of the Waterside Rest, busy now as the city nightlfe clicks into gear. The sky seeps slowly to velvet blue as the first stars peep out. A stillness settles in the air. We could sit here forever, relaxing by the riverside in the chill of the endless Highland evening.img_1307