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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?