I’m just back from a few days in Vienna – and as usual on my travels I made sure to fit in a run.
This was my first visit to Vienna, and as it was work-related I spent a lot of it down the coal mine. But I still had some time to stroll through this magnificent city and sample its cuisine.
But forget about the running and the sights for a minute; you just want to know about the food, right?
On the first night we popped into the first nice-looking restaurant we passed – and so by complete chance we had found ourselves with a much sought-after table in Figlmüller, the original, most famous and most popular wiener schnitzel place in the city. The schnitzel was massive: sagging over the sides of the dinner plate and touching the table. But I finished it and the potato salad on the side.
And I knew you’d want me to sample on your behalf a wide range of Viennese desserts and cakes. So, over a few days I had some Sachertorte (a chocolate cake), Kaiserschmarrn (scrambled cake pieces covered in stewed plums) and Malakoff (a cream and sponge cake), as well as plenty of other little viennoiseries whose names I missed. However, I didn’t have any strudel, nor did I get to visit any of Vienna’s celebrated coffee houses – that will have to wait until my next visit.
As for the minor matter of running, coalmining duties meant that by necessity I could only manage a short early-morning spin. But I made sure I passed as much of Vienna’s historic sights as possible.
Up at the crack of dawn, I started from the Schottenring, one of many wide boulevards lined with elegant buildings that reminded me of the Haussmannian streets of Paris. If I were to compare the two cities, I found Vienna to be more spacious, more convivial and altogether grander than Paris.
Even at that early hour there was plenty of traffic on the streets, plus the clanking and lumbering of two types of Vienna tram – the eye-catching old model, mostly in red and white, and an uglier modern version in grey.
My run took me along the Ringstrasse, a circle of boulevards built on the old city walls and which encloses the Innere Stadt – not an inner city in the American sense of a deprived ghetto, but the historic heart of Vienna. Following the Ringstrasse brings you past all the major palaces, state buildings and opera houses – the ideal route for a Viennese sightseeing run.
On my right were the 19th century University of Vienna and the spectacular Rathaus – the city hall of Vienna, with a soaring clock tower and Gothic arches. In the park outside the Rathaus was an old-fashioned circus tent and amusements, plus a vintage railway carriage converted into a restaurant – all quiet and in semi-darkness after the previous night’s festivities.
Across the street from the Rathaus is the Cafe Landtmann, one of the more famous Viennese coffee houses. It’s popular with tourists and guide books, but a colleague of mine from Vienna told me that other coffee shops have nicer fare and friendlier service.
Further along on the left as I ran was the imposing Burgtheater, the Austrian national theatre and a place with impeccable music credentials – it was the venue for the first ever performances of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony and Mozart’s operas Cosi Fan Tutti and The Marriage of Figaro. At this remove it’s strange to think of these works as ever being new, and you have to wonder what those Burgtheater punters thought of this new music.
The morning was still half-dark when I passed the Volksgarten, so I couldn’t see its monuments or rose gardens. The side closest to the street was better lit, and along it a fellow runner was picking her steps carefully through the shadows. Across the street was the Parliament with its ancient Greek-style columns.
Turning onto the Burgring, I passed between the Natural History Museum and Art History Museum on one side and on the other side the Hofburg Palace, formerly the residence of the Hapsburgs but now home to the President of Austria. I saw a couple of other runners around here – the wide boulevards of the Ringstrasse are clearly popular for early running on dark Viennese mornings.
(In daylight hours I imagine most of Vienna’s runners go to the Prater, the large park on the bank of the Danube. Unfortunately I didn’t have time on this visit to run in the Prater or along the Danube – something else to save for next time.)
Next along the Ringstrasse is the Opernring, which you might deduce to be the opera house area of the city. The Vienna State Opera is at a busy junction which I navigated by dipping underground into the Karlsplatz U-bahn, or metro, station to emerge on the other side. In the station, The Blue Danube was being piped to commuters who probably didn’t hear it at all.
The next landmark on my Viennese run was the Hotel Imperial, perhaps the most famous and prestigious hotel in the city. The hotel is also known for its Imperial Torte, a rich chocolate truffle cake made to a secret recipe and presented in a box. Less impressively, a young Adolf Hitler worked in this hotel for a while, and both he and Mussolini stayed here at various times during the Anschluss period – once the hotel’s Jewish owner had been forced out and sent to his death in a concentration camp.
Heads of state, hopefully more socially acceptable than fascist dictators, still stay at the Hotel Imperial – and during my stay in Vienna I reckon some head of state was there. The night before my run, while walking past, I had seen a fleet of black cars pull up at the front entrance while police blocked off the pavements. Police were still outside when I ran past the hotel the following morning – in fact, minibuses of reinforcements were parked outside. I wonder who was there.
Behind the Hotel Imperial was the furthest point of my run – and my true destination. The Musikverien may not be a name that means anything to you, but it is the venue of the annual New Year’s Day Concert broadcast live around the world from Vienna. At around midday on the first of January I like to switch on this concert on television to see the elegant interior of the Musikverein, the Golden Hall, with the audience in black tie and formal wear, as the concert ends with two traditional encores – The Blue Danube and the Radetsky March.
I ran all the way around the Musikverein, past the suspicious police posted on the rear service door of the Hotel Imperial, and headed back on the second half of my run. In the Karlsplatz station as I ducked through it again, The Blue Danube was still playing – regular commuters must be sick of it.
Instead of going back the way I came, I ran through the Innere Stadt so that I could fit in more sights of Vienna.
Kärntner Strasse is the pedestrianised main shopping street of Vienna, with department stores and exclusive brands on both sides. The premises here have the misleading habit of leaving their lights on at night, so that you think they are open. But it creates a warm and safe atmosphere, and gives the impression that Vienna is a wealthy city where businesses can afford pointlessly huge electricity bills.
The heart of the Innere Stadt and of the city is Stephansplatz, which features the Stephandom – Vienna’s cathedral and one of the tallest churches in the world. More impressive than its skyscraping steeple, though, is its colourful, zig-zag patterned tiled roof. I know Notre Dame in Paris well enough to say with confidence that the Stephandom compares favourably.
From the Stephandom I headed up another wide pedestrianised street, the Graben with its cafe terraces and an extravagant baroque column called the Pestsäule. Luxury brands like Louis Vuitton have large stores along here, while carriage drivers circle around with tourists aboard.
Continuing on after the Graben, I came back to the Schottenring and the end of my run – my Ring run rather than a Ring Cycle, if you’re in the mood for a laboured operatic pun. I think I had a better tour of Vienna than those tourists with the horse and carriage.
Well, I loved Vienna and I’ll definitely return there. On my next run I’ll make sure I take in the Prater and the Danube.
And – shame on me – I must rectify another omission; I can’t believe I spent my whole first visit to Vienna without once remembering to sing an ’80s classic out loud on the street. Not that one – this one: