~ecstasy at your feet~

March 21st, 2008

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. ~Franz Kafka

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At first impression Vienna is dark, wonderful, fantastical. The city swirls with the ether of the fin de siecle–not this one, but the one that came before WWI.
As the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire ruled by the aged emperor Franz Josef, 1900 Vienna embodied a surface glamour and decadence that hid beneath it political stagnation and corruption, and the harsh realities of life for the middle and lower classes that were a result.

Austrian writer Karl Kraus–a contemporary of the time–wrote that Vienna was the “research laboratory for world destruction.”

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This corrosive climate spanned a cultural and intellectual renaissance in the arts, architecture, literature, and philosophical and scientific thought. You got Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gustav Mahler and avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, artist Egon Schiele, the minds behind The Wiener WerkstStte, and the Vienna Secession all hanging out at the same cafe. Effervescent!

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Today, men in powdered wigs and breeches pretend to be Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and wander the city selling concert tickets to unsuspecting tourists. The chocolates are called Cat’s Tongues. The Nazi built Flaktürme (anti-aircraft gun towers) that proved to be truly indestructible still float over the city famous for its cake-like buildings and building-like cakes.

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It was a lot for three days (!) and we plan to return in warmer weather, but here is what we saw…

We arrived at 3.30am and thus even after some sleep, Day One was a little dazed. We began with a walking tour of the center of the city or first district: Innere Stadt. It was once surrounded by guard walls that were razed in 1857. In their place a broad boulevard called the Ringstraße was built, along which public and private buildings, monuments, and parks now lie.

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The windows everywhere were dressed with hand-blown and painted eggs (Osterbräuche) dangling from sallow branches (Palmkatzerln) that are (traditionally) blessed on Palm Sunday. We also saw Osterlamm, a charming lamb-shaped cake sculpture. Life! Fertility! Spring!

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In the center of the center is Stephansdom. It is a fine church as churches go, with both a piece of the tablecloth from the Last Supper and the bones of St. Valentine, but its late Gothic stone pulpit is the real thing to see. It features portraits of the four original Doctors of the Church (St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome), each of them in different (and very expressive) temperaments.

Beneath the stairs is a self-portrait of the unknown sculptor gawking (gucken) out of a window (fenster) and thus famously known as the Fenstergucker.

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Jerome and Augustine. So eyeless! So oogy!

Below is the Ducal Crypt featuring seventy-eight bronze containers where the bodies (or simply the treasured viscera: innards, hearts, etc) of the Habsburg dynasty are stored, along with crypts for bishops and provosts.

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When an outbreak of bubonic plague forced the cemeteries nearby to close, the decomposing remains of 11,000 people were unceremoniously dug up and then dumped into the catacombs by unhappy prison-workers. Viewing this wreckage is both boring (incomprehensible tour-guide) and tragic (bodies left laying about like forgotten jackets).

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Better to shake off Death with some fresh Basler Leckerli gingerbread and a tour of the most “opulent” and “luxury” shopping streets–Graben, Kohlmarkt and Kärntner Strasse. There among the usual suspects is an absurdly decadent sweets shop called Demel, once catering to the Anarchist Empress, Sissi.

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Her reputed 20-inch waist and anorexia to go with it leaves one wondering what interest she might have had in chocolate. Presumably she was carrying her trademark white leather parasol when she was stabbed in the heart with a needle by an assassin. Her last words were, What happened to me? But wait, we were shaking off Death…

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Demel is two stories of Art Nouveau gold and pink and giant sugared eggs and velvet and Kandierte Veilchen (candied violet petals) and Katzenzungen (chocolate cats’ tongues). Madness! Taugen (I adore)! (I was hustled away before I could properly record it for you…)

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The boys thrilled me with a surprise visit to Prater park. After that heavy crypt business, one ride on Dizzy Mouse shot me back into my body, to the earth, the moment, now. I can’t believe we managed to peer-pressure Ali into riding this spinny child’s rollercoaster. His expression made my brain hurt from laughing. Life asserts itself!

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As Freud said, Time spent with cats is never wasted. Am I gonna make the cat’s tongues, catacombs joke? I don’t think so… Ali also kicked ass on the race track.

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The Weltausstellung (world exposition) was hosted in Vienna in 1873 in the hopes of improving the rather tarnished image of the Austria-Hungary Empire. It failed, but left behind some of the buildings still littered about the Prater. The Riesenrad ferris wheel–built in 1897 and offering a good birds-eye view of the city–you will recognize from The Third Man.

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The wheel originally had thirty gondolas, but was severely damaged in the Second World War, and when it was rebuilt, only fifteen gondolas were replaced. Some of them you can rent and dine in.

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Later we had dinner at Saint Charles Alimentary. A postage-stamp venue of great charm, where we were served thirteen courses all hand-picked and/or hunted by the owners. The mood was laidback and as though of old friends–you know the way you meet people and you can cut to the chase?
The music was a mix of old blues (I was singing Robert Wilkin’s That’s No Way to Get Along, for days), the food was so good and thoughtful, each dish served with a short story of how it came to be on your plate, in German of course.

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A “shy” rhutabega soup was followed by essence of Lebanese duck and quince, then a traditional flour soup “Mehlsuppe” with dark pumpernickel croutons (a young woman once could not get married until she could prepare a perfect flour soup).
There was a salad with purred beet and toasted hemp seeds, and one of lentil. There was smoked Seibling fish. There was both sautéed duck liver and lamb liver (very brave Kimmi), and later, duck breast. Every part of the duck was eaten.

There was handmade Blaufränkisch (dry red wine). There was handmade schnapps. After this things get fuzzy, but I know that I did not partake in the offered back room magic smoke, and I did kiss the cook, as I feel one should always do when hosted as well as we were.

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We carried on with our hosts to a sort of Kruder & Dorfmeister club called Soul Sugar in the in the Planetarium Prater. The best part was the very lo-tech laserium show (reminiscent of my childhood visits to Griffith Park Observatory–Dark Side of the Moon, anyone?)—tho the wonders of the heavens could not compare to the very tripping reactions of the two girls sitting in front of us. Rolling in ecstasy, if you know what I mean…

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It was a full moon that night and the wildness was felt by all.

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