Thom Nickels: The city of Mozart

When I was in Vienna before Covid hit in 2019, I made it a point to visit St. Stephen’s cathedral. The massive church with the multicolored roof was built on two earlier churches (the first was established in 1147). St. Stephen’s is known as the church of Mozart. It was here that Mozart worshiped and was married. 

My tour guide told me that Mozart never lived far from the cathedral, and that he was superstitiously religious. The cathedral was nearly turned to ashes and debris by retreating German armies in WWII but a local Captain ignored demands for its demolition. Unfortunately, restoration scaffolding currently covered the front of the cathedral but still in evidence were numerous bullet holes embedded into the stone. During the war, 90 percent of the cathedral’s 14th-century Gothic glass stained windows were destroyed except for three long panels behind the high altar. Resistance fighters held regular meetings in the cathedral’s catacombs.

Viennese Catholic churches are epicenters of light. Clusters of candelabras, hanging chandeliers and votive candles give many of the churches here a Russian Orthodox look. The post Vatican Council stone altar tables positioned in front of the magnificent Romanesque-Gothic high altars in many of the churches I visited seemed comical and out of place. Who needs these “Julia Child tables” in front of such historical beauty? 

Saint Stephen’s is home to a reputed miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus. When the so-called Maria Pocs Byzantine-style icon, painted in 1676, first shed tears in 1696, Emperor Leopold I had it moved to the high altar where it would be safe from the Muslim armies that still controlled Hungary. The icon remained at the high altar until 1945 when it was moved towards the front of the church where it once again began to shed tears. A large number of people prayed before the icon as tourists made their way to one of the cathedral’s eighteen side altars. I photographed the icon before I left the cathedral. 

I also visited the church of Saint Peter — an Opus Dei parish as rich in ornamentation as the cathedral — and witnessed a wedding in progress. Electric votive candles and hanging chandeliers framed a priest in fiddle back vestments reciting prayers in both Latin and German. The bride and groom, in a freeze frame that was its own kind of icon, knelt before the altar as incense wafted towards the door. Through it all a guard at a desk observed the heavy coming and going.

I was taken to a former Jesuit church dating from 1365 (but now given the generic name, The University church), and viewed what appeared to be the interior of the church’s huge dome. The so-called dome, however, is really a work by Andrea Pozzo, painted in 1703. One does not perceive the dome as a work of art until one walks from the high altar to the vestibule. It’s then that one sees that the heretofore sky high ceiling is nothing but a flat surface 

When Adolf Hitler roamed the streets of Vienna as a young man (1906 to 1913), he lived in several rooming houses but mostly he was homeless, sleeping on park benches or staying in homeless shelters. With hair down to his shoulders and a scruffy beard, the future German Chancellor was a vagabond, a nobody, spending all his time drawing watercolor postcards and attempting to hawk them to the affluent habitués of coffeehouses like Café Central, where Lenin and Trotsky once planned the Russian Revolution. 

At Café Central (where I sat with my guide three tables away from Lenin’s table), we had a melange, or coffee with milk served on a small tray, a glass of water, a small spoon, balls of white and brown sugar and a small piece of chocolate, as I imagined a scruffy, homeless Hitler going from table to table with his postcards. Coffee is a lodestar enterprise in Vienna. There are not only upscale coffee houses like Café Central and Cafe Imperial, but cheaper, bohemian cafes where full meals and desserts can be ordered.

Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard called Vienna’s addiction to coffeehouses the “Viennese coffeehouse disease.” The Viennese take coffeehouses so seriously that patrons are free to sit all day reading or writing (or staring into space). There’s no push to order a second cup, and free second, third and fourth glasses of water can be ordered from waiters at no extra charge. 

Coffee was the only positive legacy left to the Viennese by the Ottoman Turks, who attempted to conquer the city in 1529 and again in the 1600s. Had Vienna not resisted the Turks, Saint Stephen’s would have followed the fate of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The threat of a second Turkish invasion in the 1600s (the first attempt failed because the Turkish cannons got stuck in mud) forced the city to build impenetrable walls. The city fathers poured so much money into the walls they had to stop their pet project: rebuilding Vienna in order to make it the greatest Gothic city in the world. 

“During the second invasion, the French were nasty because they were giving the Ottoman Turks all the support they could because they saw their chances. They thought, if Vienna falls, the Turks are going to need our help, so we’ll just help them take over the rest,” my guide told me, before we headed over to the Museum Quarter.

The Museum Quarter was built where the Hapsburg rulers of the Austria-Hungarian Empire had their imperial stables. Here one can hop from one museum to the next. Whether its architecture, the visual arts, dance or theater, the Quarter holds it all, including an abundance of cafes and restaurants. Later that evening, in fact, I headed out from my suite in Aldstat to the Café Restaurant Halle, the site of the former emperor’s Winter Riding Hall, and sampled a favorite imperial dish, Tafelspitz, or stewed beef and root vegetables, the favorite meal of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

From the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts, just outside the Museum Quarter, I soaked in a panoramic view of the stately government and cultural palaces (called the Hofburg) that had so enthralled the mad Hitler. These were the buildings that Churchill wanted to bomb because he knew they were Hitler’s favorite. With so much history surrounding me, I imagined the eerie echoes of hundreds of thousands of cheering Viennese who, on March 14, 1938, greeted the Chancellor when he made his triumphal entry into the city. Hitler stood in Heldenplatz (or Heroes Square), an area surrounded by various wings of the Hofburg. It was an eerie experience. 

In Vienna, eye contact is easy, people are friendly, and a majority of people speak English, even the few who happen to be homeless. One day while making my way to the Museum of Fine Arts, I was approached by a youth (who looked as unkempt as Hitler must have looked in 1905) who said he needed money for food. In broken English he told me that he had just been released from prison. I gave him a handful of Austrian coins I knew I’d never use, but he scowled at them contemptuously, demanded two Euros, and called me “stupid.” He then proceeded to follow me, asking me for more money until I found it necessary to duck into the lobby of a five-star hotel lobby where I knew he wouldn’t go, 

The Austrian way, however, is one of friendliness, as I would discover a couple days later when I rented a car and attempted to drive into the Wachau wine country for the second leg of my journey. Driving out of Vienna can be a nightmare for anxiety-prone drivers, as highway exits are labeled in small discreet letters and numbers. There can be multiple exits beginning with the letter A for instance, causing the mind to play tricks with the eyes, and vice versa.

I was due to meet my second guide and take a small boat trip down the Danube, but I never made it because I got lost in the mountains. Driving through Black Forest-like configurations, rolling hills and mountains, it began to rain and sleet and finally there were glimmers of snow. Austrians drive very fast, the speed limit near 100, so most people were passing me except for the big trucks that would move up silently behind me and flash their lights (and almost touch bumpers) because I wasn’t going fast. If you’ve ever seen the 1971 American action thriller TV film, “Duel,” directed by Steven Spielberg, you know what I’m referencing. 

Lost in the mountains, I wondered if I would survive my Austrian adventure. In a panic I thought of the icon in Saint Stephen’s and made the appropriate supplications. Shortly after this — miracle of miracles — I noticed a small restaurant supply house and café, the only building I’d seen for miles. I knocked on the door, explained my situation — a lost American journalist with a dead cell phone — and was promptly invited inside for coffee or beer, my choice. Friends of the woman who invited me in (and allowed me the use of her phone) joined us for conversation until I was safely redirected out of the mountains, and arrived safely at the Loisium hotel some hours later. 

Getting lost meant that I had missed a tour of the W.H. Auden house in Kirchstetten, a big disappointment, but once in the bosom of the wine country, my trip once again came alive. My wine country guide, Hans Christian, drove me to the famous Leo Hillinger winery, where we sampled some of the best stock, and where we met the winery master himself who’s a celebrity throughout Europe.

We also traveled into Hungary, and spotted an abandoned Communist station house where forty years before guards with guns took aim at Hungarians escaping into freedom. (Hans Christian told me that the Communists in Hungary were much nicer than the ones in East Germany, who’d shoot first and ask questions later.) 

At the Hungarian border we couldn’t resist the impulse to step out of the car and walk into the surrounding forest where so many had fled to freedom, were captured or shot dead. We knew that the dead and decaying plant matter under our feet held countless untold secrets. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

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