Tourist in Austria

JOAN M. WALKER recently returned from a year in Europe, of which six months were spent in Austria. She is a native of Illinois, and now lives in New York, where she is engaged in television work.


AUSTRIA — still officially at war with the United States — is paradoxically one of the gayest countries in Europe for the American tourist and probably the cheapest. A really memorable dinner often costs as little as $2. The best of wines run to around $1 a bottle, and $2.50 will pay for a night’s lodging in a first-rate hotel.

Vienna today, of course, bears little resemblance to the Alt Wien of song and cinema. There are few signs of wealth even among the aristocracy. But the Viennese have an irrepressible instinct for enjoying themselves, and they still manage to make their city one of the more festive places on the European continent.

The country is faced with staggering problems: the bulk of its industry is in the Russian zone, operated by and for the Russians; the once profitable trade with Hungary and Czechoslovakia has been virtually cut off; the government is constantly battling against Russian interference. But Austria, miraculously, ticks. The explanation (or at least part of it) is that the Austrian is a master of Durchwurschteln, which, literally translated, means “sausaging through.” The idea is that you bend and slither and sometimes go around in a circle, but eventually you worm your way to your objective.

Since the war, the Viennese have had to cope with the ticklish problem of getting along with both the East and the West; and for this they are admirably suited. A long historical penchant for intrigue, a knack for duplicity, and a firm conviction that wine, good food, and music are matters of greater moment than political ideology have always made it possible for them to shake, politely, the hand at hand. They are probably as skilled today as in Metternich’s age in the use of good manners as an instrument of policy. In this atmosphere of elaborate courtesy, East and West still meet — in their public contacts — with scrupulous correctness.

A good public display of their correctness — and incidentally the best free show in town — takes place the first of each month when the control of the international zone, the heart of the city, passes from one occupying power to another. A formal changing of the guards ceremony is held on the steps of the Palace of Justice; the American, British, French, and Russian commanding officers and their staffs turn out, with their bands; and several hundred people show up to watch the spectacle. This is one of the rare occasions on which you see much of the Russians in Vienna. Occasionally, several officers are present at the opera or at the theater, but I never once saw a Russian in any of the restaurants.

For the American tourist, entry formalities now amount to nothing more than a valid passport. If you intend to travel to Vienna by rail or car rather than by plane, you will need a “gray card” for transit through the Russian zone; but it only takes a few days to get one from the Allied High Commission Permit Office in Washington, D.C.

With each of the four occupying powers using at least one of the largest hotels as headquarters, Vienna is a city where confirmed reservations are a necessity. The best hotels available to the tourist are the Krantz-Ambassador, the Astoria, and the Kaisern Elisabeth, where room and breakfast run from $3 to $5 a day. The service is genial, the rooms are clean, but the furnishings show the signs of long wear and prodigious patching.

In Vienna, a good pension is a satisfactory as well as inexpensive answer to the lodging problem. The Pension Neuer Markt, where I stayed, is centrally located, and for less than $2 a day I had a good-sized room, a balcony, and breakfast in bed. The Pension Schneider and Pension Wiener are also comfortable places.

Vienna’s restaurants, once famed for combining gastronomy and an atmosphere of romance, still put up a creditable showing on both counts. Shades of the old elegance can be found at the refurbished, red plush Sacher, the Franziskancr, the Stadtkrug, or the new Drei Husaren. You can spend several hours wandering through a chicken mousse, a clear turtle soup, an ultra-crisp Wiener Schnitzel, and a bottle of Kloster Non burger; then finish off with Palatschinken — those thin egg batter pancakes filled with berries or chocolate — and pick up a check for two of around $5.

The French cuisine at the Hotel de France would probably rate two stars in the infallible Guide Michelin, and its prices would certainly cause consternation among Parisian restaurateurs. The Balkan Grill, which by Viennese standards is expensive, offers Balkan dishes served up on wooden platters, gypsy music, and a mild conspiratorial atmosphere. Meals here are generally started with a glass of slivovitz, which sets the stage for the chopped onion and red pepper salad and the blazing kebab that follow. There is also gypsy music at Pataky’s, which makes a superb chicken paprika. This is the meeting place for many of the stateless Hungarians who roam the face of Vienna, engage in slightly shady business transactions, and occasionally throw a wineglass because they are Hungarians.

All over town the old-fashioned wine cellars are back in business — big, dark places with long community tables. The Viennese sometimes stop in at one of these cellars in the middle of the morning for a goulash soup, which is almost as substantial as a goulash and costs about 20 cents a bowl. At dinnertime the menu at the Weinstuben features simple “housewifely” dishes with names a mile long — such as Masthuhn gebraten nach Hausfrauen Art — “roast chicken after the manner of housewives.” A favorite dessert is Kaiserschmarrn, a cake which, its name implies, was esteemed by the late Emperor. The chances are that one person can’t spend more than a dollar for dinner, including a pitcher of wine or beer.

The coffeehouses are still the second home of all Viennese. Every man has his Stammcafé — his hereditary coffeehouse— where he shows up every morning around ten to eat a Kaiser Semmel (Emperor Roll) with his coffee and read his newspaper. The waiters know his reading habits and automatically produce his favorite journal. He is back again in the afternoon for coffee, pastry or little sandwiches, and interminable talk.

Only coffee prepared by the drip method is considered fit to drink, and single orders are brewed in a minute coffee maker, on the theory that two cups brewed in a three-cup pot will fall short of perfection. Lately, the Italian espresso has been gaining favor and this is drunk, as in Italy, with more sugar than coffee. There are no fewer than 1200 cafés in Vienna, but the biggest, busiest, and most amusing are the Mozart, the Operncafé, and the Kursalon (where, in summer, you can sip your coffee on a terrace and listen to the band playing in the Stadtpark).

Night life in Vienna is lively, late, and unbelievably inexpensive, since the staple drink is white wine and it often runs as low as 30 cents a pitcher. The night clubs range from seedy places like the Orient ale or Opium Höhle, where every customer likes to think the people at the next table are spies, to the elegant Splendide, fashionable hangout for free-spending Hungarians, American visitors, and the younger members of the Austrian aristocracy. In summer, these same people move up the hill just outside Vienna to the Cobenzl. Here there are outdoor terraces for dinner and dancing and a wonderfid view of those sights which the Viennese get tearyeyed about: the schöne, blaue Donau (which, incidentally, is never blue around Vienna, but usually a yellowish gray); the Vienna Woods, celebrated by Strauss; and far below, the city itself. Enthusiasts of gypsy music should not miss the Monseigneur, a gloomy establishment notable for the incomparable fiddling of Kocze Antal, an aged gypsy violinist. Antal’s performance reaches its peak just before dawn, by which time he is playing crouched on the floor, weeping gently in accompaniment to his unbearably sad music.

The standard outing for the average Viennese is a Heuriger party at the wine houses in suburban Grinzing, or at the “Eroica” in the old city. These wine houses, identified by the evergreens over the door, are owned by vintners who dispense only Heuriger — the green, amazingly intoxicating wine “of this year,”which is served straight from the vat. The customers supply their own food and song.

Austria’s bottled wines are virtually unknown outside of the country, for the simple reason that they do not “travel.” They have a unique freshness of taste and a remarkably exhilarating effect with little or no aftereffect. The most distinguished of the whites are Gumpoldskirchener, Grinzinger, Nussdorfer, Riesling; and of the reds, Voslauer or Kloster Neuburger. Don’t bother about the vintage years of any of these wines, as they are seldom over two years old.

There is a saying that everyone in Vienna is an amateur singer; and certainly the unbounded interest of the Viennese in the lives of their musical performers suggests the proprietary interest which the amateur artist feels for the professional. The private lives of Vienna’s favorite musicians are considered public property. A singer’s love affairs, a conductor’s financial problems, are discussed with a startling intimacy of detail. The financial situation, however, is such that Vienna’s top performers are not as well paid as they are well loved, with the result that many are lured away to lusher pastures. But there remain enough good voices to produce first-rate opera. What is more, the two main opera companies have a continuing tradition of functioning as a company, and their performances sparkle with smooth teamwork.

Until the handsome baroque opera house on the Ring is ready to reopen — which will probably be in the spring of this year — the National Opera is using the small Theater an der Wien, where it presents four or five different operas each week at a top price of about $1.50. I heard a Marriage of Figaro that was a study in charm and delicate coördination, and I doubt that Fidelio can be much better performed than it is at the Vienna Staatsoper. Across town at the Volksoper, where light opera is performed, the traditional New Year’s Eve performance of Die Fledermaus was so contagiously gay that the entire audience joined in the finale.

Orchestrally, Vienna is in an enviable position. It is home base for both the magnificent Philharmonic, conducted with enormous polish by Clemens Krauss, and for the Vienna Symphony, often under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, considered by some the finest conductor in Europe. Karajan gives two concerts a week, the most popular of which is at 11 o’clock on Sunday mornings. This allows plenty of time for the Viennese to indulge in two of their favorite activities: greeting their friends and listening to music — roughly equal effort is devoted to each. Members of the string section of the Philharmonic join the superbly trained Vienna Boys Choir for 10 A.M. Mass at the little baroque chapel in the Hofburg every Sunday.

Vienna’s low prices make it hard to resist a shopping spree. On the main shopping streets — the Kärtnerstrasse and the Graben — you find a variety of good buys: petit point bags, which would cost $80 in New York, for about $20; handmade silk blouses with embroidery for $12; hand-knit sweaters for $10; and fine Meissen, Old Vienna, or Augarten porcelain for about 20 per cent less than in the United States. I bought a marvelous copy of a Christian Dior model — a heavy silk taffeta afternoon dress with ten yards of skirt, all of it minutely pleated — for one third of the price of the original. A new shop, the Elegance, has careful copies of French models for as little as $35. Knize, a tailor whom certain connoisseurs consider without peer in Savile Row, makes suits for men and women in fine English woolens for around $145.

Anyone with an eye for antiques can pick up some amazing bargains at the Dorotheum, the state auction house. I followed the fortunes of a baronial set of silverware large enough to serve a banquet for twelve; and it went for $125, no doubt to someone with the initial “M,” since every piece was handsomely engraved.

In relation to other costs, taxi fares in Vienna are rather high. But a great many of the places on the tourist’s circuit are in or around the first zone, so taxis are seldom essential. Whatever part of the “Inner City" you start from, a moderate walk will take you to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, shattered in the war but now completely restored, with the immense Hapsburg eagle back in place on the roof; to the Hofburg, winter palace of the emperors, once again open to the public; to the ornate but graceful Rathaus; and to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which has one of the finest collections of Breughels in the world. Besides, Vienna is a town for walking: a stroll along its old streets and stately avenues brings home the full impact of this monument to the baroque grand style.

Austria is not quite as well equipped to cater to the tourist’s every requirement as countries with such a highly developed tourist trade as France or Italy. Service stations, for instance, are few and far between on the Austrian roads, and there’s sometimes a shortage of porters at railway depots. But it would take a very pampered traveler to find cause for serious complaint. The hotel shortage, however, is apt to plague the tourist all over the country — at the ski resorts in midwinter, at the spas in summer, and at Salzburg during the music festival. This jewel-like town still looks, architecturally, the same today as it did in the plans of its archbishop creators, but the war and its aftermath have injected something new and incongruous into its daily life — the American Army, whose Austrian headquarters are in Salzburg, and a great many Hungarian refugees from Communism. Jeeps, cocktails, and the latest American movies have followed the Army; beautiful women, dark night clubs, and brisk business deals have followed the Hungarians.

A great many otherwise rational Americans succumb, in Salzburg, to a whimsical craving for Tyrolean clothes. The place to go is Lanz’s. The prices, by Austrian standards, are moderately high, but not high enough to quench the average tourist’s yearning to impersonate an Alpine brave or mountain belle.

Salzburg is a good starting point for a tour of some of Austria’s vacation spots. Buses leave every morning for the Salzkammergut, a region filled with incredibly blue mountain lakes, dense forests, and modestly priced hotels—the most extravagant in the area is the de luxe Schloss at Fuschl, where a single room with private bath and three meals is $8 a day. In all the lake towns (three charming ones are Wolfgnnsee, Mondsee, and Gmunden) there are small, Spotlessly clean guesthouses, where room and board come to $3 a day. Bad Ischl — once summer residence of Franz Joseph, and the natives never let you forget it — has excellent fishing, thermal baths, and a café famous for its Zaunerschnitte, a flaky chocolate pastry. South of Salzburg is Bad Gastein, Austria’s most fashionable resort.

Anyone with a special fondness for spectacular mountain scenery should make an effort to drive up the impressive Grossglockner Alpine Road, a round trip from Innsbruck of about 250 miles. The road climbs, with fearful twists and turns, to a height of 8430 feet on the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain. At about 7500 feet, sightseers stop at the Franz Joseph Höhe to gaze at the dazzling Pasterzen Glacier; and, if they’re Austrians, to drop in at the mountainside café for a cup of coffee, pastries — and a look at a newspaper.