Sunday, June 02, 2013

A little tourist anarchy in Vienna

There's a wonderful anarchy about cycling around a city. Especially one like Vienna, in a group with a guide.

Actually, the city makes it relatively easy with lots of cycle lanes and priorities at lights and intersections. But you still have to be seriously alert, because there's a busy mix of pedallers and pedestrians, not to mind the motor traffic.

Cycling is my favourite way of getting to know a city in a hurry. I used Vienna Explorer, based on Franz Josef Kai, close to the S-Bahn station of Schwedenplatz. Booked online, cost €24 (I got €2 off as a Senior). Various cycle tours offered include a Wine Tour through the villages in the lower Alps outside the city. Another time.

There were five of us, Billy and Kimberly from Utah, Jerry and Robin from Toronto. Me on my own. Kimberly had backpacked for a month, had been to the south of Ireland. The other two had trained through Europe, were just now in from Budapest. Information our guide, Horst, gleaned while waiting for the start time. I just listened. I'm a journalist, it's what I do.

We went out to our bikes. Continental high bars, tough as farm barns. Three simple speeds. Perfect for city work, and a long way from the nice hybrid I use at home. Saddles adjusted, Horst led us off at a strong clip. The group stretched, but pauses at traffic lights allowed us tighten up.

Over the next while we stopped at the University, the City Hall, the Parliament, the Natural History Museum and the Hofburg imperial palaces, all conveniently on the Ringstrasse around central Vienna. Horst told a story or two about each spot. The first was a church at the place where somebody had tried to assassinate Emperor Franz-Josef, erected in thanks by his brother Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico.

A rifle shot sound while pedalling away from the Natural History Museum was Jerry's rear tyre blown. Before mobile phones this could have been a disaster, but a call to base and Horst assured a replacement bike. We made our way more slowly to the People's Gardens beside the Imperial Palace. Hung out at the statue of Mozart. "He had a tragic life," Horst said. "Died young. Made as much money as Michael Jackson, but he was a gambler. Skipped from apartment to apartment because he couldn't pay the rent." Which maybe accounts for the number of buildings claiming Mozart connection. Probably still trying to recoup the rent.

While waiting, we learned that Billy and Kimberly had gotten engaged the previous week. In Berlin, where Billy had gone to meet her on her backpacking trip. Kimberly hadn't been expecting it. That explained why they were so obviously into each other.

The fresh bike came, the delivery guy having to walk the punctured one home. Horst set up a time-recovering pace that straggled out the group along by the river before our next stop at St Charles Church on Karlsplatz. We're not just at the biggest baroque church in Austria, but also the area which hosted the biggest black market in Vienna in the decade after WW2. "It's still a black market, but for drugs like marijuana — it's close to the technical university."

We rolled on to the Stadtpark, looking down on a small river in a concrete retainer gully. "Four or five times a year, when the snows melt or from heavy rain, people ride the torrent on their surfboards."

More twists and turns, ringing our bicycle bells with gusto at intersections, and then we were at an unusual apartment block, the Hundertwasserhaus. Gaudy-ish, it was a social housing project designed by a local artist heavily influenced by the Barcelona architect's originals. Lots of organic curves and embellishments, no right angles or straight walls. "He believed we need to recover our natural senses, that there are no regularities in nature. He wanted hills and curves on the floors too, but they would have made getting up in the night very dangerous."

The next area was the once private hunting grounds of the Hapsburgs nobility, now the Prater Park. Where Empress Sisi, an accomplished rider, amused herself. "She also loved mountain hiking, and could go for eight hours, leaving her servants behind. Because every day she smoked a pipe of cocaine. A medicine because she was depressed over deaths of her children, a daughter aged two and a son who shot himself."

The park also has one of Europe's oldest fun parks, with Vienna's famous giant Ferris Wheel, the Riesenrad, built in 1897 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I. It has survived two world wars. "Young couples of today like it. It takes 15 minutes to go around ... and for seven minutes they can't be seen."

Which is a similar theme to the origin of the busiest of today's tourist attractions in Vienna, the horse-drawn carriages encountered in convoys everywhere. These days they're open carriages so the tourists can see the sights. It wasn't always the case. "A hundred years ago brothels were clamped down on. The ladies then met men in the carriages, usually from churches where the women felt safe from the authorities. An address that didn't exist was a signal to the driver to keep going until the customers were finished and the lady was paid."

From easy riding in the pastoral environment of the park we headed back to the more hectic pace of the old city. It got personal there. Horst had told us earlier that he had been a banker, but had changed his life to become a tour guide. I'm a writer, also changed life a couple of times. Guessed there was a more interesting expansion, and there was. "You don't come here with anybody else. A building that's hundreds of years old, but it's special to me. I lived here for seven years, and now my ex-wife does, without me." There's a mythology about the building. A monster in a well who turns people to stone if they draw her up from her lair — Vienna's own version of the Greek tale of the Gorgon. Horst doesn't imply that about his wife. "But she's a lawyer, and when we divorced I didn't have a chance."

Horst is still good with his ex-father in law. They recently explored the cellars under the buildings in the area, going all the way to the city's Opera House. "The cellars are deeper than the buildings themselves, wine stores from the Romans two thousand years ago when the soldiers were kept calm with wine on paydays, in the face of invading German tribes. In a year or two I hope to have permission from maybe 20 private buildings to do tours through the connected cellars." Jerry suggests an arrangement with the owners, of a drop-box in each cellar into which every tour participant will give a donation as they pass through. Horst likes the idea.

Around the corner there's what our guide describes as the most authentic and best value restaurant in Vienna, The Old Vienna Coffee House. "This is where I'd go when I lived around here. Half the price of the tourist traps for a real Weiner Schnitzel."

The last historic stop was at the original university building in the city, established by the Jesuits. The church at the site, externally plain but wonderfully baroque inside. The false dome is particularly impressive.

Three hours had seemed quite a trip at the start. But we were already close to the end of the ride. Horst brought us across the river for choice views of the main city. And of the lower Alps not too far away. "We are famous for white wine, but there are good reds also. You can reach the wine villages by bicycle along the river in 20 minutes, or take the train to the last stop in half an hour."

Back at the offices of Vienna Explorer, Horst got his 'thank you's in euros-kind. He'd earned them. We had Vienna in a perspective which many tourists don't get. And maybe, because he was feeling good in his current career, we felt we had a perspective on him too.

But the real gig was being on the bicycle. The anarchy bit is exhilarating.