A Late-Autumn Viennese Waltz

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Travel Writer

Vienna regularly tops those lists of cities with the world’s best quality of life, and amid the happy buzz of wintertime, you’ll understand why.

Locals with pleasant smiles stroll the Hapburg-era boulevards in the crisp air, tucking into the city’s famous coffeehouses to warm up and schmooze over steaming, delicious coffee. This time of year, live piano music accompanies your mocha or sachertorte, while candlelight glows against the smoky, century-old mirrors in the dusky late-autumn afternoon. The beautiful blue Danube, which flows through this city of Lehar and Strauss, shimmers with reflections of the city.

Indeed, Vienna is at its most splendid during the dark days of winter. Streets glitter with holiday lights, plazas bustle with holiday markets, and the festive sounds of waltzes ring from every corner. At the Volksoper, a storied opera house, this fall brings a festival of classic Viennese operetta, along with nightly productions of ballet and opera with a Mittel-European focus.

Vienna’s fabulous baroque palaces, Gothic churches, and grand boulevards — along with some with some of the continent’s finest museums — are a constant reminder that this was once the seat of a vast and powerful empire. Later a stage for Nazi terror, the city of Freud and Mahler has mellowed over the years. Recent influxes of young Serbs, Turks, and others from Balkan Europe have brought new energy to the scene, adding to Vienna’s distinctive east-meets-west cosmopolitanism.

You can feel it in the Museumsquartier, a vast cultural complex inaugurated nine years ago, where young artists are reinventing the city’s grand public spaces. From now through the end of December, the central square hosts a nightly ice party: six ice pavilions for skating and curling, steaming hot punch, dazzling light shows, and international DJs spinning tunes for the winter revelers.

During the daytime, the MuseumsQuartier is a glorious sensory overload. Alongside historic palaces and institutions like the Leopold Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of works by Egon Schiele, are bright new galleries of contemporary art and workspaces for young painters, architects and media artists. Wandering among the complex’s plazas and galleries, you sense the way Vienna’s historic legacy and its modern sensibility infuse each other with creative energy.

History, of course, is everywhere. The Vienna Philharmonic, the State Opera and dozens of other musical institutions keep alive the legacy of Viennese residents like Mozart, Haydn, and Schoenberg — and you can visit all of their historic homes here, in the longtime center of the classical-music world.

Vienna’s historic center survived the 20th century better than many, and it is still possible, wandering down the grand central boulevard of Karntnerstrasse past the State Opera House, to imagine the Vienna of prewar glory. Here in the historic center, the vast Cathedral of St. Stephan and the Hofburg Palace are fascinating highlights of Vienna’s mighty past.

But there are also neighborhoods that have an Eastern-bloc feel, a reminder that Vienna was and is at the crossroads of Europe. Neubau, a newly trendy district southwest of the center, is one such place: once rather nondescript, the area is now thronged with arty young people, local boutiques, theaters, and galleries.

The largely Orthodox Jewish Carmelite neighborhood, in the Second District around Leopoldstadt, is another such area, with a thoroughly modern mix of kosher eateries, galleries and hipster bookstores. Few places in Europe offer such a complex Jewish heritage alongside a vibrant Jewish present as Vienna, which is now home to one of the continent’s most lively postwar Jewish communities --- some 7,000 strong, including many arrivals from the former Soviet Union.

To help Jewish visitors feel comfortable here, the community has established a welcome center (www.jewish-welcome.at; office at Judenplatz) in collaboration with the Jewish Museum here.

You could easily fill a week with destinations of Jewish interest, but one place to start is the City Temple, a gorgeous 1820s synagogue that was the only one of Vienna’s 94 temples to survive Kristallnacht. Tucked into a residential complex in the city center, it owes its existence to anti-Semitic zoning laws of the day that forbade non-Catholic houses of worship on main streets (which were later destroyed).

Today the historic temple, with its soaring Wedgwood-blue dome and twinkling balconies, is the heart of modern Viennese Jewish life, with daily services and the Community Center next door. To arrange a guided tour of the building, contact the Jewish Museum (www.jmw.at).

The Jewish Museum of Vienna traces the history of Viennese Jewry from medieval times, through centuries of expulsion and assimilation, up to the fateful year of 1938, when Nazism unraveled it all. Nearby at the Judenplatz, the public square on the grounds of what was once the Jewish ghetto, an annex of the museum takes a closer look at Jewry during Vienna’s medieval period. Visitors can walk through a tunnel that connects the museum annex — which reopens next week after a brief closure — with the excavated site of a 13th-century synagogue.

But the focal point of Judenplatz is Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial — a large, pale cube that evokes volumes of books, surrounded by the somber names of the final destinations for 65,000 Viennese Jews. More contemplative and less experiential than Berlin’s memorial, it alludes to the profound intellectual legacy of a cultivated people, whose contributions lived on as they themselves perished.

But while there is much to mourn, today’s Vienna is always ready to celebrate with a waltz — or a hora. At the City Temple, there’s a concert of Mozart on Nov. 24, a Chanukah book market on the Nov. 28, and a cantorial concert on Dec. 1 featuring voices from Vienna and Jerusalem. As New Year’s approaches, concerts are scheduled for nearly every waking hour across the city, while evening-clad revelers take the streets for winter balls.

In Vienna, history may be bittersweet, but music is ever-present and joyous.

An annex of The Jewish Museum on the Judenplatz.

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