A slow waltz

With its sheer lack of noise, clutter and clamor, winding down is easy in the capital on the Danube.

slow waltz 298 (photo credit: courtesy)
slow waltz 298
(photo credit: courtesy)
'It's never quiet here," Israelis are fond of saying to describe their country. Some say it with a sense of exasperation; some take strange pride in the ongoing "action" - whether political, terror-related or a soccer match turned violent. Otherwise it's simply a vague description of our unique reality. In the literal sense, it is a very accurate description. In Jerusalem, for example, one is hard pressed to avoid the daily barrages of incessant horn honking, construction work on every other street, shouts of shuk vendors and the occasional squabble over your place in line. It should come as no surprise then that Israelis love to travel and experience a rare dose of peace and quiet, figuratively and literally. Needless to say, when offered the opportunity to spend a weekend in Vienna with six other Israeli journalists, I gladly accepted, especially after a recent stint of reserve duty in the West Bank. It was high time to unwind, to feel the coffee houses where some of Europe's greatest minds, like Sigmund Freud and the painter Gustav Klimt, spent their afternoons discussing politics and ideas, and where musical giants such as Mozart, Schubert and Strauss orchestrated their masterpieces. The Austrian capital, with its 1.6 million residents, is immediately impressive for its magnificent blend of imperial flair with the latest trends. Much of the city is a testament to the history of the Habsburg empire, which was founded by Holy Roman Emperor Francis II and spanned more than three centuries from 1526 until 1867. The Habsburg's rule was followed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. The Ringstrasse circles the very heart of Vienna. Built on the location of the original city walls, its size is a good indication of how much the city has expanded since medieval times, but more importantly it is the poshest area of downtown. In the heart of Vienna's Old City, the Stephansplatz, and just a few minutes walk apart, one can find the Gothic St. Stephen's Cathedral, used as a meeting place for the anti-Nazi underground in World War II, City Hall and the Vienna State Opera. Walking along the narrow streets, it becomes apparent that the ancient walls are full of young life. Chic boutiques and fashionable bars are everywhere. For connoisseurs of gourmet chocolate, the Schokolade Konig has a shop of handmade treats near the cathedral. Also in the vicinity is the Museums Quarter, which extends beyond the high-profile Leopold Museum, the Museum Moderner Kunst and the Kunsthalle. From May to September its spacious courtyards are transformed into a favorite hangout. It not only draws a mixture of museum goers and hipsters with its art, culture, theater, music, dance, performances and literature, it also boasts children's workshops and sunny pavement caf s. For a more authentic mix of high and low culture, try the flea market at the Naschmarkt. Just imagine an Israeli shuk in slow motion with the volume turned down. Some stalls sell new items, such as hand-woven wicker baskets or food, at others one can discover couture gowns, communist medals from all the former Eastern Bloc countries, tobacco pipes and broken pocket watches. NO TRIP to the city on the Danube, however, is complete without a visit to a Viennese "heuriger." This uniquely Viennese institution is second only to coffee houses. A heuriger is a privately-owned tavern and is always attached to a vineyard that produces the wine that is served. They can be found in almost every suburban area, as well as in the city center. Vienna's wine region is located within city limits and wine connoisseurs are giving Viennese wine increased recognition. The city's 7,000 dunams (1,750 acres) of vineyards are cultivated by some 320 vintners at Kahlenberg, Nussberg, Bisamberg and Mauer, where the Danube and nearby Vienna Woods provide an ideal microclimate. Many of the old heurigers have disappeared and those that remain have had to yield to modern times. All of them now serve food over the counter, and it is no longer acceptable etiquette for patrons to bring their own food. One such heuriger belongs to a Herr Hengl-Haselbrunner, who was more than excited to treat his Israeli guests to a tour of his vineyard, followed by stupendous amounts of food and wine. Hengl-Haselbrunner, whose son was a volunteer on a kibbutz in Upper Galilee a few years ago, is a cherub-like 70-year-old with red cheeks. His stoic demeanor couldn't hide his apparent soft spot for Israelis. He does not, however, accept tourist groups, so when visiting his restaurant be sure to make it a private affair. But if you can't bear the smell of cigarette smoke don't bother going. Like the majority of Viennese restaurants, Hengl-Haselbrunner's tavern was covered in a cloud of smoke and the windows were shut despite the cool springtime breeze outside. For us Israelis, who have already been "reeducated" to not smoke in closed public spaces, it was surprising to see these refined Europeans light up in restaurants without a second thought. STRIKINGLY NOTICEABLE in Vienna is the sheer lack of noise, clutter and clamor. Not a honking horn for three entire days. The Viennese make their way about town, each at his or her own pace and without a discernible trace of urgency. They are only too glad to help, in decent English, tourists in need of directions or tips on where best to go. Despite the leisurely nature of the Viennese, chances are you will always reach your destination on time and without much hassle. If you rent a bicycle, you can put the designated bike paths that run along each street to good use. Be sure, however, not to use the bike paths for walking, as this egregious offense can carry a monetary fine. You can also take a bus or a slightly overpriced cab ride. The city's hot spots are also accessible by tram, which costs up to 18.5 euros for a 72-hour pass that includes buses and discounts at various cafes and restaurants. But as one of my colleagues, who was unable to suppress the urge, jokingly pointed out before boarding, "Make sure it's the right train." Nothing like good old black humor from back home, reminding everyone of Jewish history in Austria only a few decades ago. If the tram doesn't strike your fancy, then a stroll along the immaculate streets (not a piece of litter or stray cat or dog to be found) and through manicured lawns is also a fine option. Underneath the seemingly optimistic surface of its trendy vibes, however, lies an ever-creeping social threat: Vienna's low birthrate, which stands around the 1.4 mark compared to around 2.8 in Israel. Spotting a family with two or more children on a busy Saturday afternoon downtown is close to impossible. I pondered what the future holds for a society that so exorbitantly commemorates its ancient imperial history with immense, gold-plated, skyscraping statues, monuments and palaces, but isn't producing enough people to sustain those memories. Even so, the manner in which the Viennese honor their culture and history is impressive, even enviable, and provides eye-opening contrast to the myriad memorials for fallen soldiers and terror victims in Israel. The Viennese say that "hours do not strike for the happy man." In Israel, where news updates are broadcast on the radio every half hour and people rush around as if there is no tomorrow, nothing was more in order than a refreshing change of pace, which is exactly what I found in the Austrian capital. The writer was a guest of the Vienna Tourism Board and Austrian Airways.