My Rough Guide: Vienna; Secret toilets and well-endowed fisherman
Sunday 20 July 1997
In a city that's not short on dusty and fusty museums, I was amazed when I walked into the unpromising-sounding Austrian Museum of Applied Art (popularly known as the MAK). Every single room has been individually designed by one of Austria's leading contemporary architects. One has deep cobalt-blue walls, another has a fast-moving multi-lingual LED text set into the cornice, but the piece de resistance is the museum's display of chairs, in which two parallel shadow screens running the length of the room, create a corridor down which you can stroll, while admiring the changing geometry of chair design over the last hundred years. Even more importantly, the museum has a spacious designer cafe that's open until midnight.
Frequented by Orson Welles during the shooting of The Third Man, the Hotel Orient, in the backstreets of the old town, is the nearest Vienna comes to a Japanese "love hotel". The rooms are "themed" - one is decked out like a Turkish harem, another has pink ruched curtains - several are available for rent by the hour or by the night, and the wood-panelled lift is suitably ancient.
Vienna's transport system is among the most expensive in the world with single tickets costing around pounds 1 each, but the longer you stay the cheaper it gets: a day pass is pounds 2.50, a three-day pass roughly pounds 7 and a weekly pass only a few Schillings more. What's more the public transport actually works. While I was there the U-Bahn was delayed for 24 minutes - and it made the front page of the national newspapers.
On the my first night in Vienna, I went drinking with some Czech friends and ended up checking into the megalithic 330-bed Freidrich Engels Platz youth hostel around 1am. I awoke with a start at 7am to a hearty "Guten Morgen" from the hostel's loud-speaker system which went on to inform guests (in German and then English) what time it was, how long it was before breakfast stopped being served, and how long it was before the cleaners would kick you out of bed.
Most beautiful corpse
Not a sick joke actually, but what all good Viennese aspire to: eine schone Leich. In order to check out the current health of the Viennese obsession with death, I went to the city's Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) on All Saints' Day when up to a million Viennese come to pay their respects to the dead by leaving flowers and lighting a candle. With as few as 18 percent of the Viennese opting for cremation, and some even keeping separate savings accounts to pay for a lavish funeral, it comes as little surprise that the Zentralfriedhof is one of the largest in the world with a population (2.5 million) twice that of the city itself. Even so I didn't expect it to have its own internal bus service. When, at dusk, I finally left, the cemetery was aglow with thousands of flickering nightlights.
On one particular trip I dragged a barfly friend along with me to sort out the city's nightlife. We were staying in a painfully low-cost pension above one of those nightclubs with doorbell entry only and a spy hole - a neon sign saying "Dancing" hung invitingly in the windows. On returning home after a particularly hard night's research, my friend took the plunge and knocked on the door. No doubt hoping that some wild (heterosexual) orgy was taking place, he was somewhat dismayed to find four lonely male punters sipping their drinks at the bar underneath a giant statue of a fisherman with a huge erect penis.
Most memorable toilet
Strolling through the Belvedere Palace admiring the Baroque art, I eventually reached the richly gilded Goldkabinett in desperate need of the toilet. When I asked the museum attendant where the loos were, he beckoned me over to the far corner of the room and opened a hidden door in the 23- carat gold panelling and invited me to relieve myself in the secret flush toilet therein.
One of the great joys of Vienna is its cafes. While the rest of the world queues up for fast food, the Viennese Kaffeehaus implores you slow down. For the price of a cup of coffee - and admittedly it's quite some price - you can sit for as long as you like and read the free newspapers or write postcards without ever being asked to move on or buy another drink. A perfect example is the Cafe Jelinek, off the beaten track in the backstreets south of Mariahilferstrasse, where the sign on the wall says: "We do not serve people in a hurry."
Rob Humphreys wrote 'The Rough Guide to Vienna'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
How to get there
British Airways, Austrian Airlines and Lauda Air all have regular flights from London to Vienna; discounted fares should bring the price to around pounds 150 return or less.
Where to stay
Double rooms at the Hotel Orient, Tiefer Graben 30, range from pounds 40 to pounds 100 for the night (tel 00 43 1 533 73 07; fax 535 03 40).
Where to drink coffee
Cafe Jelinek is at Otto-Bauer-Gasse 5 (the nearest U-Bahn is Webgasse); open Mon-Fri 8am-10pm, Sat 8am-8pm.
Seeing the sights
The MAK lies to the north of Stadtpark (U-Bahn Stubentor/tram 1 or 2) and is open Tues, Wed & Fri-Sun 10am-6pm, Thurs 10am-9pm; admission costs Asch90 (pounds 5). To get to the Zentralfriedhof, take tram 71 from Schwarzenbergplatz or 72 from U-Bahn Schlachthausgasse; get off at the second gateway (2 Tor). To visit the Belvedere, take tram 71 one stop from Schwarzenbergplatz or walk. The palace is open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; admission Asch60 (pounds 3.50).
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