"It's not much but it's ours"

Friday, February 29, 2008


You climb a flight of twisted stairs
Some cat says buddy

Thanks to my relative abstinence the previous night I was all bright and breezy in the morning. The sun was shining, record temperatures were forecast so a nice walk seemed like the thing to do before lunch. While nervously holding on during my ride in the Riesenrad I’d noticed a cluster of tall buildings to the East. A quick Google and I discovered that this was Donau City, a complex of offices and residential units built around the UN centre which sits on the Danube. Also, nearby is the tallest building in Vienna, the Donauturm. I like tall buildings and the more pointless they are the better.

I found Donau City a rather bleak place, rather like Barbican but with less charm. The Donauturm was ace though with great views all the way up to the Northern suburbs where the vineyards and Heurigen can be found. It’s situated in a big park which was full of families though I noticed despite the ease of access by public transport most people had come by car. After a little stroll along the Danube it was time for lunch at yet another Viennese institution: Plachutta.

Plachutta is a small chain of restaurants originally started by a chap named Ewald Plachutta. I know this because the first thing you see when you enter the restaurant are piles of his book Koch Schule. There was another cock-up on the reservation front (they’d lost it) but after a bit of dithering they sat me at the worst table in the house - by the door and near one of the waiter’s service stations. It allowed me, though, to watch the comings and goings.

The nearest equivalent to Plachutta I can think of is La Bola in Madrid. They are both touristy but they’re also frequented by the locals. I think it’s just something you do on a Sunday if you’re Viennese. They both have a dish for which they’ve become famous. In the case of Plachutta this is Tafelspitz. The name actually refers to the cut of the meat used. For Tafelspitz read rump. There’s a number of other cuts you can get, presumably prepared in the same way which is essentially to boil it up with some root veg.

The dish is a starter and a main course as the cooking broth serves as a first course. This comes with a marrow bone and some rye bread toast for spreading the marrow on. I don’t as a rule usually order soup in a restaurant. It loses any interest for me after the first couple of slurps. This one was ok. The marrow though was better and I ordered a couple more bones.

The beef itself was a bit disappointing. I mean I know it’s only boiled beef but I’m sure it can be better then the sad little piece I had. Or maybe it doesn’t. A sort of rösti wasn’t really improved by being served in a broken-up form. The little boats of sauces – one cream and chive, the other horseradish and apple – were quite nice though.

I had the impression that they don’t really want you to linger here as my meal was served and finished well within the hour. I needed a bit of a break though so I ordered a coffee and went to go and admire the photos of celebrity visitors (no Billy Jeff though – that can’t be right). When I returned the dithering FOH was clearing my table and resetting it, even though my stuff was still on it. Luckily, my waiter came over and told her off and then offered lots of apologies before bringing me a schnapps on the house. So it wasn’t all bad.

A walk though the park and then, after a little doze a wander to find supper. I was still digesting my lunch and couldn’t really face anything substantial. I tried a few Wurst stalls but as it was Sunday night they were all shut. Eventually, I found a decent brew pub, 7 Stern Bräu which did a good range of beers. I had a little schnitzel snack and some of their interesting beers while watching a very dull Carling Cup Final.

An early night and a little wander to collect my thoughts. Vienna is a decent enough city. It’s attractive, civilised, clean, safe, and chock full of history. Undoubtedly a pleasant place to live. However, whenever I visit somewhere I’m always evaluating it as a place I could live. At some point in the future I’d like to revisit Vienna – maybe visit a few Heurigen, experience a bit more culture, and try and dig a bit deeper into the heart of the couture but as it stands there’s something that’s not clicking between me and the city. I don’t think I could live here. And for that the Viennese should be eternally grateful.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008


You go back Jack do it again

The next day I had a touch of the DHDTS or Dos Hermanos Day Two Syndrome - more commonly known as a hangover. However, the weather was unseasonally mild and the sun was shining so I thought I’d pay a little homage to The Third Man (one of the best British films...ever). After a stop off at Aïda a chain of Café-Konditorei for a harmless coffee and croissant (not a Vienesse invention by the way) I made my way round the corner from my hotel to the Riesenrad (that’s Big Wheel to you Engländer).

I handed over my Euros and got into the cabin. The wheel started to turn and I was enjoying the view until about a two-thirds of the way up when the wheel stopped. The wind was quite strong so the small carriage began to swing. The wheel didn’t turn. One of the windows wouldn’t close properly – no hermetically sealed London Eye pods here – so you could hear the whistling of the wind through the gaps. Still no sign of movement. I looked around the gondola. It was covered in graffiti. It had been damaged during the Second World War. It was over a hundred years old. In Victorian times things were always over-engineered. Right ? People were making jokes about how after all these years the Riesenrad had finally broken down. I was bricking it.

After what seemed like an hour but was probably more like ten minutes the wheel continued on its merry way and order and sanity in the world was restored. On the way out I declined the offer of a souvenir picture of myself. Nice views though.

As is usually the case on a DH trip more interesting times are to be had wandering outside the centre of whichever city we happen to be invading. In this case the Innere Stadt was very nice in a sort of picture postcard way with its grand avenues, huge buildings, fine cathedral but I decided the surrounding burbs would perhaps yield a better lunch.

First a visit to the Naschmarkt a Vienna institution since the 16th Century. Well, it seemed that most of Vienna was there on a Saturday lunchtime – every café was rammed. Unfortunately the crowds and the narrowness of the market mean it’s very difficult to navigate – independently sprung pushchairs are a real menance here and a lack of eating on the hoof opportunities meant I didn’t hang around too long.

A walk around the Schottenring – the inner ring road – and a short stroll into the area known as Alsergrund brought me to Gasthaus Wickerl. This is a Beisl (or tavern) which you find dotted around the city but are seemingly being usurped by the large number of Asian fusion and Italian joints (although I hear the old guard is fighting back with the neo-Beisl movement - the new take on the traditional form).
I liked Gasthaus Wickerl a lot. It was very laid back with people coming and going, having a bite to eat, a drink and a smoke (obviously) and a gab. The menu is all in German and the staff spoke very little English, but HS who is the expert at translating German menus (my forte is with Spanish ones) had taught me well enough to order that well known Viennese - originally Milanese - speciality the Wiener Schnitzel. This example was vom Kalb (Veal). Properly cooked and not absurdly large and with a good Kartoffelsalat on the side and a bottle of Gösser Dunkel this was exactly what I had been looking for when I decided to come to Vienna.

Buoyed by my rather nice lunch I did a bit more wandering around before heading for a Würstelstand for some er…wurst. The Würstelstand is another fast disappearing Vienna institution being replaced by stands that dish out Pizzas and Doner Kebabs. You can usually get a wurst at these places but it’s not quite the same. I visited a Würstelstand in Hoher Markt called oddly enough Würstelstand am Hohen Markt. There’s a big list with all the usual suspects with a Viennese speciality called the Kaesekrainer which is a wurst filled with cheese. I passed on that and went for something called the Tirolerwurst. Luckily all these places have a huge range of beverages (ok, beer) to wash it all down with.

I’ve done the Kafé und Küchen quite a bit with HS during our German trips so I wasn’t fussed where I ended up when I eventually needed a rest and refuel. The one I came across was Café Griensteidl. It’s a newer place bereft of the patina of decades of cigarette smoke but which nevertheless came up with a decent enough einspänner and good Esterházy-Torte. There might have been a glass of sekt slipped there as well.

I was bushed after quite a bit of walking during the day. That and the fact I was still suffering from the previous night (it’s not fair - I still feel as if I’m in my twenties) meant that I needed a little lie down in a darkened room. I decided to take easy in the evening and just get a bite to eat.

The Austrian public transport system is, predictably, fantastic. Germanically efficient, easy to use and clean, it makes all other systems look pretty primitive. Wherever you are there’s always a tram or a bus or a U Bahn station close by. I once got on a tram completely at random and it took me to nearest U Bahn station – not one I wanted but still, it was a nice touch. Best of all it’s totally free ! They’ve got rid of all the ticket barriers and staff and put the savings into completely subsidising the fares. Brilliant.

So it took me no time at all to get to Gasthaus Ubl. The place was rocking and smokin’ (natch) when I arrived but the nice mädchen seated me at the stammtisch or regulars table. The menu was much like every other Beisl menu which the Viennese seem to be happy about but which would drive British restaurant critics - in their never-ending search for novelty – completely crazy. I just managed to resist ordering Schnitzel again but instead tried the cold roast Pork with mustard followed by the Black Pudding which came with Sauerkraut and Erdäpfel (just how many words are there for potato in German ?). The pud was a little dry but tasty enough. The dish as a whole paled somewhat in comparison with a similar dish I’d had in Munich.

From my brief sampling of Viennese cuisine the Germans seem to have the edge when it comes to quality of ingredients and their preparation. Sorry, Wien.

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Walk around collecting Turkish union dues
They will call you sir and shine your shoes

According to the firm Mercer Consulting, Vienna is one of the most liveable cities in the World. In fact, it’s equal third with Vancouver but behind Zurich and Geneva. The index used looks at factors such as safety, political stability, blah, blah, blah. After my weekend break I think they hadn’t taken into account a couple of factors that may make the city less tolerable: the Viennese love of smoking and their apparent disinterest in decent food.

The Viennese smoke like chimneys. They love smoking. Everyone does it with an intensity and joi de vivre that seems strangely absent from other parts of their lives. If you don’t smoke, tough. It may have been because the ban on smoking in London has been active for a while that I wasn’t prepared for the solid fug of smoke that greeted me in my first bar. I coughed my way through a couple of half litres of beer before retreating to the fresh air.

I tried an American Bar nearby but they wouldn’t let me in without checking my jacket so I left and found another American Bar called Loos Bar. Designed by Adolf Loos in the early 20th century it’s compact and very bijou. I managed to snag a seat and had time for a little DM action before my meal. Shame it wasn't as nice as the surroundings.

My first meal of the visit was real car crash stuff. Österreicher im MAK is a restaurant in the Museum of Applied Arts run by a famous Austrian chef Helmut Österreicher. It’s pretty nasty. Smoky, loud music and what was a probably a decent room ruined by inappropriate décor. It’s main claim to fame is that is has a chandelier made from bottles (Wooo- Hooo).

After sorting out my table – they kept trying to seat me in the bar area even though I had a reservation – I had along wait before anyone even came with a menu. In hindsight I should have walked then.

The USP of the place is that you can choose from old classic Viennese dishes or have chef’s updated interpretations. I went for the old school though I suspect you’d lose out whichever menu you chose from.

A duck-liver parfait with smoked breast of duck and red cabbage salad was way too cold, the parfait when it had thawed was unremarkable. Even worst was the Zwiebelrostbraten. This is roast beef, covered with crispy onions. I got two flat tasteless disks in a stale tasting gravy. The sautéed potatoes were barely cooked through and the advertised mustard pickle non-existent. I left most of this garbage and my plate was taken without comment.

I decided to go and try and find another place to eat but got knocked back at one place ("sorry, private party sir") probably because I was an inebriated Brit with a problem (several since you ask). I'd lost the will to do any more walking so I ended up having an excellent double espresso and a grappa in the Kleines Café which I liked so much I repeated my order. It killed the hunger pangs anyway and sent me back to my hotel in a better mood.

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