Most people visit Vienna with a vivid image of the city in their minds: a monumental vision of Habsburg palaces, trotting white horses, old ladies in fur coats and mountains of fat cream cakes. And theyre unlikely to be disappointed in this city that positively feeds off imperial nostalgia High Baroque churches and aristocratic piles pepper the old town, or Innere Stadt, monumental projects from the late nineteenth century line the Ringstrasse, and postcards of the Emperor Franz-Josef and his beautiful wife Elisabeth still sell by the sackful. Just as compelling as the old Habsburg stand-bys are the wonderful Jugendstil and early modernist buildings, products of fin-de-siècle Vienna, when the city emerged as one of Europes great cultural centres. This was the era of Freud, Klimt, Schiele, Mahler and Schönberg, when the citys famous coffeehouses were filled with intellectuals from every corner of the empire. In a sense, this was Viennas golden age, after which all has been in decline: with the end of the empire in 1918, the city was reduced from a metropolis of over two million, capital of a vast empire of fifty million, to one of barely more than one-and-a-half million, federal capital of a small country of just eight million souls.
Given the citys twentieth-century history, its hardly surprising that the Viennese are as keen as anyone to continue plugging the good old days. This is a place, not unlike Berlin, which has had the misfortune of serving as a weather vane of European history. Modern anti-Semitism as a politically viable force was invented here, in front of Hitlers very eyes, in the first decade of the century. It was the assassination of an arrogant Austrian archduke that started World War I, while the battles between Left and Right fought out in the streets of Vienna mirrored those in Berlin in the 1930s. The weekend Hitler enjoyed his greatest electoral victory in the Reichstag was the day the Austrians themselves invented Austro-fascism. In 1938, the country became the first victim of Nazi expansion, greeting the Führer with delirious enthusiasm. And after the war, for a decade, Vienna was divided, like Berlin, into French, American, British and Soviet sectors.
The visual scars from this turbulent history are few and far between even Hitlers sinister Flacktürme are confined to the suburbs but the destruction of the citys once enormous Jewish community is a wound that has proved harder to heal. Viennas Jewish intellectuals and capitalists were the driving force behind much of the citys fin-de-siècle culture. Little surprise then, that the city has since struggled to live up to its glorious past achievements. After the war Vienna lost its cosmopolitan character and found itself stuck in a monocultural straightjacket. Since the end of the Cold War, however, this has begun to change, with the arrival of a second wave of immigrants from the former provinces of the old empire. Whether Vienna will learn to accept its new, multicultural identity remains to be seen.
For all its problems, Vienna is still an inspiring city to visit, with one of the worlds greatest art collections in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, world-class orchestras, and a superb architectural heritage. Its also an eminently civilized place, clean, safe (for the most part) and peopled by a courteous population who do their best to live up to their reputation for Gemütlichkeit or "cosiness". And despite its ageing population, its also a city with a lively nightlife, of late-opening cafés and drinking holes. Even Viennas traditional restaurants, long famous for quantity over quality, have discovered innovative methods of cooking and presentation, and are now supplemented by a wide range of ethnic restaurants....Continua