James Ruggia | May 13, 2016 3:12 PM ET
Making Vienna’s Wheel Mine
You walk away from your first encounter with Vienna as if it still held some delicious secret that you couldn’t resolve. The hidden secret is part of its magical allure, like the now historic offices of Dr. Sigmund Freud at number 19 Begasse. Images of Vienna keep appearing and disappearing like the smile behind a hand-held fan. For me, that mystique sits regally behind the portraits of women by Vienna’s own Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Klimt’s Vienna was the center of the Fin de Siecle and those women, looking straight into the eyes of the viewer, capture so much of what women would become in the new 20th century.
It was a magnificent center to be in, but then Vienna seems to have found its way to many critical centers as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the urban ballroom of the tux, the gown and the waltz; of Freud and psychotherapy; and central to the development of Art Nouveau painting as it evolved on the canvasses of Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka among others.
In another important time, Vienna found itself as one of the important urban chess pieces in the Cold War. Berlin, Budapest and Prague also played their parts in that struggle. The Wiener Riesenrad Ferris Wheel, where Orson Welles (Harry Lime) confronts Joseph Cotton above the streets of the bombed-out post World War II Vienna in the film noir classic “The Third Man” is a Cold War center, much like Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
When the epic scale of Vienna seems too vast for Austria, one of Europe’s smaller countries, it’s important to remember that Vienna was the capital of an empire. Those Austro-Hungarian warriors defended the walls of Vienna (and Europe) from the Janissary armies of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 17th century. Running in place of those walls, now gone more than 150 years since Emperor Franz Joseph tore them down in 1865, is the Ringstrasse.
The Ringstrasse is a series of broad boulevards that circumvallate the city just as and where the walls did. The removal of the walls allowed Vienna to become a modern city. Today those boulevards, which run about three miles, are defined by palaces, stands of trees, museums and even a new shopping center, The Golden Quarter.
The Vienna wheel, way outside the Ringstrasse, sits at the center of my thoughts as a monument to catastrophe. As many of you know, I had an ischemic stroke in August and with this column I’m beginning my road back to writing normalcy. It helps me take on that road when I think about Vienna’s historic coffee houses, where delicious coffee is served with ice water, a plain cookie and a glorious desert of your choice. In another age you might have seen Gustav Mahler, Freud or Klimt at such coffeehouses as the Weimar, Hummel, Theatrecafe, Café Drechsler, Café Museum, Mozart, Hofburg or Rezidenz.
In 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand primped up with his wife Sophie for the parade that would kill them both and start the First World War. In fact you can see his bloody (now dry) tunic at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum or while there you can also check out artefacts from the 17th century defense of Vienna from Suleiman’s siege of the city.
No wonder about a half million Americans make it to Vienna every year (plus almost 200,000 Danube cruise passengers). To me, the Vienna Wheel tells a tale of history repeating and repeating. And like Welles it tells its tale with its own brand of humor. Vienna Walks and Talks can give you a Third Man tour of the city or book you in one of the Wheel’s 15 luxury cabins for a romantic dinner in one of its cars.
Catastrophes often announce big changes whose directions you can’t identify until long after the fact. My stroke certainly changed things for me. Vienna is a city that is accustomed to being in the middle of big changes. Things just have a way of going round and round, just like ferris wheels. I can’t wait to get back there to meet the ghost of Welles’ Harry Lime.
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