One of the best ways to appreciate Vienna is to leave it from time to time. So today I am travelling west to Munich to meet two very important old friends, drink some tea and converse with local people of influence about a possible Bavarian accession to Austria. I have never been but Munich was described to me as a mix between Vienna and Salzburg. This would mean if it was a film the plot would centre on an alpine family selling penicillin on the black market with occasional interludes for some singing and dancing.
My journey begins at Vienna’s Westbanhof, still one of Europe’s great railway hubs linking great cities of west and east, but now more retail and culinary experience than pure transport terminus. It has a huge airy ticket hall dominated by elegant elongated glass windows, a design that for years suggested hurried post-war construction but now seems fittingly contemporary and stylishly simple. Which is all very well. But what is the point of all this architectural wonder if one cannot get a decent drink? Not that I would advocate a beer at 8.30 in the morning – even in Bavaria – but if part of the global city rankings for life quality were partly based on ‘railway boozers’, then Vienna would be Scottish League Division 2.
Before it was refurbished in the late noughties, there was one “bar” (more a serving hatch with some stand up tables) that was so bad it was authentically brilliant. It was attached to a betting shop (more booth) which I have always thought a devious combination. But it meant that the mix of drinkers were a sociologists dream: business people on their way home, the homeless on their way nowhere, serial gamblers, train staff, bemused travellers, me, occasionally supping on Zipfer and smoking cigarettes watching the world pass by oblivious to the 2.30 at Haydock.
And now? There are the usual motley crew of coffee shops (not the real ones), fast food emporiums and hilariously priced snack stands. There is a bar, but it is smoking (another Viennese throwback which we might discuss later) and I try whenever possible these days when entering the confined, air-conditioned spaces of train carriages not to smell too much like a chimney sweep that has slept in an ashtray.
I am making the journey on something called a Railjet, the flag, er, ship, of the state-run Austrian railways, whisking me through the countryside at 200 km/h or more. Because I do not fly unless I am strapped down and sedated, I tend to indulge myself when going by train and will book a ticket in first class when funds allow and when a hangover is likely to gatecrash my head and body on a return journey. On this trip this meant an extra 20 Euro to sit in an airline quality seat, with airline style service, in a carriage devoid of passengers and my own plug! (I also got a complimentary chocolate bar, the name of which I am prepared to mention if Nestlé organize a suitable fee.)
We leave Westbanhof with the punctuality of the hotel owner in Asterix in Switzerland and rumble westwards through Penzing, the 14th district of Vienna, passing the site of Monday’s head-on Schnellbahn accident just outside Hütteldorf. Before we know it we enter the recently finished Lainzer-Wienerwald tunnel at Wolf in der Au and are whisked along with nothing to see except darkness and reflections. But about 10 minutes later we emerge, hair and cheeks flapping into brilliant wintry sunshine, and finally a wifi signal. Which is the curse of modern train travel. Whereas pre-smartphone and wireless networks I would gaze out of the window with only my thoughts and solitude for company, now there is the temptation to check in and bring the world to my leather seat. And I must get the most out of my plug.
We reach St. Pölten in 25 minutes, not enough time to eat my complimentary chocolate wafer snack and still no sign of my coffee. The landscape is blindingly white; picture postcard pristine straight out of the handbook of countryside wintry clichés. I curse my disorganisation. I have forgotten my sunglasses and will be unable to emulate Euro trash in the spiritual home of the white sausage.
Arriving in Salzburg quicker than I expected, the train starts to fill up, mostly with red-faced skiers heading to Munich or beyond. Suddenly there is a bit of a commotion next to my seat. Three young men are stopped mid gangway by 2 plain clothes police or immigration officers. The smell of ashtray adorned chimney sweep fills the air, although I cannot tell if it is the three lads or the two coppers straight out of the 1970s. Several telephone calls are made, passports are checked and then all seems well. I push back in my seat, relieved I am not about to be entertained to a ruckus and I gaze out the window at the passing landscape knowing shortly we will cross the border leaving Vienna far behind. The city of rich Bavarian farmers awaits. And hopefully a decent wifi signal.