Naschmarkt is Vienna’s most famous market. It is sandwiched between the 4th, 5th and 6th districts of the city, stretching a kilometre and a half from Karlsplatz to Kettenbrückengasse, following the largely forgotten river Wien (which is where the roads flanking the market, Wienzeile, derive their names).
My first trip to Naschmarkt was not long after I’d moved here permanently in the late 90s. Back then it was still strictly a market although there were several places to eat and drink and generally indulge in beer and schnapps induced mischief. One of these was “Zur Eisernen Zeit”, a legend of a boozer for those that knew this part of Wienzeile, serving up unpretentious Gulasch and one of Austria’s best beers, Murauer.
One of the owners, Helmut (who we called Ben Cartwright from Bonanza as he was the Doppelganger for the actor Lorne Greene) often made a point of talking to us when he heard myself and wife and brother-in-law speaking English (at that stage my German meant I could only order beer and mock policeman about their trousers).
Naturally, this endeared me to the place. Not only did it give me the sense that I was becoming part of a community, I could get to speak to the man who fought the Cylons. Needless to say, from visit to visit, Helmut would never remember us (the man could drink) and I would go through the same process of telling him that I now lived in Vienna and my wife would explain that she was a local. And then he would toast us and go and accost other drinkers.
It is easy to see why travel writers on Vienna are often obsessed with Naschmarkt. The place is special. Vienna does pavement café culture and open space living as well as anywhere, but Naschmarkt takes it to another level, combining the energy of a living, functioning market, with a constant flux of characters, sounds and rotating kebabs.
A large part of this narrative assumes that shopping and hanging out at Naschmarkt confers authenticity, as if all of Vienna go and buy their weekend supplies in one of the diminishing fruit and vegetable stands or delicately stocked delicatessens before returning home to their apartments to cook and feast. Not to forget the prerequisite pit-stop on route to one of the hip and stylish bars for an Aperol Spritz or Hugo with a background vibe of vinyl led music and greenhouse-gas-busting patio heaters.
And to be fair they are partly right. The picture they depict is authentic in the sense that it continues to serve locals who predominate in the market’s narrow walkways. But Naschmarkt is home to all demographics. It may, at times, feel like one is surrounded by Bohos (well-heeled, affluent, Bugaboo pushing middle-classes in search of something interesting to cook and drink and perhaps a chance to sit in the sun). But one is equally like to rub shoulders with the career drinker, market trader and suspiciously shiny fifty and sixty-somethings with unnaturally white teeth. Of course, any Wiener is just as likely to shop in Billa or Spar but supermarket shopping ain’t sexy, at least not yet.
So there is nothing wrong with aspirations towards the “genuine”. Every traveller wants to experience the “real”. But authenticity, like the pursuit of it, is unpredictable. Blab about it too much and the effects are likely to vex me and have lasting, perhaps devastating effects.
Last year I remember reading a blog about Vienna which bemoaned the abundance of travel guides and accompanying flashbulbs in a famous Viennese café. According to the writers of the blog, both writers of travel guides, it gave the place an over-bearing touristy feel. I re-read it again searching for the punch line or some misplaced self-mockery, but no, the travel writers were unhappy that tourists had stumbled across an authentic Viennese café, thus rendering less than authentic, which they had written about in, er, a travel guide (which being writers, presumably they wanted people to read).
I mention all this because Naschmarkt is still one of my favourite places to shop and mess about. This is in spite of the fact that when the sun comes out you can’t bloody move for day-trippers, eyes like Martians, taking photos of fruit and little bags of spices and generally staring in wonder at the accursed wasabi nuts, the ubiquitous selection of olives and the heart-stoppingly expensive dried fruit (up there with Madoff for pecuniary scams). Sometimes I just want to shout:” Get out of my way! Can’t you see I have to buy falafel?”
Indeed, I was there very recently visiting Josef’s Indian Shop to stock up on the essentials of Indian cooking: curry pastes, proper basmati rice, Marmite. Or Umar’s fish shop (restaurant over-rated) jostling for elbow space with your average slippery Wiener queue-jumper, and reaching for my wallet every few seconds to make sure it hadn’t been spirited away by a well-dressed pickpocket.
However, I am going to turn traitorous for a moment and give the place a bit of a kick up its Hintern (arse). To understand this, first linguistics: Naschmarkt, gets its name (one theory) from the German word naschen which means to snack. Yet over the past 10 years or so, as it slowly woke up to the short-termist benefits of brazenly chasing the tourist Euro, it is, like a cat chasing its tail, in serious danger of eating itself.
Such developments, that tolerate (and allow) both the idiotic and the shite, whilst simultaneously destroying the very thing that made the place, and places like it, so appealing, perhaps unique, baffle me. Naturally, I understand that it cannot, like my hair, remain as it once was and it needs to change and innovate (to survive). Indeed, over the years Naschmarkt has boomed, in every sense, and not necessarily because of tourism. Restaurants and bars have flourished as the tastes of locals have changed and some are really fantastic. Money, of course, drives this and who can blame a stall owner from cashing in (most of the stands you couldn’t give away in the 80s and early 90s). Have you ever tried selling fruit and vegetables six days a week?
But equally, there are things happening which are the just dreadful and depressing and the warning signs are everywhere:
1. The two tourist tat shops that have appeared, you know the ones, selling utter crap that no-ones needs, especially not in the middle of a food market.
2. The hawking at some of the Asian restaurants – particularly bad in the back section from Karlsplatz end to Schleifmühlgasse.
3. The barracking from stall-holders trying to entice you to eat their “unique” humus and “exclusive” stuffed olive leaves.
3. The appearance of too many restaurants with photos of the food they sell. It reminds me of Wimpey circa 1978.
4. The proliferation of shops selling the SAME generic stuff (see olives, wasabi, dried fruit) and the decline in fresh fruit and vegetable stands.
5. Almost everywhere now has a bar or feels the need to have a bar.
6. The organised begging.
7. Menus in “English”.
Zur Eisernen Zeit is still there, proudly boasting of its honour of being Naschmarkt’s oldest pub. You can still drink Murauer and smoke and occasionally I see Helmut on the market on the occasions we get down there now, children in tow. I rarely visit (the boozer) these days as it is not the sort of place you take children unless you want to pretend you are in a Victorian gin-shop. In any case, there are no tables left due to the guide book carrying throngs.
But my message is clear: unless Naschmarkt pulls out its wasabi stained fingers, and soon, it is in serious danger of morphing into some kind of gastronomic and shopping tourist caricature. A food and drink inspired cultural wasteland with about as much authenticity as Wayne Rooney’s hair. I could, of course, write about the good stuff (there is loads if you know where to look) but where is the joy in that? Oh no, hang on, I know a good place. Owner speaks English. Looks like Commander Adana. Just remember to take your fags…
© 2013 RJ Barratt