Vienna Tourism Strategy – Part 3

Back end of a bus
Back end of a bus
It is a sunny but bracing morning in the number one city. I am sitting in the Cafe Tirolerhof opposite Helmet Zilk Platz and drinking a Melange. Tirolerhof is one of the classic cafes. Marble topped round tables. Black wooden chairs. The usual collection of luxuriously upholstered window and bench seats. Two modest cabinets containing what looks like Strudel: apple and cherry. And the place is quiet, almost peaceful. Most of the guests are reading newspapers (the real ones). The only sound is soft conversation, the rustle of newsprint and the banging of cups on silver trays as yet another coffee is prepared for service.

Helmet Zilk Platz. Tourist info is in the building with the green dome thingy.
Helmet Zilk Platz. Tourist info is in the building with the green dome thingy.
Across the square is the Albertina art museum housing the private Batliner collection of classical modern art and a rabbit sketch by Albrecht Durer. The square itself is the former site of the Philipphof which was destroyed in 1945 in an allied bombing raid killing 300 hundred people taking refuge in the cellar. Since 1988 it has been the home of the haunting Monument Against War and Fascism by Alfred Hrdlicka inspired by different aspects of Austrian history under National Socialism: concentration camp prisoners, civilian and political victims of war, the persecution of the Jews and Austrian soldiers killed in action. Opposite is Bitzinger hailed as Vienna’s best sausage stand even by the chief Wurst of our times, Conchita. And diagonally across from there is the main Vienna tourist office beaming in the sunlight with maps, apps and caps. The heart of tourism in Vienna, snaring its many visitors, 50 metres from my silver tray.

Tourist Info

You can get a real sense of the effect of tourism in the capital of Austria from the window seats of Tirolehof even at this time of the morning with the week not yet in full flow and the summer season cautiously awakening from the protracted winter. The Albertinaplatz is a central disembarkation point for buses. Lots of buses. And in spite of this tight civic place, even at nine o’clock in the morning I count at least fifteen of different shapes, sizes and nationalities turning into the Führichgasse ready to unload another rabble greedy for a piece of history and a chance to do a Viennese whirl.

But I promised you a list. So here you go. Five signs that chasing the tourist euro in Vienna will ultimately end in tears. First up – and longest – my Mastermind specialist subject: Vienna’s most infamous market.

1. Naschmarkt

it has been nearly two years since I wrote about Naschmarkt and its shift from authentic place to shop to one dominated by eating and drinking. Despondently, I see no evidence to suggest this trend has abated. The last of the butchers are still there but local firms Radatz and Daniel have long pulled out citing too few shoppers, too many tourists and too much “gastronomy”. The Marktamt (market authorities) dispute this claiming the restaurant and bar quota is capped at around a third of all market stalls. This might be so. But it would take a febrile imagination to think otherwise as you fend off the iniquitous restaurant touts and their pictorial menus in eighteen different languages.

Tourism didn’t precipitate the conditions for the “demise” of Naschmarkt as a local cultural spectacle, but it augmented it. In the late 1990s and first half of the next decade, the market had managed to combine a fully functioning source of traditional foodstuffs alongside a generous sprinkling of bars, pubs and restaurants. At the time this offered an experience largely absent elsewhere in the capital but since then all the other markets have tried, with varying degrees of success, to emulate it. The balance was perfect, though. A loyal crowd of shoppers keeping the stalls viable; a regular crowd of drinkers filling the alleyways devoted to civilised boozing. And not surprisingly as the market flourished as a true meeting point for all walks of Viennese life, tourism took note and their numbers began to swell.

Of course, tourists are more focused on short term pleasures and a weekly shop is not usually one of them. And over time stallholders realised there was much more money in a menu than a shopping list and this equilibrium inevitably shifted. For some of the stallholders who have sold up and hit the jackpot, the commercial sense was and is self-evident. But if you then allow new owners to convert to gastronomy or your focus is away from selling stuff people really need – not infinite tubs of olives, crystallised fruits and other shit with the shelf-life of isotopes – then the incentive for the real shopper is diminished and the “devil’s circle” begins. I want to shop – and perhaps have a nibble and a couple of snifters – but I  don’t want to wade through tables and chairs dodging trigger happy visitors just to buy my weekly veg and some lamb chops. In the end the attraction and true integrity of the site is weakened to such an extent that locals seek balance elsewhere. What is left is an unhinged social ecosystem reminiscent of of something which is culturally counterfeit in every sense. And that is a real shame.

2. Tourist buses

Tourist buses are a bit like your new car. Before you bought it you almost never noticed how many of them were on the road. Once you have handed over the cash, you see them everywhere: same model, same colour, same wheels, same trim. What you want, of course, is a singular vintage beauty with more shine than the face of politician in a television debate and underlying cool that needs no language. But you are weak. You play it safe. You order what you normally order because it is the quickest route to evading disappointment. You avoid risk even though deep inside, your feral other self craves danger, something different or something special. And then you choose the silver German one.

It is a bit like this with the hop-on, hop-off bus patrolling the inner districts and beyond shoehorning Vienna into a “route”. I never used to think about such trivialities much (I still don’t think about much even now) but whenever I am anywhere more or less central – a couple of times a week – the buses and their touts are seemingly ubiquitous, especially when you include the tour-group coaches. Disturbingly, I can remember a time when I never saw any, like graffiti, rubbish and beggars. They just didn’t register. You would book a Fiaker and this ferried you about the city (for a price).

The companies broadly follow the same well-soiled tours but have started to incur on previously unremarkable back streets not built for insipid air-conditioned mobile luxury (one scared me recently, looming unexpectedly like a grotesque, motorised Moby Dick as it squeezed along Gumpendorferstrasse.) But such incursions reap dissonance. Last year residents of the second district successfully had one route changed because it passed a Jewish school. For reasons that need no explanation here, Austria is a bit sensitive about its history with Jews so much so that in modern Vienna it takes serious steps to protect the outposts of the Jewish community (for example, round-the-clock policing at the one surviving synagogue in the first district). Unfortunately, the huge double decker buses elevated the trigger happy snappers above the high wall which surrounded the school and they started taking souvenir pictures. Which, quite rightly, upset people and the city stepped in. But immediately you see the problem. A part of the community turned into a zoo. Perhaps unintended but almost inevitable such is the curse of tourism unchecked.

Tourists again cannot be blamed. Who wouldn’t want to sit in a bus with a fistful of other sweaty nationalities listening to an actor through their headphones describe places in a cadence of tedium? Of course, you would. Nevertheless, cultural vigilance and respect when visiting foreign lands should be, at its most basic level, intuitive. Yet some people and their chaperones – in this case tour or bus companies – are instinctively shameless in their negotiation of public space and the people who reside there (I am also talking about my Piefke neighbour, the Wichse) and sadly tourism does not always revere any of these basic civic protocols, a phenomenon sadly repeated throughout any of the great cities of Europe I have seen (when I was a tourist).

3. Figlmüller

Figlmüller is, arguably, Vienna’s most famous restaurant, serving up Schnitzel so big it has been known to make diminutive Japanese tourists reach for their medical insurance. Personally, I have, and never will, queue for a restaurant in my life, but pass Figlmüller in the height of tourist season (so always) and the snake of expectant patrons waiting to sample battered pork stretches to the former Russian zone where Harry Lime hid from Rollo Martins (Third Man film reference alert). It exists, in every sense, as a piece of the Viennese experience but is – nowadays – as much a true part of Viennese life as black market penicillin. Which is fine. As long as the queue is hidden in the narrow passage off Wollzeile and the seflie-sticks remain rammed up collective backstreets.

But the family behind the restaurant are the backers for the recent development of the Regensbergerhof rebranded as “Lugeck” sporting the bold claim that the “Vienna pub culture is back.” Where it went is unclear but the building, just across from the 100 year old Figlmüller, used to house the defunct Buddha Bar which was fashionable for about the time it takes to cook a Schnitzel. In any case, it is modern and fresh serving up the classics of Viennese cuisine. But food alone and some overly-priced craft beers does not a Wirtshaus make, although we should applaud innovation and the attempt to reinvent the traditional. But it is the size that worries me and I doubt the Vienna populace could support such a venue throughout the year. Which can only mean transitory incomers. And when you start investing in historic buildings and restaurant concepts simply with a view to generating the bulk of revenue through tourism, you have a real problem of sustainability in any city or cultural environment anywhere on the planet.

4. 5-Star Hotels

It is difficult for me to write about anything contemplating five stars without first being drawn to an 80s  pop group from Romford in England (the British Jackson Five). Nevertheless, what we know is that number of 5-star hotels in Vienna is unclear. This is because some are “self-classified”. This means they forgo their “5-star” rating which would preclude them from elements of the lucrative conference market wherevVienna excels. (Expedia lists twenty five, incidentally.) 

The reason for this is mostly to do compliance as many public and private institutions cannot be seen to treat conference participants, who they mostly pay for, too favourably for fear of accusations of venality. Some companies will also have a strict internal policy of 4-star only for employees. But if a hotel is uncategorised then the upper classification is removed and its cocktails in the bar at six.

The existence of the many 5-star hotels in Viennaville is not automatically a symptom of something more malign. It has had some very famous ones for years: The Imperial, The Sacher, The Bristol and The Ambassador. But it is the growth of them in the last five to ten years which seems disproportionate for a city of 1.8 million inhabitants. And so on or near the Ringstrasse alone we now have The Ring, Sans Souci, Palais Hansen Kempinski, Ritz Carlton, Palais Coburg, The Grand, Sofitel, Levante, Meriden or right in the middle the huge new Hyatt Regency (with pool).

Of course, such expansion is a clear nod to the premium market Vienna desires – and lest we forget that frisky conference industry. Architecturally, they are magnificent examples of urban renewal although I suspect subsidised in part by the city through the renovation funds. But it means the historic continuity of the centre of yet another city is increasingly reconfigured for the benefit of the guest and not the resident. And it means a cultural vortex develops and social-local life is again pushed to the margins (to the detriment of both citizen and guest).

As Stalin knew, it is good to plan, but more tourism in Wien? In the words of my travel guru  in newly crowned Conservative Britain, London, like Paris, is a big city and can handle the numbers. But “It’s quality not quantity.” he says. “It’s the girth of their wallets.” But more in Vienna could, he suggests, “Seriously fuck with the life quality.” And in the number one city, this, like a trip to Figlmüller in August, would be unthinkable.

My moral outrage is nearly spent and I have bigger Schnitzel to fry: the Parliamentary inquiry into Hypo, the liberation of Austria from the Nazis and, yes, Eurovision. But what about number 5? In a word, easy. The arrival of the Hard Rock Cafe …

© RJ Barratt 2015

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