A couple of weeks back I took the uncharacteristic step – during the middle of the week – and went to Baden (the Austrian one). The spa town is twenty-six kilometres from Vienna and easily reachable by public transport if you cannot face the driving jihad that is the Südautobahn. A fast train from Hauptbanhof takes about twenty minutes (you can also board at Meidling) and if you have a Vienna Lines annual ticket, the price from the Stadtgrenze (city border – in this case Liesing) is only €3.30 one-way. You could also take the Badner-Bahn, travelling from the centre of Vienna to the centre of Baden. It is a pleasant enough ride, as long as there are no other passengers, taking you up through Vienna’s 4th, 5th and 12th districts and then further on through some unsightly parts of the city’s 23rd, more or less shadowing the Triesterstrasse to Vösendorf and beyond.
However, once you pass the excrescence that is Shopping City, and the featureless plain known as “Sudstadt”, you can relax as you hit the picturesque foothills of the Thermeregion and some of the best vineyards south of Vienna: Mödling, home to rich ex-Wieners and unendurable drivers; Wiener Neudorf, a blight of light industry conceived it seems with the deliberate intent to contravene all known rules about aesthetics and design; and Gumpoldskirchen, first-class plonk, very twee and headquarters to Novomatic, Europe’s biggest producer and operator of “gaming technologies” (basically hi-tech “one-armed bandits” and lottery terminals and with all the ethics this entails).
Baden is famous for its thermal waters, a casino and its rich divorcees. The emperor of Austria, Kaiser Franz-Joesph also had a house there but I suspect he had a house everywhere. Neo-emperor Vladimir Putin is also rumoured to have a couple of properties stashed away somewhere in the town, although this source of intelligence has all the hallmarks of mid-afternoon local gossip fuelled by Sekt, Aperol and a schnapps chaser.
In any case, given its moniker, one might assume Baden is like Bath in the UK. Admittedly, it does share an affinity with warm water. But with a population of only twenty-five thousand, it has more the feel of Cheltenham or Tunbridge Wells, equally well-heeled and suffused with radical ideas and thoughts of social-revolution. That said, Baden is undoubtedly agreeable. Imposing “villas”, a beautiful park opposite the Hotel Herzoghof (borne it seems from the zenith of imperial chic) and a charming pedestrianised centre, perfect for an early evening stroll, an ice-cream or a sit-down at the Café Central to have a glass of local wine and whinge about those inscrutable freaks in Vienna.
The reason for my visit is to meet an old acquaintance, a friend who has been in Austria almost as long as I and has hooked up with, oh yes, a rich divorcee (so he thinks). And so, on a perfect spring evening, only ruined by the intemperate heat, glaring sun and accompanying fashion squeezed into bodies shaped by a lifetime of sugar, fat and a refusal to get off the couch, I find myself on the bus route 66A. This should be an easy gig. A midnight run. The 66A takes me straight to Liesing (in about twenty-five minutes) where I can then hop on the train and be in Baden for Spritzers at five.
On the way, however, I need to make a quick pit-stop at Alt Erlaa to nip to the post office to return my old modem to UPC, Austria’s main Internet and cable provider. Their modem delivers super fast “fibre-power” but I have to return it by super-slow snail mail. Failing to do so will incur unspeakable charges, the ruination of my credit score and scupper any chances of becoming Austrian after the rail-crash that is Brexit.
Waiting at the traffic light to cross to the other side of street, a stranger thrusts an Überweisung (a referral from a general practitioner to a specialist doctor) under my nose and asks in broken German if I know the location of the “Kaufpark” (shopping “park”). Yeah, just over there, I tell him. He looks unsure and then says something about the doctor being above the Bank Austria. Yeah, up those steps, gesturing as I say it in the direction of the steps (the chance to cross the road temporarily suspended as the little person icon has now turned back to red).
The guy doesn’t move. Now I know the Kauf and Wohnpark at Alt Erlaa and the underground car-park quite well as it has been the location of the “summer camp” for the kids for a couple of years. Built between 1973 and 1985 as the ultimate in modern housing, the development is essentially a town in the sky with four huge apartment buildings boasting 3,200 flats for 9,000 inhabitants. Along with the living space, there are amenities (shops, schools and perches for pigeons), a church, sports centre, numerous gardens and even open-air swimming pools on the roof.
In its day it was the ultimate in cutting-edge urban design and contemporary living. But now it is more reminiscent of all the architectural splendour of the outskirts of Bratislava. More worryingly it seems to have been devised with the intention that once you enter, you can never find your way out again (IKEA stole this retailing concept when they opened their first superstore). Anyway, I knew the Bank Austria but knew I could never explain its location, even to someone who had clearly travelled great distance on foot to Austria (probably via a Turkish smuggler) with fledging German. So, checking the time remembering I had a train to catch, and knowing that Saint Francis was watching, I said, come on, I’ll show you.
During our short walk I asked him where he came from. Afghanistan, he told me, do you know it? Momentarily surprised, I nodded and answered, yes, I know of Afghanistan (my mind immediately flashing to Carry On Up The Khyber). But by way of qualification he then went on to tell me that he had lived for thirty years in Iran. Not good place, he said. I thought about this; Afghanistan and then Iran? I take it all back about Bratislava.
I found out he had been in Austria for eighteen months and asked him how he liked it. Good place. Good people. I chuckled inwardly and then explained I had been in Austria a bit longer and was in fact British. He asked me if England is a good place (most people I have met from many different countries always refer to the UK or Britain as “England”. Someone should tell Nicola Sturgeon). Anyway, I paused, realising that I no longer really knew the answer with any conviction. All I could think of to say was, sometimes.
Finding the doctor my fellow traveller took my hand, shook it vigorously and thanked me. Wishing him all the best in Vienna and then checking my watch to make sure I was still on schedule, I deposited my parcel and returned to the bus stop to wait for the 66A. Intriguingly, another bus arrived shortly before – the 60A – also with the destination Liesing station. Excellent, I thought.
Now I have never been on the 60A, run by a bus company specialising in the districts mere mortals fear to tread, but it is affiliated with Vienna Transport (in the sense that all their drivers were trained by Vienna Transport but then left shortly afterwards for better pay and conditions). Yet for a few seconds I wondered if I should really take it, unsure of the route in spite of the destination screaming at me on the front. Also there was another 66A only five minutes behind. That said, as a seasoned traveller on Vienna’s public transport network I never take the wrong bus or tram and generally have an instinctive feel, by now, for time, distance and space in the number one city. So I got on expecting at worst a more “exotic” route. I check my watch again. Half an hour or more to reach Liesing. More than enough time.
What followed was a revelation (and an elevation). An introduction to many of the backstreets of the western higher-plains of the 23rd district which even my wife has never visited. My suspicions were aroused as we crossed back across the Breitenfurterstrasse heading away from Liesing (also the name of the district). I am a big believer in landmarks to navigate my way around (I am not always so hot on street names) so when we passed Hödl (Vienna’s last butcher to kill its own meat) I had that slow realisation that this route to Liesing might be generously described as … roving. My fears were raised further as we doubled back to Atzgersdorf Schellbahnstation and for a fatal second I contemplated jumping off and taking the train from there. But I knew the Eilzug (fast train) to Baden didn’t stop there so I would have to change in Liesing anyway. In any case, how long could a bus route be?
Resolute, yet slightly unnerved, I remained rooted to my seat, my favourite kind, just behind the driver and only space for one person. For another forty-five, long bastard minutes. Convinced as I travelled that everyone else on the bus was looking at the back of my head and thinking: Wappla. Up we went into the hills of the Rosenhügel, down the backstreets into Mauer, passing an architectural mix of Wienerwald villas, modern prefabricated homes of white and anthracite and 1950s eyesores built when the land was undoubtedly cheap but now worth a small fortune.
Up to the Mauerberg (I know this place, I thought), down the hill to a place I vaguely recognised and then, yes, a sign – to the left – for the Riverside shopping centre at Liesing. We were nearly there! I might still just make it to Baden just after 5pm, only marginally late and with my reputation preserved.
We turn right towards Kalksburg, the famous Liesinger aqueduct disappearing in the distance and any chance of catching my train. Resignation sets in. It made no sense to get off because I couldn’t be sure of a better option. So I just sit there feeling a mix of embarrassment at fucking up but secretly pleased that I am seeing parts of Vienna wouldn’t normally get to see.
The journey continues through the posh suburbs, a circumventive route which brings us back round to the sleepy enclave of Rodaun and the end station of the tram line 60.
I am really on the edge of Vienna, I muse, Rodaun is bleeding miles away. Yet with a glimmer of hope, we soon pass back under the aqueduct and I know Liesing is within smelling distance.
Just after five o’clock, I am at the station thinking I should have been in Baden five minutes ago. Cursing at my ineptness, I pull out my phone. I am going to be half and hour late, I text my friend. No worries, he quickly texts back. Yeah, no worries for you, pal. You are not standing on a platform sweating slightly whilst young men play a reedy rendition of abominable music from a smartphone. I have flashbacks to my younger self. Once I travelled from London to the Kent coast with a huge beat-box playing music as I went. I understand. Payback for unsolicited playback. But I am now middle-aged and solvent and such experiences should be beyond me. Sighing, I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of Stoic philosophy. Time for a bit of Seneca to sooth my travails. Oh, and one more thing. The train is delayed.
© 2017 RJ Barratt