I am often asked (I am never asked) which is the best time of year to visit Vienna. My standard response is never, especially if you walk around with your face glued to a smartphone and refuse to believe my story about the origins of the croissant. But with days and nights now broadly equal in terms of light and darkness, it might be tempting to say now is a good time. The city is indeed in a flurry accompanied by bursts of sunshine, the gradual slither towards longer days and an all-round feeling of well-being prompted by the rise in temperatures. The streets have been swept, the pavement furniture has been scrubbed and the square in front of St. Stephens Cathedral has been dug up adding an unexpected dimension to a thousand holiday selfies.
Stephansplatz, to take the Austrian wording, is the spiritual and symbolic heart of the capital with its imposing gothic edifice and its iconic spire to one side, the modernist Haas Haus opposite and its pox of Mozart lookalikes flogging crap concerts. The daffodils and forest flowers might be showing signs of rebirth but tourists or not, if you have to create a building-site the size of a football pitch in downtown Vienna, then best to do it when the sun comes out.
So maybe now is not the finest time to visit, but judging by the crowds already I often wonder why people do so given the enthusiasm in the famous first district amongst the throngs and pongs for a bit of Baustelle action. Perhaps it is because of cliché, the one which purports to depict Vienna as retreating into itself in winter. Almost as if the city takes a big yawn and a duvet only to truly reawaken sometime around Easter with a welcoming smile. Locals know that this is not true – especially the smiling – and like the metropolis it is, topping the league tables of liveability, Vienna never sleeps (we don’t count the hours between eight o’clock in the evening and seven in the morning when the streets in winter are as quiet as a monastic vow of silence).
Yet part of this myth-making it seems is an attempt to assert the primacy of one part of the year over another. The Viennese are a miserable downtrodden bunch of sods in winter (ho, ho – just in winter?) so better to wait till the sun comes out and experience the authentic city and get a suntan. Admittedly, as the days and nights turn warmer, Vienna does magically come “alive”. There are more cars of the roads choking the streets with their diesel fumes and unspeakable pop music, the playgrounds fill up with children and my neighbours now scream outside under a tree rather than inside under a cloud of cigarette smoke.
But equally it brings with it well-dressed people eating ice-cream (not outside Tichy in the 10th district), extended Spritzer quaffing and expert degrees of idleness lounging about on colourful furniture in public spaces. I concede there is much to admire in this. But – and this is crucial – it is not defining for the city. Of course, the passing of winter is transformative, like any other similar city reflecting the natural rhythm of the changing seasons and the effects this brings. But to imply that the dark months are not as equally connected to the city of free compost (more about that later) would express a fatal misinterpretation of the urban spirit of Austria’s capital.
And so what about June, July or August the traditional times for the tourist machine to turn the dial up to eleven? With twenty summers behind me in Wien, about nineteen more than I planned, I would probably counsel against it. Why? Because Vienna in summer is an imposter. There are two reasons for this: first, many local people are away. This gives it all the authenticity of a Schnitzel with ketchup (you will be whisked to an Austrian dark-site and interrogated for being a German spy if you ask for it); and second, the ravaging effects of the Schanigarten (the iniquitous spread of the pavement café) doing its upmost to reconfigure the faultless forms of some of Vienna’s finest public arenas and streets.
(Word has it that the increase in “tax” paid to the city to stage a pavement café has increased so significantly in 2017 that there is a suggestion from some quarters that patrons will soon be paying more for a coffee to sit outside, similar to Venice or Paris. This, of course, would be just so badly wrong – a bit like that sentence – and so untypically Vienna. Does it now mean that we get a “locals” menu and a “tourist menu” with prices to match? No Viennese of any merit or status would stand for it (they would insist on sitting) and I look forward to the Schanigarten riots that will surely ensue.)
So what about Vienna in autumn? It should be cooler, there is “less” tourism and one is not yet besieged by the dirge of the Christmas industry (again it is not all rubbish, just squeezed to the point of commercial idiocy). If anything the city is back to normal after the summer. It has retained its innate rhythm – a sense of faithfulness once more – which, like so many other European destinations in summer, it will lack.
But then there is winter. As I potter about in middle age this might be my favourite time to be here. There is the excitement of Christmas, if you can ignore the over-worked gloop of the Punsch farms, things are much more relaxed, the streets are dark and generally quieter but there is much life to be found hidden away behind Beisl doors and cafes perfectly designed for shelter from winter temperatures and cosy idling with a newspaper, book or your own thoughts.
But my recommendation is to visit Vienna between January and March. This is when one really grows to appreciate the city as you see it in all its imperfect glory. The trees are bare, streets are windswept and gritty and the buildings shiver rather than shimmer. Equally, the people are quintessentially Viennese: quiet, unspeaking, with long faces and few smiles. You might get lucky and have snow but Vienna would not be Vienna as the snow starts to melt and the fleeting grime that accompanies it. The streets are also mercifully free from the intrusion of the Schanigarten (see above) and it can be so cold that one can only revel in the delights of heavy food, coffee and cake.
But what of compost (in German the hard to remember, Kompost)? As I write it is indeed spring although you wouldn’t immediately recognise it from the stinging wind and fits of rain. This may have coincided with the visit of Charles and Camilla this week (I pay homage to the local quip about British weather for British guests). In any case, spring in the number one city is as much about getting outside for a swift Hugo as shovelling shit. It is not really shit (one part compost, and three parts earth) but my children find it amusing to speak of “shovelling shit all weekend” in an accent reminiscent of a banjo playing resident of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In fact, so excited am I about the tantalising prospect of compost and its creation and composition, I am going to dedicate my next post about this very subject. Like me you never would imagine that bio-waste could be so absorbing. Yet this simple product of nature could be one of few defining symbols of what constitutes the essential civic and forward thinking dexterity of Vienna. And all it takes is some recycled trees, potato peelings and some worms. Now put that in your list. Or better, grab a spade and a strong plastic bag and get shovelling.
© 2017 RJ Barratt