Ghost Town

A strangely quiet St. Stephen’s Square in June

It is nearly impossible these days to open any print media in Austria and not be bombarded with adverts and features for holiday destinations in the alpine republic. The reason for this is that 2020 is the year Austrian families will rediscover the charms and delights of their native Heimat, rather than sit on a crowded beach in northern Italy, a crowded all-inclusive club in Turkey or a crowded campsite in Croatia fretting about whether the holidaymaker on the next sun-lounger is the next super-spreader.

Anywhere with access to lake or mountain (so all of Austria really except Vienna, more of which in a moment) is seemingly in demand this year with reservations for summer “walking” and “waterside” holidays booming. Indeed, my source close to the heart of the Austrian tourist industry (the lady who cuts my boys hair) tells me that the southern federal state of Carinthia is already booked out. This might be explained by the controversial assertion that they have the best lakes, some of the finest mountains and pretty reliable weather. Although if you decide to go, just remember that Carinthia had an undeniable flirtation with the far right of politics over the years and this might taint your experience. However, as is tradition in Austria, questionable political ideologies are usually forgotten once the mood of the nation has shifted (or the Russians arrive). And, in any case, the good burghers of Carinthia elected a social democrat governor in 2013, so it’s all aboard for the Wörthersee!

Although many Austrians will take short domestic holidays, skiing, perhaps a few days around the Easter week, or a mini-break during one of those long weekends with a “Fenstertag” (there are several of these especially around May and June), the longer summer breaks are usually reserved for places with a more predictable climate. In fact, almost every Austrian I meet in Vienna has a story about the time they decided to spend part of July or August in the Alps only to stare out of the window for two weeks at the relentless rain (and vowing never again to put their summer holiday at the mercy of the Austrian weather).

But with the exceptional summers of the last decade, with temperatures to rival anywhere in Europe, Austria has become a viable summertime destination even with the continual presence of a certain kind of German. Which is fortunate because this year, as the international guests and their unbearable whims seek their own version of the staycation, the tourist industry throughout the nation is going to need that homegrown guest more than ever.

No more so than the number one city, a place I hold in great esteem, somewhere between profound affection and unequivocal contempt. Unfortunately, without a spectacular lake or mountains the capital, especially the first district, is going to conceivably struggle to persuade the rest of Austria to make up the shortfall of the elusive globe-trotting menace. Yes, yes, there are some small hills in the Vienna Woods and Lainzer Tiergarten. And okay there is a little-known reportedly blue river running through it to the east. But as far as I know, guests from other parts of Austria do not come to Vienna to swim in the former clay pits of Wienerberg and the old parts of the Danube. Or to hike up the paths of the Khalenberg in the north west or the Laarberg in the bleakest depths of the tenth district (secret tip: the walk around the vineyards which hardly anyone knows exists in Vienna, least of all the people of the 10th district). No, like their international, selfie-stick counterparts they come for the architecture, the museums and world class cake. If at all.

Even as the cafes and restaurants started to reopen after a five week break back in mid-May, it soon became apparent that the city-centre was struggling through a lack of footfall. The estimates varied – anywhere between 10 to 50% of normal business – but the prognosis was such that some locations, clearly dependent on the tourist dollar, elected to remain closed until the autumn (meaning it cost less to stay closed). In contrast, those places usually servicing a more “local” clientele, especially in the outer districts, had a better time of it, especially if they had a big enough outdoor space to counter the initial constraints of physical distancing as lockdown measures were eased. (Although to be fair, since the reopening, this process would have been easier if the weather hadn’t displayed all the attributes of a temperamental toddler.)

But it is a cruel and merciless world, just ask the fifteen thousand or so well-heeled people who live in the centre of Vienna in the famous Innenstadt. I mention them because, in one way, they have come to embody the challenge for the gastro scene downtown. For the simple reason that there are not enough of them (in normal times, this would be a definite plus) to take up the culinary slack usually filled by other hungry punters.

On a normal working day, the first district supports about 150 thousand jobs, many of whom will spill out of their offices, co-working spaces or some other derivative of the constellation of modern working. Yet many office employees are still toiling from home when they can (avoiding public transport or most likely their boss) and this has a clear knock-on effect to the many places selling food and drink.

Then there are the thousands of students shut out of their lecture halls and tutorials (the lucky bastards) who also play their role in keeping the snack industry afloat. And, of course, no guests for the clown cars, the cafes on the Graben or the schnitzels of Filgmüller. And this is before July and August when the inner districts generally empty out as the summer holidays kick in and the locals head for the hills. In short, if you have based your business model on the quick turnover of the fast moving, city day-tripper, mixed in with a few well-dressed Wieners and peckish millennials, then it might be time to have a re-think.

Already in June, although reportedly it is even worse at weekends, there is talk in some quarters that the “city” is a ghost town. In spite of the obvious economic implications, this seemed like an exceptional opportunity to someone like me. To witness the city in all its glory, temporarily liberated from the shackles of the tourist throng. And so, I decided I had to see it and perhaps in the process visit a place I would normally never frequent for fear of appearing in an Instagram feed.

Better still, the timing was ideal. Like airline pilots, opera singers and anyone in the advertising industry who didn’t have a key account with the Austrian government (2020 tagline: “Socialism is Sexy”), I have been a paid-up member of the useless class since the middle of March. In other words, I had time of my hands, I was a man of leisure and I had universal basic income in my pocket-book. All I needed now was a classic café, a condescending man in a bow-tie, and a mask. Yes, meine Damen und Herren, I am heading to the Cafe Landtmann.

Part 2

© 2020 RJ Barratt