Saturday, July 17, 2010

Europe 2010 - Vienna - Day 10 of 12

I got up early and headed straight for Cafe Central again, lining up a table near an outlet and ordering a traditional Viennese breakfast. I'm told that the famed poet Peter Altenberg loved the place enough to request that his mail be delivered here. Hitler too, supposedly, tried to sell some of his paintings in the cafe before he took his turn toward infamy. Sipping a tasty melange, I could certainly understand why the cafe is so popular with folks possessing nothing but time.

Morning at Cafe Central
An unofficial rule of Viennese cafe culture is that you can keep a table all day long. Sip coffee, read books, smoke cigarettes, talk with friends, or just people watch; there's no rush. Servers may be terse (mine never were) but they let you stay as long as you like. Cafe Central even has a rack of international newspapers, so if you haven't flipped through Le Monde in a few days you're in the right place.

View from my favorite seat
Hours passed as my tab grew from melange to melange. Eventually I ordered up a bottle of Pellegrino and received a tiny pitcher of lemon juice when I asked for something a bit more tart. Clouds had gathered outside and I was in no hurry to hit the sidewalks. It wouldn't be until about two in the afternoon that I'd decide to gather my stuff. For the previous half hour or so, I'd been exchanging glances with a group occupying a table near mine. When I left we all smiled at each other, sharing our sense of good fortune without saying a word.

For the afternoon I dedicated myself to visiting Hundertwasserhaus, an experiment in nonlinear architecture that allows even the most banal housing to become playfully artistic. Undulating floors, grass-covered roofs, and oddly sized windows made for an oddly psychedelic effect that reminded me of Gustav Klimt's paintings. That said, I had my usual share of difficulties getting to this place, finding myself along dreary streets whose walls were covered with loud and occasionally disturbing iconography. That's when I began to develop an interest in Vienna's street art that would later inspire a more devoted tour of still dingier environs. After snapping some photos along Marxergasse, I slumped into a nearly empty Cafe Zartl, almost melting into a booth, before getting directions for my next destination.

Gasometer complex
In the early evening, after my tour of Hundertwasserhaus, I took the metro to another example of strange but fascinating urban design, the Gasometer complex. Having never heard of the place before, I was intrigued when I spotted a reference in a pamphlet on Viennese architecture laying in the lobby of my hotel. It turns out that the Gasometer is an interconnected chain of four gas storage tanks that had been built in the 1890s, hulks now transformed into a small city. Surrounded by the buildings' original brick facades, each rotunda now houses rings of apartments that curve around a sunlit interior.

Gasometer vertical panorama
Since different architects designed each building (built between 1999-2001), each structure possesses its own unique character. Drawing the domed towers together: a linear mall that leads back to the metro station outside. Another axis leads to a casino, convincing me that I'd come as close as ever to seeing what Logan's Run might look like in practice. While I had no luck finding a way into the interiors of the domes, having to settle for glimpses through circular ceilings of the mall level, I knew that the Gasometer is a place that demands my return, perhaps in a forthcoming book about "tiny towns."

Another view of the Gasometer
Nightfall brought me back to Vienna's center, to the parliament building where something called "Life Ball" was in full swing. A gala raising funds for HIV/AIDS research and prevention, Life Ball had attracted American luminaries such as Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Clinton -- their pictures made the front-pages of discarded newspapers I'd read on the metro. Even so, most cameras were focused on gaudily costumed partiers who lined the streets and filled the cafes. They'd come to dance until dawn. I found a seat for dessert at Café Landtman to watch the show, which included a coterie of elderly protesters, until I noticed dark billowing storm clouds settling over the city.

AIDS ribbon on Parliament Building for Life Ball
As the winds picked up I headed back, figuring on a quick melange at Gelateria di Jimmy near my hotel. That's when light raindrops turned to torrents and I was forced to sit until closing time, watching panes of water pour from the canopy. The server, a guy who recognized me from the previous night, invited me to stick around, but I'd had enough adventure for one evening. So I packed my gear under my clothes, ducked my head, and raced as fast as my feet would carry me. Inwardly I had to laugh. Right then I'd prefer to run through the streets of Vienna on a stormy Saturday night than be just about anywhere else.

Andy stuck in the rain at Gelateria di Jimmy

Day 9 | Day 11

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