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Passengers on a city tram enjoy an unscripted tour of such grand Vienna sights as the neo-Renaissance State Opera House.

Courting Vienna

From the November/December 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Despite her sensible shoes, her granite-stern features reveal a constant, low-level strain. She is well past 50—perhaps well past 60. Her arms sag under the weight of her burden; each tray she carries threatens to be her last. But when she breaks into a rare smile, her face lights up with unguarded delight. Her name is Annelies, and she, not Mozart, nor Beethoven, nor even Empress Sissi, has come to embody Vienna for me.

Annelies works as a waitress at Café Sperl, on Gumpendorfer Strasse. The Sperl has become my base, Annelies my anchor.

I have arrived in Vienna with a simple plan: to live as local a life as possible. Instead of discovering this famously imperial city from the comforts and security of a hotel, with an attentive staff to stand behind me, I’ve decided to plunge in on my own terms and rent an apartment—and not in the city center I know to be the heart of tourism, but in one of the outer, more “local” districts.

I have always found that the less insulated I am from my surroundings, the richer are my experiences. My goal on this visit is to dig deeper than the Mostly Mozart tours and carriage rides around Hofburg Palace. But first, I have to fill my refrigerator.

I make the joyful mistake of shopping while hungry—and I couldn’t have found a better place to do this than the Naschmarkt, with its scores of open-air stalls. Vendors selling fresh fish and sausage, warm breads, cold meats, cheeses, just-squeezed juices, and endless varieties of olives stuffed with garlic or cheese or peppers vie for my attention. Turkish immigrants slice chunks of lamb from spits while folks congregate, drinking beer and slurping oysters. The scene stretches for blocks along the Wienzeile and teems with life—Viennese life.

“This is where we shop,” Daniela Bammer tells me. “It’s very local here, a meeting place.” Daniela and her husband, Erwin, operate a stall plying more than 60 types of vinegars Erwin creates himself. “Erwin’s grandfather opened here in 1929; we’re one of the oldest families in the market.” With surgical precision, Daniela takes an eyedropper and offers me taste after taste of the vinegars.

“Each one ferments for three to five years. Vinegar is Erwin’s passion. His life.” I nod. Never before have I considered vinegar.

Farther along, just past a woman selling pâté, I’m corralled by the sauerkraut man. Leo Strmiska, a formidable gent with an open face and a direct manner, began working for his grandfather at the age of six, “when the winters were really harsh.” Holding court behind two large wooden barrels filled with fermenting cabbage, he tells me more than I thought I could ever know about sauerkraut. When Leo is midway into disclosing the old family recipe (“fry with onions in olive oil, add bacon, cook until translucent …”) my focus begins to wander. “Pay attention,” he admonishes me. “Write it down, come on now.”

Finally, he hands me a clear plastic bag filled with a pound of the stuff and I make my way over toward the Number 1 tram. Apparently, a clever combination of the Numbers 1 and 2 trams will give me the same tour around the Ringstrasse—Vienna’s Ring Road—as the tourist Ring Tram playing Viennese waltzes.

Since 1865, red-and-white trams—first horse drawn, then electric—have ruled Vienna’s streets, weaving a spiderweb of routes through this city of two million. Sitting in a wooden seat as Number 1 travels the broad Ringstrasse, on which hangs so much of Vienna’s imperial past, I gawk. I have my first look at the renowned Vienna Opera House, the grand facades and gardens of the Hofburg Palace, and the Parliament building. After a full loop, I get off at the Volkstheater (“people’s theater”), which will become “my stop” whenever I “come into town.” Here I grab the Number 49 tram and in six minutes I’m dropped at my front door.

Vienna is divided into 23 districts, radiating out from the original first district. I’d settled on living life in the seventh district, in Spittelberg, from my laptop computer at home, 4,000 miles to the west. Spittelberg is a neighborhood that transformed itself from being a base for factories and industries in the last century to a place of small shops and restaurants, artist galleries and work spaces. The feel on the street is a buzzy mix of city purposefulness and communal ease—exactly what I was hoping to capture when I was searching online. The temporary home I chose is a space with wood floors, wide windows, and high ceilings in a converted silk factory. When I pull out my keys and pop the lock, I feel my new life beginning to assert itself. There is an instant connection to place as one settles into a building that houses people coming and going with the normal rhythms of daily life, not the hurried staccato of a tourist. Life in an apartment doesn’t offer the soft landing of a posh hotel, but instantly I’m both integrated and independent—and that’s what I’m after.

After dropping my shopping on the kitchen counter, I’m back on the street. In an attempt at orientation, I try to place my neighborhood in the context of other cities I’ve known. The florist two doors down reminds me of a spot in Paris, the bakery on the corner of a shop in Prague. But the dusky, hazy light late in the day strikes me as particular to the way only Vienna could be lit. The streets around my new home are filled with characters who become recognizable to me as the days pass. I take my morning tea at Tullnerfelder, the pastry shop across the street, where Gaby, behind the counter, keeps up a steady patter. Each day I watch a gentleman wearing brown knickers, long blue socks, and an Austrian felt cap slip into the local bank. A small elderly woman, dressed head to toe in black, walks her tiny terrier every morning and evening. They wear matching lavender scarves.

These sorts of inconsequential, mundane details and encounters lodge in my mind, making the journey memorable, giving it a specificity I relate to. And there is nothing more mundane here than the swollen door to my rental apartment. It always needs a good slam to close properly—not unlike the door to the bedroom in my home in New York. But this minor annoyance helps give my temporary residence—and consequently, my life in Vienna—a grounded reality it might otherwise lack in the groomed, anonymous ease of a hotel.

Early one morning, on my way out, I give my door its usual slam. My neighbor, whom I have never seen, flings open her door. She does this so quickly that I’m convinced she’s been waiting just behind her door all night for this opportunity. She is a tall, gaunt woman with straight black hair, wearing a shapeless robe. I have no German, but I can tell her tone is filled with scolding authority. I give her my very best, “Oh hi, great to meet my new neighbor” smile and follow it with a small bow. Her rage melts, her shoulders drop. We both shrug, we shake hands—and we are new friends.

Feeling established now in my neighborhood, I am ready to launch myself into the city center. I’ll start with the imperial Vienna of the Habsburgs, from where much of Europe was ruled between 1273 and 1918, and its Hofburg Palace complex, which is a city unto itself. I make my way through vast courtyards, beneath monuments to Emperors Franz and Josef II, and past horse-drawn carriages waiting for tourists, to a door just off the ornate main palace entrance on Michaelerplatz. It’s here, under crystal chandeliers and Corinthian columns, accompanied by the music of Strauss, Mozart, and Chopin, that I watch the renowned white Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule) rehearse their high-stepping classical horsemanship. The prancing, preening discipline on display in the twice-a-week performances has varied little in 430 years, epitomizing the Old World grandeur that Vienna still trades on today. While the performances often sell out in advance, a shopkeeper had tipped me off that the morning exercises were open to anyone. I watch as riders whisper to their meticulously groomed mounts and practice subtle, delicate moves again and again until they’re perfected. The spectacle is a lesson in patience and precision.

“These horses come from 18th-century bloodlines,” Alena Skrabanek, who’s been with the school for seven years, tells me.

A walk through the stables across the street reveals the pampering these superstars receive. Each stallion enjoys a private stall with brass fixtures, drinks from a marble fountain, is served a customized diet, and spends time under an infrared lamp to ensure his muscles are relaxed. Each also gets an annual three-month holiday in the countryside. “It’s important that the horses keep the joy,” Alena explains. Indeed.

Around the corner from the stables, the narrow, irregular streets funnel down toward the Gothic masterpiece that is St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), its 450-foot-high steeple towering over the city center. The pedestrian streets here swarm with life. Mozart lived nearby, above a cobblestone lane; his snuffbox and a bloodletting lancet are two of the artifacts on display in the apartment where he wrote The Marriage of Figaro. And just down the road, on Seilerstätte, is the elegant and playful Haus der Musik (“house of music”). Darting among its interactive exhibits, I map the 68 places where Beethoven lived during his 35 years in Vienna and track his hearing loss at listening stations. I roll electric dice to select notes with which to compose my own waltz. And in the Virtual Conductor room, I step onto a podium before a large interactive screen, raise my computerized baton, and conduct a tuxedoed virtual Vienna Philharmonic orchestra in a Mozart tune. My conducting is tentative and the musicians’ response is halting and lumbered. After just a few bars, the virtual orchestra stops playing and a trombonist in the back row stands. “We can take a lot,” he speaks out of the television at me, “but that was too much, even for us.” The other virtual performers tap their bows on music stands and murmur assent. Shamed, I step from the podium and hand the baton to the 12-year-old girl waiting her turn. I watch her take the stand and smoothly conduct a chamber piece. The virtual orchestra rises as one and applauds its young conductor.

“I warmed them up for you,” I tell her. The young girl smiles thinly at me.

I need chocolate.

I find it a short walk away, at the grand Hotel Sacher, home of the famed chocolate Sacher torte. Based on a recipe that has been a closely held secret for generations (it’s been defended in court), the cake is big business, with 360,000 of the rich, dark beauties sold and shipped all over the planet every year. As I sip strong Viennese coffee and nibble at a piece of the dense, bittersweet confection in the red-damask-walled Rote Bar salon, I look out on the famed opera house across the street. Imperial Vienna seems very close at hand.

The heady buzz in Vienna’s center soon has me yearning to stay here, and I feel a tinge of “outer borough” chagrin. Yet each time I return downtown, I experience this sensation less and less, until I find myself lo to gengingt back to “my Vienna.” The showpiece sights still seduce me—I am compelled by Egon Schiele’s self-portraits at the Leopold Museum and stand silent in front of Gustav Klimt’s art nouveau masterpiece, the “Beethoven Frieze,” in the Secession building—but the longer I’m in Vienna, the less quickly I find myself racing off to these “greatest hits.” More and more, I turn my sights farther afield. Across Lerchenfelder Gürtel, a section of the outer Ring Road, I find Brunnenviertel, a neighborhood on the rise, in the 16th district. A handful of Turkish men sit at tables in Café Mis, a utilitarian storefront, sipping dark coffee with somber expressions and staring out onto working-class Yppenplatz square. A few steps away a self-anointed boho crowd dines on Greek salads and drinks white wine in the sleek, glass-and-stucco Café An-Do.

“This neighborhood is full of Turkish immigrants and artists who came together,” An-Do diner Birgit Gschweidl, who moved to Vienna to study at the university, tells me. “A few years ago it was nothing, but now…,” she spreads her hands wide. “There are no sights to see; here, it is about the people. Look,” she says, pointing beyond the restaurant’s glass wall to a street soccer match, “Turkish kids and kids of rich artists playing soccer. That is Brunnenviertel. Sure, I go to the city center; it’s very close. But in another way, it’s very far. I go there, but I live my life here.”

The Vienna I’m discovering is located in local pockets—and is at its most revealing in the traditional kaffeehaus. Coffee has been an important part of Viennese culture since the 17th century. By 1900 more than 600 coffeehouses were serving the city, and they are still deeply embedded in Viennese life; a person’s favorite coffeehouse says a lot about her or his character. Always crowded, coffeehouses typically are slow-paced. Waiters are by turns surly and charming. The coffee is strong and the desserts are plentiful. I soon make it my business to frequent several a day. In the city center, I hunker down in the bohemian Café Alt Wien and luxuriate in the nearby grandeur of Café Diglas. I think deep thoughts at a Sigmund Freud haunt, Café Korb, and watch the day’s pastry being prepared at rococo Café Demel, “Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery.”

But it’s not until I find Café Sperl, which opened in 1880 and became a venue of the Jugendstil (art nouveau) crowd, that I really feel as if I’m finally settled in Vienna. The vintage wall paneling and upholstered banquettes are still in place. Newspapers printed in various languages are spread out on an old billiard table. And oversize windows are ideal for watching more of Vienna’s characters: Twice I see a man in a well-tailored suit stride by in full makeup and earrings. A unicyclist rolls past often; he must live in the neighborhood.

It’s here that Annelies, the formidable waitress, begins to take me under her wing. Each day she greets me with offhand indifference but slowly warms to my presence. It seems the more I loiter, doing nothing, sipping tea, daydreaming, the more she approves of me. When I eventually ask her how long she has worked at the Sperl, she reacts with shock. Apparently I’ve broken protocol with a personal question. Once she recovers, she smiles and touches my shoulder. “I’ve been here 30 years,” she tells me. “Too long.”

“Not a bad place to be for ‘too long.’ ”

Annelies considers my response. Slowly, she nods her head. “Maybe not,” she says, then shrugs and turns to trudge back toward the kitchen. The large picture window calls my attention again. The view, a simple street scene of people waiting for a bus, is becoming familiar; I can feel it burrowing into my psyche.

I’ve been awed by the conservative dignity of Vienna’s past and amused by the quirky lives of some of its locals, but sitting in Café Sperl, refilled teacup in hand, the afternoon wearing on, there are no sights I need to see, no people I need to meet. I’m in no rush to go anywhere—content to linger like a local.

Contributing editor Andrew McCarthy last wrote about walking the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (October 2011). California-based contributing photographer Catherine Karnow covered Normandy and Hong Kong for the March 2011 issue of Traveler.