image: A tram passes the Vienna State Opera.
A tram passes the Vienna State Opera.

Photograph © CORBIS

Vienna: To Catch a Spy
By Melissa Rossi

I didn't see the spooky side of Vienna right away. Didn't have a clue that this grand, gleaming city of domed Habsburg palaces and baroque buildings that drip gold might still be Spy Central. The Cold War long over, I figured secret agents had flipped down their lapels, tipped up their brimmed hats, traded the sunglasses for ties, and become bank managers or shoe salesmen.

My first night I did what's expected in this Old World city noted for symphonies, opera, and Freud, where the skyline of slender spires, sculptures perched atop buildings, and the Aztec-style rood of St. Stephen's Cathedral look pretty much the same as they did in Haydn's day. Not knowing what hid in the shadows, what wound under my feet like a subterranean snake—or what lay hidden under my hotel bed—I sought out a café.

Whether you take your coffee while reclining in a velvet chair or in an austere, dark-wooded café or in a sweet shop stocked with art deco-boxed chocolates, Viennese java is a major production. It arrives on a silver tray, along with a glass of water and frequently slathered with whipped cream.

It may cost you two dollars or as much as seven, but that's a trifle for the privilege of poring over international newspapers for hours and soaking up the culture of this art-swept city and its moody, brooding residents—many carrying cellos, and many more wearing the pained, self-absorbed look of someone composing symphonies or film noir scripts in their heads.

And then there are the spies. Not the least of whom was the 17th-century's Franz Kolschitszky, who legend has it, was paid in coffee beans for spying on the Turks and who opened Vienna's first café.

Vienna's modern-day spooks might have slipped away unnoticed had I not been having my hair styled at the salon of round-faced, balding Peter Kramer, who has shorn the locks of Pavarotti and Kurt Waldheim.

"Don't forget," he says, as he begins drying my hair. "Vienna is the gateway to the East. Used to be teeming with spies." Kramer lowers his voice and glances around the salon. "If you ask me, it still is."

Just then a door swings open, and Kramer runs off, leaving me with his assistant. A few minutes later he's back, whisper-shouting. "It's a spy! I'm cutting his hair! I'll introduce you!"

When I arrive on the men's side of the salon, Kramer is shaving the head of a preppie-looking young man who resembles Tom Cruise and speaks with a British-like accent. He doesn't look like a spook, but he works in the "outer-space division" at the United Nations.

"Why don't you show Melissa the town," Kramer suggests, winking at me.

We make a date, and I leave. A spy? Su-u-u-u-re. As I walk the Kärntner Strasse—Vienna's pedestrian circuit that links its famed opera house with magnificent St. Stephen's Cathedral—I begin to get the sense that the place is teeming with secrets and codes. Especially dress codes.

"You can't go in," barks the top-hatted gent outside Vienna's famed Hotel Sacher, which flies about as many flags as the U.N. and is a historical haven of political intrigues, clandestine affairs, and post-opera drinks (where rooms go for $200 a night).

"But I just want to see the bar," I say. Specifically I want to see the wall that boasts photos of dukes, duchesses, divas, and other hotshots who've slept there (pointedly missing is a shot of Adolf Hitler, once a frequent guest). The husky doorman eyes my black jeans. "You can't come in dressed like..." He pauses, then snorts: "Like that."

I stomp off into the heavily furred crowd and stroll past store windows filled with outfits that would have eased my passage into the Sacher's rarefied precincts: embroidered dresses, smart tweed suits, and jackets so sharp you want to salute. The only problem is that they cost thousands. In Vienna it pays to be wealthy: Handcrafted miniature violins and nutcrackers go for princely prices, and in some bars a single-malt whiskey costs up to $300.

Feeling plebian in this regal city, I enter one of Vienna's many Italian establishments. Over olives, I meet Raphael, a wisecracking wine distributor who is half-Austrian and half-Australian and has catlike green eyes. I mention my encounter with the Sacher's pompous doorman.

"Dress codes," Raphael says in a thick Aussie accent. "Oh, they're strict about them here. They're a bunch of schickey-mickeys, you know—wannabes who've inherited their money. Total snobs. Give you a once-over and decide what you're worth."

A figure that in my case hovers in the low single digits (Raphael's cashmere jacket suggests his value at something more).

We leave and amble down streets so laden with murals and sculptures that they appear to be museums turned inside out. Like a grand dowager empress, Vienna seems utterly imperial, so radiantly Old World—like a land lost in time, caught in an era of waltzing and flowing dresses embedded with jewels, a city kissed by Midas.

We stroll under the arch of the Hofburg palace, near the showplace of the dancing white Lipizzaner horses, then past lacy spires, as twilight falls across a park with a shimmering glass pavilion. I'm overwhelmed by the bold Gothic and decoration-giddy rococo architecture, interspersed with art-deco touches, the beauty not betraying damages inflicted during World War II. Meanwhile, Raphael is engrossed in enumerating the city's many faults—he describes a place crippled by its inability to modernize, militaristic and mired in bureaucratic red tape. Why, he says, you can't so much as question a parking ticket—and he has had many.

Vienna, he says, is full of whiners. "Austrians always have to be the worst off," he notes as we pass a bookstore. We enter Flanagan's, his favorite after-work bar, which is Irish and filled with Australians. I, however, want to go elsewhere—to Santo Spirito. I'd seen it the night before, a hazily-lit restaurant booming classical music where intellectual types stood three deep at the dark-wood bar.

"Santo Spirito," he sneers, firmly planted behind a Guinness." Oh God, I abhor that place. Always filled with snobs. Besides, you're an American."


"They'll blare your national anthem when you walk in."

Unconvinced, I head off by myself. Wandering around back streets past ornate signs of birds or top-hatted men jutting from café fronts, I finally find Kumpfgasse, a hidden crescent of cobblestone and the site of Santo Spirito.

Beethoven is blasting when I enter the candle-flickery restaurant packed with well-groomed types. Mozart is playing when I take my first sip, leaning against a will trying to blend into this rather frosty scene. Suddenly paranoid, I suspect the locals are saying unkind things about me—their accents are so harsh people sound like they're telling you of when, in fact, they're uttering a street name. Even the word for the cozy atmosphere—gemutlichkeit—sounds deeply hostile.

Around mid-glass a voice commands the speakers: "I like to be in America, Ev'rything's free in America..."

All eyes turn to me. The music switches to Bach, and it hits me: This must be some sort of musical Morse code for spies. The entry of a Frenchman would be signaled by Bizet; an Italian would prompt an opera by Verdi; a Russian might be heralded by Tchaikovsky or "Back in the USSR."

As I plunge deeper into spy logic, everything assumes new meaning. The change on the tray—one schilling up, two down—signifies "two dead, one lives on." In a shop window the finger of a glove points to a covert meeting place; the price tag is really the meeting time. And the man scratching his eyebrow as he saunters down the street is subtly revealing secret state affairs.

In that surreal moment, all of Vienna appears a switchboard of veiled signals, and like Freud, I detect subliminal messages in everything.

The sidewalks are empty as I near the hotel, a chill mist settling under streetlamps, and I notice a long shadow approaching. It's Raphael.

"You were right about Santo Spirito," I tell him, as we walk past neon lights of windmills and flashing club signs that give a commercial 20th-centure glow to a street that seems so 17th century, as though bugles might sound and a guilded carriage could pass by at any second.

"Think Vienna's still a haven for spies?" I ask.

He pauses and readjusts his silk scarf. "Ever see The Third Man—that spy movie? It's not too far off."

The Third Man. The Orson Welles film of postwar Vienna is a hazy black-and-white image dimly flickering in my mind. Something about hiding in underground tunnels.

"There are passageways winding around all under Vienna," he tells me. "They're closed to the public, but spies still dart in and out. At least that's what they say."

By the time I get back to my hotel room, I'm obsessed with the notion of spies in my midst. I dump out drawers looking for coded messages. I knock on walls, convinced I'll find a secret hiding spot. The last time I'd had this something's-in-the-room feeling, I'd found a hundred British pounds in a Paris hotel. This time, I discover absolutely nothing.

The next day I rush through a few attractions. The copper-domed Hofburg palace, edged in gold lattice and hosting a party of winged beasts on its roof, is home to the Imperial Apartments, the former in-town digs of Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph; the ubiquitous chandeliers and red velvet furnishing become almost monotonous features as one troops through room after room of them. Freud's former office and home was under construction when I visited and mostly off-limits; the one couch I spied was only a waiting-room sofa, not the famous therapy throne, now permanently in London. The oddly compelling KunstHaus Wien, a museum dedicated to the environmental architecture and paintings of Friedensreich Hundertwasser—who among other things has designed a waste incineration plant—from the outside looks like an unsteady assemblage of black and white checks that seem to be melting; inside, it boasts sloping mosaic floors and a jungle-like café thick with fronds and vines.

After sightseeing, I scurry off to meet the Supposed Spy. The rendezvous point: the bar at the Hotel Sacher, from which I'd previously been barred. This time, wearing a long dress, I stroll easily past the doorman and into the luxe sky-blue bar. And there he is.

As we sit on a satiny couch under framed Victorian beauties in oil, I mention my theories about encoded music—which he thinks might have merit.

"Vienna used to be crawling with spooks," he says rather gravely. "Some say it still is. In fact, Peter always accuses me of being one—spying on aliens in outer space."

"Well," I ask. "Are you a spy?"

At this, he breaks into loud laughter. "Me? You're joking." He pauses and cocks an eyebrow. "Of course, a good spy wouldn't admit it." And I'm thinking, "Yes, and only his hairdresser knows for sure."

After hearing stories about his U.S. travels in his VW van and his work—keeping track of litter in space, where a stray fleck of paint can penetrate the skin of the space shuttle—I conclude: Intelligent, yes. Secret intelligence, no.

I'm disappointed, but my rational side is taking control. And I decide that Vienna, while strange, is filled with more high-class style types than with spies. My spy intrigue now revealed as a farce, I don't even notice the coins on the tray as we leave. Shop windows are shop windows. The man scratches his ear because it itches.

The next morning, at a teahouse, I eavesdrop on two tall, striking gentlemen who obviously live in Vienna but talk about Starbucks in English. As they leave, I trail them to the door and introduce myself. The dark-haired man is a Viennese journalist writing about the coffee chain.

"And you?" I ask the other, an American wearing a fedora and an overcoat with a newspaper in the pocket.

"I'm a consultant," he says. "For the United Nations."

"Oh, a spook," I say, laughing.

His warm eyes turn cool, his mouth pulls tensely. He does not laugh. Walking away, he seems to evaporate into the crowd, leaving me with a strangely eerie feeling that perhaps he is the real thing.

Back in my room, I discover that my earring is missing. After an hour of searching, I pull the mattress off the bed. There's the earring. But there's also something else: a small bound book dated 1992. Inside, its forgotten pages reveal a wiry scrawl that, were I to believe its entries, had been penned by a retiree named Irvine. But when I read "Played golf in the a.m. and discovered my 5 wood was more effective than my #3," I know what it really means.

The crow flies at five before three, Irvine. Or is it three after five?

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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