Return to Vienna | Pushing the Wave

Return to Vienna

Travel, 22 October 2022
by L.A. Davenport
Volksoper, Vienna
Volksoper, Vienna
This week I have been in Vienna (go here for my review of the Basquiat exhibition at the Albertina) for work. I’ll say this to anyone who cares to listen: it is one of my absolute favourite cities to visit. It has all the grandeur and magnificence of an old empire city, and the cosmopolitan ease of a modern European capital, yet it is small and intimate enough to be charming and eminently walkable. It also has culture coming out of its ears, as well as that Austrian sense of fun.

Nowhere is more fun in Vienna than the Prater, and I decided that, on this first visit back since the COVID-19 pandemic, I would stay in a hotel right next to it. It is always entertaining to walk though a funfair and it didn’t fail to put a smile on my face. My hotel room overlooked the Prater, and sitting working in my room with the window open, I could hear delighted screams echoing through the trees. It lifts the heart to hear such unbridled pleasure nearby.

For Bond fans, the Prater is also indelibly associated with The Living Daylights, in particular when Bond takes Kara Milovy on the rides while waiting to meet his contact from Station V, Saunders. As I child, I had seen A View to a Kill beforehand, but The Living Daylights, the first with Timothy Dalton in the lead role, was the first Bond film that felt like it was mine, and it is still one of my favourites. I must have watched the VHS tape we had of it a million times, until I knew every word and every twist and turn of the plot by heart. Suffice to say, every time I walked through the Prater during my stay in Vienna, I heard Necros, one of the villains of the piece, say: “Ballon, mein Herr.”

Culture of a different kind was something I was keen to enjoy now I was back in Vienna. I hadn’t been to the Vienna State Opera since my 21st birthday, when I was treated to Fidelio, Beethoven’s sole opera. On the Friday night, I decided to check out what was on, and was amazed to see that there were tickets left for Jenůfa, by Janáček, the next night. It felt slightly odd to finish my long day’s work and head straight to the opera but I was treated to a fantastic, full-blooded and extremely powerful performance of a long-time favourite of mine.

While ambling about during the second interval, soaking up the ambience and indulging in that most entertaining of sports, people watching, I spotted a screen saying that La Cenerentola, by Rossini, was playing the next night at Volksopera. This is the theatre where The Magic Flute was premiered in 1791 and a place I had never visited. I managed to get a ticket and I felt a certain sense of frivolity in going to the opera two nights running, but I soon put all that aside once I got there. Sadly the staging wasn’t up to job, despite some fun costumes, but the singing and playing were lovely, and I enjoyed being back in the joyous musical world of Rossini.
As usual, I ate well in Vienna, where the food is typically straightforward but high standard, and a notch above that in Germany, despite having the same culinary palette. I ate excellent Austrian, Japanese, and Italian, but a special mention should be made for The Tibet Restaurant, just behind the Volksoper. I have a rule of never going to a place that has pictures of the dishes outside the front door, but I made an exception as the online reviews suggested it was very good, and I was curious to taste Tibetan cuisine.

I really had no clue what I should order, so I asked the waitress to help guide me. I ended up with a fascinating and rather tasty starter called Tsampa, made from roasted barley flour with butter and cheese, which had the texture of peanut butter and was really nothing like anything I had eaten before. It was followed by Songtsen, a roasted barley flour and herb soup that as hearty as it was delicious, and would be welcome on any English country menu. I ended with Phingtse, a vegetable and glass noodles stew with home-made Tibetan steam dumpling. It had a delicate spicy flavour that recalled all the major cuisines of the region, but with a distinctive twist that made it all its own. My only regret was that, as with the warming and nicely rounded Tibetan herb, spice and flower tea I drank with my meal, I couldn’t try everything else on the menu.
Apart from a huge amount of work, and a huge amount of culture, this week, I managed to fit in a series of major and minor updates to this website. The hope is that you have a better and richer experience, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious, or at least find stuff more easily and more logically.

The biggest changes are to the ‘More’ section, where it’s much simpler to navigate and understand what you are clicking on, and to the items in Thoughts and Pieces, of which article this is one. They have finally been given categories, and the content has been classified by both category and publication date. But it’s also worth noting that there is a search function at the top of every page, if you ever want to find something without going to the trouble of navigating to it.
I have been a politics buff since my coming of age, politically speaking, in the dying days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and the start of John Major’s unexpected ascent to the top step. I was aware at the time that this was politics at its most alive and vital, when not only the future of Britain but also the idea of Britain itself was being contested. And it excited me.

I was amazed by the pound crashing out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday, and that Neil Kinnock could so causally throw away an election. I was shocked and saddened by the death of John Smith, and I watched the rise of New Labour with cynical fascination.

With the election of Tony Blair (I was there at the Royal Festival Hall to hear his first speech as Prime Minister), an intense and chaotic political period seemed to be coming to a close. For those celebrating his win around me on that portentous morning, the battle had been won. The middle ground, between the extremes of left and right, had been occupied by the Third Way, and we could all relax and go home.

I think for many, Tony Blair’s win and subsequent endless electioneering indeed meant the end of politics as a central part of everyday life. Politics receded into the background, jostling for attention with reality TV, video games and bubblegum pop music. Crucially, the brilliant minds who might in previous generations have gone into politics, went into other walks of life, most prominently finance, science, the arts and fashion, and the vacuum of talent was filled with the caustic hot air of single-cause extremists (for to have a single cause is by definition an extremist position).

Now we find ourselves in another period of extreme political turmoil, brought on by the ultimate single-cause campaign: Brexit. All this, especially the implosion of Liz Truss, is on the one hand tickling my political interest no end, and I find myself poring over news items, opinion pieces and comments for hours at a time. But on the other hand, it’s all rather appalling. Where are the heavyweights, where are the great minds, where is the talent, where are the leaders?
Alongside my typical travel diet of Mozart (his symphonies on this trip, as conducted by Karl Böhm), I finally got around to listening to RENAISSANCE by Beyoncé. At least she remains true to her core: she is an eco pop star, recycling other people’s innovation for the mainstream. It’s music as a wipe-clean, glassy surface, all reflections and refracted light. What’s more surprising is how much sycophantic ink has been spilled on it. For my money, Lemonade was better.
A final word on the book I am reading. I have had my copy of Vanity Fair for a while now. It was printed in 1933 by Daily Express Publications, and is a venerable old thing in red, with illustrations by the author himself, William Makepeace Thackeray.

I am only about a quarter of the way through, but I am a little disappointed that I didn’t start reading it sooner. The witty asides and observations on human nature make this society novel fizz along very pleasantly, like the first glass of champagne at a party.

I am a little allergic to hype, but I can see why it had such an impact, especially given the time it was written. The only thing is I cannot imagine it being done well as a film. Maybe I will be proved wrong when I finally get to see the adaptation.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Return to Vienna | Pushing the Wave