Vienna: cake, a nun, and white wine spritzers


The only thing I knew I wanted to see in Vienna were the wax models at the Josephinum (about which I will write later). Unfortunately, the Josephinum was one of the few places I visited which did not allow photography. So, instead of graphic anatomies, I will post pictures of cake.

I arrived in Vienna at about 4pm on Wednesday afternoon, and was to meet my friend Megan at 7pm. So, I walked to Cafe Sacher for the obligatory Sachertorte. This is a chocolate cake covered with chocolate ganache; between the cake and ganache is a fine layer of apricot jam. The chocolate sponge cake is surprisingly dry, and the cake is served with a  huge dollop of unsweetened cream: on its own, the cake is dry, and on its own, the cream is bland; together, they are sublime. Cream is served with many things in Vienna: atop certain types of coffee, atop soup, atop hot or iced chocolate, and of course, alongside cake.

On the way to Cafe Sacher, I took the clear tourist route from the Schwedenplatz U-bahn stop, along the road called Rotenturmstrasse, which becomes the pedestrian Kartnerstrasse. This goes past one of the main sites in Vienna, the Stephansdom church, outside of which men dressed as Beethoven accost tourists in a friendly manner trying to sell tickets to various concerts.

The Viennese struck me as extraordinarily friendly (whether or not they are trying to sell anything,) helpful, and laid-back. This is probably because, as far as I can tell, they live in one of the most beautiful, clean, culturally rich cities in the world, where the main focus of the day is eating cake and sitting around chatting, or going to hear a world-class concert. What’s not to love? Even the tap water is delicious, piped in from a mountain spring. The second ‘Beethoven’ who tried to sell me a ticket followed my gentle rebuttal by asking me out to dinner and inviting me to his flat.

Hochstrahlbrunnen rainbow.

‘No thanks,’ I said (thinking, does anyone ever say yes to this sort of proposal?) ‘I’m having dinner with a nun.’

I ambled along the street to Cafe Sacher, and sat just inside the cafe at an open door looking out to the Opera House, where I enjoyed my slice of cake. A brilliant thing about cafe culture in Vienna is the expectation to linger. One can even have a tiny, €2 coffee, and stay in a cafe for hours. (The only downside to my urban mindset, which I slowly realised was probably a boon, was how few places had wireless internet; Megan has to go to Starbucks for that, and I think the fact that there even is Starbucks in Vienna is a travesty.)

The sun was shining, and I walked past the Wien (pronounced ‘VEEN’ and where ‘Vienna’ comes from,) Museum, past the Hochstrahlbrunnen, a fountain built in 1873, which I later learned was built to celebrate the piping into Vienna of that wonderful mountain spring water. Behind the fountain is the Russian Liberation Monument, built after WWII. It is apparently roundly ignored. I walked through the Stadtpark which runs just south of the centre of the old town, past the little river to the Danube Canal, a sizeable canal separating the main part of Vienna from the Prater suburbs, where Megan has been living and working as an au pair. I met Megan at Praterstern Station, and we walked to Kleine Schwester (‘Little Sister’) Christine’s.

The wonderful Schwester Christine and me, in her flat.

Megan describes her serendipitous meeting with Schwester Christine in her own blog post, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety. I’m going to poach a small part of it to put here: How Megan met Schwester Christine:

On Monday March 19th, I headed to the Musikverein for yet another Stehplätz adventure… In my usual pushy fashion, I got a good standing place, only to have a tiny woman push slightly to my right and wiggle right into a place that hadn’t been there before. She determinedly tied her scarf to the bar, and planted herself right beside me on the floor. With her wispy grey hair pulled back into a bun and forced into place with several barrettes, and light blue sweater tucked into a long navy blue skirt, she seemed the typical scrappy Viennese Stehplätzer that I am quite fond of, and so after a few minutes of me reading my program (which culminated in her borrowing it for the entirety of the performance) we began chatting. She decided that ultimately my German was not up to her standards and after switching to English, I found out that she was originally from Brittany, and had lived in Vienna for forty years. When I told her where I lived (a popular introductory question here in Wien—as apparently lots of judgements can be made based on in which Bezirk one calls home), she exclaimed “But we are neighbors! You are going home after the concert?” I nodded. “But then we must go together!” It seemed I had made a new friend.

 And later…Megan learned Schwester Christine was travelling for the month of May, and the ‘Little Sister’ invited Megan to invite friends to stay in her flat. So I took up the offer, and Megan visited Schwester Christine several more times, not least to borrow a set of keys:
Obedient, I stood outside her door once more on Wednesday. As I entered, Schwester Christine was dancing around to some sort of French motet. She flung open her arms after a glorious cadence–”Welcome! Megan!” She showed me the room Kelley would stay in once more, and the tiny bed she had made up. “If you see anything you want in the cupboards you must take it!’ she said, smiling. Gesturing to the huge windows in the “Kelley” bedroom, she said “I did not wash the windows, but you must open them so you can see out, and then you will not notice the dirt!” I assured her how glad I was she HADN’T washed the windows. We made plans to eat dinner together the evening of Kelley’s arrival, and giving me another hug, she said, smiling “I don’t know why I trust you. But I feel in my heart you are a good girl. The students staying with me last week I did as a favor for my friend. But this, your friend coming and you visiting here, I do for you!” She chortled, “It is a gift from me to you!”

Megan at Cafe Museum with a goblet of strawberries & cream, and a white wine spritzer. The usual Viennese decadence-as-norm.

Schwester Christine’s only request was that I bring a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for her, as she’d just read it in French and wanted to read it in English. I’m very glad I found a lovely copy for the lady, who, as embodied in Megan’s writing, does speak wholly in exclamations, with a brilliant smile, about everything.

Meeting her was like being hit by a small sparkler; the little kind one waves around for a birthday or New Year celebration. She, and everything in her flat, are tiny, and there is a wonderful determination about her. The flat itself was serene, but when we arrived, after a warm welcome, the nun proceeded to fly into an excited, frantic sort of upset because she wasn’t able to get a live feed on her laptop for the French Presidential debates. We tried to help, but weren’t sure if we were making the situation worse, and she ended up on the phone with a friend who finally concluded that she couldn’t watch it live and would have to wait until afterwards. Megan and I had brought a dinner of cheeses, breads, and fruits, which we ate, and Schwester Christine had a few bites, but eventually she kindly shooed us out into the warm night, insisting that we must want to go to a cafe and catch up.
We went to Cafe Museum in the town centre, one of M’s favourite haunts. The waiter recognised her and they had a chat, and I admired her proficiency in German. I found, to my surprise, that I understood much of it. In fact, once or twice during the trip, I understood the person to the point that I afterwards said, ‘why were they speaking English?’ and Megan said, ‘They weren’t.’ There are a lot of similarities to the language.
At the cafe, we enjoyed lemon-and-mint white wine spritzers, which were the most refreshing, delicious thing I could have wanted in the balmy warmth of the evening, and in my dehydrated, post-flight state. We sat outside and talked and talked.

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