Austria's Music Box

Vienna, unbombed, remains perfectly perfect.

By Steve Burgess 2 Jul 2007 |

Steve Burgess, Tyee culture critic, is filing dispatches from his European travels. Find previous ones here.

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Vienna: waltz right in

I arrived in Vienna the day Kurt Waldheim died. If the cops ask, I was with you guys.

But I should be in the clear. There were plenty of suspects, old age being only the most obvious. Waldheim, for those who've forgotten, was the former UN secretary general and later Austrian president who was found to have fudged his employment record with the Nazis. It turns out that his resume should have included years of loyal service as a German officer, signing documents that led to thousands of deaths. But Austrian voters, bless their hearts, forgave old Kurt just as they'd done for themselves. Flags flew at half-mast as I arrived.

Other flags caught my eye on my first day here. Viennese streetcars carry two: the red-and-white Austrian flag and, bless me, the rainbow colours of gay pride. It was just like strolling on Davie once more. Alas, it seemed too good to be true, and it was -- over here, I'm told, the rainbow flag simply means "peace." Yesterday I saw a giant Canadian flag flying from a building, which, I was relieved to discover, was the Canadian Embassy. Otherwise I'd have been forced to conclude that in Vienna, the maple leaf means "no parking."

No convenience

Things are a little different here. Have you ever wished you could wave a wand and make all the 7-Elevens disappear? Welcome to beautiful Vienna, the "careful what you wish for" city. There are indeed no 7-Elevens here. Or any other convenience stores whatever. No Austrian moms and pops gratefully filling the void left by corporate giants. Nothing. Supermarkets close up at 6 or 7 Saturday night, and if you don't have your supplies laid in, well, you'll be living on sausage and mustard from the local hot dog stands until Monday morning. Saturday night and all day Sunday, I kept an eye peeled for a single container of yogurt. Nein. Bratwurst for you, Mein Herr.

There was other stuff to buy, though. Had I wished, I could have purchased a fetching little bust of Austria's Little Corporal, Adolph Hitler, at a local flea market. Or, had I preferred, a pensive little brass head of the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, sitting just a few inches away from the man he plotted to kill. Various Nazi medals were also on offer, scattered casually about on the folding tables. Grandma's old knick-knacks do have a different flavour here in Vienna.


Untouched by Allied bombing, Vienna remains one of Europe's most stunning cities. The entire central core is a UNESCO World Heritage site and contains architectural marvels like the compact St. Peter's Church, almost as impressive in its way as its larger Roman namesake. Still, there's an all-dressed-up-and-nowhere-to-go feel about modern Vienna -- its architectural treasures date from a time when it was a political power centre and the cultural heart of Europe. Nowadays it's more of a giant historical theme park.

I went on down to the Blue Danube, hoping to pick up a little of the inspiration that allowed Strauss to set the world waltzing. Walking along the river, looking across at rows of featureless apartment blocks -- possibly new since Strauss's time -- I found that I rather preferred the Assiniboine River in Brandon, about which not a single waltz has ever been waltzed. It's hardly fair, really. Some rivers get all the composers.

As far as tourism goes, though, there's only one Viennese composer. He's on tinfoil-covered chocolate balls, he's on shirts, he's handing you sample menus for wiener schnitzel and sachertorte, dressed in a white wig and waistcoat. It's all Mozart all the time here. Not a bad thing at all. There's still plenty of music in the air in this lovely city. And there are worse Austrians you could put on a t-shirt. Who'd want to buy Kurt Waldheim chocolate pistachio balls, anyway?  [Tyee]

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