A Walk Through Vienna With Duncan J. D. Smith

An audio CD tour: Deconstructing the layers of history, the tales of power and personality that are always the real story.

TVR Books | Dardis McNamee | July / August 2010

Just released, there is now an Only in Vienna audio CD of guided walks through Duncan Smith’s hidden city, a circular walk around Vienna’s Innerestadt, discovering the city from what he calls "a less conventional standpoint." That’s an understatement. Smith’s voice is conspiratorial, almost seductive, as he leads you along with his warm and polished Oxbridge diction that feels like the person you hoped to be seated next to the best dinner party this season.

Recorded live as he walks the streets, Smith reveals the secrets behind the stones of Vienna as if it were hot gossip from the beaches of Cannes during the festival, deconstructing the layers of history back into the tales of power and personality that are always the real story.

Starting off at Schottentor  ["on the U2 underground line - that’s the purple one"], he leads you up the Moelkerbastei –  one of the few remaining pieces of the old renaissance city walls. These were expensive to construct, put up in the wake of the Turkish siege in 1529, where they remained for centuries, until they were demolished in 1857, by Franz Joseph. At which point, I expected to hear the usual story about the building of the Ringstrasse... but what Smith tell us instead is that Franz Joseph wanted the walls down to prevent the from being used by home-grown revolutionaries, as that were in 1848, when an uprising on Jesuitenplatz by the old University force the hated conservative chancellor Metternich to flee to London and scared Ferdinand I into  retreat on the countryside. So much for the monuments of Empire.

At Smith’s side, we muse over why this massive pitch of land wall was left standing. "I like to think it’s because of the building we are now approaching on the right – Pasqualati House," he confides, where Beethoven wrote his only opera, Fidelio. His rooms on the 4th floor can still be seen, "although the overflowing chamber pot, noted by some of his visitors, is no longer on display."

Farther along, is the spot on the far end of the Bastion where, in 1853, an attempt was on on Franz Joseph’s live, by a Hungarian tailor with strong Nationalist views, and where he was saved by his adjutant – perhaps a second reason why he saved the old Bastion.  So he commissioned the building of the Votiv Kirche – "just visible in the distance, right over there behind the old University" – as a gesture of thanks to higher powers.

As we walk along with our guide, as he points out where we are and what we can see, constantly orienting us as we go. "That’s the Ringstrasse that you can see through the trees as you stroll along the Mölkerbastei."

From here you wander through scenes of Roman ruins and Napoleonic vanities, Turkish tunnels and the many apartments of Mozart; there are kings parading through clockworks on the Hohermarkt and coffee roasters on the Fleischmarkt. Here we learn that an Armenian trader called Johannes Deodatus received the first license to sell coffee and tea in Vienna, around the corner on Rotenturmstrasse. What?!? What about Georg Kolschitzky, the heroic Pole who slipped behind Turkish lines in the siege and delivered news of coming reinforcements, rewarded with coffee beans thought to be camel fodder. Myth? Urban legend? I’m sorry, this is going too far. I make mental plans to revisit his statue on Kolschitzkygasse in the 4th District.

Still simmering, we move on to the next story. In the Griechen Beisel, we peer at the signatures of Mozart and Beethoven – and Johnny Cash – and learn that the building is named after the ballade singer Augustin who fell into a plague pit in 1679, but survived because his bagpipes could still be heard playing. "That’s him, beneath an iron grill by the entrance," Smith points out, beneath a row of lucky horse shoes.

From here we pass through Heiligenkreuzerhof and hear about the grave of Maria Vesera, the lover of the Crown Prince Rudolf who died with him in the double suicide at Mayerling – or so the legend goes. The grave is real, however, and lies on the monastery grounds near Baden. And the Schoenlaterngasse – Beautiful Lantern Street -- and the wine cellars of the Twelve Apostles.

All in all it’s a great outing: good pacing, good stories, good company, and a fascinating city made personal,.. what more could you ask!  It’s hard to imagine.

Still, giving up the legend of Polish coffee maker Kolschzityky is one thing I am not sure I can forgive.


See also: The City Is My JungleSnooping in the Hidden City

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