Beyond Kebab – Vienna’s Turkish Destinations
I needed a vacation – and now! Not in six weeks when I took my spring holiday. So in search of some spice to ward off Vienna’s chill, I plunged into the city’s Turkish and Arab offerings. Though I’ve travelled to large swathes of the Arab world, I wanted to experience it in an Austrian context. You know, the same only different. Here are scenes from my journey.
Feel the heat
It was past eight on a Saturday evening, and I was sweating on a faux-granite slab, my head propped on an ornate tin headrest. My fellow bathers – a sculptural group of Austrian twenty-somethings – offered their bodies to attendants for soaping and scrubbing, shampooing and rinsing. Water sounds echoed through the bathhouse, or hammam. This was supposed to be relaxing. Instead, I found myself analyzing my aversion to lounging around without a book. Then I pondered the transfer rate of infectious diseases in the damp, moist environment.
Perhaps such neuroses would have softened with a more competent welcome. But Aux Gazelles – a Moroccan-themed bar, restaurant and bath complex just off the MuseumsQuartier – had so far proven confusing. At the spa, staff members gave me contradictory directions. "You might be able to find a red bathrobe in one of those rooms over there," one staff member advised me, non-committally. "Just wait here in your street clothes," said another. To be fair, it was the very end of their workweek, but still…
While waiting, I wandered off to survey the dining and lounge areas. Metal lanterns cast dramatic patterns across alcoves and corridors. Open woodwork in the women’s washing area gave a glimpse of a small party murmuring over cocktails. A staffer in a fitted linen gown directed me back to the spa, where she promised I would not be overlooked. Eventually, a man in flip-flops and a red robe – like some surfer approximation of a Buddhist monk – handed me a basket with a bathsheet and an optional disposable thong. (Most clients opt out.)
After about an hour, my young Moroccan-born spa attendant greeted me in the bathhouse. The white towel tucked closed at her bust – her only attire – emphasized the lean length of her frame. She enthused about California, and made me laugh with her impersonation of Viennese severity. By the middle of the argan oil and exfoliation treatment, I reached such a state of relaxation that I didn’t even look up when a man walked in "accidentally" from the separate men’s side. As my dead winter skin sloughed off, I felt my circulation coming back to life. I tingled. Purified from within by the sweat and nourished from without by the oils, my skin retained visible benefits for several days.
So would I return to a hammam? Absolutely. But next time I’ll try Hamam-Baden bei Wien or the highly praised Mon Corps.
Taste the flavour
The only people in the front section of Kent Restaurant were me, my companion and the soccer fans. Fourteen Turkish-Austrian men and two grave boys fixed on the television silently beaming a soccer match. Turkey was losing to the Czech Republic. The men shifted among the tables, leaning on one another as they watched. The scene brought me back to my first days in Istanbul, where the physical affection in straight male culture startled me. Friends walked down the street, their arms draped across each other’s shoulders.
The real reason to go to Kent is not the food. To be sure, it offers delicious, if standard, Turkish fare. But the enjoyment is more sociological, especially for diners who opt for the inelegant and unpretentious front room. (The young Austrian crowd tends to prefer the smarter back room with its mood lighting, wood floors and smoking.) My recommendation: go to Kent for a Saturday breakfast (8:00-12:00), then step directly out into the outdoor market, Brunnenmarkt. To make a day of it, continue on to the MAK (Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst) whose arresting show on contemporary art of Istanbul runs through 21 April.
Listen to the stories
The Interkulttheater’s Derwisch Erzählt is my favorite find. I arrived expecting a somewhat academic stage performance of traditional Turkish stories – and yet another reminder that my German-language comprehension could use work. Instead, I entered a realm of sensory extravagance – beaded lanterns reflected in mirrors, hookah, a nook with a fortune-teller, and pyramids of dolmas, falafel, humus, dried fruits, Turkish Delight... Staffers handed out complimentary Turkish coffee and tea. More offerings could be purchased at the bar.
As we entered the small performance area, some audience members opted to remove their shoes to sit on the carpets and blankets in front. I perched at a back table. The storyteller was Aret Güzel Aleksanyan, an Istanbul-born Armenian who came to Austria as a teenager. Aleksanyan’s performance intermixed traditional ("A great sultan announced a contest…") and contemporary stories. The latter, on topics such as Germanistik and the condescensions of the Austrian passport office, threw us into minutes of unbroken laughter. His dramatic gestures and enunciation made comprehension manageable for anyone at about a high intermediate level of German. Between stories, Mandana Alavi Kia regaled us with dance. Her beguiling arms and hypnotic spinning recharged us for more – as did the baklava, rose tea, and fruit served at intermission. At the end, I emerged into the dark street having gotten precisely what I wanted – a journey.
Aux Gazelles 6., Rahlgasse 5
Mon Corps 4., Belvederegasse 33
Hamam-Baden bei Wien
Kent Restaurant 16., Brunnengasse 67
MAK 1., Stubenring 5
Derwisch Erzählt, Interkulttheater
6., Fillgeradergasse 16