Music and Mood for Free
A new arrival’s impressions of the city center at its buskers
Peering out through frosted windows from the warmth of a snug Viennese apartment, falling snow painted the city an enchanting white. But by the next morning reality had set in. Traffic had turned the streets into a slushy brown mess, making boots a must for the Viennese, along with long fur coats and thick wool scarves. And hats, which are now as ever, still an event. January is especially hard going for visitors in Vienna, because so much of the city’s charm is revealed through walking the old streets and calling for armor against the cold. Even horses that pull the fiacre in the city are draped in wool blankets for protection against the harsh wind as they carry tourists through the squares craning their necks at the architecture.
But despite the harsh conditions, it’s still undeniably romantic to hear the sounds of horses hooves echoing on the cobble stone streets on Stephensplatz. Seeing the elegant carriages on the square it is easy to be carried back to another era where women regularly wore ball gowns and carried little white umbrellas, while men stepped out in top hats carrying canes.
This area of the city, referred to by most as Stephensdom, is home to some of Vienna’s most historic monuments and structures. Like the gargoyle statues on the exterior roof of St. Stephens Cathedral that sit with a watchful eye over their surroundings, originally constructed to ward off evil. The multi color tile roof of this gothic, Romanesque Cathedral constructed in 1160, stands out as a focal point against the gray stone that comprises the rest of the church. Tourists from around the world come here in large quantities, snapping photos of each impressive architectural masterpiece with high levels of enthusiasm, even in the cold month of January.
Around the corner from the cathedral in Graben Square stands the Pestsaule, the Plague Column. This memorial to Austria’s deliverance from the Black Plague that broke out in Vienna in 1679 and swept across Europe for the last time before science and hygiene finally brought it under control. The statue towers into the sky at sixty-nine feet commanding attention. Crowned with little white angels emerging from puffs of stone clouds above six saints standing guard for mankind against the perils of disease. Ornamentations of gold inserted throughout the structure make even the smallest details stand out.
This area is also home to the buskers, the musicians and entertainers who play on the streets for tips. In Vienna most buskers must audition for a special permit, which entitles them to an assigned, protected location to perform. A young boy of about eighteen plays an accordion, swaying back and forth to the melody he creates. Just a short distance from him, a quartet group of Russian Balalaika players were picking away at their long-necked stringed instruments. They sit outside a busy clothing store on Stephensplatz, appearing composed and content, holding their heads high as if on stage during an orchestral concert. Oblivious to the icy chill, they fill the silence with the sounds of familiar and lively classics: a Strauss Polka, a Brahms Hungarian Dance; Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik and the Turkish Rondo. People linger momentarily in their presence to appreciate their skill before dropping a coin inside a small case.
At the end of the day when the warmth of the sun slowly fades away signaling the street performers to return to their homes, Stephansplatz is transformed into an energetic nightlife with young, trendy club goers ready to dance the night away. While the more sophisticated patrons of the theater make their way to the opera in Kärtner Straße ready to enjoy La Traviata.
The end of a long day finally brings silence to the streets of Vienna and people sleep peacefully in their beds. But soon with the rising of the sun the city will be awoken. And the Viennese people with continue this process with simple satisfaction.