Vienna, sometime before midnight.
Out of the train station – burning behind us like a bonfire – and out into the city.
And nowhere will take us in.
Walking the dark streets, a sleety drizzle falling, every hotel was booked, everywhere full.
I had once known Vienna pretty well. I had taught in the city many times over the years. I never knew its glamour and its easy charm – I got to know it in the classic period of trying to teach Austrian kids English.
But I hadn’t been back for perhaps almost 10 years. And the places I stayed in then – the places I’d called home – had no place for me now.
The great Hotel Terminus, as I remembered it, hidden away off Mariahilfer Straße had changed massively.
No longer run by the booming, vast, long-haired, prodigiously stomached, prodigiously randy figure of Hans.
Hans, who would stand imposingly in front of the huge oil painting of himself at the foot of the stairs – the painting depicted Hans as a Germanic emperor, sat, helmeted, with spear and shield, on his horse – as he took the regular complaints about the terrible clanging pipes in the rooms and the beds that would collapse in the night.
Now it was neat and refurbished and dull. And full.
The incredible Pension Mozart – where I’d had digs during many wretched teaching contracts in the city – was closed. No chance to meet again the faded opera singer owner, full of sad yearning nostalgia for her old days in the Vienna Konzerthaus, with her resident parrot given free reign of the place, pictures and clutter and tables made of old sarcophagus and oriental lamps and warped junk and plants hanging over everything.
We tried the grand Hotel Bristol, we tried private, tiny, advertised flats. Nothing.
I didn’t know what to do.
How to kill time in one of the most beautiful cities in the world? Feeling we’d made a great mistake coming.
We slow-waltzed the streets, the crooked lanes opening into the many small squares. We went down under the street into the dark, wooden, ancient Esterhazy cellar for good, cheap, stomach filling food, as I always used to as a hard-up teacher.
We joined the snaking queue, coiling round outside the voluptuous beauty of the Staatsoper concert hall, for cheap 5 euro standing tickets. And watched the evening’s performance of the Nutcracker, standing in the back, with the poor and the unplanned of the city. Amongst the gilded glory of red and gold above us, the balconies and boxes.
Two hours eaten into the evening, before we were out on the street again.
As one of the late trams clanged on the points and threw a passing light over us as we stood on the wide avenue of the RingStraße – the ring road looping the caged beauty of the very centre of Vienna – I took my travelling Passepartout’s hand and took her into a place I had often spent my lonely times in Vienna in the past: the Burg Kino cinema.
To watch the midnight showing of The Third Man, just as I had done during those solitary Viennese evenings.
As Harry Lime ran the streets and the sewers of the city up on the screen for the few dotted Austrians in the old-fashioned theatre – and for the first time for a rapt Passepartout – it seemed clear to me that we would have to wander Vienna ourselves too, until it was time to take a first train out of the city.
A train we really needed – to take us onwards on our already-behind schedule trek down through Europe to Greece.
The black and white, bombed-out beauty of post-war Vienna in the film leaked into our own destitute world as we left the Burg Kino and walked into the four quarters of the Innere Stadt, the central old town of the city.
Up the high steps of the Albertina gallery we went, to stand under the hard gaze of Emperor Joseph II on his old horse. And we looked out at the climbing roofs of Vienna.
Then, slipping and stumbling in the now empty and deserted square in front of the steep and gothic St Stephens cathedral – the dominant church of Vienna with its snakeskin-like roof tiles – we zig-zagged round the back into quiet streets, to pass underneath where Mozart had his house.
We trudged the darkness, hoping for time to pass, walking away from the Hofburg Palace, along the lopsided cobbled streets, all lamp lights and shadows. Ghostly statues emerging amongst the buildings and the huge arched double-doors.
Past time-warped cafes, closed and shuttered now. Past Café Zentrum where 100 years ago Freud, Lenin, Trotsky all hung out.
We stood with coats pulled tight. The now clear, open, black night assembled high above us.
And then suddenly I remembered the hangouts I ‘d had during my Viennese postings.
Postings where us, as a ragbag collection of teachers, thrown together for a week at a time in this city, would go roaming the streets looking for entertainment. The nights passing in clubs and bars in a fug of faces and Ottakringer beer mugs.
So now, with a purpose in mind, me and my Passepartout raced back along the RingStraße, past the – appropriately enough – Greek-revival style parliament, and the Vienna Rathaus: the grand city town hall, with its expansive Christmas market pouring down from the steps, flowing out over the large square, the Ratshausplatzs, in front. Wooden huts, barrels, lights.
Right behind the Rathaus was a dark street where, in a flat with a view out onto the towering neo-gothic town hall spire, and the extensive volksgartens beyond, one of the teachers from my time working in Vienna had taken a room.
The only one of us to have set himself up with a permanent home in the city, we would all congregate there. Never invited. And often never leaving.
Passepartout and I now pushed ourselves down this street, and I looked at each tall darkened building and tried to remember exactly where it was.
The greatest parties were thrown there.
The flat was shared with students from the university in Vienna and was always teaming with guests from around the world.
You would leave in the morning, stepping on the face of a smiling, deep-sleeping German on the floor, a Japanese girl draped over the sofa’s arms, a Finn or an Irish or a Bosnian, just passing through the city, asleep on the chessboard, face-first in overflowing ashtrays.
That was until the teacher, Will, found himself an Austrian girlfriend.
Lena hated the teaching crowd. She set about turning the small but well-appointed flat into a nice, comfortable home. And we were banned from ever coming round.
We were distraught. We needed somewhere as some sort of base – working as itinerant teachers, months out from Britain, nowhere to really call ours.
One teacher – Donald – a gentle soul from the Scottish Borders, always listening to the World Service, tall and wiry, like a wolfhound, took to saving money from the small pay packets we received each week and skipped the hotels all together.
He would sleep in the toilets of Vienna’s Sudbanhoff station. He said it was quite comfortable really. He had slept in many train station toilets in his time, he told us, and the Sudbanhoff were definitely the best of the lot.
Or he would just stay awake, walk the streets. As we were having to do now.
Tutoring young children in schools with him, I would often have to go into his class where he had fallen asleep on the teacher’s desk at the front – rows of expectant Austrian kids staring up at him – and prod him awake.
And there were many times where I’d stare at the back of Donald, slow dancing in some loud, heaving club with an Austrian girl who had fallen for his dark good looks. As she slowly turned round on the dance floor, everyone else frenetically dancing around them, Donald would be revealed – fast asleep, face crumpled on her shoulder.
One night Donald fell asleep standing up, his feet like hinges, falling on a table full of glasses, cutting himself to ribbons.
He was rushed to hospital where a nurse sat with him for days and nights as he contracted gangrene and it was thought that his leg might have to be amputated.
Donald and the young nurse ended up falling in love during this long vigil and Donald eventually went to live in her small village high in the Alps with her family, in a life of Alpine cottages and fresh air and, aside from the odd photograph of him stood in green fields wearing lederhosen and smiling, we never heard from him again.
But we teachers left in Vienna were still desperate for somewhere, a place of our own.
Somewhere to do our washing at the very least, anyway.
We would call round at Will’s when Lena was at work, holding bagfulls of laundry.
One day Lena returned home early.
“Why has the washing machine been on Will?”
“Oh? Has it?”
“Yes. It has” Lena said, touching the still warm machine.
“Well I must have done some washing I suppose…” Will said. He looked thoughtful, tried to affect vagueness.
“But where is it now?”
“The washing. Why isn’t it hanging up to dry?”
“Ah, well, you see…” Will placed his hands behind him on the window sill, trying to think fast. His mind darting about to catch any idea as the strained, no-nonsense face of Lena’s stared up, unblinkingly into his.
“You see…I’ve had to throw it away.”
“You had to throw it away..?” Lena face turned more furrowed, more severe. She wouldn’t let this drop. “What do you mean you had to throw it away?”
“Well,” swallowed Will, “I…er…I had a bit of an accident you see. And the wash didn’t really do the trick…”
It seemed it was better for our fallen colleague to admit to his new love that he had fouled himself in such terrible, irremediable fashion. Better to admit to this than to admit to still knowing us.
We collection of teachers, thrown into Vienna together, teaching here and there, being moved on at short notice, lost, with morals corroding as we stayed further in this world…we must have been that bad.
As we hurried down the road now, I wondered whatever happened to Will. And his stern Lena. And Donald. And all the teachers, and all that life, years ago.
Behind the Leopold Museum, in another dark street, I looked for the Donau bar. Impossible to find even back then, there was never a sign, just a blue door.
It was still there. The old blue door in the wall. We entered. Nothing had changed.
The columns, the spraying cornices, the arches and domed ceilings, the broken old tram in the corner to sit and drink in, the same eye-twisting projections on the wall.
And when you leant closer in to the columns or inspected the walls past where the serious minded electro music-loving drinkers lounged, you could still see the Star of David carved and stamped in the marble. An unmistakeable sign telling you this place of hedonism was once a place of faith, a magnificent old synagogue.
I had remembered The Gürtel as being behind one of Vienna’s grand stations, the Westbanhof, but we found it again now far further north.
This once long-forgotten stretch – which had served as the notorious red light district – looked exactly the same though.
The arches that sat in the old Stadtbahn viaduct– designed, with great style, by the Vienna Secession artists at the end of the 19th Century. And the bars. And most importantly to me, the most enduring one of all: the Café Concerto.
The Café Concerto was where we, and all of the other disoriented of Vienna, seemed to gurgle towards at the end of every night.
The whirl of Vienna’s 23 districts, flowing round the city, like a snail’s shell, swirling towards the plughole of the Concerto.
The upper level of the cafe, on the face of it, was respectable enough, with lamps and portraits and polite dining. It was the basement bar below that the debauched and the despicable ended up in.
And they still seemed to do so.
We descended into the dark, rough stone cellar, and the crowd was the same. The musicians and concert players that had been performing around the city, in gilded concert halls, now in this dark vault. The diplomats in skew-whiffed ties from the near-by UN Headquarters. The drunks and the shadowy figures sat in the corners.
I was sure I recognised someone from all those years ago.
Otto, the black German opera singer who always seemed the centre of everything back then.
Huge, barrel-built, deep voiced, full of largess and forever buying drinks for everyone, and often bursting into hair-straightening song.
I approached nervously, expecting he would never remember me, a peripheral figure, at best, all those years ago.
“My dear boy!” he slapped me hard on the back “Where on earth have you been?”
I wasn’t sure he really remembered me at all, but he acted as if I’d just slipped to the gents.
Drinks were quickly conjured up from nowhere.
Soon we were surrounded by the usual circle of Otto’s crowd as I remembered them: failed artists, famed musicians, nefarious chancers, beautiful woman, criminal-faced small ratty men.
Drinks were poured out again and again, glasses lying all over the dark maroon-clothed tables. I told them of our plight.
How we were taking the train down from London all the way to Greece and had hoped to just stop over in Vienna for the night but couldn’t find anywhere to stay.
“We must help you, my boy…” Otto boomed. I thought perhaps he was going to offer somewhere to stay, or knew of a hotel.
“We must get you to Greece!”
Despite my protestations, trying to clutch at the back of the ignoring Otto, he flew into action asking people, organising things, grabbing passers-by, shouting enquiries over the loud room.
People came up and spoke to me in German – which always alarms, as if you’re being awoken in some prison camp – and my German was hopeless back then anyway, even worse now.
I was lost and nervous at events running out of control.
“We have you a car!” Otto sang out, his arms spread wide.
“Oh no Otto, that’s quite alright, we…”
Out on the street there was an old pea-green BMW, sat low on its wheels, a slightly cracked at the edge windscreen, a girl kicking her legs out of the backdoors holding a bottle of something cheap.
Otto told us it was a shame he couldn’t come with us, but these were very good friends of his. We really must go with them, they will take us wherever we want.
In the back, crammed between the girl with the bottle, a glowering man in high turned-up jeans and a trilby hat, my travelling Passepartout and me sat – being hit in the face by another endlessly laughing girl chucking things at us from the passenger seat in front.
The driver clutched the steering wheel in an overly concerted way and peered closely forward. It was obvious he was the drunkest of the lot of us.
The road, outside of Vienna, was dead straight, wide, dark. Fat stomached fields, lit by the highway lights, lay on either side.
Where are we going, I asked.
The crowd in the car looked at each other, as if this thought of direction hadn’t come up before.
“Er…where do you want to go again?”
Well Greece ideally, I half laughed.
“Slovakia is good, ja?”
The car radio was deafening. The girl next to me continued to neck from the bottle, stopping only to smile at me.
The girl in front leant out of the window laughing uproariously, screaming, arms spread to the night. The man in the hat had fallen asleep on the window. The car speed eastwards, careering slightly on the road.
We passed what looked like a walkway bridge over the road, the blue star-circled road sign gave me the idea that we were passing into a new country.
Eventually we drew up at a concrete, ugly-looking bus station.
“Ja, we have somewhere to go now. You can get out here, ja? This is good?”
I started to mention how Otto had told us they would help us driving somewhere where we could continue on our journey towards Greece, but gave up. I was happy to just get out of the car alive really.
We walked into Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, in the dead silence. Everything shut, dark and locked-up this late. The city full of secrets.
We walked in underneath the huge upside-town table of the Bratislava Castle, gleaming white, even here in this dark night.
The squares were empty, the only characters other than ourselves were bronze figures dotted around the city.
A workman crawling out of his manhole; a Napoleonic soldier leaning over a bench; fat men doffing hats. It was a little unsettling to share a city with no one, just these metal lunatics.
And a little unsettling to be in a great, imperial capital city that needed to have made such gimmicks.
Bratislava had its charms. Sweet buildings in the old town: onion domed city gates, bright blue churches. It struck me as perhaps a little unpolished, a little dour, but I felt I could like it. If we could spend more time here.
Of course nothing was open. We couldn’t find anywhere to take us in.
One Slovakian tavern – Pivovarský – with warn walls, pottery mugs hanging from the wooden ceiling, stone floors, creaking furniture had no rooms for us, but the ancient owner – creaking just like her furniture – insisted we stayed and ate.
We couldn’t resist, we were starving. Headaches and hangovers hitting home.
Breakfast was served with the black night still sitting heavy outside, as barrels of beer were loaded by aproned men around us in the empty bar.
Breakfast was a metal plate of heavy goulash, potatoes and sheep’s cheese. A frothing mug of beer plonked down next to me. It was just before 5.30am. I didn’t feel well.
There was nothing for it but to go back to Prague.
The Czech-Greeks there, high up in their beloved Communist tower block told us if we ever needed anything, we always had a home there. Whether they meant it or not, we were coming. We had nowhere else to go.
Bratislava’s main train station might be the very worst in Europe.
Miserable and decrepit. And we’d missed the 6.10am to Prague by a minute.
No other trains were advertised on the hopeless, flickering, infoboards as going towards Prague.
We made a dash for the 6.15 train back to Vienna with hopes to catch a Czech train from the considerably grander cathedral of the Wein Hauptbanhoff – a station which in another life had been the grottier Sudbanhoff, back in my Viennese days.
Dawn had already emerged, silver-grey and cold in Vienna.
Exhausted and with a long wait for anything to take us onwards Prague-way, we took a walk outside.
We had coffee in the just-opening, 130 year old, Cafe Sperl on Gumpendorfer Straße. The cold light coming through the high windows, hitting the empty parquet floor and chairs. The heavy wood panelled walls and the billiard tables.
I remembered coming here in my first ever week in the city, sitting at one of the marble-top tables and writing a postcard home. I told them all how I was writing it sat in Hitler’s favourite cafe. A cafe where he had made many of his early rabble-rousing speeches.
The postcard never made it back to England.
The Austrian state’s discomfort at their unwanted native-son means that talk of Hitler is not welcomed. And my postcard obviously met with a censorious Austrian postal worker’s disapproval.
A fellow teacher once pointed out Hitler’s old lodgings to me one day as we trudged the streets in Vienna. There was no way you’d know. A hugely mortifying symbol, it was now just a gaudy Billa Supermarket.
However, only earlier in this very month before we arrived in Austria, the far right candidate, Norbert Hofer, came within a whisker of becoming President of the country.
Some things change, some things stay the same. Europe, even in this new century, still needs a careful tread on drifting ice.
Passepartout and I hobbled on round Vienna.
Round the Belvedere, with its gold-leaf Klimts shut away inside. Down to the Stadtpark where we were glowered at by Beethoven’s statue.
I stared into the bitter, irascible face. Ludwig stared back into mine. And, in that madness that grips you when you feel at your very lowest and you know the only thing to do, the only real course of action, is to take things even lower, I took Passepartout’s hand again and told I had something to show her. On the very edge of town.
First we made for the Danube.
The river doesn’t flow through the centre of the city – there is the Donaukanal, the Danube’s canal, that can fool you – but the real Blue Danube is a real schlep, a real stapfen, out of the centre.
I pointed the almost dead-on-her-feet Passepartout north-east, and we started to walk.
We passed the Hundertwasserhaus, the block of eccentric apartments designed especially to reject any forms of straight lines or normality. Stood mad amongst the classical Vienna streets, a brilliant sight.
We looked in at one of the doorways of the intensely coloured flats, all pouring over each other, flying off at angles, jutting out, escaping.
The staircases bend, the wooden floors undulate and sway.
It’s hard to tell if this hallucinogenic response came from the auteur-architect Hundertwasser’s single-minded desire to reject any form of architectural regularity or – as the windows seemed to swim before us, the walls bow – whether the tiredness from walking Vienna all night and now all morning was bringing on disturbing, weird visions.
We walked on and on and finally hit the Danube.
It’s not blue. It’s big and wide and brown. And it would hopefully follow us as a guiding friend down through Europe, as we tried to head back to Greece.
We would meet again.
We crossed its wide flow and walked into the Prater, Vienna’s enormous spreading park.
Here, in the early morning grey we stood in the amusement park, underneath the swaying cabins of the famous Ferris wheel. Nothing moving, no one around, the silence deathly, the cold right in our bones.
Then in to the Praterstern Bahnhof. Passepartout picked up, thinking perhaps we were leaving. But I had one more stop before I felt I was finished with Vienna.
The Zentralfriedhof. The central cemetery.
The largest cemetery in Europe, so I think I’d once been told.
With a crazed determination I walked us round and round this vast bone yard, miles out on the very edge of the city, until I found what I remembered from all those years ago.
A small corner where, as you whirled round 360 degrees, a wheel of graves of the greatest names of the greatest music ever shaped spun before you.
Names of the creators of such music that even God would have to get down on his knees and thank them for helping out.
Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert. A memorial to Mozart. Further and further composers buried here, hidden in this tiny corner, in the city’s furthest reaches.
I looked at Passepartout, a classical trained violinist herself, expecting unalloyed joy, open mouthed amazement.
She stood, arms folded – the long straight avenue of perfectly symmetrically planted trees running away behind her – tired, unimpressed, utterly fatigued, annoyed by Vienna and by me.
This cemetery was where Harry Lime had been finally laid to rest. And so too this was where Vienna would have to come to an end for us as well.
Midnight, and now sunrise, in Vienna had passed. Soon we were back, stood on the very same platform at the Hauptbanhof.
The train to return to Prague waited, impatient to leave.