FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Vienna: Double Vision

Mar 1, 2009
2009 / March 2009

I am, let’s face it, a man. Joanne, traveling with me, is a woman. We both describe Austria’s capital as romantic, though from different perspectives. For Joanne, the romance is in the rococo palaces, the Strauss waltzes, the Lipizzaner horses, Mozart, the elegant coffee shops and sumptuous slices of Sacher-Torte. For me, romance is in the city sewers. As I said, I’m a man.

“This is not exactly what I had in mind for this weekend,” Joanne sighs as our guide peels back the triangular metal petals of a sidewalk manhole cover. My thoughts stray back 60 years. I am imagining the scene in black and white, with rain-glistened streets, and Orson Welles fleeing for his life down the spiral steps into the labyrinth beneath the city.

Since my teens, The Third Man has been my favorite movie. Directed by Carol Reed (a man), it was shot on location in war-shattered Vienna in 1948. Every element of the film is perfect: the script by Graham Greene, the zither soundtrack by Anton Karas, the atmospheric cinematography, the cast and, above all, Vienna itself.

For many fans, film and city are completely intertwined. There is no way I could make my first trip to Vienna without immersing myself in the world of the film. Fortunately, a minor industry has grown up to serve the film buffs. The driving force, as I am able to point out to Joanne, is a woman, Dr. Brigitte Timmerman, author of the definitive book on the film. Her company, Vienna Walks & Talks (www.viennawalks.tix.at), runs regular Third Man tours. Today our guide is Brigitte’s daughter, Barbara.

Saturday morning is perfect for exploring Vienna’s sewers. Many of the inhabitants are doing their weekly wash, and the aroma of detergent masks the usual stench. Joanne is a little happier: “I can cope with the smell of fabric conditioner.”

Traffic rumbles above us as we follow a series of narrow tunnels to the familiar chamber that featured in the movie’s climactic scenes. Opaque water rushes beneath us. In a smaller chamber nearby, Barbara snaps out the lights and turns on a projector, allowing us to view several clips in situ. Orson Welles’ footsteps once again echo under Vienna.

A weekend getaway for two is all about compromise. The flip side of our excursion underground is a visit to the Belvedere (www.belvedere.at), a baroque palace complex overlooking the old city. Joanne is noticeably at ease among the immaculate gardens and ornate rooms. The star attraction is a romantic icon we can both appreciate: Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, The Kiss.

Klimt’s work evokes the heady decadence of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Traces of that era can still be found in the city’s many coffeehouses. We stop at the Café Griensteidl on Michaelerplatz, a modern recreation of an old Viennese favorite that originally occupied the site from 1847 to 1897.

As a non-coffee-drinker, the menu holds no challenges for me: I order a Coke. Joanne has it tougher. “I don’t know where to start. There’s every possible combination of coffee, milk, cream, froth and steam.” Eventually she chooses a mélange, a blend of coffee and hot milk served with whipped cream.

Most visitors to the city soon acquire a favorite coffeehouse. For us it is the Café Landtmann (www.landtmann.at), which, coincidentally, was Sigmund Freud’s home-away-from-home. We sit at a table outside with our legs warmed by the provided blankets and enjoy delicious slices of cake. How did Freud stay so thin?

We speculate that the walk here probably helped burn off the calories. His house, now the Sigmund Freud Museum (www.freud-museum.at), is located at the foot of the appropriately- named Be rgstrasse — Mountain Street.

Most of his personal artifacts, including the famous couch, went with him when he fled to London to escape the Nazis, but the museum provides a fascinating insight into the life and work of the father of psychoanalysis.

There are more than 120 museums in Vienna. Several of the most innovative are clustered in the Museum Quarter (www.mqw.at), which can be visited on a single ticket costing $32

The complex includes art museums, an architecture museum, a dance center and Zoom Children’s Museum (www.kindermuseum.at), which offers a range of fun, interactive exhibits for younger tourists.

The Albertina (www.albertina.at), in the heart of old Vienna, is one of the world’s great art galleries. Its impressive permanent collection is regularly bolstered by prestigious temporary exhibitions. Our visit coincided with a Van Gogh exhibition, which we toured after nightfall. Afterward, we stood out on the Albertina’s modernized terrace overlooking the Vienna State Opera (www.staatsoper.at) and savored the evening.

Behind us, floodlit, lay the finest buildings of Imperial Vienna, the very heart of the Habsburg dynasty, which once ruled a vast swathe of Europe. The extensive Hofburg Palace (www.hofburg-wien.at) contains the royal residences as well as the famous Spanish Riding School (www.srs.at), where Lipizzaner stallions exercise daily to the rhythms of Strauss.

Late one afternoon we strolled along the Danube Canal, a vestigial branch of the great river (which now flows between artificial banks beyond flooding range of the old city). Our destination was the Prater (www.prater.wien.info), Vienna’s popular fairground.

The high culture of the palaces, museums and opera house seemed very distant. Here we mixed with the ordinary Viennese. Our purpose was to ride the Giant Ferris Wheel (www.wienerriesenrad.com), the setting for another famous scene in The Third Man.

As the gondola inched higher, Joanne was temporarily overcome with vertigo and had to sit down. Caught up in the romance of the view and its associations with the film, I failed to notice her predicament. After all, I’m a man.


While nowhere near as swanky as the Sacher, this hotel has a remarkable selling point: its location right beside St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Be sure to request an upper-floor room on the Stephansplatz side; it’s more expensive, but worth it. At night, with the whole scene floodlit, the view from top to bottom is breathtaking. All of the main attractions of the old city are within easy walking distance, and the Stephansplatz metro station provides access to all points beyond.$$-$$$
tel 43 1534050

“Take him to Sacher’s,” says Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard) in The Third Man. And so Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), the pulp-Western author newly arrived in post-war Vienna, is escorted to the city’s most famous hotel. It was here that Graham Greene stayed while researching the film’s script. One of the suites is named after him, though you’d be lucky to find it vacant. Our wonderful suite was in the new extension in the top two floors and provided the perfect amalgamation of tradition and modern amenities. Renovations to the lower floors have carefully preserved the original character.$$$$
Philharmonikerstrasse 4
tel 43 1514560

This stylish boutique hotel in the Spittelberg district is unashamedly modern. Many of the guestrooms overlook the central courtyard, which can be claustrophobic; you may prefer to opt for a more expensive city-view room. Free Internet access is available in all of the 123 guestrooms. $$
Kirchberggasse 6
tel 43 1 52123


At some stage during your stay you will probably want to try authentic Wiener Schnitzel. This is the place. The signs outside proclaim it to be the home of the best Schnitzel in town. There is always a long queue snaking along the passageway outside the original restaurant, with as many locals as foreigners in line. You can wait for more than an hour there, or do what we did and nip round the corner to the new Figlmüller on Bäckerstrasse. We were seated in five minutes. The Schnitzel — veal fried in breadcrumbs — was huge, filling the entire plate. It lived up to its reputation.$$$
Wollzeile 5 or Bäckerstrasse 6

What do you do with a royal greenhouse that has fallen into disrepair? Located in the Burggarten gardens, part of the Hofburg Palace, this impressive palm house was constructed in 1901 for Emperor Franz Josef. After decades of neglect, it was transformed in 1998 into a trendy restaurant and bar. In summer you can sit outside with the gardens spread before you. In winter, this beautiful vaulted greenhouse becomes a tropical oasis. The menu, featuring modern international fare, changes monthly. $$
Burggarten 1
tel 43 15331033

Located in Spittelberg, the 17th-century district that can be reached by a steep flight of steps direct from the Museum Quarter, this homey restaurant is a great place to sample the full range of Viennese cuisine. In summer there is the option of sitting outside in dappled tree shade. We were there in the colder months, and fully appreciated the warmth of the rambling interior. Service can be a little slow, but we had a shelf of books beside our table that helped occupy the time. I went for the restaurant’s variation of Tafelspitz — boiled beef served with horseradish and apple sauce — and had no complaints.$$$
Gutenberggasse 13

Flights arrive at Vienna International Airport (VIE), 11 miles southeast of the city. The quickest and most cost-effective mode of transport between the airport and downtown is the dedicated express train, CAT (www.cityairporttrain.com), to Wien-Mitte station.


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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