Monday, June 22, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Tenth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

There was a “wedding crasher” trick I’d learned in the company of a veteran Australian traveler, who between beers had undertaken a careful study of tour groups in Greece.

Note that when it came to ways of saving money, the Aussies were among the very best teachers. They didn’t bother departing from Down Under for a European tour unless they could manage to be away from home for a very long time – and every Greek drachma or Austrian shilling obviously counted.

Not only that, but Australians were invariably friendly and impossible to dislike, and were blessed with a cultural get-out-of-jail-free card.

As an example, for an American or Englishman to drunkenly urinate on a beloved civic monument surely (and rightly) would result in protests, denunciations and arrest. Let an Australian do the same, and he was just an exuberant lad on holiday, soon to be merrily sharing drinks with the very policeman who’d hauled away the American or Englishman.

At least this is the way it seemed at the time.

My savvy fellow traveler’s frugal strategy was borne of simple observation. He had noticed that at museums and historical sites, single visitors bought tickets and were controlled individually, while groups generally were ushered as a mass, straight past the checkpoint.

Therefore, by waiting patiently nearby for an aggregation of fellow Anglos to arrive, solo wanderers like us could artfully feign membership by blending amongst them, sidling over just as they entered the site.

Then, once safely inside, the objective was to detach, but hover close enough to hear the guide’s explanations in English, without being identified as spongers.

After all, what was the worst that might happen? You’d be kicked out, and compelled to circle back later after the shift change, better to try it again – after spending a few minutes perfecting your mock Australian accent.

Just remember: There are no kangaroos in Austria.


This tactic worked perfectly in Vienna at the Kaisergruft, the imperial crypt, where ornate graves of the Habsburg dynasty rulers and their immediate families contain some, but not all, of their body parts.

In a macabre custom, hearts and entrails customarily were removed for interment in selected churches elsewhere, presumably to mark imperial and ecclesiastical territory, because when it came to obscure, arcane and obtuse rituals, no royal house in Europe could touch the Habsburgs.

Merging with a mass of New Zealanders, I followed them down the stairs, learning to my surprise that Empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma, widow of Karl, the last Habsburg emperor, wasn’t even dead yet.

In fact, Empress Zita was 93 years of age that summer of 1985, with almost four years yet to live. She had witnessed the beginning of World War I, and passed away eight months prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

There was another significant omission that day in the Kaisergruft, one I’ll get around to explaining. Absent for eternal duty in the Habsburg crypt was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, whose assassination in Sarajevo came three years after Zita’s and Karl’s wedding, and proved to be the impetus for the wartime horrors to follow.

From the moment I saw Vienna for the first time, stepping off the train from Venice into Sudbahnhof station, changing money and buying a transit pass, a steadily evolving fascination with the history of the Habsburg dynasty kept percolating in the back of my mind.

It was colored with mustard yellow and dark green, in the fashion of the government buildings in the era preceding the Great War. The life and death of Franz Ferdinand struck me as important, although there were many other reasons why I was keen to spend time in the Austrian capital.


For one thing, I was ready for diligent instruction in classical Central European beer culture. The wine- and spirits-oriented Mediterranean had been quite grand, but an eager, youthful palate yearned for schnitzel, sausages, dumplings and the many Teutonic shades of lager I’d read about in the beer writer Michael Jackson’s books.

Naturally, there were cultural bucket list expectations derived from my immersion in written sources, as with absolutely essential texts like Frederic Morton’s “A Nervous Splendor”, which tells the story of Crown Prince Rudolf’s 1889 murder-suicide pact with his mistress in Mayerling.

Rudolf was Emperor Franz Joseph’s only son, passing the imperial succession to his nephew, Franz Ferdinand.

There was the testimony of previous visitors to Vienna, like my cousin Don, and a handful of PBS documentaries I’d watched. “The Third Man” with Orson Welles had been viewed in preparation, and Strauss waltz LPs duly queued.

Once I’d bought a brand of Austrian beer called Kaiser at Cut Rate Liquors, imagining that the old man with mutton chop whiskers, Franz Joseph himself, would approve of my choice.

Now it was available on draft, at my fingertips, and I couldn’t help pondering its namesake, whose chronology was lengthy and eventful. Like Zita, Franz Joseph’s life spanned disparate eras, from the Europe of old ruling houses to the post-modern destruction of the First World War.

Franz Joseph became emperor in 1848 at the age of 18 and sat on the throne for 68 years, until death belatedly claimed him at 86 in 1916. Many of the empire’s leading politicians and statesmen understood that the empire was not strong enough to survive a long, drawn-out war, and the savage continent-wide conflict relentlessly eroded the viability of Franz Joseph’s shaky domain.

He saw it as God’s will, signed the orders, and then died. As it turned out, he was the only force holding the system together.

In Austria-Hungary, obeisance to the emperor’s many-titled royal personage served as the only generally accepted bond between the empire’s many nationalities and their languages, customs, aspirations and diverse outlooks, with virtually every strain of the 19th and 20th century European experience eventually woven into the complex fabric of Vienna, the capital.

Ironically, as Franz Joseph presided over the empire’s inexorable decadence and decline, the world was rewarded with a blossoming intellectual and cultural life of which his own social class was barely cognizant.

Among those with connections to the imperial capital city were artists (Klimt, Schiele) and musicians (Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler); academics and scholars (Sigmund Freud and his retinue); writers like Stefan Zweig, who’ll be considered in a coming instalment of this travelogue; future world political figures (Adolf Hitler, Josip “Tito” Broz) radical Zionists and hyperbolic anti-Semites, the pioneering lager brewer Anton Dreher (namesake of the Italian lager we’d consumed in Pecetto), and even Leon Askin, the actor who played General Burkhalter on the television show Hogan’s Heroes, and who was born in Vienna nine years before Franz Joseph died.

Like Zita, Askin still was among the living in 1985 – he died in 2005 – but the rest were ghosts, and they crowded my thoughts during the four nights I slept at the Ruthensteiner, an unaffiliated youth hostel owned by a native of Vienna and the woman from Pittsburgh, whom he had married after attending college in the States.

The Ruthensteiner started operating in 1968, and remains open for business in 2015 – still not as long as Franz Joseph reigned. These days, the low season special for a bunk bed is a mere 10 Euros, or circa $13 U.S. The price was about $8 during my stay in 1985. That’s not bad.

Four days proved to be time for precious little save an overview of the city’s history; walking the Ringstrasse; taking a bus out into the Vienna Woods; listening to classical music in the imperial gardens: and one memorable splurge of an evening spent eating Serbian-style bean soup and drinking draft Gold Fassl at a dark, edgy Balkan tavern, then having a second meal of plate-sized Wiener Schnitzel (and more Gold Fassl), at an eatery nearby, dining alongside Americans students from Dayton University, and ultimately realizing that one of them had briefly been a roommate with one of my high school basketball teammates.

Compressed within the confines of a schnitzel restaurant in Vienna, generously plied with beer and conversation, the immensity of the planet seemed to keep shrinking until it was the smallest of interior worlds.

That’s another useful trick worth remembering, although coming to grips with the Habsburgs would require a little more time, as well as additional beers.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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