Saturday, 26 March 2011


I find I am a stoic. One of the teachings is that we are constanly yearning for material thuings but when we have got them we no longer want them. The Stoics teach that one should only value the things we already have. The problem is that I have a secret vice. I love shopping and it is true, the only thing I have ever bought that I still value is my Kindle.
I even get a vicarious thrill from Christmas shopping. If that isn't mainlining with a carrier bag........
We have Christmas shopped in Bruges and Vienna and it was like joining a Christmas card. Bruges was hauntingly lit by pendants of white light, outlining houses, looped in trees, crossing streets.
In two of the squares there were Christmas markets straight out of Hans Andersen. Little wooden villages of shopping booths; chips, waffles, spiced wine bars and a hurdy gurdy all grouped round a Christmas crib. The market in the main square had an ice rink and the other in Stevinpleinhas blazing braziers and an ex-Sabena pilot called Chris Van der Veeren.

Imagine a face which looks as though it has been lived in by at least ten people. A face that has missed nothing in life. This is Gandolf the Grey, who, if you recall “The Lord of the Rings” gets Hobbits into trouble. I was Frodo Baggins, the suggestible Hobbit. I ordered a banana Geneva gin at his wine booth. “Not for you,” said Gandolf. He poured me a giant 47 proof Geneva and in a trice everything seemed to be happening a long way off. I swear one of the Three Kings in the Crib winked at me.Geneva? A Gollum of a gin. I was Smigol transformed by his “Precious”.

We spent the evening at Chris’s bistro, predictably called “The Hobbit”. Candle-lit, with a roaring fire on which spare ribs, the house speciality, are grilled. You pay for one portion. As many more as you can eat are free; though the wise leave room for the classic apple pie that follows. We finished the meal with an Irish coffee where the cream was no wider than a clergyman’s collar and the Jameson deep enough to sink the Titanic.

Next morning in the other market a pretty girl poured a dark substance into test tubes, schnapps and a mixture of mountain herbs good for stomach, brain, voice, feet and probably the international situation. Like drinking an Alpine meadow. Wouldn’t you know? It was another Gandolf outpost.

Vienna is where I hope to go when I die. Laughter and eager goodwill bubble like waltz time throughout the city. At the Emperor Franz Josef’s Schonbrunn Palace the whiskered attendant smiled when he saw my own extravagant whiskers. “Welcome home, your Majesty,” he said.
We went to Schonbrunn to see “The Magic Flute” performed in the palace theatre by the resident marionette company. Confusingly, the palace has two theatres and we went to the wrong one. Came within an ace of sharing a Kabuki evening with an audience of Japanese tourists. To lessen our disappointment at missing it, the girl in the ticket office gave my wife a bottle of Guerlain perfume. When we found the Marionette Theatre in the Palace Orangerie, we learned the performance had been cancelled because a puppeteer was ill. But Christine Hierzer, who with her husband Werner founded the company, was waiting to pour champagne and play a video of the performance before manipulating one of her puppets to give us a backstage tour.

I think if I lived in Vienna I would be smiling all the time. It must be the loveliest and least aggressive city in Europe, with the most helpful population. Not only in the city. The two hostesses on racing motorist Nicky Lauda’s airline flashed smiles like sun bursts at least five times at each of the fifty passengers during the two hour flight to Vienna. On boarding, when they handed out free newspapers; immediately on take off when they brought round hot towels; again when they served a delicious lunch on pottery, not plastic, and finally when they offered second helpings. Children got extra smiles when they were given toy bags and sweets. More than two smiles a minute must be a record.

The breathtaking Ringstrasse is a circular boulevard of palaces and galleries, commissioned by Emperor Franz Josef to replace the city walls. Grinzing is a wine making village that links Vienna with its woods. We were toasting the late Empress Elizabeth in Heurigen, the new “green” wine which costs 60 pence per half pint, is recommended for diabetics and tastes deliciously like a frosty October morning. We tried four more Heurigen at a dinner of assorted warm specialities that included smoked pork and dumplings and finished the meal with an ambrosial schnapps, a local speciality distilled from the must of the grape.

Always careful of my diabetes, I took further Heurigen medicine on our tour of the Vienna Woods the next day. We were taken to Mayerling, the hunting lodge where Franz Josef and Elizabeth’s deeply unpleasant son the Crown Prince Rudolf, after a supper of venison and champagne, murdered his teenage girlfriend, Marie Vetsera, before committing suicide. A Viennese aristocrat told us what he claimed was the real story. Vetsera could not persuade Rudolf to get a divorce and marry her so whilst he slept drunkenly she performed a Bobbit on him. Understandably, when he awoke, he murdered her. In what must be the ultimate spin doctoring, Franz Josef demolished the room in which the couple died, replacing it with a Carmelite chapel. When the bodies were discovered, two uncles of the girl lifted her corpse onto a carriage, propped it between them, using a broomstick to keep it erect so that passers by would think she was still alive, and drove to a burial chapel at the Heiligenkreuz Monastery, a superb medieval building which was the next stop on our macabre tour.

I could not face the last and most sinister attraction. It was to Seegrotte, billed as a pastoral visit to the largest underground lake in Europe. In fact during the war it was a slave labour factory where hundreds of civilian prisoners starved to death. Fortunately there is a diabetes destroyer at the gate and I was able to wait there for medicinal reasons.

I doubt if it is possible to find a bad meal in Vienna. We ate splendidly in the grandeur of the Rathaus; magnificently in the scarlet damask dining room of Hotel Sacher, rightly billed as one of the world’s great restaurants; stylishly at Noodles, a chic Italian restaurant next door to the Musikverein, But the taste that lingers was a delicious Berne sausage, coated in egg, which the night porter cooked for me over a portable stove in our hotel, the Deutschmeister.

We saw the vivacious statues of Strauss and Mozart, the inn where Schubert wrote The Linden Tree, the house where Beethoven composed his Ninth and Pastoral symphonies and the dance hall where the Strauss waltzes were first heard. We drank delicious punch at a rustic booth to raise funds for St Stephen’s Cathedral, we took coffee and Torte in fashionable cafes and wondered how Viennese women can eat so much cake and stay so slim.

But the ultimate joy was the Figaro House, in a quiet street near the cathedral where Mozart lived and wrote The Marriage of Figaro. In every room there is a sophisticated sound system. Put on a head set and you can hear Fischer- Dieskau singing Figaro in the room where it was written.

That was the true magic of Vienna.