Following in the footsteps of Beethoven, Mozart and Midge Ure in the City of Music

The view overlooking Vienna from the bell tower of Stephansdom (St Stephen's Cathedral) in Stephansplatz in Vienna, Austria.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images).
The view overlooking Vienna from the bell tower of Stephansdom (St Stephen's Cathedral) in Stephansplatz in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images).

VITAL preparation for any city break for me is compiling a playlist – especially when visiting Vienna, dubbed the City of Music. Austria offers an abundance of classical composers who were either born, lived or died in the nation’s capital and there is also no shortage of pop culture references.

My first musical stop involved a composer closer to home, Cambuslang in fact. When filming the promo for Ultravox’s single Vienna, released in January 1981, the song’s singer and co-writer Midge Ure visited the city’s Zentrafriedhof cemetery.

He paid homage to the venerated piano manufacturer Carl Schweighofer whose grave features in the video and on the cover of the single’s record sleeve. The vast graveyard contains the final remains of Beethoven, Mozart and, perhaps less revered, Falco who scored international pop hits with the likes of Rock Me Amadeus and Vienna Calling.

After arriving at Vienna International Airport, the City Airport Train takes 16 minutes to transport you to the centre, where I find Café Korb, a traditional coffee house with a Warholian pop art twist.

Owned by model Susanne Widl her glamorous presence is everywhere in various stills that feature on every wall. Once known as The Face, she also enjoyed a storied career as a film and TV actress working with the likes of Burt Lancaster, Sydney Pollack and Columbo star Peter Falk.

I order a small Viennese breakfast consisting of coffee and two small rolls with butter and jam. The elderly gentleman at the next table orders a Maria Theresia coffee; a double espresso with Cointreau & whipped cream. Other popular variations feature rum or brandy.

Patrons enjoy the traditions of the establishment that opened in 1904 and its family roots; Widl inherited the cafe when her mother died in 2000 and has run it since. Patrons have included Sigmund Freud, Andy Warhol and Arthur Miller. Even the toilet has a reputation of its own: it’s like walking on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange – blending 60s Art Nouveau with colourful futurism. No doubt the film’s main character Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, would have found it “real horrorshow”.

As he would The Beethoven Frieze, a painting by Gustav Klimt in the Secession Building which pays tribute to the composer’s 9th symphony. Vienna’s Ludwig van Beethoven walk takes in the Austrian Academy of Sciences where his 7th Symphony was premiered in December 1813. The House of Music also features a large city map pinpointing Beethoven’s many abodes around the city.

Café Korb is close to another Viennese icon; St Stephen’s Cathedral. The gothic tower dominates the skyline and is immediately identifiable as the city’s main symbol.

I decided not to climb the 343 steps to see the lauded view from the tower room as there was enough to see at ground level with priceless treasures and masterpieces that include the marble fronted St Catherine’s chapel and 15th century sandstone pulpit with snakes, lizards and frogs all crawling their way up the bannister. Elsewhere gargoyles defend against demons, while saints and martyrs grace the columns which support this massive structure.

During World War Two the cathedral was heavily damaged but gradually rebuilt after the war. After leaving the cathedral, I walked the short distance to Judenplatz where I found Rachel Whitehead’s large box-shaped stone monument dedicated to the 65,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis. The stone structure, described as an “introverted, non accessible library”, is couched on a plinth displaying the names of the concentration camps where victims perished. Each book represents the life that was lost in this once Jewish ghetto, the doors firmly closed with no way out.

The Jewish Museum doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects such as Austria’s initial reluctance to admit its part in the Holocaust and its complicity in sending many, including musicians who played in the Vienna Philharmonic, to their deaths.

Scientists and thinkers such as Sigmund Freud were also forced to flee to survive.

From here I walk to the Hofburg Palace. I was happy to admire its splendour up close but decided not to enter as I was informed I would need to spend at least half a day here.

Walking back to my hotel, I noticed a Nazi-built flak tower which has been repurposed as an aquarium. The anti aircraft monstrosity looms large as a further ugly reminder of the past.

More appealing on the eye is the Apollo Kino, an art deco cinema and once a vaudeville stage, built in 1904. My abode for the night is Das Triest where I am given a friendly welcome and shown to my spacious, colourful and functional room. As I passed a nearby room a puff of smoky air wafted out, despite it being a non-smoking hotel. I wondered if it were a noirish character in a trilby living out a Third Man fantasy where the characters where often submerged in drifting cigarette smoke.

For dinner I was recommended the wiener schnitzel (a vegetarian alternative is available) at Glacis Beisl. The krautfleckerl (a cabbage and pasta bake) was another popular choice. It’s a friendly eatery popular with locals and tourists.

Otherwise a sausage and a drink at the renowned Bitzinger Würstelstand sausage stand has punters, tourists and well-heeled shoppers all queueing patiently for a cult classic. Some sit around the booth chomping their hot dogs, others walk the streets, dog in one hand and a beer in the other. A local in front of me says he’d rather eat here than in the city’s best restaurants. My next stop was the Leopold Museum which contains more than 6,000 works and artists such as Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, the former inspired record sleeves by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Schiele’s strange and twisted human distortions are often unsettling and immediately recall iconic sleeves such as Bowie’s Lodger and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot.

Bowie also referenced Schiele’s expressive movement on the iconic Heroes album cover. Schiele’s was a short career, his death in 1918 at the age of 28 was a result of the Spanish flu pandemic; he died three days after his pregnant wife Edith. To mark 100 years since Schiele’s death, a public poster campaign by the city of Vienna in 2018 featured works by Schiele from the Leopold Museum in cities such as London, Cologne, Hamburg and New York. Works such as Girl With Orange Stockings were censored in all the cities apart from New York. The advert suggested: “Sorry, 100 years old but too daring today”. The promotional endeavour undoubtedly brought fresh attention to Schiele where public intellectuals argued his worth and asked the age -old question: is it art or pornography?

From here, I walk to the Danube River and return to the playlist and The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II. My entry point to this song (like many others) was trying to fathom Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey before my age entered double digits. This made a welcome last-minute alternative to the bolted museum door and was the perfect spot to finish my whistle-stop tour in the City of Music.