big city, tiny café

words & images evan strouss

Emerging from the Karlsplatz U-Bahn station, in the shadow of the great Vienna State Opera House, you might think that you've been transported to the 18th century, complete with baroque angel façades, cobblestones, and Mozart wigs. But take a step closer to the men under those wigs, salesmen armed with red plastic binders and smartphones, welcoming you to Vienna with breath rolling in cigarette stench, touting the latest “authentic” musical rip-off, and the illusion quickly fades: welcome to Vienna.

Continue walking alongside the opera house—push past the cameras and the tourists holding them. Stop and take a picture if you like, behold the majesty of the Hapsburg Empire at its peak, but don’t dawdle too long: the Mozarts feed off the seeing-of-sights. Don’t test them. They’re persistent.

Look ahead at the long avenue in front of you. You are staring down Kärtner Straße, its name just as difficult to pronounce as it is to locate in space and time. It's lined with baroque palaces now gutted and occupied by antique shops, H&Ms (in the plural), and cafés, all hawking their “authentic” wares (“authentic figurines!” “authentic wool!” “authentic Viennese coffee!”).

Walk a few blocks. You’ll pass a casino that you will be too frightened to enter, a McDonald's, a Burger King, a tiny designer boutique that seems to sell two objects of clothing only (both black, both “if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it”), and a museum, all open for business within rococo mansions, goliathan and gorgeous in their majesty, their porticos held up by huge, thickly muscled figures and festooned with baby angels that are larger than you are.

Look to your left at Johannesgasse (gasse means “lane” in Austrian German), marked with a Swarovski store touting “authentic Austrian crystals.” There you’ll see an unassuming orange chapel that becomes quite assuming when hit by the afternoon sunlight. It glows in a fashion cameras can’t capture (you’ll try anyway; several times, maybe. Just take it in). You’re looking at the Kaisergruft, the resting place for the hearts and bones of two dozen Hapsburg emperors and empresses. Continue walking along Kärnter Straße one more block, passing two statue impersonators and a massive, expensive department store (splurge and get a wool sweater; it’s authentic).

Turn right on Himmelpfortgasse, more of an avenue than a lane, still under the shadow of palaces. Pass two restaurants claiming to fry the most “authentic” Wiener Schnitzel and immediately turn left on Rauhensteingasse, careful of the unmoving, though insistent, stream of traffic, which has stopped for the perpetual wall of tourists looking skywards.

Be vigilant because the next street is easy to miss, and you must turn right at your first opportunity. You’ll find yourself standing in an alley that doesn’t seem to have a name and doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. It’s a bit cramped, you’ll find, but the only tourists you’ll be seeing here are those buried in maps, thoroughly lost. Pass a few restaurants. Note that no one is standing outside, selling you on their schnitzel. By now, you will realize that this is a good sign. Take note and return soon with an appetite.

Continue to wander along the lane, through enclosed portals held up by tinier, though still thickly muscled figures. Actually, everything is tiny here. Look up and see a sliver of sky, usually gray in this city, framed by moulding detailed with images so small you imagine that they haven't really been seen since they were carved. Bear left and wander through the tunnel, lit by ancient-looking lamps (Where are you? When are you?).

You will squint when you emerge—you’re at Franziskanerplatz, a miniature plaza laid out at the feet of the blue Franziskaner church. Look ahead at the green tables spilling out of the tiny café: “Kleines Café,” its façade reads, “Tiny Café.” Grab a seat if you can. You’re far from the Mozarts here, surrounded instead by cigarette smoke-shrouded locals. You may not know what authentic is, but this feels pretty close, you think.

A waiter ambles up to you when he has the time and places a menu in your hands before ambling away. He won’t say it, but he means it: take your time, stay as long as you want. So open a book, a newspaper, or simply gaze up at the centuries that surround you. Welcome to Vienna. Stop at the gift shop on your way out.

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