hidden europe 27

Vienna: beneath the Austrian capital

by Duncan JD Smith

Picture above: Below St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) there is a labyrinthine crypt containing the entrails of the Habsburgs(photo by Duncan J D Smith).


Vienna is a city noted for its grand facades and repressed desires. But the Austrian capital should never be taken at face value. Delve below the surface to find another Vienna. Guest contributor Duncan JD Smith introduces us to his home city.

It was the Austrian journalist Karl Kraus (1874– 1936) who declared that the streets of Vienna are paved with culture, unlike other cities that make do with asphalt. Austria’s most trenchant satirist was, of course, being cynical. For Kraus, Vienna’s imperious nineteenth-century streets were a sham, executed in a backwards-looking idiom favoured by the penultimate Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph I (1830–1916). The emperor was a man not taken by such icons of modernity as telephones, underground railways and flushing toilets. So the Vienna that emerged was a straitjacket in stone — in reality little more than cleverly stuccoed red brick — that helped mask the endemic bureaucratic corruption that came with a monarchy that had been on the throne for over six centuries; it also acted to stem unofficial (read dangerous) intellectual development.

One suspects that if Kraus were alive today he would be unsurprised to find his words still holding true. The terrible destruction wrought on Vienna at the end of the Second World War has been seamlessly repaired; the city’s more obvious charms are once again purveyed to an endless stream of undemanding tourists: coffee houses, classical music, and the gilded trappings of the imperial court. It seems that the Viennese themselves and their visitors all prefer it this way.

The majority of visitors arriving in Vienna have never heard of Kraus. The few that do will perhaps try to uncover what lies behind the city’s seemingly easygoing façade. For answers they might turn to Kraus’s analytical contemporaries, such as Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein. But there is another dimension still to this ambiguous metropolis, one easily accessible to those who know where to look. This is subterranean Vienna, well concealed beneath the historic First District, at the very heart of the Old Town. Whether revealed or concealed these secretive locations can speak just as eloquently of the city’s long history as their more famous above-ground counterparts.

The signposts to this intriguing underworld are all too easily missed. One is the curiously curving row of baroque houses at the northern end of Naglergasse, flanked by a Sushi bar and a shop purveying smokers’ paraphernalia (a retail juxtaposition quite typical for the trend conscious Altstadt). These houses are a stunning example of continuity in the urban landscape for they sit exactly above the long lost site of the rounded northwest corner of the Roman fortress of Vindobona. The two are separated by some twenty metres of gradually accumulated building debris providing archaeologists with a palimpsest of the city’s development.

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