“The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt.”
Karl Kraus (1874-1936)
Once the frontier of the Roman Empire, today Vienna is celebrated as a city rich in historical, musical and artistic legacies. In the 19th century it was equal in size and prominence to London and Paris; today, with a population of about 1.8 million, it’s ranked along with Vancouver and San Francisco as the world’s most livable cities.
Vienna’s hub is skyscraper-free, criss-crossed by trams, punctuated by parks, and dotted with elegant cafes. Many of the coffee houses attempt to compete with Café Sacher, the birthplace of the “Sacher Torte,” thought by some to be the world’s most acclaimed cake––two layers of chocolate separated by apricot jam and covered in dark chocolate icing. The great Danube River ambles through Vienna’s midst, showcasing on its banks such landmarks as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Schönbrunn Palace, and the Ringstrasse. If we were to follow the Danube from its origin in Germany to its drainage into the Black Sea, we would have meandered 1,770 miles through four national capitals: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade. I learned that most major world cities are situated on river banks, facilitating such life-sustaining systems as trade, defense, and communication. Among Vienna’s many achievements, it’s also home of the world’s oldest zoo––Tiergarten Schönbrunn. Vienna’s language is German, but with a delightful, laid-back “Wienerischer” dialect.
As those of you who are familiar with my earlier writings know, I was born in Munich, just four hours by train or car from Vienna, but somehow life always steered me elsewhere. My rationale was, “With Vienna practically next door, I can see it anytime.” But anytime never came. Finally, I decided to end my procrastination by embarking on an organized tour of Eastern Europe, with Vienna an early stop. A pleasant Hungarian named Laszlo served as manager of our tour, a group, comprised of equally pleasant souls. In each city Laszlo introduced us to local guides, well grounded in their city’s lore. At an early orientation on Vienna, we learned that the Viennese think of themselves as Central Europeans and their city as the gateway to Eastern Europe. Since most Viennese are English-speaking members of the European Union, electronically adept––it made sense.
From the late 19th century to 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria, making it a part of Nazi Germany, Vienna epitomized culture, serving as home to an array of luminaries: Among notable musicians born in Vienna are Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II. Among famous musicians who came from other parts of Europe to work in Vienna are Joseph Hayden, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Johannis Brahms, and Richard Strauss. Vienna was also the locus of giants from other disciplines, including Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, and Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Austrian painter of the female body with eroticism as a particular focus. Klimt’s most famous painting is generally thought to be The Kiss (1907-8) in which two lovers are enveloped in a gold and jeweled mantle of bliss. It was during the turn of the century that Klimt’s paintings included gold leaf. It’s thought that visits by Klimt to Venice and Ravennna, both famous for their beautiful mosaics, many in gold, probably inspired the gold technique and his Byzantine imagery. The Kiss is displayed in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, one of more than 100 Viennese art museums, collectively said to attract over eight million visitors a year.
Those of you who have seen the film Woman in Gold know the story of Maria Altman, a native of Vienna and, when we meet her in the movie, an elderly Los Angeles refugee, who seeks to regain an acclaimed Klimt painting [Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I (1907)] of her aunt, plundered by the Nazis during World War II. The film tells of her brave quest for justice.
The name Strauss seems to go hand-in-hand with Vienna, which nurtured three musical greats by that name: Johann Strauss I (1804-1849), born near Vienna, who drew from rustic Viennese peasant dances to create such works as the “Viennese Waltz.” His son, Johann Strauss II, (1825-1899), building on his father’s successes, became Vienna’s famed “Waltz King,” leaving for posterity 500 waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles, not to mention such compositions as “Tales of the Vienna Woods” and Die Fledermaus. Lastly, there was Munich-born Richard Strauss (1864-1949), no relation to the earlier Strausses, who as a composer/conductor became a musical icon.
In Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait, his biographer, Kurt Wilhelm, describes him as “a prince of the musical world.” Among Richard Strauss’s many compositions are the operas Der Rosenkavalier and Salome. His final completed work was Four Last Songs, his Lieder, composed shortly before his death. Before World War I, Richard Strauss built a summer home in Garmisch, an alpine retreat in southern Germany. Some fifteen years later, while conductor of the Vienna Opera, he built a Viennese winter home, filling it with art treasures given to him in lieu of flowers by admirers on his international conducting tours. So completely nurtured by Vienna’s creative environment, Strauss hoped to spend the rest of his life there, but in 1938 with the aforementioned Nazi annexation of Austria into the German Reich, Strauss’s plans collapsed.
As the war progressed, Vienna suffered increasingly from bombing raids, making living there difficult. This reality caused Strauss to move his family to Garmisch, removed somewhat from wartime aggression. Of particular concern to him during the Nazi years was his only child, Franz, who had married in 1924 a Jewess, Alice von Grab-Hermannswörth. They produced two grandchildren, Richard and Christian, who were considered Jewish, making all three targets for Nazi persecution. It took Strauss’s considerable influence to keep them safe.
Garmisch was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 30, 1945, without a single shot having been fired. Strauss was soon befriended by American soldiers, and as a tribute to his cultural contributions and his efforts to secure the safety of Jews, was assured that his home would not be requisitioned by the occupation forces. A sign went up outside his house that read, “Off Limits.” When the GIs found him and his family, they had been without food, heat, and such basics as soap. The soldiers did what they could to help.
In 1945, in a private memorandum, Strauss left behind some thoughts on Hitler’s regime. From Kurt Wilhelm’s Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait:
“On March 12 the glorious Vienna Opera became one more victim of the bombs. But from May 1 onwards the most terrible period in human history came to an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom and irreplaceable monuments of architecture and works of art were destroyed by a criminal soldiery.”`
Strauss died in Garmisch on September 8, 1949. About his death, Wilhelm quotes Egon Hilbert, the then director of the Vienna Opera: “’Richard Strauss has entered eternity, and his music immortality.’”
While Vienna teems with cultural sights, our little band of travelers enjoyed occasional breaks that took us into the rich heritage of Viennese cafés. A friend and I dropped into the Sacher Stube, relishing a slice of the fabled Sacher Torte that came with dollops of whipped cream.
Our local guide explained that in the minds of some, Viennese cafés serve as an extension of their living rooms. Patrons are welcome to spend hours lingering over their coffee, reading the newspaper or working on their laptops. The Viennese, it seemed to us, represented better than most the German concept of “gemütlichkeit,” which in broad terms suggests a coziness, geniality, kindliness, sociability, and charm.
We learned that in the late 1600s, the Turkish armies had invaded the country. When they were finally sent packing by the Imperial Army, they left behind many riches, amongst them coffee. Until then, the Viennese had been unfamiliar with the beverage.
Early coffee houses were accessible only to male patrons. But, in the late 1800s they were open to women and families. Viennese history reports that in 1913, Stalin, Trotsky, Tito and Freud all lived within a few miles of each other in Vienna, with some of them being regulars at the same coffee houses.
Once cafés had assembled a wider customer base, they began to offer light meals and an assortment of sweets and pastries to accompany their drinks.
Since I am a native of Munich, I will share with you the Munich version of the famous Viennese Apple “Strudel.” The recipe comes from the cookbook titled Bavarian Cooking by Olli Leeb (1919-2017), Bavarian chef and family friend.
Munich Apple Strudel
In comparison to Vienna’s famous Apple Strudel, which is baked on a baking sheet, its Munich cousin is a juicier variation and is prepared in a baking pan or fireproof dish. Apple Strudel can be frozen. It is therefore recommended to double or triple the recipe, saving some for later use.
Strudel Dough (Basic Recipe)
½ pound flour
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons oil
½ cup water
Sift the flour onto a pastry board and make a well in the center. Break the eggs into the well, add the salt, oil, and water, mixing all with the flour, working outwards from the enter. Then knead the dough until it becomes smooth and silky. Let it rest for ½ hour, covered with a warm saucepan. Then roll it out on a floured cloth and stretch it to the desired thickness (ideally very thin).
Munich Apple Strudel
Prepare Strudel dough, following instructions as in above recipe. As dessert for 4 to 6 people allow two Strudel recipes, or as a main dish allow two recipes for 3-4 people.
3 pounds tart apples
Juice of 1 lemon
5 ounces raisins
5 tablespoons rum (soak)
3 ounces butter
1 cup thick sour cream
Sugar (to taste)
Cinnamon (to taste)
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
Peel, core and quarter the apples. Using a vegetable slicer, cut them into thick slices; sprinkle with lemon juice to avoid discoloration. Brush the stretched strudel dough with warm melted butter, dab the sour cream over the butter and distribute it evenly. Spread the apple slices over the dough in an even layer, stopping about one inch from the edge of the dough. Sprinkle with the rum-soaked raisins, sugar and cinnamon. Fold in the edges of the dough and, with the help of the tablecloth, loosely roll up the strudel. Slide the strudel into the well-buttered baking pan. Proceed in the same manner with the second strudel. Pre-heat over to 470°F.
Bring milk and cream to a boil, and pour over the strudels in the pan. Bake on middle rack or oven for 45-60 minutes, diminishing oven heat to 20°F. Cut into portions before serving and sprinkle with sifted sugar. Serve hot or old.