Sunday, 8 November 2015

Great Continental Railway Journeys - Vienna to Trieste

Sorry, Portillo's off again. Still clutching no other luggage than his battered Bradshaw's. Still wearing neon clothes. Still seeing the very best Europe has to offer.

Heldenplatz, where Hitler gave his speech
announcing the Anscluss of Germany and Austria

First stop this series - Vienna. City of coffee, waltzes and the original croissant. At the time of the 1913 edition of Bradshaw's, Franz Ferdinand was still alive, just. As was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, just. By then it was ruling a ridiculous number of countries, but cracks were definitely appearing at the seams. Rebels in Vienna's midst were clamouring to transform its medieval society model into a vibrant, modern city. Russian spies were blackmailing the military, Freud was analysing the soul. Secession architects and Klimt were doing amazing things with gold leaf. Schiele, Schnitzler and Schoenberg were revolutionising cultural life. Exciting times, but with dark threats in murky corners. Jews were dominating the middle classes, but anti-Semitic feeling was rife. Adolf Hitler, amongst them, was failing to be an art student and acquiring beliefs that - as we all know - would have catastrophic consequences.

The Secessionsgebaeude

The Ringstrasse, commissioned by Emperor Franz Josef after he ordered the razing of the slums, is looking magnificent on our screens. So very white and pristine. It's just one pompous edifice after another. Theatre, opera, museum, parliament, palace. But all conveniently connected by tram.


But what's this? Uh-oh, I hear a zither. Michael, please don't do the Third Man thing. Orson Welles did it so much better. Oh no, here it comes. Sipping coffee, those large lips curling upwards in a sneer. Glancing sideways through bad sunglasses, looking furtive. As if anyone in a pink shirt could ever look furtive. It's all an excuse for Portillo to go on the Big Wheel in the Prater. His car is set up to dine.

I once spent a week in Vienna, the house guest of a flautist who played in one of the city's orchestras. He lived round the corner from the Schoenbrunn Palace, whose garden at the time was bursting with spring flowers. The apartment block was full of musicians, and the sounds drifting up the stairwell as they all practised in their separate abodes was mesmering, yet as cacophonous as Schoenberg. The flautist slept on a chaise longue, bought us McDonald's to eat each evening and had his life ruled by his mother. He also got us free tickets for a box at the ballet on the Ringstrasse, where - as an interrailing student - I have never felt so underdressed in my life.

It was a busy week. A homage to Beethoven in the city cemetery. My first chance to brush against Klimt's Kiss, where his pencil drafts were still visible below that wonderful gold leaf. A wall of lace at the Museum of Applied Art. Wine at a Heurige. And a Melange coffee which kept me shaking for days.


Vienna has a brand spanking new Hauptbahnhof, from where it's finally possible to go East, South, North and West from a single station and stressful U-Bahn transfers are no longer required. Look and learn, London. Portillo heads off to the Semmering Pass, dressed in purple and orange. After a spot of sledging and a visit to Graz, he carries on to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, which I still find impossible to spell without Googling. At the time of Bradshaw's it still had a German name - Laibach.


Ljubljana is beautiful. It has a vast array of colourful Secession facades, since half its buildings were lost in an earthquake on Easter Sunday in 1895, giving Viennese architects ample opportunity to show off their talent. It's a city where I ate mushroom soup out of a bread bun and cauliflower on a pizza. One was good, the other not so much. Portillo spends his time sharing fruit liqueurs with the ladies. Behind him is the V-shaped bridge and the pharmacy where I had to buy ear plugs as our hotel was so noisy at night.

Secession facades

A building painted in the colours of the Slovenian flag

We spent a week in Slovenia and I would rate it as one of my favourite countries to visit, ever. Such diversity within a tiny geographical area - Alps, meadows, waterfalls, castles, karst, coast. Venetian ports, Viennese cities. Warm, clean, friendly. My grumpy husband on a grumpier horse. A boat captain who brewed brandy-strength wine, sailed us to Trieste and gave me the worst hangover of my life. That should never be repeated, but a return visit to the country - one I day, I hope.

Alps, meadows...




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