Pardon my French. Actually, not my French. Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait a beau voyage is a line from a sonnet by French poet Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560). I recently came across it in the prologue to Rebecca West’s lengthy Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the best travel book ever written according to our favorite travel author, Robert D. Kaplan. It recounts a journey that West and her husband made through the Balkans in 1937. The spirit of du Bellay’s line resonates with me. I like to think there is still something, if not heroic on the scale of brave Ulysses, at least important about choosing to expose oneself to the vicissitudes of personal travel. Although the mechanics of travel have probably never been easier, its industrialization, by which I mean mass tourism, tends to diminish our experience of it. As people conscious of the sense of adventure and discovery that the tourism industry tries to remove from travel, we struggle to regain these things. Fortunately, we have our imaginations for this.
As an example, I’ll mention a trip Kay and I took to Vienna last fall in the company of Turkish friends. Now, we had never been to Vienna before and we don’t speak German, yet because of our love of art, music and literature, we felt perfectly at home there. It was a thrill to stroll by the Burgtheater, imagining the excitement surrounding the premiere performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
A city’s architecture is a public record of its history, available to anyone who knows how to read it. A hundred years ago when Otto Wagner designed an apartment building (P) and Joseph Maria Olbrich, a structure known as the Secession Building,
they started a revolution in architecture that spread to every country in Europe. Meanwhile, their counterparts in painting, design, literature, psychiatry and music were doing revolutionary things as well. It must have been an exciting time to have lived in Vienna.
Vienna’s Belvedere is a grand baroque palace with magnificent gardens (P). It had special interest for us because of its Turkish connection. It was built as a gift to honor Prince Eugene of Savoy whose brilliant military leadership saved Vienna and Western Europe from Turkish domination. The Ottomans, always trying to extend their empire, twice laid siege to Vienna, the second time in 1683. For some reason, at a crucial moment, they delayed their assault and were defeated. Otherwise parts of Western Europe’s heritage today might be Muslim. This happened a long time ago, yet the Viennese haven’t forgotten. As I remember, it was only a year or so ago that some artist-provocateur in Vienna wrapped an entire building in Turkish flags. This caused great consternation among the Viennese, and the story made international news.
In Vienna, we were lucky to be able to reconnect with Hildegard Schandl, a friend from our days of Italian study in Lecce. Hildegard lives in the Danube valley in the medieval town of Krems but also keeps a pied à terre in Vienna. We spent a lovely autumn afternoon in her company, viewing art and enjoying local specialties at the Wild Gasthaus, Hildegard’s favorite neighborhood restaurant.
Another restaurant experience to savor, our final one in Vienna, was quite different. The Café Swarzenberg, on Kärtner Ring near the opera house, is one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses. With its marble-top tables, mirrored walls and black-and-white liveried waiters it recalls another age, that of fin-de-siecle glamour when Franz Joseph ruled the empire, society moved in waltz time, and the sole heir to the throne killed himself at Mayerling. Keeping with tradition we went to the Swarzenberg for a late-night supper after a performance of Mozart’s music at the Konzerthaus. At 11 PM the scene in this old, old restaurant was as lively as it would be in any trendy new night spot. In Europe, the past is always present; it’s not even past.