One of the great gifts of travel can’t be planned in advance, scanned on a Google map, or underlined in a Times’ 36 Hours guide. I am referring of course to a serendipitous moment of true discovery, riffing off an unexpected thought bubble or walking into an inviting back alley. One hopes for those moments of travel bliss on every journey, but when cities are filled with world heritage sites to check off, digital photos to collect, evocative and enviable status updates to write… that kind of meandering journeyism is hardly an efficient or boastable use of time.
I struggled with this balance immensely on a recent visit to Rome. Look, St. Peter’s favorite Apse! Aah, the Pantheon! Caesar’s preferred sacrificial temple! Mussolini’s balcony!
Network short circuiting. Restart systems. Civilizational overload.
Rome is a city so filled with riches and then compounded and compacted into such perfect urban spaces that it can feel almost impossible to find your footing. It is called eternal for a reason. At every corner is a Byzantine sunburst of intellectual, visual and sensual stimulation. At every corner is an opportunity cost computation; one enriching ruin foregone equals one iconic work of art consumed.
I am jealous of the Romans who are already mosaics of those civilizational layers, who are not counting down the looming hours to departure flights, who can lean against a doorway with an espresso and look out at the shadows dancing across ivy strewn courtyards….dolce far niente, the bliss that is delicious idling.
I chose to visit Vienna this weekend inspired by that state of mind: no reservations, no expectations, and no itineraries. There were centuries of Hapsburg history to wrestle with, palaces and museums brimming with monumental work, concert halls that inspired movements by Beethoven, Schubert, et al. I did see them them all, but not as the foreground for my visit. Instead, this weekend Viennese heritage became the backdrop for a weekend made of more modern discoveries.
I loved Vienna because unlike so many schlossy European capitals it doesn’t feel weighed downed by its imperial history. Germany is lumbering and heavy on its feet; Vienna, lighter and more relaxed. The city and its denizens know the place is way past its prime. Today it’s kicking back, enjoying the fruits of its artistic labors and its has been history as the cultural crossroads of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And in that process of kicking back, Vienna is inspiring an entirely new generation of creatives and secessionists.
The Hapsburg palaces are now hangouts for the city’s seemingly massive and eclectic waves of junge mensch; the old Royal stables the grounds for a complex of contemporary design museums and pop-up DJ nights. The crowds in this aptly namedMuseum Quartier are a generational mish mash of alternative style, bare shoulders, bed hair, piercings and designer shoes. And hanging over the entire complex are banners celebrating Vienna’s original hipster, the artist Gustav Klimt.
The photo above is Klimt stroking his kitty in his beloved robe.
This year marks the artist’s 150th birthday and Vienna has rolled out the gold carpet for the man responsible for the iconic and beautiful painting, The Kiss (1908): a work that so impeccably captures that most sexy of moments that it has become a defining image of romance in our time. I had forgotten in my non research that Vienna was where it was conceived and created. Fortunately, one exhibition in the current anniversary season explores Klimt’s avant-garde personal life and the influences behind his masterful fusion of color, form, and female sexuality. As I learned on this unexpected creative riff, Klimt’s use of real gold was inspired by time in Byzantine churches in Italy, the microscopic detailing and composition drawn from his expansive personal collection of Japanese and Chinese art. The sexuality and love of women is underscored in countless postcards written from across the world. Basically, travel.
Across Vienna are echoes of artists and travelers. Balkan, Eastern European, German, French, and British influences are indiscernably infused in its relaxed air. Even its deafeated Turkish invaders left coffee and culinary influences behind. Today UN staff, college students, chic Austrians, and Sikh shopkeepers collide over weekend lunch at the Naschmarkt, an enormous open air food and flea market that transforms at night into a buzzing bar scene. Old grand palace salons that once hosted classical concerts are now home to some of Klimt’s most taboo and controversial paintings. A beautiful wood-paneled Kaffehaus where Freud met clients is the scene of Sunday hangover recoveries, casually delivered by elegantly dressed older Austrian ladies.
Those unexpected layers and collisions of old and new could easily be missed if one focused on the city’s historic sites as somehow suspended in time, waiting to be captured for your Facebook album. But to view them with a wider lens for the population that now reinvents and remixes them is to see the picture of a city and a world that is always in flux.
And in unexpectedly discovering the personality behind the college posters and tshirt reproductions of The Kiss, I realized hipsterdom, too, is timeless. Those who push against the stifling, conservative status quo have always done it with flair and they’ve always enjoyed the fight.
At the very least, they’ve dressed the part.