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There are many reasons one may board an airplane headed to a faraway place, but my favorite — and the one most likely to trigger such a journey for me — is to visit a friend. This type of vacation works well for me because I like friends and I hate planning. Knowing someone will be around to guide me prevents me from overplanning, which I’m prone to when the “I may never pass this way again” feeling takes hold, and I get to experience a place through the eyes of a local.
And so it is that I find myself boarding a Turkish Airlines flight to Vienna with no other expectations than seeing an old buddy and having an adventure.
I don’t really know much about Vienna, I realize as I settle into my long flight to Istanbul, where I’ll connect for Austria’s capital city. It makes me think of Sigmund Freud and of sausages. Those two things may be related.
The buddy who’s agreed to host me isn’t just any old friend. He’s a classmate from high school whom I wrote about in this magazine last year, in an article about how men struggle to maintain friendships as they age.
For more than 30 years, Rory has been one of my best friends. Or so I thought. I mentioned his name in the piece as someone I hadn’t seen in far too long, and after the article ran, he dropped a bomb on me. He had moved to Austria and hadn’t bothered to tell me. That’s how long it had been.
So in addition to being a rare solo trip to see an old friend, this is a journey of repair.
After a late-night arrival, I successfully navigate Vienna’s impeccably clean transit system to the Airbnb I’ve rented in the Neubau district, more commonly referred to as the Seventh District, or just the Seventh, one of the city’s 23 named and numbered sections.
I wake the following morning — which also happens to be my birthday — and walk a few blocks to Erich cafe in St. Ulrich’s Plaza to meet Rory for the obligatory hugs-and-how-was-your-flight, and when he asks exactly where I’m staying, we discover the room I’d randomly booked is inside Rory’s small apartment building. They face each other just across a courtyard. This is strange. I think again of Freud.
Our conversation starts with the easy stuff. “What should I do in Vienna?” I ask.
We order flat whites — something like a latte, only stronger — from the waitress and go through the usual suspects, such as the museums. Rory, who owns a graphic design company, is wicked artsy, and so is Vienna. Maybe a palace or two. The Habsburgs built several of those.
Then we get down to the next order of business: the airing of grievances and head-shaking about what had happened to our relationship. We had always been close, and then suddenly we weren’t, and we both found ourselves guilty of thinking it could sit without rotting. There wasn’t much to say, really. We just had to get back to being friends.
Finally, Rory does the most ingenious thing possible. He has found the way for us to get past the drama and get back to doing what we do. He has the key to being friends.
With a nice little dramatic flourish, he reaches in his bag and produces my birthday gift: two Ping-Pong paddles.
In what will become the most important fact I learn during my trip to Vienna, Rory informs me that there are outdoor Ping-Pong tables in nearly every park. And we are going to see the city, table to table, with some culture in between.
Having a role to play in Vienna — in this case, globetrotting Ping-Pong player — adds another dimension to the “visiting a friend” genre, and just like that, the only obligatory item on my daily agenda is not losing to Rory at table tennis. It gives my steps through the city a purpose: With my Ping-Pong paddle I, too, am headed somewhere, and I feel less like an American tourist among the cool, trim, cosmopolitan, kick-scooter-riding Viennese.
After breakfast, on our way to game one, we pass through MuseumsQuartier Wien, which is not far from my rental in the Seventh, just outside the city center. It is home to the modern art Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, known as the Mumok, and the Leopold Museum, which houses a who’s who of modern Austrian art.
We stop to check out the Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek — the Austrian National Library — inside the Hofburg palace complex. The Prunksaal, the state hall of the staggering imperial library, is so soaring and magical that it seems like the last place you’d actually want to sit and read a book from its shelves. A lot of libraries are like this, I’ve noticed; they make you want to write a book instead.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where a newcomer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart got married in 1782, is our next stop, and this Vienna icon feels like the hub around which the city revolves. I pass by it several more times over the next week, and each one is a wonderful treat, because its roof is a fresh-looking zigzag of blue and green and yellow tiles, sitting cheerfully atop a gargantuan cathedral built mostly in the 1300s. The roof just pops each time.
We find a park in a neighborhood nearby, where I lose the first game of the series, probably due to jet lag because there’s no way Rory is better than me at Ping-Pong. But it doesn’t matter. It’s great to see an old friend and a new city, and Vienna is charming me wherever I look.
We begin each day with flat whites and more Ping-Pong, and then Rory goes to work and I explore the tourism-packed First District at the city’s center, the Innere Stadt, which is contained inside a ring road, the Ringstrasse. In an easily walkable area, you can see St. Stephen’s, the sprawling Hofburg palace, Mozart’s house, the Vienna State Opera house, the Albertina Museum, and a beautifully manicured park, the Volksgarten. With some advice from Rory, I venture into the other eight neighborhoods inside a much larger outer ring road, and it all feels quite compact and doable on foot. It would be great on a kick scooter, too.
One day, I make a short walk north to the Ninth District to check out the Sigmund Freud Museum and have flashbacks to freshman psychology. Fittingly, the museum is a weird place, where inside a still-functioning apartment building you actually push a doorbell for “Prof. Dr. Freud” to be buzzed into the home. Inside you can see his waiting room, where I imagine people sat very uncomfortably on a comfortable sofa, though not the famed couch where his patients would lie down. That’s in a museum in London. But there are all sorts of Freudian ephemera here, like his hat and cane, and a photo of his prescription cocaine. I have my most Freudian moment in the gift shop, when I find myself holding something called a Psychic Ruler, wondering what I’m supposed to measure with it. It was bendy. I bought it.
The Ping-Pong battles continue each morning. Rory and I are closely matched in skill level, and every game goes down to the last point. We yell and swear at each other in clunky German, much to the amusement of the locals playing on the tables around us. Then we shake hands, happy, and part ways.
It’s the beginning of May, still early in the Viennese spring, which means most days are sweater weather, gray with a teasing of sun, perfect for long treks. On my penultimate day, I set out for a hike to the southeastern corner of the city and the Belvedere estate, which consists of two baroque palaces — the Upper and Lower Belvederes — built in the 1700s as a summer residence for military commander Prince Eugene of Savoy.
It’s hard not to dig his style. Now a museum, the upper structure houses some of the absolute icons of Austrian art — most notably, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. But the grounds are the star attraction for me, with their crisp paths and low hedges, sloping down a gentle hill from the upper palace and across a wide courtyard with views of the city below, to a giant fountain leading to a lower terrace, and then tall hedges guiding you into the lower palace. It’s all on the audacious scale of an age when royalty was allowed to say it needed more than one castle.
The following day, I feel a different sort of awe when I stand outside of the Hundertwasserhaus and wonder what on earth I’m looking at. The wildly interesting 20th-century artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser did many mischievous things in his long career. The apartment complex he designed in the early 1980s in the Landstrasse, the Third District, is his most ambitious project, the embodiment of a pile of ideas on art and architecture and life stacked up into something resembling a building. The structure’s lines are deliberately imperfect. Hundertwasser hated straight lines as well as “window racism,” as he called it — he set about to make each window different from the next. Trees grow around and through the whole facade — the artist considered them tenants with rights.
From the house, I walk a few blocks to an outstanding museum dedicated to Hundertwasser’s work and spend a couple of fascinating hours immersed in his warped world. But I cannot leave the area without going back to stare at the apartment building again. Like St. Stephen’s and the Belvedere and so many of Vienna’s must-see sites, it is a work of gigantic ambition.
But it’s the small things that make a lasting impression, like playing Ping-Pong in little parks tucked into the narrow streets; the neighborhood feeling just outside the city center; amid so many grand buildings, the human scale of the city — cafes and bars and small specialty shops, rather than huge stores that sell everything. Bread bought from a bakery instead of the bread aisle. An old-world European-ness that glides along every side street.
During my seven days in the city, I try to hit a big-ticket attraction each day — that “I may never pass this way again” feeling is tough to shake — but I spend much of my time on the side streets, developing an addiction to kasestangerl (a crunchy cheese stick) and flat whites, and thinking seriously of buying a kick scooter.
One day after Ping-Pong, we hit Cafe Tirolerhof in the Innere Stadt, an old-world establishment with a bumbling waiter in a tuxedo and pastries in elegant glass cases. We drink Wiener Melange, a cappuccino-esque local specialty, and eat a face-stuffing portion of apple strudel.
The most local thing Rory and I do, the one that feels most European — if only because it would never, ever fly in the United States — is playing a game one night at Polkadot, a bar in the Eighth District. Picture, if you will, a bartender in Boston handing you a hammer and some nails. But in Vienna and all over Austria — especially in the ski towns of the Alps — it’s tradition to drink heavily and swing hammers around wildly in a game called “nailing.”
Nailing involves a stump of wood, a mason’s hammer, and a decent potential for injury. You hold the flat side of the hammer against the side of the wood, and then in one smooth motion raise it and try to drive the nail into the stump. First one to hammer the nail in so deep that you can’t get a fingernail under it is the winner. Advanced players actually flip the hammer in the air and then grab it in one swoop and bring it down.
The game is extremely loud and, not surprisingly, difficult after a few servings of schnapps, which the bartender tells us we must drink while playing. “Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else,” she says as she hands over the weapon. “And bring it back when you’re done.” She also tells us not to keep at it too late — the neighbors will complain about the incessant banging.
I lose at nailing, repeatedly. But it’s my final night in Vienna, and on the way to the bar I win the decisive seventh game of Ping-Pong. It is a perfect end to the trip, which was never really about Vienna anyway. It was about seeing a friend, who, even after I return home, no longer feels so far away.