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Waltz through hip Vienna

May Seah on 15 Apr 2018

The Straits Times


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Old-world charm meets hipster chic in the Austrian capital


"What are Austrian hipsters like?" I once asked an Austrian friend.


He confirmed that the species existed in recognisable form - that is, replete with facial hair and lumberjack shirts - but that the hipster pandemic had come to Austria only roughly seven years after the rest of the world.


"That's how long it usually takes any trend to catch on," he said. "We want to make good and sure before we get on the bandwagon."


I am not sure whether my friend was loosely paraphrasing the great 19th-century composer Gustav Mahler, who famously said - his words probably coming out garbled through all the tongue in his cheek - "Should the world meet its demise, I will move to Vienna because everything there happens 50 years later."


Indeed, if travellers confine themselves to the centre of Vienna, where all the main attractions are - the Hofburg Palace, the Museumsquartier, St Stephen's Cathedral - it certainly feels as though nothing has changed in the past half-century, at least.


But those who know where to look will find that the hipster underbelly of this venerable grand dame of a city is indeed alive, well and brunching with impunity on avocado toast.


Finding myself in Vienna for the third time and having exhausted its supply of fascinating museums and heritage architecture, I want to experience a hipper side of the Austrian capital.


So, I start my day at Motto Am Fluss' bright and airy cafe (Franz-Josefs-Kai 2, 1010), on the top deck of a building resembling a ship moored on the banks of the Danube Canal.


Here, there is a breakfast line-up consisting of pancakes with pineapple and chocolate sauce, vegan brunch burgers, chia seed porridge, granola bowls, and classic ham and egg dishes.


Seated at one of the communal tables, I find myself listening in, with my limited grasp of the German language, on the intimate conversations of Vienna's young wearers of tortoiseshell glasses.


As the weather warms, it is a good idea to get out of the inner city to the artsy Leopoldstadt area, where those with time on their hands can browse the galleries, boutiques, bars and food stalls at the Karmelitermarkt.


I pick up some food to go and head to the Augarten, Vienna's oldest Baroque park. Here, I luxuriate in a lazy picnic on the beautiful lawn - but there is nothing twee about this splendour in the grass.


I am lying in the shadow of two massive anti-aircraft flak towers, imposing reminders of World War II.


These are the tallest of Vienna's virtually indestructible flak towers, historical remnants that are not marked by plaques or information panels, but simply a gritty part of real life, with the exhortation "Never again" graffitied on the side.


Once an ominous reminder of the atrocities of war, they now stand as the thinking man's monument to peace - and arguably a more effective history lesson than any antiquated museum.


From the Augarten, it is only a few tram stops to the fabulously retro-chic Prater amusement park. It is a must to ride the Ferris wheel - ironically, of course.


Erected more than 120 years ago, the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris Wheel (Riesenradplatz 1, 1020) was made famous by the 1949 noir film, The Third Man, starring Orson Welles; as well as the 1987 James Bond movie, The Living Daylights, starring Timothy Dalton.


I also stop by the Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment block designed by the eccentric expressionist Austrian artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who did not believe in geometrical architecture or in keeping nature out of living spaces.


The building's bright, higgledy-piggledy facade, with greenery creeping over it, looks like a colourful patchwork quilt or a child's crayon drawing. It is the perfect backdrop against which to snap some happy photos.


For a hearty snack and a place to chill, I head to Vollpension Generationencafe (Schleifmuehlgasse 16, 1040), a cafe with charming sidewalk tables on a quiet street in the fourth district.


The social enterprise started when a bunch of young entrepreneurs rounded up a bunch of bored grandmothers on meagre pensions and they started trotting out their time-honoured home recipes for delicious cakes.


Show me anything more hipster and I will eat my beanie.


Although the cafe serves light meals, it does not have a cake menu, says the friendly waiter (not himself a pensioner, for the avoidance of doubt), because it all depends on what the grandmothers feel like making from day to day.


On the day I visit, it is yogurt cake, one of his particular favourites. "It looks so good," I say. "So do you," he replies with a wink.


The large slab of cake he brings me has a yogurty icing that is rich and creamy without being overly sweet.


The cake itself is like a slightly chocolatey carrot cake with bits of apricot in it. The entire thing is so perfect, I want to call my grandmother and cry.


After this, I am dying for a stiff coffee - but not from just any coffee joint. I could easily soak in some centuries-old Viennese coffee-house culture at Cafe Central, Cafe Hawelka or Cafe Diglas, along with the tourists. But no - I must track down the most hipster "third wave" cafe in town.


This establishment is literally a hole in the wall off a cobblestoned street in the heart of the inner city. In fact, it is nothing but an adorably decorated window - hence its name, Fenster Cafe (Fleischmarkt 9, 1010), with "fenster" being the German word for "window".


The cafe, which is just big enough for a barista to work within, does not just dispense carefully brewed takeaway coffee through its open shutters.


It also offers classically Instagrammable tricks such as coffee served in a chocolate-coated waffle cone, as well as the Marshmallowccino, a milk coffee topped with marshmallow instead of cream.


Even in one of the oldest and narrowest streets in this august city of waltzes, cathedrals and horse-drawn carriages, a window stands boldly open onto a millennial frontier.


• May Seah is a writer and serial picnicker who knows just enough German to understand compliments from waiters.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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