February 14, 2003

The Viennese Waltz

By Armando Huerta © 2003

I often go to Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, on business; averaging about two visits a year. As the Bratislava airport possesses the size and structural stability of a roadside hotdog stand, I generally prefer to fly directly into nearby Vienna. Call me silly, but flying into Prague and then switching onto a Czech Airlines propeller jet that sways in the air like a drunken stevedore on payday is just not that appealing. I mean, honestly… the luggage belt at Bratislava International Airport consists of a luggage cart being thrust through plastic flaps into the "baggage area" and passengers crowding around and tearing to get at their suitcases like stray dogs on a gristly bone.

Vienna is an entirely different story. While not that pretty of an airport it’s efficient, and more importantly, services Vienna which is easily one of the most beautiful capitals in Europe. True, the Austro-Hungarian Empire is responsible for the Gabor sisters, but they did balance it out with impressive architecture and grand boulevards. One only has to stroll around the Ringstrasse (boulevard that circles the old part of the city) to remind yourself that Zsa Zsa Gabor was actually born in the Hungarian part of the empire and that you shouldn’t hold that against Austria in its present day. The buildings have iron eagles sailing out from every corner and are gargantuan compared to those in other capitals, super-sized like the McDonalds fries favored by porcine American youth.

On my first visit there I was lucky enough to finagle a room in the Imperial Hotel at a daily rate that didn’t make my company’s accountant gasp for breath when verifying my expenses. The Imperial is without a doubt one of the most stellar grand hotels in the world. It sits in a prime location on the aforementioned Ringstrasse, presiding over old Vienna like a filthy rich dowager covered in pearls at a family gathering. Built by the Emperor at the end of the last century, it’s a yellow fortress of marble and impeccable taste. My room was the smallest on the floor (I always check the fire escape plan on the back of the door to see the size of my room compared to others… yes, I have size issues) yet still had a walk-in cedar closet with drawers and a dressing table, a chandelier in the main room and blue silk wallpaper soaring up to the tray ceiling. While I don’t relish eating veal because of the images of bleating baby calves that permeate my mind, I must say that their room service weiner schnitzel is easily the best I ever had the pleasure of tucking into.

Alas, I could not stay forever in Vienna, or the Imperial, so I hired a car to take me to Bratislava the next morning. As I sailed down an Austrian highway in a chauffer driven black Mercedes towards Slovakia we passed by small villages and lush rolling hills whose vivid green mesmerized me. That all changed the minute we approached the Danube and border control on the other side. The first thing you notice are the factory towers belching out smoke like a scene from Blade Runner and the gray haze hovering on the other side. As you approach, the decay and Soviet inspired design (or lack thereof) become even more apparent. To go from Vienna and the Austrian countryside towards Slovakia is to truly appreciate the differences that laid between Western and Eastern Europe. It becomes a journey through time, political ideology and wealth.

Armando Huerta is a writer from Greece.

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