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Week-end in Vienna

By Gilles MANTIN-CHAUFFIER Sofitel Vienne Stephansdom

“Anyone who didn’t know France before Mitterrand the First doesn’t know the good life.” And now, out of nowhere, suddenly here she was, smiling and cool as ever. Without even the slightest acknowledgement or a vague inkling of recognition, she stared at me until we arrived at her floor, the seventh. She had apparently lost her insatiable curiosity, for if as I suspected she had at once put a name to my face, she kept that knowledge to herself. Before heading off down the hallway, however, she nonchalantly asked the man accompanying her if he thought they would make it on time for the Handel recital at St. Peter’s Church. She glanced back at me with brilliant eyes – and an almost imperceptible hint of a smile.

I got the message, and so didn’t dawdle in my room. Too bad, because it was magnificent, white from carpet to ceiling, bathed in sunlight, air-conditioned, cool… The enormous bed was awaiting only me. There was even a “pillow menu”: choices like softness, contact, dreamy, excellence… This is a fatal attraction for people like me, who, incapable of doing nothing, are more than willing to lie down for a nap. The picture windows overlooked the old city, where somewhere St. Peter’s Church was calling me. I took off my tie, slipped on a sweater and was off.
From above, Vienna deserved its reputation: The panorama was marvelous. Nonetheless, the truth should not be looked at too closely. Nothing should, for that matter. On the ground, things were more complex.
The city is splendid. There are pedestrian zones replete with baroque buildings and cliffs of sculpted freestone, a haven of bourgeois comfort and “gemütlich” prosperity. The Imperial Palace and its vast esplanades offer an extravagant feast for the eyes.
The Ring, the boulevard that circles the city, is flush with green.
Overall, everything seems perfect. And yet what it lacks is grace.
The imperial buildings are too heavy and along the Ring, everything is beautiful, except everything. A barracks resembles an armored Florentine palace, the Parliament looks like a garish copy of the Parthenon, the Opera is majestic but imitates the Italian Renaissance, three centuries late. When it was inaugurated, the Viennese called it an urban “Sadowa” and, devastated, the architect committed suicide. With each province of the Hapsburg empire evoked, the whole seems majestic but disparate and, ultimately, a bit kitsch, like an enormous operetta stage set. But after a two-hour walk through the city, St. Peter’s Church was magical. It was like a mini cathedral, hardly bigger
than the little church on the Ile-au-Moines in Brittany, but loaded with treasures.

It had been a church since Roman times. After 1500 years of tithes, collections and investments to secure a spot in heaven, it had now become a safe. The Virgin Mary, whether immaculate, crowned, ascending for the Assumption, crying or praying, was everywhere. The ostentatious relics, dome and frescos were a far cry from the spare beginnings of the adventure in Bethlehem but were a perfect match for Handel’s grandiloquent and harmonious chords. I immediately spotted Sylvie, who was clearly in heaven – which is of course what the place was designed for. And, miraculously, the joy opened her eyes. Not only did she see me, but she rose and headed in my direction. She, too, had recognized me at first glance, it turned out. Quietly, so as not to disturb the performers, she asked if I would join them for dinner at the hotel. Like the Virgin Mary, I left on cloud nine.

The hotel’s panoramic restaurant is called the “Loft.” It’s on the 18th floor, with enormous picture windows and a vast, reddish-orange ceiling, luminous and electric. Seen from the street, where I went to smoke a cigarette, the restaurant resembles a huge flying saucer looming over the city. Equally as spectacular is the impression from inside, as if you were hovering above Vienna in an immobile Zeppelin. It was brighter than a Christmas tree, with bulbs, bells, domes, colonnades and obelisks gleaming in the darkness as far as the eye could see, like a star-filled sky spread at our feet. It wasn’t architecture so much as glittering acrobatics. We had been delighted with the concert,
Sylvie, me and the other guy, Eric, who, perched atop the pedestal of marriage, rose like the Alps between her and me.
While I admit that I’m perhaps not objective, this guy was a caricature of a right-wing conservative, full of himself and grouchy.
We disliked each other from the start, once he realized that I was opposed to nuclear power in all its forms. With the smugness of an adult amused by a child’s silly dreams, he said that my view was perhaps all well and good, but that he was absolutely opposed to costly energy sources. Obviously.


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