Vienna: Score for cycles

By Susan Buckland

Vienna is packed with historic buildings and  riding a bicycle is a leisurely way to appreciate their charm. Photo / Supplied
Vienna is packed with historic buildings and riding a bicycle is a leisurely way to appreciate their charm. Photo / Supplied

To show off her music-loving city, a Viennese friend proposed we check out the former abodes of Ludwig van Beethoven - on bikes. The city would reveal itself en route to the several different places where the great composer lived during his time in Vienna.

Coffee stops would be on the itinerary. Vienna's coffee houses are the social equivalents of English pubs and the city has been perfecting coffee ever since it stole the art in the 17th century from invading Turks.

The day looking for Ludwig would finish well too - in a heuriger (Viennese wine tavern), which had formerly been a house where Beethoven had lived.

So off we went to hire bikes from a place called Pedal Power and were soon gliding along cycle-friendly lanes, clear of cars and horse-drawn carriages trotting tourists around the imperial city.

Vienna's logical layout consists of 23 districts radiating from the centre and linked by ring roads. Beethoven lived or composed in seven of the districts, his former abodes now marked by a flag. Many similar banners are found in Vienna which not only nurtured Mozart but other great composers such as Strauss, Haydn, Schubert and Mahler.

Vienna makes the most of streets relatively free of traffic.In pursuit of Ludwig we cycle through a couple of fine parks, the first is Stadpark, where a statue of Johann Strauss gleams in bronze.

From there to the Prater, a wooded park spreading over 300ha of former royal hunting ground. The land had been given to the people by the Hapsburg emperor Joseph 11, a grand gesture from a royal who reputedly believed in the value of recycling coffins.

The Prater's famous Ferris wheel is still whirling after 60 years. An electrifying scene from the post war classic thriller The Third Man was shot in one of the wheel's cabins. People still ask which one, hoping to ride in the cabin in which actors Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton slugged it out.

We then head along the banks of the Danube before linking back to the Beethoven trail. Vienna's gaily embellished city incinerator rose into view, the work of Fredrich Hundertwasser, the Austrian artist who adopted the New Zealand town of Kawakawa as his second home and designed its mosaic-studded public toilets with his trademark frivolity.

Moelkebastei St, where Beethoven lived between 1804 and 1815, is now a museum with some of his personal effects and a rare 19th-century, five-pedal piano.

There is no longer a dwelling at the next Beethoven address, at 26 Landstrasser Haupstrasse, but the beautifully preserved Hotel Biedermeier next door compensated for the empty space.

The first coffee break arrives with a toss-up between Cafe Landtmann and Cafe Hawelka.

The Viennese have their favourite cafes where journalists, artists, politicians and others congregate and sit for as long they like. It comes with the territory. Landtmann opened for business in 1873 and became a centre of Vienna's social life. An air of intrigue still hovers over the place. Elegant couples eye each other over slices of Gugelhupf (Viennese cake).

In contrast, Hawelka has long been the preferred patch of Viennese students. You get the feeling they would revolt if the owners tried painting over the nicotine-coloured walls.

During World War II penniless artists donated their paintings to the Hawelka family in return for a roof over their head. These now-valuable paintings remain where they were hung more than half a century ago.

Hawelka wins the toss. The cafe is so busy the waiters kept walking while taking our order for buchlens - pastries filled with jam. Buchlens are about the only items on the Hawelka food menu, which is just as well because the chosen lunch venue is Demels, the grande dame of Viennese pastry shops.

Tradition clings to the establishment which opened in 1786 and became the bakery to Austrian royals.

Waitresses in crisp aprons serve calorie-laden confections and customers try not to drop crumbs on the spotless floor.

Getting to Demels when lunch swings around involves a detour off the Beethoven route, but the easy charm of old Vienna has us happily backtracking from time to time.

Demels is close to the elegant pedestrian street called the Graben, which in turn opens to magnificent St Stephens Cathedral and its surrounding square.

Full of cream cake we walk our bikes past the mosaic roofed cathedral then ride down the Ringstrasse, which circles the inner city.

The museum quarter whizzed by en route to a former Beethoven abode at 5 Ungargasse St, where he lived in 1823 and 1824.

From there to the ninth district and 15 Schwarzspanier St, another of his residences, only to find another empty space. However, a banner signalled a former Beethoven residence at 92 Doblinger Hauptstrasse, where he composed the Eroica symphony.

It has been worth the wobble along the narrow cobbled stoned streets after all.

Central Vienna covers mainly flat terrain. The final incline to the 19th district proves the only puff-inducing search for a Beethoven abode. He loved the countryside, which the hillier outskirts of Vienna were during his time, and had lived in several places in the wine villages near the Vienna woods.

In Heiligenstadt we find Beethoven's former residence at No2 Eroicagasse and prop the bikes outside the now vine-hung heuriger. We have covered about 30km in pursuit of the master. With glasses of wine we toast the day with the German word for feeling good.

Here's to "gemultichkeit" and all who paddle to her.


Bike hire: Pedal Power.
Day hires cost €27.
Four-hour hires cost €17.

- Herald on Sunday

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