A Cabinet of Viennese Curiosities for Beer and Book Lovers

So there I was, in the world’s most livable city, on a fine spring evening, in excellent company, listening to one of my all-time indie crushes and feeling deeply miserable. Not just any kind of misery, but an existential dread that bends one into a tortured Egon Schiele silhouette, sends one onto the couch of a Freudian psychoanalyst or makes one write haunted memoirs a la Stefan Zweig. The dread surges in waves from the core of my being, located, it seems, right in the pit of my stomach, it ebbs and rises along some of White Lies’ characteristically upbeat lyrics about the fear of dying and drowning in deathly seas. This dread, I realize, has a name and it is Ottakringer. You may perhaps consider such a diatribe exaggerated, but rest assured, it is not. Making a palatable lager should be fairly easy, all you have to do is aim to imitate water as closely as possible. Light, refreshing, no side tastes. Ottakringer Helles, though, tastes like something, it is sharp, bitter, almost sulphuric, more hell than Helles. Given that we were in the bowels of the Ottakringer Brewery itself which, as we’ve discovered, doubles as an event centre, I held on to a vain hope that they would have some other types of beer from their range but alas, they must have assumed that, enraptured by the music, concert goers wouldn’t be able to tell dish-washing liquid from champagne.

The concert hall itself is somewhat strange too, almost as wide as it is long and with a selection of metal poles placed strategically to obstruct the view from the sides. As a result, I spent the evening with the faint sensation that Harry McVeigh was intimately conversing, in that wonderful moody tone of his, with a very unimpressed bulk of metal, which looked to be right in front of him from my angle. The acoustics were however excellent, which somewhat compensated my great Ottakringer inflicted suffering- for those still interested in tasting this Viennese ‘gem’, the brewery offers tours and tastings during the day, and rumour has it that some of their more sophisticated brews are almost enjoyable.

While the main purpose of our outing had indeed been the concert, we did manage to squeeze in a good number of other objectives, grouped around two major themes: the already oft mentioned beer, and books (because the more classical pairings of tea and books or wine and books are obviously not cutting edge enough for us). We started our hop fueled odyssey on the Graben in an absolutely spectacular post rain light that bounced off windows and gilded the many angels, saints and warriors perched atop Viennese buildings in a very KuK fashion. Our first stop was the Frick am Graben, a two story bookstore that stocks a large variety of German books, a selection of foreign titles (besides English, you have a good chance of finding fresh Italian, French, Spanish or Russian editions as well) plus stationery and an array of perfectly palatable souvenirs. For a literary breakfast, we went to Café Phil, the praises of which have already been sung on this blog, and then crossed through the Naschmarkt towards the Opera, in the proximity of which we inspected the ÖBV Buchhandlung on Schwarzenbergstraße. The ÖBV is a somewhat sterner affair than the Frick, with aquiline professionals taking convoluted calls about the availability of obscure academical tomes. It stocks almost exclusively German titles, probably on a larger variety of topics, but I passed on a more thorough investigation in favour of testing my wobbly German on a Leonard Cohen translation. The fact that the English original was on the facing page helped me tremendously.

It was thus high time for a well-deserved pit stop at 1516 Brewing, advantageously located right on the corner of Schwarzenbergstraße. Heavily frequented by foreigners, it serves its own local brews plus a variety of typical Austrian and international street food dishes- it also has live Premiership games, something one should not take for granted in Germanic lands where broadcasting rights are rather draconically regulated. Extricating ourselves from the extreme passions elicited by an early afternoon classic between Crystal Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion we soldiered on and landed in the undisturbed oasis of 777 Buchhandlung on Domgasse, a stone’s throw away from the compulsory Mozart house of any respectable Austrian urban agglomeration. In 777 we were welcomed by (possibly) Tibetan (definitely) drum music, a gentleman typing away on his Mac while sipping some oriental tea, the definite scent of curry coming from an indefinite location and a bookseller deeply consumed by the activity of ignoring us. In other words, nirvana, as few things irk me more than being constantly pestered while shopping for books. Finding the right book is a process of falling, gradually or suddenly, in love, and nothing good ever came out of forcing love onto anybody.

I did actually somewhat fall in love with a book a bit later in the basement of the Hasbach Antiquariat on Wollzeile, though our romance was overshadowed by it being a Catalan-German dictionary from 1874. I briefly flirted with the idea of having it as a decoration on my coffee table so I can use it to wax lyrical about how intrigued I am by the way Hungarian uses a term fundamentally meaning to imminently start a war with someone (hadilábon áll) to also express a shaky relationship with a foreign language, as if learning it were more an act of aggression than friendship. This would of course make me even more insufferable than I already am, so we moved onward to the Morawa store, also located on the Wollzeile. Morawa is also fundamentally a bookstore, but its specialty is the incredible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals it stocks, both in German and other major languages. I therefore purchased the latest number of the excellent footballing magazine 11Freunde, which, in the guise of innocent language practice is basically just fodder to my obnoxiousness, this time embodied by boring my friends to tears with the juicy intricacies of some German regional division’s financial operations or the story of that time Maradona almost chocked on a peanut while tying his shoelaces. (I am not claiming this actually happened, but given his subsequent record, it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.)

At this point, we were already armed with an Austrian beer guide, purchased at a  bargain price in the ÖBV bookstore, and as per the wisdom gained from its pages, we proceeded towards something which was commended as the Bermuda triangle of Viennese beer fueled nightlife on the Rabensteig.  We eschewed the more obvious choice of the Bermuda Bräu and went for Krah-Krah instead. It took me a couple of local IPAs to realize that krah-krah is the sound made by German ravens, as in Raben, and we’re on the Rabesteig and therefore it all makes some sort of sense, plus I finally had the opportunity to try an Ottakringer which did not try to kill me with its foulness (it’s the Zwickl Rot, if anyone is interested.) Entering a bookstore mildly inebriated is not always the best of ideas, given how certain volumes you do not necessarily need can suddenly take on life changing and defining qualities, and the Viennese version of Shakespeare and Company, on Sterngasse, brings the added challenge of sharing some of the labyrinthine qualities of its Parisian namesake. Although it comes minus the plump rats that nonchalantly populate the banks of the Seine, it is however packed with the same mix of bewildered locals and overenthusiastic tourists, the first category more inclined towards careful investigations that might or might not lead to a purchase, the second category determined to buy some sort of a keepsake, which in Vienna may range from the light-heartedness of a coffee table book about Klimt to the more taxing pleasures of a Wittgenstein treatise.  Our final stop for the day was Beer Street, which, fittingly for a bar belonging to an Irish themed local pub conglomerate, faces the Catholic church of Maria am Gestade and theoretically has about 50 beers on tap, of which some may be missing in action over the weekend.

If the above description of our Viennese perambulations may give some people the profoundly incorrect idea that we lack any form of seriousness, let us lay their worries to rest by mentioning that we began our Sunday sacrificing ourselves on the altar of high culture in the Kunsthistoriches Museum.  Truth be said, we did nevertheless horrify a group of British gentlewomen by rolling around on the floor to investigate some exhibits of the collection curated by Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf, but we considered their location at ankle level to be a clear invitation to revolutionize one’s relationship to art. Later on, I was also successful in setting off an alarm in the section dedicated to Emperor Leopold’s many quirky and fascinating objects (just how many gilded automatons do you reasonably need?)  which meant that, for once, feeling followed by the museum custodian (or the security guard in Drogerie Markt) was not merely a manifestation of my paranoia. Returning to the Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures exhibition, it runs until April 28th, and it’s very much worth the visit, not just because of Wes Anderson (but also, yes, because of Wes Anderson). If I am to be more articulate about this train of thought, the collection is, as demonstrated by our descent to toe level, an attempt to position the way we relate to art in novel context while also being a perfectly natural addition to the Wes Anderson universe.

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