St. Ulrich: Cradle of Cool

sing sing recordsOut of all the neighborhoods of the hip 7th district, St. Ulrich stands apart. A hub of local and expat intellectuals, creatives, and young entrepreneurs, the area wedged between Burggasse and Neustiftgasse from Volkstheater to Neubaugasse is a flourishing cosmopolitan locale like the rest of the vicinity. But St. Ulrich has another claim to fame: it is the site of one of Vienna’s most beloved legends, giving it hipster street cred that reaches back centuries.

During the plague year 1679, the local tavern performer Marx Augustin woke up in a mass grave right here, in what is perhaps the scariest hangover of all time. The popular minstrel had hit the bottle too hard after playing to an empty house the night before, passing out in a ditch where he was mistaken for yet another casualty and thrown into the plague pits with the rest of the bodies. It was only the next morning that St. Ulrich was awakened by blaring bagpipes, as the bewildered Augustin desperately summoned help. Surviving his ordeal none the worse for wear, he quickly became a symbol of the indomitable Viennese spirit and humor in the face of bleakness. Penning the famous folk ballad Oh Du Lieber Augustin, he became the namesake and spiritual patron of the ubiquitous Vienna street newspaper.

espressoRaising the dead

The Augustinerbrunnen (Augustin Fountain) on Neustiftgasse and Kirchengasse commemorates the beloved legend. But have times really changed? Barely half a block from Augustin’s ordeal, an early morning stroll revealed my musician friend Thom, snoozing in the tomato bed of the community garden Salatpiraten. Last night, most of Thom’s adoring fans skipped his weekday gig, so he drank himself silly at the popular neighborhood dive Cafe Phönixhof. His slow recovery called for some coffee to go at the ethereal mid-century café Espresso, where chattering sunglass wearers perched on  graceful 1950’s steel garden chairs, enjoying a bit of the dolce vita. Our coffees in hand, my friend gradually returned to the living, ready to play tour guide.

st. ulrich churchBaroque and Hungry

Slowly reviving, we drifted into the cobblestone square surrounding St. Ulrich Church. Largely unchanged since the 18th century, it’s almost like traveling in time – if it weren’t between the noisy thoroughfares Neustiftgasse and Burggasse. “There’s a really sunny spot up here,” said Thom as he ignored the No Trespassing signs on his way up the marble church steps. “A bunch of people camped out here to watch the results of the big election a while back, it was a special day,” he elaborated between sips of coffee.

We drained our cups before venturing into the musky Sing Sing Records a few houses down. Several rooms of select vinyl and CDs awaited us; it’s the kind of store where excavating a rare find is half the fun. Thom was a regular, going straight to the soul section to introduce me to Ella, Nina and Ray – years of listening had put them on a first-name basis. Next up was Mari’s Metcha Matcha for some divine Japanese homestyle cooking. We savored each morsel, grabbing an onigiri rice ball each for later.

Reliving the legacy

Craving dessert, we ventured forth to Nobnobs candy shop for a multicolored psychedelic demonstration and some tart mango-curry and pumpkin seed hard candies. The gleeful squeals of kids echoed as a birthday boy’s watermelon slice grin reflected boldly in their windows.

We stopped at the Irenaeus Kraus gallery, purveyors of “20th century ephemera,” primarily in the form of antique classroom posters and teaching aids. Gazing at the stunning zoological illustrations of turtles and frogs hanging in the gallery’s window  dredged up visceral memories of exploring innards in science class.

mari's metcha matchaA welcome change of pace, Burggasse 24 is a mainstay of the youngish and fashionable just down the street, equal parts curated thrift store and eclectic coffeehouse amid explosively patterned rooms. Finally, we ended our stroll hanging out on the steps of the famous Volkstheater (People’s Theater), built in 1889 by popular request for the citizens of Vienna. We pulled out our onigiri and chowed down as a black van parked ominously in front.

Two young men carried lifeless mannequins through the rear entrance with quiet respect, mirroring Augus-tin’s ordeal: His inanimate body driven to St. Ulrich and carried backstage, only to awaken and give a performance for the ages the next day. As we sat atop all this history, we felt grateful to be among the living – and very lucky to have found such a beautiful slice of Vienna to get lost in.