In mid-autumn, it is already dark by 19:00 in Vienna. Crossing the Ring at Schottentor, the street glistens under the glow of the streetlamps in the light rain, as passersby take shelter under the columned portico of the Bank Austria building.
Completed in 1912, just two years before the Great War, this magnificent Bankhaus on Schottengasse was state of the art in its time – with tube mail, telephones and electric lights – blending neo-classical proportions with the sensual simplicity of the Vienna Secession.
Today the façade seems almost unchanged, the ornamental brass polished to a glow, and an old man is still roasting chestnuts and potatoes over a barrel of coals. In the glow of back-lit red glass, the aroma of Käsekrainer and Grillwürst floats out from Würstelstand “Steinmetz”, and light floods the sidewalk from the well-stocked windows of Buchhandlung Kuppitsch. The bookshop has just closed, but not the book exchange box on the street outside, where a passerby grabbed a paperback, and stuffed it into his pocket.
The Schottenviertel is the north-western-most corner of the 1st District, named not for the Scots, but for the Irish monks who lent their old Roman name, Scotia major, to the Schottentor gate in the city wall. They built the monastery Schottenstift in 1158; consecrated as a parish in 1265, they celebrate their 750th anniversary this year. Today, the Irish reconvene every St. Patrick’s day to celebrate mass at the Schottenkirche, followed by a parade and festival through the streets around the Freyung, with dancing, music, giant wolfhounds, food and beer.
From Ottomans to Metternich
On this rainy night, the cobblestones shimmer a soft golden yellow under the streetlamps, and lead the way across the Melkerhof square and two favorite shops: Haardt und Krüger for classy housewares, and Tostmann Trachten, where Dirndl, Lederhosen and Loden jackets are made to order. From there, head on up the stone steps to the Mölkerbastei, one of the few remaining Renaissance fortifications in Vienna. Built after the Turkish siege of 1529, it now frames a tiny neighborhood of baroque houses, including the Pasqualatihaus where Beethoven wrote the opera Fidelio, and an important location in Carol Reed’s film noir classic The Third Man, where Orson Welles hides in the shadows of a doorway, to be betrayed by his devoted cat. In between is the workshop of Ludwig Reiter custom shoe makers. one of the oldest and most respected in Europe.
The Mölkerbastei is magical at night, looking out over the golden statue of Winged Victory in the square below and the winking lights of the University across the way. Emperor Franz Josef was standing here when a Hungarian nationalist made an attempt on his life in 1853: In thanks for his deliverance, the Habsburgs commissioned the magnificent Votivkirche, just visible through the trees.
In 1857, Franz Joseph ordered the dismantling of the wall, making space for the great buildings of the Ringstraße and opening up the Old City to the outer districts. Most historians trace the Emperor’s decision to the Revolution of 1848, when its stones became ammunition. As tensions climaxed, the court evacuated to Olmütz (Czech Republic), and the hated Chancellor Prince Metternich was forced to flee hidden in a laundry cart.
Hearts and Bellies
But the Schottenviertel’s revolutionary tradition had begun long before, when a Jakobiner Franz Hebenstreit was hanged at Schottentor for high treason in 1795. His spirit lives on, though, at the excellent and unpretentious eatery and lefty hangout on Rockhgasse that bears his name, just a short walk from the Schottenbastei.
Located across from the Republican Club – in the 1789 sense – classic white tablecloths, charmingly mismatched wooden chairs and upholstered benches under a rotating show of local artists create an at-home atmosphere. The menu is seasonal, so ask the friendly staff for recommendations.
On a chilly night, the Hirschragout is particularly delicious (€18,90), and followed by fresh figs with ice cream under a blanket of whiskey Obers (€6,20), it’s an outstanding combination.
Walking back along Renngasse, the Schottenstift fills one whole side of the Freyung. The monastery is still very active, with regular masses, a museum, and gift shop, and a Gregorian choral service every 2nd Sunday of the month. The adjoining Benediktushaus has modestly priced guest rooms and a shop selling the monastery’s own wine and liqueurs, note cards and prints and an assortment of pleasingly packaged bio, “slow” and local produce.
To crown the evening, head for the Ferstel Passage, just across the Freyung, for a late night digestif at Beaulieu, Épicerie fine & Bistrot, which is open until 23:00. Here regardless of the weather, you can find a table outside-but-inside, along the covered Passage, and order a cognac or calvados that will warm through. Beaulieu is also a lunchtime favorite, serving an excellent salade au chèvre chaud (€10,70), with a well-stocked Épicerie for your next dîner à la française at home.
Back outside, it is hard not to be seduced by the charm of this baroque square. Its quixotic ramble of open space makes the Freyung a natural market. One of the oldest in Vienna, the original closed in 1790, when the peace-loving monks (in true Viennese style) forced it to move to the 6th district, now the Naschmarkt.
Now the Freyung is a bustling market again, open every weekend with local and regional produce and hand crafts, presented with particular charm at holiday times. The Altwiener Christkindlmarkt opens this year on November 20, with live performances of puppets and music daily at 10:00, 16:00 and 17:00.
Locations mentioned in this article:
“Old Vienna” Christmas Market at the Freyung, Nov 20 – Dec 23, 10:00 – 19:30