Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Vienna

In his youth, the legendary travel writer embarked on a walk from London to Constantinople. Along the way, for three extraordinary weeks in February 1934, he discovered Vienna in the throes of political upheaval, to which it seemed to give a collective shrug.

From late 1933 until the first day of January 1935 Patrick Leigh Fermor walked from London to Constantinople. A teenager – he would observe his 19th birthday en route – and as yet unknown, Fermor would lead an extraordinary life and become a travel writer so remarkable that the legendary Jan Morris would call him “one of the great prose stylists of our time.” During his walk, Patrick Leigh Fermor spent three weeks in Vienna. His memoir, A Time of Gifts (1977), relived them four decades later through seasoned eyes. Among the gifts, he recalled: “The idea that they are always welcome is a protective illusion of the young.”   

It was a dark and stormy night when Patrick Leigh Fermor entered Vienna; past “sainted and weather-fretted Abbots postured with operatic benignity along the balustrade, their haloes […] dripping with icicles,” Since late December he had traveled from the Hook of Holland to the Danube Valley.  More specifically, that day – February 12, 1934 – he had hitchhiked through inclement weather from Dürnstein to a northwestern suburb of the city, … Nußdorf, perhaps.  The storm persisted, but the thunder wasn’t the only rumble. The Social Democratic Workers’ Party had revolted against the Austro-Fascist regime of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, and Dollfuss’ artillery was shelling a Workers’ Party redoubt, the Karl-Marx-Hof, along the Heiligenstädterstraße.

Uprising of 1934

During Fermor’s weeks in Vienna several hundred would be killed and more than a thousand would be injured. 1,500 arrests would be made and nine Workers’ Party leaders would be executed.  The incident would enter history as the Uprising of 1934.  That inclement evening, though, “one had only a confused inkling of events….  And then, most surprisingly – at least … to a stranger in the city – the whole topic vanished from the air … and … ordinary life resumed its course.”

(C) Heilsarmee

After an hour’s walk into the city, Fermor found accommodations at the Heilsarmee «Salvation Army» hostel, the “Haus der Guten Hoffnung” «House of Good Hope».  Then located in the 3rd District’s Kolonitzgasse, the hostel provided bed and breakfast to as many as 600 men.  That evening it was “a moving swarm of tramps,” he remembered.  “Each one had a bundle; their overcoats flapped like those of scarecrows and their rags and sometimes their footgear were held together by rusty safety-pins and string.”  For as little as 65 Groschen, each guest would receive fresh bed sheets, two blankets, and a pillow, and, in the morning, a cup of coffee and two slices of bread.  The Salvation Army’s promise:  “Saubere und bequeme Betten, keine Wanzen, keine Flöhe.”  «Clean, comfortable beds with no bugs and no fleas».

(C) Heilsarmee

From here, the following morning, Fermor would begin his Vienna sojourn. His guide would be Konrad, another lodger in the hostel. A native of the Frisian Islands, he spoke the strangest English that Fermor would ever hear.  Introduced to the language as a lad, he “had continued his studies … by reading Shakespeare,” which “sometimes gave his utterances an incongruous and even archaic turn.”  And when he asked Konrad “to say something in the Frisian dialect, [Patrick Leigh Fermor] couldn’t understand his answer, but the short words and flat vowels sounded just as English must to someone who doesn’t know the language.”

Konrad guided Fermor across the Radetzky Bridge, along the Franz-Josefs Kai, and up the Rotenturmstraße, then into the Graben toward the Wallnerstraße and Fermor’s first stop, the British Consulate. Money from home, Fermor anticipated, would be waiting for him there.  Sadly, it was not.  A disappointed Fermor rejoined Konrad, who had been waiting in “sleety drizzle” in the Wallnerstraße. Be not downcast, my dear young,” Konrad encouraged.  “We must take counsel.”  And the two of them decamped up the Kohlmarkt to pray for guidance in the Michaelerkirche, across the Michaelerplatz from the Hofburg.

While still in the hostel, Fermor had doodled a sketch of Konrad; in the Michaelerkirche, Konrad was “ripening a plan.” Patrick Leigh Fermor would sketch portraits door-to-door, charging a few Schillings apiece.  Konrad suggested the 7th district of Mariahilf, a socio-economic step down from the 1st District.  He would “commence with the small buggers,” Konrad explained to a startled Fermor – by which he had meant Kleinbürgern, «little burghers», the petty bourgeoisie of merchants, traders, and civil servants.  So there, in the Mariahilf, Fermor became acquainted, door-to-door, with a slice of Vienna:  a Direktor (of what Fermor never learned), the Direktor’s wife, and “a retired lady singer who … passed me on to the wife of a music-publisher.”  And he became acquainted, too, with:

The high proportion of foreign names [which] demonstrated the inheritance of the Habsburg Empire at its widest expansion. Many subjects of alien race, finding their regional capitals too narrow a stage for them, streamed to the glittering Kaiserstadt: Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Rumanians, Poles, Italians, Jews from the whole of Central and Eastern Europe and every variety of southern Slav. In one flat there was even a genial old gentleman from Bosnia, probably of Islamized Bogomil descent.

“I was launched!” he remembered. He and Konrad enjoyed a “snug Gastzimmer, toying with Krenwurst, ordering delicious Jungfernbraten and geröstete potatoes and wine.”  And at day’s end they returned the long way to the 3rd District, “along the Graben and the Kärntnerstrasse.”  Was there a red-light district en route?  Apparently, but “Konrad shook his head.  ‘You must beware, dear young….  These are wenches and they are always seeking only pelf.  They are wanton, and it is their wont.’”  The bard would have been proud.

Fenstergucker

For three days Patrick Leigh Fermor sketched portraits of the Viennese, but on the fourth day the urgency of the enterprise fell away. Returning to the British Consulate that morning, he found the much-anticipated money from home.  He and Konrad proceeded directly to the Fenstergucker, a coffee house at the southern end of the Kärntnerstraße, across from the Hotel Sacher and opposite the Staatsoper.  There they settled into a corner table, “near a hanging grove of newspapers on wooden rods,” and enjoyed breakfast: “Eier im Glass, then hot Brötchen and butter, and delicious coffee smothered in whipped cream.”

Café Fenstergucker

There, too, Patrick and Konrad amiably parted company.  Fermor would spend a few more weeks in Vienna, but Konrad had other dreams. “‘For many moons, dear young,’ he had said, ‘I have been longing to become a smuggler. A saccharine smuggler, dear young!  No, do not laugh.’  Ever since Czechoslovakia – or was it Austria or Hungary? – had placed an exorbitant tax on saccharine, the secret import of this innocent commodity made great profits.”  And so they walked together to the Ringstraße, where Konrad caught a tram to the Donaukai Bahnhof and beyond.  While Fermor was waving goodbye, “the tram clashed across the points and swung left into the Schubertring and out of sight.” Konrad was off and away into another fascinating element of interwar Vienna.

Fermor’s next stop: the Schreyvogelgasse, near Schottentor in the 1st District.  Through the sister-in-law of an old friend, Fermor found a second nest. The Schreyvogelgasse skirts the Mölker Bastei, part of the old city wall, from the Universitätsring, into the Altstadt.  Here the sister-in-law presided over “a large flat which was always teeming with guests.”  The “small half-native and half-expatriate Bohemian set” that gravitated around the apartment “seemed perfect from the first moment I became involved in it.”  Yet another “gift” of the time.

From there Fermor ventured forth to marvel at the architecture of Vienna.  He was enchanted by the “crooked lanes [that] opened on gold and marble outbursts of Baroque,” the “facades of broken pediment and [the] rectangles of cobble,” where “statues of archdukes or composers presided with pensive nonchalance.”  The “dome of the Karlskirche floated with a balloon’s lightness in an enclosing hemisphere of snow and the friezes that spiralled the shafts of the two statue-crowned guardian columns.”

With new friends from the Schreyvogelgasse set he “lolled over the balcony” at the Spanish Riding School. Beneath him, the Lipizzaner:

snow white creatures of great beauty, strong, elegant, compact and mettlesome, wide-eyed under their taciturn riders and with manes and tails as sleekly combed and as rippling as the tresses of Rhine-maidens. They moved with grace and precision … rhythmically changing step … pawing the air as they backed slowly on their haunches and taking to the air … and seeming to remain there for long moments of suspension and stasis.  Except when a recondite feat evoked a crackle of applause, the sequence unfolded in a still hush.

Through a friend there, he was able to access the library of the legendary Konsularakademie, a component of Maria Theresa’s Theresianum and predecessor to today’s Diplomatic Academy, and then located in the 9th District, in the Boltzmanngasse.  There – and in the many museums that he frequented – Fermor became acquainted with the Turkish sieges of Vienna.  “I had never understood till now how near the Turks had got,” he wrote.  “What if [they] had taken Vienna … and advanced Westward?  And suppose the Sultan, with half the east at heel, had pitched his tents outside Calais? …Might St. Paul’s, only half re-built, have ended up with minarets instead of its two bell-towers and different emblem twinkling on the dome?”  How easily the sharp contours of the past are softened into shadows by the sands of time.

On the day of his departure from Vienna, a friend drove Fermor as far as the barbican of Fischamend.  Farther east lay January 1935.  And Constantinople.  

But what would become of the Vienna he left behind?

The Salvation Army hostel: The Nazis banned the Heilsarmee in 1938, although the “Haus der Guten Hoffnung” struggled under management in mufti until 1942.  Two years later, the lane was heavily bombarded.  Today the Männerwohnheim «men’s hostel» is located in the 2nd District’s Grosse Schiffgasse.  Fermor would recognize it, but just barely.  These days counselors, social workers and other professionals provide life-skills training, together with psychological and spiritual support, to the occupants of its modern single- and double-room accommodations.

The British Consulate:  In 1934 it occupied the Palais Caprara-Geymüller, a late 17th-century palace in the Wallnerstraße.  The British moved to the 3rd District in 1988 and the palace became the home of the Wiener Börse «Vienna Stock Exchange» when it relinquished its monumental edifice on the Schottenring.

The Karlskirche: It still floats, “with a balloon’s lightness” behind the “spiralled … shafts of the two statue-crowned guardian columns.”  And the Lipizzaner:  They still perform “with grace and precision” in their Hofburg Riding School.

The Konsularakadamie:  The legendary institution was abolished by the Nazis and did not survive the Second World War. The building that Fermor visited has been the U.S. Embassy since 1947.

The Fenstergucker: In a turn too ironic for reality, seven decades after Fermor’s visit it became the first of Vienna’s several Starbucks coffee houses.  It wasn’t a good fit, what with Café Mozart and the Sacher close by, and Starbucks moved on in 2016.  Today as then, however, passersby still see the original statue of the Fenstergucker «window gazer» above the door.

The Uprising of 1934:  To Fermor it seemed to end soon after it began.  “… the sounds of strife had gradually diminished and then ceased,” he wrote.  “The revolution vanished from the front pages of the foreign press and the headlines describing it in the café newspapers were less lurid each morning.”  In fact, the Austrofascists who crushed the Social Democrats that winter kept the lid on Austria until 1938 when the heavier lid of Anschluss was dropped.

Konrad:  His smuggling career was brief but successful.  Later in 1935 he returned with his “pelf” to the Frisian Islands, where he took to teaching English. Fermor was “overjoyed by the idea that his English idiom might not be wholly lost.”

And the “dear young” himself?  He became Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, DSO, OBE, an author, scholar, soldier, and polyglot, who played a prominent role in the Second World War.  Regarded in his lifetime as Britain’s greatest living travel writer, he died in England in 2011, at the age of 96.

Bruce A. Lohof
Bruce A. Lohof is a former professor of American Studies and a retired U.S. diplomat, serving in Africa, Europe, and South Asia. He was Director of the Fulbright commission in both Pakistan and Egypt, and of the American Studies Research Center in India. He was posted to the Embassy in Vienna in 1988-1989 and to the Salzburg Seminar in 1990-1992. A native of Montana, he now lives in Vienna.

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