In 1987, when I first lived in Vienna, I often visited the Café Eiles. A legendary coffee house in a city of legendary coffee houses, the Eiles had been at Josefstädter Straße 2 in the 8th District since 1901, and as the famed Café Motele, since 1840.
One morning, while enjoying my coffee, I remember noticing four blue-haired widows – there were still so many war widows in Vienna in those years – in a window Nische, enjoy coffees of their own. Sitting with them was a dog, a very large dog, actually a Dogge «a Great Dane». It was a big beast, large enough to sit on its haunches on the bench, its forelegs on the table – its elbows, so to speak, alongside the elbows of the women. Remarkable. And still crystal clear after all these decades. But that’s another story.
Today’s story is about a tree, which I could see through the window and across the Josefstädter Straße – just above and beyond the Dogge’s elbows – a plane tree «Platane», then 50 years old. That’s this story. This Platanus x acerifolia (Ahornblättrige Platane), is Tree Number 1001 in the Städtischen Baumkataster, «City of Vienna Cadastral of Trees». (How Austrian of the Viennese to maintain a property cadastral of their trees!)
With the works beginning to expand the U-Bahn station at the Rathaus to make way for the new U5 line, Tree 1001 was scheduled for removal, and would probably end up as fodder for the Fernwärme Wien at Spittelau. But fortunately, etwas kam dazwischen, something came in between. At the “urging” of the public (a little protest sometimes goes a long way), the city fathers agreed to save the tree.
So it was, that at the stroke of midnight – from the 15th to the 16th of February – the tree was moved 500 meters along the Auerspergstraße to its new home in the Grete-Rehor-Park, between Parliament and the Justizpalast. This great old tree stands 22 meters high, 21 meters wide, and, together with its root ball, is reported to weigh some 40 tons. So moving it was hardly a spur-of-the-moment idea, nor an overnight success: For ten days the tree surgeons had been busy preparing for the move. “It was very difficult for us,” their supervisor told Der Standard, as Tree 1001, its handlers and their machines, moved at a slow march down the Auerspergstraße.
But Vienna is both a horticultural and a cultural animal. So to mark the resettlement of Tree 1001, the front page of Der Standard took readers to Georg Friedrich Händel’s 18th-century opera Xerxes, and, in particular, to one of all opera’s most beloved arias, the haunting “Ombra mai fu,” (If you don’t recall it, play it on your search engine. You’ll soon be humming along.)
In “Ombra mai fu” the Persian King Xerxes sings the praises of a Plantane:
Never was there a shadow
Sweeter, more refreshing
Or more gentle,
Tender and beautiful fronds
Of my beloved plane tree.
Let fate smile upon you,
May thunder, lightning, and storms
Never bother your dear peace,
Nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
The blue-haired widows and the Great Dane are gone, and I am over 80. But Platanus x acerifolia (Ahornblättrige Platane) Number 1001 is going to be fine. And just down the street. I’ll visit it often to sit, as “Never was a shadow / Of branches / Sweeter, more refreshing / Or more gentle.”