Some years ago, in what now seems an impossibly pre-internet age, I was commissioned to write a guidebook to Vienna. I knew the city well, having spent two years there as a postgraduate studying the architecture of the Vienna Secession. Although my PhD remained unfinished, my time there left me with fluent German and a thorough knowledge of the city’s bars and cafés.
After my academic career fizzled out, I began to have some success as a travel journalist; several of my features, including articles on Vienna, were published in the Observer and the Telegraph. The guidebook commission came from a small publishing house seeking to break into the market; their titles were pitched at well-educated travellers with a particular interest in art and architecture.
In preparation for my research visit I bought copies of all the current English and German-language guidebooks to Vienna. I was soon struck by how similar they all were. They all began with the same potted history of the city, from Roman fort to the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The same cast of characters stalked the pages of every book: Empress Sisi with her ridiculously tiny waist and exercise equipment; the bewhiskered Emperor Franz Josef, unimaginable outside a sepia photograph; the tragedy at the hunting-lodge in Mayerling; Klimt’s gilded paintings – not to mention the full supporting cast of Mozart, Trotsky, Freud, Mahler, Bruckner and even Hitler, who was reduced to flogging postcards of his watercolour views of the city after failing to make it into art school.
All the books recommended the same round of sight-seeing activities, ranking churches in order of baroqueness and museums in order of the height of their ceilings. They all suggested going to the Hotel Sacher for a piece of Sachertorte and they all contained a list of Top Ten Cafés, including a couple of ‘insider choices’ which the author congratulated themselves on having found down some backstreet. The descriptions of the cafés were enhanced by claims that ‘Trotsky used to read the newspapers here’ or ‘Mahler used to play chess here with Klimt.’
I began to wonder just how far these guidebook writers were cannibalising each other’s work. Did anyone really visit seventy cafes, or spend a night in forty different hotels? Had they really been to all those museums catering for niche interests, or were they perhaps relying on flyers picked up in the Tourist Information Office?
I decided to test my theory by inventing a café for my own guidebook, curious to see whether it would sink without trace or whether it would be picked up by other guidebook compilers. Initially I wanted to call it Café Atlas, as the buildings of Vienna often have Atlantes supporting upper storeys on their muscular stone shoulders, but then I came across a genuine Café Atlas in one of my German guidebooks. I decided to stick with the Classical theme and call it Café Herakles; it would be situated in the streets around the university, an area I knew particularly well. I would keep the description brief and neutral, not worth going out of one’s way for:
Café Herakles, Liebiggasse 183
Designed in 1898 by Jan Kotěra, one of Otto Wagner’s pupils, the Art Nouveau interior is battered but still rewarding. Especially noteworthy are the murals depicting some of Herakles’s Labours, including his struggles with the Hydra and the Nemean Lion. Josip Broz (Tito) used to come here regularly when he worked at the Daimler plant in Wiener Neustadt. Situated in a backstreet near the University, this café is popular with students and writers due to the low prices and congenial atmosphere. Lunchtime fare is basic but nourishing, including local favourites such as beef consommé with pancakes.
I can still remember the excitement of going into Stanfords in Covent Garden and seeing my book in the ‘Austria’ section, especially because it looked more attractive than its competitors. I didn’t have to wait long for Café Herakles to make another appearance in print, an Independent travel article on ‘48 Hours in Vienna.’ I was rather annoyed that they hadn’t asked me to write the article myself, but the little inset on café culture more than made up for it. Café Herakles appeared last in the list as a quirky ‘author’s choice,’ with new details about how the pastries were surprisingly good and that visitors shouldn’t miss the impressive mural of Herakles bringing the three-headed dog Cerberus up from the Underworld.
After this the references began to multiply. I scanned the travel sections of the broadsheet papers every weekend and regularly dropped into Stanfords to check whether any new guidebooks on Vienna had been published. Each new author sought to add their own stamp on the description of the café, or at least to hide their plagiarism and sloppy research. I was fascinated to read about the menu and the staff: it sold the best Sachertorte outside the Ringstrasse; there was a waiter who looked like Dracula but had a great sense of humour; Bruckner used to play chess in here; and (for the tourist who liked a more edgy experience) a penniless Hitler used to sit there for hours, sweating under his waterproof yellow bicycling cape, writing the first draft of what was to become Mein Kampf. The café, it seemed, was an Art Nouveau gem with its glazed tiling, sinuous ironwork, a mascaron over the door and Mucha-style lettering above the entrance and the bar. One writer even enthused over the stained-glass window of Herakles strangling the Nemean Lion.
However, after my son was born I no longer had the time to check publications on Vienna, and the fake café receded into my past. Then, six years after the publication of my book, I received a call from the publishers; the book had sold well, and the series was now well-established – would I be interested in undertaking a revision of the Vienna guide for a second edition?
A few weeks later, I was back in Vienna to check out new hotels and restaurants. One afternoon, having decided to revise the section on the University quarter, I popped into a rather nondescript café which I used to frequent as a student, only to find it had undergone a total makeover. Above the door was a stone mask of Herakles, with empty eyes and lustrous beard, wearing a knowing smile and the impenetrable skin of the Nemean Lion. Inside, the walls were painted with exuberant but rather talentless murals depicting the full set of Herakles’s Labours. The once-functional bar area was now an Art Nouveau pastiche, with intricate ironwork tendrils, like the convolvulus strangling the rose bushes in my neglected garden.
I told the proprietor, a middle-aged woman with hennaed hair, that I was writing a book on Vienna and that I’d like to feature her café. She said she would be delighted to tell me anything I wanted to know, but first I must try some of her marble cake – all the cakes here were home-made, she said, not like the other cafes that made it into the guidebooks. Between bites of marble cake, which really was quite special, I told her that this used to be one of my favourite cafés years ago, when I was a student, but that I didn’t remember it looking this way.
“Well, we decided to redecorate the café a few months ago as it was looking a bit tired. We found the ironwork and the Herakles mask in an architectural salvage yard just outside the city. The murals were painted by my friend’s daughter – she’s a student at the art college.”
“So why did you choose the Herakles theme?”
“We got fed up with people coming in and asking for some Art Nouveau place called Café Herakles. It must have been somewhere round here, but it probably closed years ago – it just goes to show how out-of-date all the books are. So when I decided to smarten the place up, I tried to imagine how Café Herakles might have looked.”
I noticed a sepia-tinted print hanging on the left-hand side of the bar.
“Excuse me, that photograph up there – that’s not a photograph of Tito, is it?”
“Yes, that’s right, that’s been here for years – it’s one of the only things we kept from the original décor. Apparently he used to come here a lot, you know, back when he worked at the Daimler factory.”
Insider Choice: Café Herakles, Kloppstrasse 28
Friendly, comfortable café in the university district. The sensitive refurbishment, featuring reclaimed Art Nouveau ironwork and tiling, manages to recreate the atmosphere of the fin-de-siècle café of the same name (sadly now demolished) whilst colourful murals by a local artist maintain a student vibe. Hearty food at reasonable prices makes this a good choice for the tourist on a budget – the marble cake is particularly good.