One Street At A Time: Berggasse, Vienna

By Joseph Skibell

Originally published in the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler Magazine, November 17, 2002

On a slope between Vienna's car-clogged Wahringerstrasse and the green ribbon of its Danube Canal are four rickracking city blocks filled mostly with the six-story Biedermeier buildings one sees everywhere in Vienna. There are one or two exquisite Baroque buildings and a few monstrosities from the Bauhaus era, but otherwise Berggasse seems like just another anonymous and unpretentious working-class street in a European capital.

Berggasse might escape the attentions of all but its own residents, in fact, had it not been the locus operandi for two of the 20th Century's most significant social movements.

Sigmund Freud spent nearly his entire working life at Berggasse 19. From 1891 until 1939, he developed his theory of psychoanalysis here, famously penning his books and treating his patients in comfortable rooms on the building's second floor.

Less well known is the fact that, among his neighbors, living at Berggasse 6 from 1896 to 1898, was Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Literary editor and Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, Europe's leading liberal newspaper at the time, Herzl published his tract The Jewish State in 1896 and lived on Berggasse, like Freud, as a celebrated giant and a derided crank.

(The two men never met, although Freud dreamt twice of Herzl; and although Herzl ignored the copy of "Interpretation of Dreams" Freud sent him, hoping for a review, Freud did psychoanalyze Herzl's son Hans years later, diagnosing the suicidal youth, not surprisingly, as suffering from a profound Oedipal conflict.)

Nothing commemorates the time Herzl spent on Berggasse, no plaque adorns the faücade of Number 6. Indeed, one might search Vienna in vain looking for any public mention of his name. Instead, Zionists hungry for a glimpse of history will have to settle for a slice of pizza at the Pizzeria Valentino or a drink at the Italian cocktail bar presently on No. 6's ground floor.

In stark contrast, the Freud Museum seems to form the cultural and economic epicenter of present-day Berggasse. Almost directly in the middle of Berggasse's four blocks, it's all that might draw the non-Vienner down the street's biased slopes.

Entering the building's Hapsburg-yellow foyer with its frosted, stenciled windows and its sinuous black vine-like stair railings, I'm momentarily overtaken by an sweeping sense of dominating presence, a palpable spirit of place, and before I can shrug it off as deriving from my own imagination, my wife Basha says to me, "Did you feel that?"

We climb the stairs and ring the bell, as Dora and the Rat Man once did, and are soon in the rooms where Freud spent nearly 40 years, before he and his family were driven from their country by the Nazi SS and its local collaborators.

Freud took all the apartment's furnishings to London when he fled and that is where they remained until 1968, when on a trip to the US, Dr. Josef Klaus, the Austrian Federal Chancellor, was embarrassed by questions about Vienna's conspicuous lack of Freudian commemoration.

Responding to the Austrian government's request, Freud's daughter Anna returned the furniture from her father's waiting room, along with 79 pieces of his extensive collection of antiquities. (The rest, kept in London, are now on exhibit in the Freud Museum there.) The waiting room, restored in the mid-1990's, is where Freud and the members of his Vienna Psychoanalytic Society held their Wednesday evening meetings, the men of the group seated on its plush burgundy-upholstered sofa and chairs.

Although Berggasse had been, at the turn of the century, a step up for Jews like Freud and Herzl who moved there from the ethnic slums of the Leopoldstadt, behind the Prater on the far side of the canal, the street grew decidedly working class in the wake of Vienna's post-war occupation.

Ten years ago, when Massi Baumgartner moved his playfully contemporary furniture shop Massi Design & Handels into Berggasse 30, the building was a -- (unable to remember the English word, Massi sends his pony-tailed assistant bouncing back into the showroom for a German-English dictionary; after consulting it, she returns to the sidewalk where we're standing to utter the word he needs) -- coal shop.

Now Massi's streamlined designs fill the light and airy showroom: shelves of elegant glass bowls and vases, desklamps resembling Picasso's sketches of Don Quixote, a wall of seemingly fluttering lightbulbs with wings. The street is gentrifying, Massi tells us, nodding to the exquisitely white Baroque building next to the Freud house. Once an auto parts factory, the restored ground floor will soon display custom-made English furniture.

Although the coal shop and other businesses have been (not unlike Freud) forced from the street, elbowed out by more fashionable replacements -- an ergonomic furniture store, the offices for Price Waterhouse -- a few hold-outs from the post-war years remain. Next to Massi's is a dingy key repair and schuhmacher, and across the street is a uniform shop for firemen. Near the top of the hill at Berggasse 3 is an army surplus store called Gelegenheitsschwemme. Every shelf and bin in its closet-like rooms is bursting with military merchandise, both new and antique, mostly from the Austrian army, although there are many items from the US, Russian and German armies, as well as Netherlander trousers, Belgian shoes, and Italian jackets.

Kurt Hellmann inherited the store from his parents who opened shop in 1955 when the British, American, French and Russian occupying forces left Austria. In the wake of the Allies' withdrawal, Kurt's father came into possession of thousands of boots which he had to raffle off, so great was the demand for decent footwear in the ravaged Vienna of that time, and that is how the shop was born.

"And where do you get your merchandise these days?" I ask.

"Well, we have to have some secrets," Kurt tells me.

Perhaps most emblematic of this era of the street's history is Mobel Beer at Berggasse 32 (the building where Freud's famous patient Dora lived before the war.) A block from the canal, at the corner of Hahngasse, Mobel Beer is an enormous second-hand shop run by Charlotte Beer.

Signs in the windows proclaim, "Alle Mobel um 50% billiger!!!" and "Alles zum halben Preis."

Plastic laundry bins of used clothing and tablecloths line its front walk. A canister of canes shares space with a tray of clocks and one of silverware and one of tools. There are stacks of luggage and an offering of old tape reels and neckties and string.

Basha finds a pair of lace tablecloths, one hand-embroidered, both elegantly made, and pays less than two Euros (or two dollars) for each of them.

The interior is dark and dusty for an Austrian shop, which is to say hardly dark and dusty at all, but darker and more dusty than the newer shops down the road. The walls and floors, brimming with books and records and ancient adding machines and typewriters, form a dizzying labyrinth of bargains.

For 100 Euros, you can buy a pair of big sturdy armoires.

"The only problem would be shipping them," Basha says, as we reluctantly make our way outside without having made a sizable purchase.

The many restaurants on Berggasse seem to reflect its changing face as well. There's a Cafe Freud, of course, next to the Freud Museum, and two sushi restaurants peeking out from a couple of side streets. There are places for Chinese food and fish and a Mexican restaurant serving, according to its sign, "Acapulco Mexikanische Spezialitatan." There's even a gay coffeehouse called Berg at Berggasse 8 that turns into a gay bar at night. A row of rainbow-colored flags fly over its outdoor seating, which is almost full. A discreet pink triangle is incorporated into the sign it shares with Lowenherz, the gay bookstore next door. Inside, diners sit at table in a large open window. Basha orders a light summer salad which she says is extraordinary and I sip a beer.

There are cafes on every block and more than half a dozen traditional "Wiener kuchen"*, all with outdoor seating. The most inviting of these is Wiener Beisl at Berggasse 24. Its menu features traditional Austrian dishes -- pork filet, roasted cutlets, beef steak, stuffed dumpling with cheese, black pudding - along with a reasonably priced vegetarian menu.

At the foot of Berggasse, along the canal, is a bike trail which runs all the way to Germany. Sitting on a bench, Basha and I enviously watch the cyclists who whiz by on one of the 1,500 free "Vienna bikes" supplied by the city. (If you're lucky enough, you can find these blue or pink bikes locked at various stands inside the Gurtel, Vienna's inner city districts. A two-Euro coin inserted in a slot beneath its seat unlocks the bike and you can ride it all day and receive your coin back when you return it to its stand.)

Overlooking the slow green waters of the canal, a bar called Summer Stage hosts concerts and art exhibits in its glass pavilion. Six sculptures rotate on motorized pedestals in its sculpture garden. Nearby is a sandy volleyball court next to a trampoline station for children. Parents heft large beers and eat nachos while the kids grow dizzy and faint.

There's no knowing what Freud and Herzl, were either alive today, would make of their old street, no knowing what Freud would mutter to himself, as he passed Die Philosophie im Boudoir, an erotica shop with winged phallus-shaped candles in its window and a huge mural over its front door depicting a half-dressed peasant girl sneaking coquettishly into bed, nn knowing if Herzl would stop in at the Persian rug shop at Berggasse 14 and shake his head over the current situation in the Middle East with its proprietor Dr. Mohammi, but there's probably no better street in the entire world on which to sit in a cafŽ over a kaffee mŽlange and wonder about such things.