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Winter City 0

By Steenie Harvey

Steamy windows...carol singers...and venison stew on the menu... Snow-covered rooftopsstreets clad in... Christmas lights...and the Danube river definitely more of a battleship-gray color than blue.

Vienna--or Wien as locals call it--looks and feels like a winter city.

The temperature hasn't gone above freezing once, even during the day. Despite their best efforts, animal rights activists camped outside Mariahilferstrasse's posh department stores aren't persuading shoppers to give up their fur coats for the winter. If I had a spare $3,000, I think I'd buy one too.

I'm not a shopper. And I'm never home at Christmas. So I can't understand why I've managed to acquire a whole load of tree trimmings: a mouse, an owl and a hedgehog cleverly made from bunches of painted embroidered petit-point moon and sun...a traditional "snow-storm" with an untraditional red-and-white spotted toadstool...beadwork emerald-robed Old Man Winter and some tiny sheep made of soap. (I'll just have to set up a tree next year to mark the winter solstice.)

Last night I went to Spittalberg, one of Vienna's advent markets. The atmosphere was magical: dozens of tiny stalls are hung with evergreen boughs and lit with tiny white lights. This is probably the best market for unusual handicrafts, but--like the other markets--you can also eat and drink your way through the narrow lanes around Spittalberggasse. There are stalls selling gluhwein (mulled wine), punch and schnapps; Birne, schnapps made from pears, is a great winter warmer. Stalls also sell sausages, potato pancakes...and then there's the Maroni Mann with his roast chestnuts--nine for just under $2.

During Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, a number of special Christmas markets take place in Vienna. With its 150 stalls, the most famous is the Christkindlmarkt held under the Rathaus (town hall). During the day, it's a great favorite with kiddies--dozens of youngsters come here with their frazzled-looking teachers. The trees in the surrounding park are festooned with decorations: there's a hearts tree, a goblin tree, a gingerbread tree, a bear tree, and numerous other trees with strange things dangling from branches, nativity displays under the Rathaus arcades, a workshop for baking traditional cookies, the Post Office in the Clouds where letters to Santa can be sent, a dinky Christmas train, and much, much more.

I didn't think the goods at the Rathaus market are as nice or as well-crafted as at Spittalberg--there's more plastic junk than there is old-fashioned tin figurines and wooden toys--but everybody is having a wonderful time. I was astounded to see a bunch of kiddies knocking back cups of punch, but then I noticed most drinks stalls make a special alcohol-free version too. Where do they put it all? Twenty toddlers, all wearing bright yellow woolen hats, are now munching away on blue candyfloss. Another group are into the giant kartoffelnpuffer (potato pancakes)--and I swear the pancakes are twice as big as their faces!

Steenie Harvey
for International Living

P.S. If you're looking for a Christmas treat, stop in at Cafe Central on Herrengasse (Trotsky's favorite Vienna coffeehouse), with its marble pillars, portraits of Hapsburg royalty, and afternoon klavier music. Ask for the house specialty, Kaffee Punsch ($7): coffee, orange liqueur, Tia Maria and whipped cream.

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First Published: Jan 15, 2005

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