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Vienna's Lost Bar Area

October 18, 1987|RUTH E. GRUBER | Gruber is an American living in Italy

VIENNA — They call it the Bermuda Triangle, an area lost amid a welter of narrow streets and late-night bars in the heart of Vienna's downtown First District, within the famous Ringstrasse and almost in the shadow of St. Stephen's Cathedral.

The Bermuda Triangle is the hub of Vienna's new night life, the area on either side of Rotenturmstrasse near St. Stephen's Church. Scores of wine bars and cafe restaurants called beisls have sprung up in the past half a dozen years, transforming the after-hours scene in a city that used to roll up the sidewalks at 10 p.m.

"Only a few years ago," says a guidebook, "young visitors to these places looked with envy at cities like Berlin and Munich, where there was a great variety of important night spots.

"Today the situation has changed and the problem is reversed: There is such a wealth of places to go here that it's difficult to choose from. Not a week passes without new bars, taverns or other places being opened."

A Different Vienna

It's a far different Vienna from that of the State Opera and the Lippizaner stables or from that of the traditional staid Viennese coffeehouses or the popular heurigen wine taverns near the vineyard country at the edge of town.

There, lokals such as the Salzamt on Ruprechtsplatz or the Alt Wien or Oswald und Kalb on Backerstrasse stay open until well past midnight, serving as hangouts for students, painters, writers, actors, musicians and other members of the city's intellectual crowd.

It's a crowd that one British resident of Vienna once referred to as the "propeller set rather than the jet set."

People migrate from bar to bar, from beisl to beisl , drinking wine or coffee or schnapps or perhaps eating a meal of goulash soup or Wiener schnitzel. A few places such as the Roter Engel on Rabensteig offer live music, but mostly the emphasis is on meeting, talking and checking out the action.

Double Duty

By day, some of the late-night places function as more usual cafes and restaurants, sandwiched among a growing number of art galleries, bookstores and boutiques catering to quite a different clientele than traditional Viennese shops.

Several years ago the beisl scene was still so new that habitues spoke of it as the same 500 people rotating each night among the same 10 bars.

Today, with new bars opening constantly, the army of regular bar hoppers has swelled to at least several thousand.

"When I go to three bars in an evening I always meet at least three or four of the same people at each bar," said Peter Martos, a foreign affairs editor on Die Presse newspaper.

"It's a new culture," he said. "At the heurigens , all people are forced to be brothers. At the coffeehouses, everyone sits there isolated at his table. At the new bars, if you don't contact the people you know, they will come to you. I really like it."

The Bermuda Triangle phenomenon, which has led to other trendy late-night scenes in other neighborhoods, is part of an overall rejuvenation of Vienna, which has seen a flowering of galleries, theater groups, musicals and other performances.

In one bold move the city also commissioned abstract artist Hundertwasser to design a public housing apartment that opened two years ago. It sits like a fantastic, colorful sculpture in an otherwise bourgeois street.

"It started about seven years ago," said Peter Hrtica who, with his partner Rudolf Oswald, runs the dimly lit Cafe Alt Wien, a beisl packed nightly by a 250- to 300-person standing-room-only crowd.

"Before that it was dead," he said. "Today, more and more lokals are opening all the time."

Alt Wien Typical

The Alt Wien is a good gauge of the trend. It was founded in 1936 as a typical coffeehouse but in the 1950s was modernized with tacky plastic decor.

Hrtica and his partner acquired the cafe about three years ago, stripped away the plastic and reopened it with an old-fashioned and slightly seedy decor.

"They painted the walls to look as if they had been soaking up cigarette smoke for years," said an English resident of Vienna.

With dim lights, a smoky atmosphere, a new-old look with the walls plastered with posters and an old billiards table in the middle of one of the two main rooms, business at the Alt Wien took off.

"Young students, artists, actors, directors, painters--they all come here, and attract others," said Hrtica. "We get the same people every night from 10 p.m. till 4 a.m. There aren't very many tourists. Tourists know Karntnerstrasse and the Graben (fashionable shopping streets); few find their way here."

A night in the Bermuda Triangle can start with dinner at Oswald und Kalb, just across Backerstrasse from the Alt Wien or at the Salzamt, in a pedestrian area just a few steps from the central synagogue, which is guarded 24 hours a day by gun-toting police.

Center of the Action

The area around the synagogue on Seitenstetengasse and Rabensteig was the original center of the Triangle.

The evening continues after dinner with brief stops in at least two or three other bars or beisls , making sure to visit only those popular ones that are jampacked with people, noise and smoke.

For anyone, especially an American used to no-smoking regulations, it can be an eye-opening--or closing--experience.

"Sure, there's a lot of smoke," said the Alt Wien's Hrtica. "But I can't do anything about it. Where there's a lot of people there's a lot of smoke, and where there's more smoke, more people come. If a lokal is empty, no one is going to patronize it."

The beisl scene seems firmly established in Vienna, but it has not been without problems. The growing influx of noisy, late-night crowds into what had been a quiet, rundown residential area populated mainly by elderly people caused cries of protest.

As it is, cafes and beisls are barred from serving at outdoor tables after 10 p.m.

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