I didn’t expect to fall in love with Vienna. In fact, only a few years ago I hardly knew the place. In 2003 I decided to write a series of historical, psychoanalytic detective novels, and, being a clinical psychologist by profession, I realized that only one location would do: the city in which Sigmund Freud interpreted dreams, explored the unconscious mind, and developed the system of thought we now call psychoanalysis. I went to Vienna for a few days in order to do a little research. I walked around Alsergrund (the medical district) and made my way like a pilgrim to Berggasse 19, Freud’s apartment.
Although most of the rooms are relatively empty, the old waiting room retains its original features, and Freud’s hat, suitcase, and walking stick can still be found in the hall. It was in Berggasse 19 that a handful of local doctors used to meet on Wednesday evenings to smoke cigars, eat pastries, and discuss Freud’s ideas. A few decades later, the influence of psychoanalysis had touched almost every aspect of our culture. I later learned that this scene—a few men getting together to discuss ideas and subsequently changing the world—was actually typical of fin-de-siècle Vienna. In virtually every area of human endeavor—psychology, philosophy, art, literature, architecture, music, political theory, and medicine—discoveries were being made and revolutionary ideas were being formulated here.
Much of this intellectual ferment took place in coffeehouses, which are still an essential part of the Viennese experience. For those who enjoy the life of the mind, good coffee, and exquisite cakes, there is no better place on Earth. At the end of my first visit to Vienna, I was smitten, and knew that I would return, whether my psychoanalytic detective thrillers got written or not. As it happens, the books did get written (I have just finished writing the fourth in the series); however, even if they hadn’t got written, I would have been drawn back. In fact, only yesterday, I returned from one of my many trips, and my passion for Vienna was undiminished.
I am never happier than when circumnavigating Vienna’s Ringstrasse—an architectural wonderland of mixed styles (purists carp, but I find the effect quite breathtaking). I went to the Christmas market, which fills the small park in front of the gothic City Hall. The trees were filled with colorful lanterns, and the air was fragrant with roasted chestnuts and the alcoholic sweetness of glühwein (mulled wine).
The evening was cold and clear, sharpening the appetite. I bought a Käserkrainer sausage (an Austrian specialty filled with melted cheese and served with mustard) and let its smoky, savory flavors tease my palate. The Viennese have been holding Christmas markets for over 700 years and have elevated seasonal commerce to an art form. Even though the market was full of tourists, the magic was indestructible. The City Hall—lit to reveal every intricate detail—might have been borrowed from the illuminated pages of a German fairy tale. It was easy to appreciate why Vienna is sometimes called the “city of dreams.”
FRANK TALLIS is a clinical psychologist and the prizewinning author of three thrillers set in Freud’s Vienna: Mortal Mischief (published as A Death in Vienna in the U.S.), Vienna Blood, and Fatal Lies.
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