An unconscious tour of Vienna
Vienna's Secession Building embodies the "Jugendstil", or Art Nouveau, movement. (Krzysztof Dydynski/LPI)
Seeing the top sights might be enough for other cities, but Sigmund Freud's hometown demands further exploration.
Like a waking dream, Vienna stimulates all three parts of the human psyche Freud identified: the hyper-analytical superego, the imaginative ego, and the hedonistic id. Get up off the couch, book a ticket and let your unconscious be your guide.
In Vienna, even those who fundamentally disagree with Freud’s theories about psychoanalysis can see where the neurologist was coming from. The Sigmund Freud Museum served as Freud's home and office from 1891 until 1938, when he fled from the Nazis to safety in England. Above a Kosher butcher shop, Freud performed a different sort of dissection on his patients. The waiting room where the Viennese waited for the good doctor has been restored with its original furnishings, while 1930s home movies of the Freud family play in a constant loop in an adjacent room. The whole setup is, to borrow a Freudian phrase, very interesting.
Another milestone victory of rational thought over basic instinct is the 1937 Vienna Secession Building, where primal urges to burn down the strict Austrian art establishment were sublimated into an elegantly proportioned building by Jugendstil ("Young Style") upstart Josef Maria Olbrich. Gustav Klimt painted the Beethoven Frieze for the Secession in 1902 - but to say that Viennese society was not entirely ready for his depiction of half-naked, pregnant vixens with a giant gorilla lurking in the background would be an understatement. The work languished in storage until it was seized by the Reich in 1938. Some 84 years later, it resurfaced to become an iconic tourist attraction, and is currently featured on a collectable gold 100-euro Austrian coin (minus the gorilla).
Certain thoughts cannot be repressed, nor are they readily minted - hence the fascination of Egon Schiele's 200 drawings and paintings at the Leopold Museum. The Austrian artist's warped, stripped figures were visceral even by Secessionist standards, and his sketchy practice of hiring young girls as nude models got him arrested for corrupting minors. But his sunflowers and self-portraits are no less shocking than his portraits of teens: they are uncomfortably close, frequently beheaded and often the colour of some unspeakable stain.
Decades after his untimely death at 28 in 1918, Schiele's work became the unlikely obsession of a respectable Viennese ophthalmologist named Rudolf Leopold. Schiele's fraught nudes were an unbelievable bargain in Vienna in the conservative 1950s – especially since some were apparently WWII plunder, adding yet another layer of controversy to the collection. For the past decade Leopold's Schieles have been safely enshrined by the Austrian state in a purpose-built, spotless white palace, where they are all the more discomfiting, rebellious and relatable.
But nowhere in Vienna is the ego's psychic itch more satisfyingly scratched than at the Wiener Staatsoper, or Vienna State Opera, where forbidden romances and murderous intrigues have unfolded with alarming regularity since 1869 both onstage and off. Longtime director Gustav Mahler modernised the opera with avant-garde stagings of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, featuring striking Jugendstil sets and powerhouse soprano Anna von Mildenburg, his long-time lover. Yet while Staatsoper stars enjoyed fan worship and state salaries, they also endured merciless derision onstage and iron-fisted censorship behind the scenes. From 1938 to 1945, company members were persecuted and killed as subversives. But when an American squadron mistook the opera for a bombing target in 1945, the city rallied around its ruined opera to rebuild it as it was, and still stands today: a grand stage where human dramas play out some 200 times each year, to cheers and jeers of opera's toughest crowd.
Matinee performances have their trills and thrills, but if the id had its wayward way in Vienna, you would spend the afternoon across the square from the Staatsoper, ordering room service at Hotel Sacher. You do not even have to leave your plush bed in the newly renovated fourth floor luxury rooms to work your way through an entire Sachertorte, iced with dark chocolate and laced with apricot marmalade. Queen Elizabeth's name is on the guestbook, and the chocolate massage at the onsite spa promises suitably royal pampering.
But for a spa day with truly wild abandon, head into Vienna's wine country and check into the outrageous Rogner Bad Blumau Spa. No matter how naughtily you have behaved at Styrian Sauvignon Blanc tasting rooms en route, you will be welcomed with open arms by a giant shrubbery sculpture, and be invited to burrow into a den guestroom built right into the grassy hillside, designed by iconoclastic Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Follow your bliss: dive into the lake with underwater music, inhale ionized air in the salt-crystal-covered grotto and follow a gentle beating of birch twigs with a restorative session at the sauna bar. Day spa rates start at 39 euros - and as Freud himself would have to admit, that is much cheaper than therapy.