More Startling Discoveries in Magnificent Vienna

By Nasser Tufail

Traditionelle Wiener Kaffeehäuser

Vienna was not the pioneer in coffee house culture, but it established a prolific coffee house tradition fostering political, literary, artistic and high culture activity at these places matched by few other cities in the world. Interestingly, women were ‘banned’ from entering the establishments until 1856!

Legend has it that the origins of the Viennese café is closely linked to the end of the Siege of Vienna in 1683 and the mysterious sacks of beans left behind by the Turks after their defeat. The story goes that a Viennese citizen, Georg Franz Kolschitzky, donning a Turkish disguise, managed to penetrate enemy lines and in reward for his admirable service and courage, he was awarded sacks of those coffee beans and granted permission to open his coffeehouse in Vienna. He is said to have opened a coffeehouse called Zur Blauen Flasche (To the Blue Bottle), and if you walk up on Favoritenstraße just two blocks North of Wien Hauptbahnhof, Vienna’s main train station, you can find a statue of him at the intersection of Kolschitzkygasse, a street named after him.

Statue of Georg Franz Kolschitzky

Others say the first Viennese coffeehouse was operated by an Armenian, Johannes Diodato, in 1686. Whatever the reality, there are some really fantastic traditional coffee houses in Vienna, many still operating for over a century – Café Schwarzenberg, Cafe Hawelka, Café Prückel, Cafe Sperl, Café Korb, and Café Sacher (birthplace of that scrumptious Sachertorte) to name a few that I have been to.

But there are two notable cafés in particular worth mentioning that are steeped in rich history and tradition over 145 years and embody the classic Viennese coffee house culture – one that I visited during my last trip, Café Landtmann, and the other which I am visiting today, Café Central. From royalty and ordinary citizens to secret Freemasons and Knights Templars, from revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries to musicians, actors, philosophers, politicians, artists and intellectuals, these cafés have hosted them all.

The Burgtheater opened in 1741 under the patronage of Empress Maria Theresa and is considered the national theater of Austria. Beethoven’s 1st Symphony and several Mozart operas were premiered here.


Very close to the Burgtheater in the Palais Ferstel building that once housed Vienna Stock Exchange, is Café Central, an elegant coffee house with an upmarket ambience.

Café Central

The imposing marble columns, arched ceilings and chandeliers are impressive and give an air of timeless sophistication. The unhurried genteel urbanity of the 19th and early 20th century when conversation was considered an important social skill has seemingly been replaced with a chaotic touristy culture of cell phones that has redefined how we communicate, interact, and connect. The cake display with its dainty pieces of culinary art is itself a work of art, and a life-sized mannequin of the Austrian poet, Peter Altenberg, who spent a lot of time at this café writing poetry, is there to greet you!

Selma orders Wiener Melange (Viennese style coffee) and settles for croissant as they don’t have any sugar-free pastries; I can’t make up my mind between hazelnut torte and Sachertorte, and so I order both with a Cappuccino!

Regulars at Café Central have included the father of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, former Federal Chancellor of Austria, Julius Raab, the famous Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler, the renowned architect Alfred Loos, the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, Marlene Dietrich as well as a number of rabble rousers and shady characters too which need a particular mention, as that was my next ‘serendipity moment’ when I found out about them.

Those ‘Dodgy Five’ rabble rousers in Vienna in the summer of 1913

In the summer of 1913, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian empire, eagerly awaited ascending the throne; his assassination the following year, and a series of events, would spark WW-I. That summer, within a roughly 2 mile radius from the Archduke’s Belvedere Palace, five dubious ‘creatures’ happened to be living in Vienna at the same time. All of those five characters were regulars at Café Central where we are having our coffee. Their names at birth were:

  1. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili
  2. Lev Davidovich Bronstein
  3. Josip Broz
  4. Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov
  5. Adolphus, son of Alois Schicklgruber

It is generally believed that Ioseb, Lev and Vladimir had met each other on a few occasions at the café and it is likely that Vladimir and Lev may both have separately met Adolphus. So who were these five dubious characters? Well, in the above order, they were (names after birth):

  1. Joseph Stalin
  2. Leon Trotsky
  3. Marshal Josip Broz Tito (PM of former Yugoslavia)
  4. Vladimir Lenin
  5. Adolf Hitler

DAYMN… the cast of characters!! These wily men surely changed the course of world history, and then some! 

When Stalin disembarked from the Krakow train at Vienna’s North Terminal station, he was disguised as a Greek with a forged passport. He arrived at Café Central to meet Trotsky. Both revolutionaries were on the run. Stalin wrote a tract entitled ‘Marxism and the National Question’ whilst in Vienna. Little did Trotsky know then that Stalin would order his death several years later. After a failed attempt to have Trotsky killed in 1939, Stalin got him the second time the following year in Mexico City with the help of a Spaniard from Catalonia named Ramon Mercader working as a KGB agent (then NKVD). A blow to Trotsky’s head with an ice-axe didn’t kill him immediately and the poor guy lived in agony for another day before he died.

Tito, who worked at the Daimler automobile factory just South of Vienna, lived just a few blocks away from Stalin while he was in Vienna. Evidently, he met Stalin but didn’t join the communist party (he was more of a socialist). Stalin kept nagging Tito to toe the commie party line, and when the latter didn’t play ball, Stalin sent assassins after him. It is said that Tito famously sent a rather public note to Stalin which read: “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle…If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.” Remarkably, Stalin stopped sending assassins… or so the story goes!

Trotsky had met Hitler under these magnificent arches of Café Central on a few occasions, but no one knows what exactly they discussed – maybe they were just shooting the breeze, eating cake and sipping coffee, like we are! Lenin’s presence in Vienna in the summer of 1913, and his meeting with Hitler, doesn’t appear to be irrefutable, though the consensus seems to favor the view that they did meet.

I think the reason for it is that a few years ago, a story came out that a rare sketch (or etching) had surfaced at an auction in UK showing Hitler playing chess with Lenin, along with the chess pieces and the original chess board they played on. The sketch was supposedly drawn by Hitler’s art teacher, Emma Lowenstramm (who watched the two play the game), and signed on the reverse by both, Lenin and Hitler! This leads many to believe that since the two had earlier contact, it’s likely they were in contact again in 1913. Its arguable authenticity notwithstanding, here is that incredible sketch of Hitler on the left and Lenin on the right.

Sketch depicting Hitler and Lenin playing chess

A walk through the Burggarten Park near the Hofburg Palace brings us to the Mozart monument, a 25 foot marble statue dedicated to composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with reliefs depicting scenes from his work and childhood.

Mozart Monument

The house he lived in while in Vienna at Domgasse 5, and the only one that survived, is now a museum.

The house Mozart once lived in

It’s only apt that we visit his resting place and offer ‘Fatiha’ (God’s mercy and blessings for the soul)!

Wiener Zentralfriedhof – Half the Size of Zurich and Twice as much Fun

We are now at Wiener Zentralfriedhof, one of the biggest cemeteries in the world spread over 600 acres on the outskirts of Vienna in the Simmering district. With over 3 million internments, it has more deceased folks than the city’s live population. The local Viennese joke is that it is half the size of Zurich and twice as much fun! The cemetery’s own church dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo, the same Saint that Karlskirche is dedicated to, is in the middle of the cemetery.

St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery Church

We walk past some beautiful graves that look like real works of art. Here are some typical graves in Wiener Zentralfriedhof.

After locating the cenotaph honoring Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, my first ‘serendipity moment’ arrives when I spot the graves of two more of the greatest music composers the world has known – Johann Strauss II (who composed the famous Blue Danube waltz) and Ludwig van Beethoven!

L to R: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Strauss II, Ludwig van Beethoven

Just a short distance away, I find the grave of another great music composer, Franz Schubert, who was the torch bearer at Beethoven’s funeral. Though Schubert died young at age 31, he left a substantial body of musical work including symphonies, vocal works and operas. A few steps away are the graves of German composer of the Romantic period, Johannes Brahms, and another German composer and piano maker, Johann Andreas Streicher (who provided a fortepiano for Beethoven).

L to R: Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Johann Andreas Streicher

My next ‘serendipity moment’ revelation is the grave of THE head of the Strauss musical dynasty, Johann Strauss I (Vater – meaning father in German), considered the ‘Father of the Viennese Waltz’, and of whom it has been said that “Vienna without Strauss is like Austria without the Danube”! He was a Romantic composer famous for his waltzes and created many waltzes and polkas for the Austrian nobility. Another grave catches my attention – it’s the former Austrian conductor of the Vienna State Opera and once a professor at the Vienna Music Academy, Hans Swarowsky. Amongst a host of famous conductors who were his pupils, one name may be familiar to many – that of Zubin Mehta, originally from Bombay, who went on to direct and conduct at Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

L to R: Johann Strauss I (Vater), Hans Swarowsky

I discover three more graves of Austrian composers from the classical world of music: Franz von Suppé, an Austrian composer of light operas, Eduard Strauss (son of Johann Strauss I who wrote some lovely polkas and waltzes) and Johann Ritter von Herbeck who is most known for conducting the premiere of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony and then completing it by adding the third part as the finale. Later, I find out that yet another one from the Strauss dynasty, Josef Strauss, son of Johann Strauss I, is also buried here! It is really remarkable to be in the company (of the souls and remains) of the greatest music composers the world has known, all in one place.

L to R: Franz von Suppé, Eduard Strauss, Johann Ritter von Herbeck

While in college, I discovered a jazz fusion band called Weather Report and bought one of their albums titled Black Market (I still have the vinyl album).

The band was founded by a keyboard/synthesizer player, Joe Zawinul, and saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, and I once got to see them live in concert. This particular album draws persuasively from African influences.

I knew of Joe Zawinul as one of the great electric piano and synthesizer maestros, but I really did not know much about his background going by his last name or his Sufi sort of an appearance – crocheted ‘prayer cap’ and heavy mustache.

Joe Zawinul

Imagine my ‘serendipity moment’ when I chanced upon his grave at Wiener Zentralfriedhof and found out that he was Austrian, rather defying his appearance? It was time for one last Fatiha, I thought, after an overload of so many Fatihas in just one day!

Joe Zawinul’s grave

But serendipity has a way of showing itself in capricious ways, and there was yet one last Fatiha left for the lady who was once arguably considered “the world’s most beautiful woman” – Hedy Lamarr. May I give you her final resting place at Wiener Zentralfriedhof!

Hedy Lamarr’s grave

Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: Remembering Ibn Khaldun in a World of Illusionary Truths

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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  1. Great article. Had no idea that all of those guys met – very well done research! As far as the cafe society…this article makes me want to travel to Vienna simply to spend time in its various cafes. Although I’d hope that the conversation would be rich and the cell phone usage poor 🙂

  2. Hi Ross, thanks for the comment. Since our travels have been a bit constrained due to the pandemic, this blog-related activity has given me an enjoyable diversion to reflect on past travels, compose my thoughts and pen them down. Hope you are making good progress with your project. Look forward to catching up when you are back. Cheers…

  3. Thank you Nasser, for that wonderful trip around Vienna. with it’s beautiful buildings, and all that music that was evoked by your trip to the Cemetery. I enjoyed your posting.

    • With all the restrictions around travelling, this is the next best thing. We can relive our own holidays, and enjoy other people’s vacations too.

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