All roads to the West go through Vienna. Generous crossroads where the western world fuses with the horizons of eastern Europe and the Germanic spirit seems to have rich confluences with Latinity, the old Austrian metropolis still conveys the same charm that those claras Asiae urbes dreamt up by Catullus will have had in antiquity, or Venice, at the dawn of the Middle Ages.All things here have soft contours, always slightly blurred, or rather fluid, and even the daring spire of St. Stephen, petrified among the birds and clouds of the skies, cannot tone down the air of voluptuousness and grace permeating this city where the most austere buildings are frequented by a mellow light and the gusts of wintry gale acquire strange musical tonalities.I arrived here in mid February, on a cold day, rich in snow, and yet I had no sense of winter. Snow is rather a décor in Vienna, a means of asserting the elegance of the Baroque and Rococo palaces, an occasion for nocturnal delights in the picturesque Grinzing, where the good society enjoy themselves over a glass of new wine in the wine growers' cellars. To me, Vienna was the city of glorious shadows rather than the cradle of the waltz and the operetta. There exists, undoubtedly, a city of Viennese little girls, of woods, of the Blue Danube, of effervescent frivolity which is not always displeasing; Eminescu himself, wandering along the alleys of the Prater, would pursue the chimera of the rosy Clotildas, humming a stanza from Santa Lucia from the notebook where he had transcribed it. In truth, we can hardly claim this to be a characteristic of the Viennese spirit. It is rather an infusion of Italian essence, assimilated in time and brought to the common core of an exceptional sensitivity. This flavour of exuberant frivolity is very much asserted in Venice and Naples too, where solar temperaments fade away in the starry Mediterranean nights and smiling, exaltation and singing are intrinsic functions of the lack of temperance turned second nature. Anyway it is not for us, Romanians, to cast the stone… Those would be the Anglo-Saxons, the Scandinavians, whom, however, I have met everywhere in Vienna, in Italian towns or in Paris, melting like ice cubes in the wine glasses.People grow tired of always being consistent with their inner structure and sometimes seek pretexts for infidelity, betray themselves, escape from their own prison, as the Portuguese Pessoa puts it, borne away by a spirit of compensation and of secret inner balances. A different geographic horizon, a different city, a different world, a climate other than that which governed your genealogy, are as many occasions for you to elude the laws by which you yourself demand to be judged by your neighbours. On a night of exaltation foreign to your nature you suddenly discover the gratification of a mask that you have never yet dared to put up in your home where the objects themselves no longer allow you to be different from what you have always revealed yourself to be, where the slightest note that goes beyond the boundaries of the tyrannical self-portrait to which you sentenced yourself triggers the inhibitive alarm of a mechanism that you yourself devised.Any journey makes you receptive to what J. Huizinga called Homo Ludens, unconfessed pseudonym of the gravest, the most sullen among us.Perhaps I myself became somebody different starting from Vienna, starting from the first evening when I scared away the birds in Stephansplatz and I walked down the street that embodies the quintessence of Viennese modernity, Kärtner Strasse, towards the Opera House. I had too long been shut away in my uncomfortable solitude in Bucharest, mute to the superfluous cues of the phantoms that kept visiting me unseen, giving me back fragments of old obscure unredeemed existences. A circumstance at once agreeable and unexpected had thrown me inside the patina-covered walls of the capital city of the Habsburgs – specters in their own residence of old –, in the city that Blaga had discovered half a century before, looking at it through Grillparzer's Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen. I remember the chiming of the first hours up in towers hidden in the darkening heights, somewhere on the Ring between the Opera House and the famous Burgtheater; vague snowfall, lights lost in the immensity of the circular boulevard, trams left there, deliberately it would seem, by a clever city councillor to perpetuate, in full modern tumult, some of the subtle charm of Viennese desuetude, coffee-house windows where the Bohemians of older generations had their ever shifting quarters – everything came together in an atmosphere in which the elements became dissolved. I was wearing it as an invisible train on the first of the cycle of twenty one evenings that I spent in Austria and mostly in Vienna. The Wandl Hotel, where I was staying, was an older building with a modernized façade, located in the very centre of the city, behind a large and imposing church, Peterskirche, which commanded the homonymous small square no more than a hundred steps away from Stephansplatz. Modest room, but immaculately clean, which gave a feeling of comfort. Besides, I hardly ever used it other than as a night-time refuge, when the image of the rather sparse objects that furnished it became almost completely blurred, so that Hugo von Hofmannsthal's words would come to mind unlooked-for: in this or that hotel in Germany things seemed to him absolutely unreal, lacking a genuine existence, for all their indescribable banality.The elegant square, with a beautiful aperture towards the Graben, where the plague monument – Baroque fantasy of the most outstanding Austrian architect, Fischer von Erlach, who led a whole team of Italian and German masters – rises flanked by two rather late, probably early 19th century, fountains à l'italienne. The monument, completed in 1693, had been commissioned by Leopold I in the aftermath of the infamous plague of 1679 which haunted dismally inside the walls of the city as they then stood. It is an attraction for tourists, especially Americans, who make a lavish and flashy use of photographic film around it. Myself, I preferred the beautiful and ancient church, which I savoured unhindered until I became familiar with it. The word "ancient" can be shocking, but it only refers to the church itself: an exterior relief recounts the legend of its building by Charles the Great, whose empire stretched over today's Austria, yet other legends grant it origins even more remote, going back to the first centuries of Christianity. Peterskirche the way we see it today is a magnificent building bearing the signature of Lucas von Hildebrand, from the first decades of the splendid Austrian 18th century, of a slightly decadent Baroque which recalls the profiles of Maria Theresa furniture – those unmistakable tabernacles, for example, one of which, spotted and admired by me in a manner most platonic in the shop of a remarkable antique dealer, right across the square from the church, cost more than a luxury Mercedes. It must be said that for the lover of miraculous vestiges there is no torture more cruel than western antique shops, genuine miniature museums whose richness is in direct proportion to the prices, inapproachable to the common person. Ever since Vienna I frequented them religiously, lingering in the world of their regular visitors, most often agreeable people of good taste. One can meet in there at once buyers who know the value of such objects and impecunious maniacs, nonetheless considerately welcomed by the owner, long since edified on the brutal divorce between their competence and their finances. And yet I saw once a most bizarre character, dressed with the precariousness of a butler to a poverty-stricken family, old, or rather grown old before his time, taciturn and hostile, who paid before my very eyes an enormous sum for a late 18th century Twer. Molièresque situations are much more rare: the prices are high and the ignorant upstart prefers the illusory sumptuousness of the imitations, amazed to discover that truly beautiful things are infinitely cheaper than the prohibitively and absurdly valued odd "lumber."The starting point for all my wanderings through Vienna was, therefore, the original enclosure of the city. Some of the buildings that we can see today were erected on Roman foundations, while others have been preserved, and restored from time to time, since the Middle Ages, which impress a distinctive note on urban planning, as well: narrow, winding streets, passageways, small squares, tall roofs. A few minutes' walk away is Hoher Markt, Vienna's pre-medieval centre from the time when today's Stephansplatz lay outside the walls, the way it had been since the Romans, who used to have, even before Christ, a strong camp here. Hoher Markt is a small square bordered by old palaces and has in the middle the Baroque fountain erected by Charles VI, perhaps on the very spot where highwaymen used to be executed. Marcus Aurelius Strasse starts here and goes down towards one of the Danube canals glorifying the memory of the great emperor-philosopher who came to his death in the old Vindobona (the Roman name for Vienna) during a campaign against the Marcomanni, Germanic tribe related to the Swabians, on March 17, 180, although other sources, especially Tertullian, claim that he fell at Sirmium. Leading his victorious legions to the battle that was to be his last, the wise and brave monarch will have recalled his own words (IV, 44): all that happens is as natural as roses in spring or harvesting in summer and so are illness, death, calumny, hypocrisy and all such things as gladden or sadden the fools. Roman ruins, ineffable traces of incipient Middle Ages, oldness, tradition, as many elements which are as familiar to me as the waves of this great river in whose waters, hundreds and hundreds of miles away downstream, my forefathers used to mirror their faces in those times or earlier still, when their Sun god shed light over sceneries and destinies that since then have remained shut under locks by too few known. There is in me too something ancient, perhaps at once barbarian and feudal, bygone ages of which I often dreamt, tall gates locked by death. That is why I feel at home in this city, in the riverbed of its beginnings that I walk like a gold washer seeking shining grains in the sand.From Hoher Markt I get to a square of the Jews – Judenplatz – who settled here as far back as the Roman times and have pursued their prosperous but also tragic fate of financiers of the city under all succeeding rules. At one time the ghetto was here and the Synagogue too, long since torn down in the dire 15th century when persecutions would be seen, and expulsions, and fires, and blazing pyres. Further on, a few minutes' walk away, another square, Am Hof, tournament ground in the early Middle Ages, on whose walls passed the shadow of the renowned Federico Barbarossa; an admirable Baroque palace, former arsenal, with graceful harmonies of ornaments and lines, a church and a column dedicated to the Virgin bear the stamp of the 17th-18th centuries, so conspicuous throughout the city. This mark shines brightest on Herrengasse; the buildings also have the French name Palais. One such edifice, Wilczek Palais, is the seat of the Writers' Society, whose life-giver, the essayist Dr Wolfgang Kraus, is in truth the sole author of my Austrian voyage. I walked not seldom along this street of the aristocracy of old and, as I conversed with some of their descendants, a mist came over my eyes, and through that mist the vanished bells of Hofmannsthal rang seeking one another, while more mute bells tried vainly to answer from somewhere in a land of memory and nostalgia.This gallant century was not indeed as frivolous and skin deep as it had seemed to the positivist and bourgeois descendants circumscribed to a reality which they wished superlatively concrete and looked upon with the eye of the virtual possessor. The fact alone that it was worthy of a Haydn, of a Mozart, so alive here in Vienna, would suffice for any to salute, bowing low, these emblazoned stones aligned as if in a pantomime of esoteric symbols. An Arab thinker said that Divinity is but a sign for those capable to comprehend the language of allusions. Every city is such a sign, every street, every palace does but invite you to inexhaustible enclosures where fantasy reigns free and dreaming bestows upon all things their true reality: alas for those blind to it while walking the streets of foreign cities where footsteps no longer wake anybody and their glance is no longer answered by any windows opening on the inert surface of the stone polygons. One discovers the thrill of a voyage long before setting foot on the stair of a train car: the first voyages are always those around your own skull, as the Hungarian Karinthy used to say, or around your own room, as Xavier de Maîstre's famous phrase goes. If these you prove incapable of undergoing, then the most seductive of voyages will degenerate into a mere transportation act. Medieval Vienna is that of the Ring, circular arterial road closed on one side by the Danube canal and centring on Stephansplatz with the imposing structure of the Dome dedicated to Saint Stephen, which resembles somewhat, in some respects, St. Michael's church in Cluj and thus prompted the erudite professor V. Vătăşianu to guess the existence of a common school. Inside the blackened walls of this immense cathedral I lingered more than once, tracing its entire architectural biography that extends over several centuries, from the Romanesque to the Flamboyant Gothic and all the way to the Renaissance. An amusing circumstance caused the mortar used for the construction of the tower to have been mixed with must instead of water: the year 1456 was mean to the Viennese wine growers and, as the grapes proved too sour to justify vinification, Emperor Frederick III, who reigned for more than half a century, decided that the respective must should not be thrown away but used to prepare the mortar, a typical Austrian solution in its apparent thriftiness, in reality of a gratuitousness bordering on poetry. Elie Faure says that the Gothic did not pursue obscurity but, to the contrary, died from love of light, which is true, only that here light remains reduced to aspiration in itself. All lines seek to stifle the surfaces, the volumes, to dissolve their matter and turn it into pure spirit, into sovereign idea; all lines come together as if governed by the unseen laws of the reducibility of the formal universe to the line or the idea of line, which continues abstractly the acute angles of the great buildings. The fact is most obvious when you stand beside a tower like that of Saint Stephen – very close, by suggestion, to the well-known ideal cathedral devised by Viollet-le-Duc – and look up towards its spire, without having the impression that you actually see it: it rather seemed to me that the shapes disappeared, slimmed into invisibility and were continued somewhere in the infinity of the high spheres where light is born. Not as much the light that reaches us, as an abstract, categorical light, the one that we aim for but shall never reach. But it is around old masonry works that I get this feeling of disappearance by ascending to the heavens, for in them pulsates all that was noblest, purest, most authentic in every age of the world. Recomposed deliberately at the time of the so-called Neo-Gothic, the same elements gave birth to opposite effects: the church named Votivkirche in Vienna, erected around the middle of the last century in the style of the great French cathedrals, is a horrible construction, a pile of stones that killed the pretentious forms that tried to animate it.In front of the Dome there are sunken graves. Where the square now lies there used to be a graveyard.I step on the asphalt underneath which there rest spirits turned into sediment and, in the commotion of cars and pedestrians, I think of all the countries which are but huge graveyards beyond all memory, swept away by the tides of time and ruin. While we pass above the immemorial slumber that is the slumber of the earth redeemed from air, from dreams and from light, inhaled within itself with all the souls that transcended the boundaries of the Word and have for their lord the angel of the deep (St. John the Theologian, 9, 11).From Stephansplatz, going down towards the Ring, I often walk along Kärtnerstrasse. Elegant shops, elegant people, elegant cars, among which I spot citizens of countries with a more modest light industry, armed with enormous bags and probably making all sorts of calculations in front of the shop windows where they pause pensively. I can tell them by the clumsy cut of their clothes, by their gait, by the way they rush from one shop to another, or by the proud manner in which they parade various stylish items of clothing in stark contrast with their rather grim general appearance. Also characteristic to them is a certain importance of the expression, so different from the casualness and jovial nonchalance of the Viennese. The affluence of pedestrians is bearable and does not exaggeratedly crowd the shops, which are so numerous and so diverse in all respects that the public divides and the shoppers are disguised naturally. The shopping avenue par excellence is Mariahilferstrasse, which branches out of the Ring and disappears somewhere in the Penzing fauburg with agreeable and airy villas. Mariahilfer is a real encyclopedia of trade, where one can find the whole conceivable range of products and the prices become more and more acceptable even to the underprivileged buyer. I am not referring to the provincials, who are rarely seen in shops, since similar merchandise can be found even in obscure towns, often at more profitable prices than in the capital. To say nothing of great cities like Salzburg, Innsbruck or Graz, full of shops that compete successfully with the abundance and elegance of Vienna.People seem chilly. Women wear furs or fur-lined winter coats with sumptuous collars, while men can be seen with their heads covered with small Astrakhan fur caps, which lend them a slightly Balkan air, strongly contrasting with their general attire. I guessed behind this custom rather than a climatic imperative, a reminiscence of the Habsburg age, when Austrian political geography went down Serbia and Montenegro to the heart of the peninsula. In Vienna, where people are easily given to a certain self-belittling tinted with irony, I even heard say that one finds oneself here in the most Balkan of the great Germanic cities or of the western capitals, which is however entirely gratuitous and unsubstantiated by the reality that bears a strong west-European stamp. The Ring is especially beautiful at nightfall, when its space is fully valorized and you get the feeling that you are strolling along the massive bank of a river that crosses the city and hides away into the night. I thought I was on the quay of the Danube when I first laid eyes on the Ring in a night-time snowfall, but later I was disappointed to discover that the waves praised by Strauss play a part by all means peripheral in the urban planning of the city. The beauty of Vienna builds itself irrespective of the Danube like, in fact, that of many old cities that kept their original structure and were not reshaped like Paris. Even in Florence, the quay of the Arno makes a lesser impression than, say, Piazza de la Signoria or the Dome Square. The philosophy of the fortified city cannot be compatible with the wide, open beauty of the quays, which offers itself to the eye unanimously; it is guided by the laws of enclosed beauty, concentrated upon itself in an upsurge of hieratic verticality – and in the spirit of these laws the waters are not meant to grant access into the city but to bar it, stopping you at the gates doubled by draw bridges. Between the Opera House and the Burgtheater, on a huge space, full of gardens and monuments, there opens the way to Hofburg, the Viennese Louvre, building ensemble erected over many centuries, starting at the time of Ottokar II, which is to say the 13th century. The main entrance is in fact on the opposite side, reachable from Herrengasse or Augustiner. It is there that lies the splendid Baroque square, Josefplatz, with the National Library, one of the richest in the world. But the scent of folios that Blaga speaks of in his autobiographical pages I could not smell. The short time that I had at my disposal to face the assault of commitments coming from a city of museums and monuments par excellence, where I had come for the first time to legitimize all my readerly accumulations, was at most the necessary respite to set fire to a library. When the day of my departure was drawing near, while returning one night from a visit, I lingered nostalgically by the dusk-shrouded walls of that temple that had remained inaccessible to my fleeting hours. I was trying to find in my memory, among inherited superstitions, a miraculous charm meant to bring me back, before long, to the streets of Vienna; but the face of the moon, who alone was watching me on that night of early March, did not seem to answer and would not remove its impenetrable smile of Asian mask. Excerpted from: Remember. Pseudo-Journal of Travel, 1968

by A. E. Baconsky