Vienna is a splendid, historical city. This is the home town of Mozart, genius composer of classical music. This is also the imperial capital of the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled over the Roman Empire for over five hundred years. Here, within a small area, are clustered many grand palaces, vast museums, opera houses and the imposing Stephansdom, a Gothic cathedral whose tall spire rises into the distant skies. And cutting through the city is the picturesque Danube river, which has been immortalised in the waltz named after it titled: Blue Danube , written by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II.
Last week, walking on the cobbled roads of Vienna, I could feel the currents of history and art flowing all around me. I passed by a large stately opera house, and then turned onto a busy street, the Karntnerstrasse (English : Carinthian Street). I had wanted to visit retail stores in Vienna, and since this is the most famous shopping street in the city, it seemed the ideal place to go to. Karnterstrasse has existed since the Roman ages, when it was the main trading route to the southern province of Karinthia.
Today, it is a bustling modern street, full of shoppers, tourists, roadside cafes and stores.
Fit for royalty The very first store I came across, right around the corner of the street, was so beautiful that it took my breath away. At first glance, the show windows of this store appeared to contain pieces of modern art. But on closer look the artefacts turned out to be circular chocolate cakes, displayed against a very appealing background. And then I realised that these were no mere chocolate cakes, but the original “Sacher Torte ”, arguably, the most famous cake in the world.
The interiors of this crowded bakery store, which is called the Hotel Sacher, narrated the story of this cake with a grand flourish, yet with remarkable simplicity. Invented way back in 1832 by Franz Sacher, and praised by wealthy Kings and fine ladies alike, the recipe of this cake remains a closely guarded secret until today. But the store does reveal, through a video film, that a lot of locally produced apricot jam is used in it towards the juicy layer within the cake. What struck me as quite unique was that each Sacher Torte cake is sealed by hand. It is wrapped in cellophane, placed in a delicately crafted wooden box and then packed in burgundy coloured paper which features a design from the Biedermeier period. The cake is celebrated in the store not just as a confectionery, but as a “lovingly packaged specialty that brings joy to the whole world”. I thought to myself, this is the closest one can get to treating a cake as a piece of art!
Shimmering crystal s I walked out of the Hotel Sacher onto the street, impressed by what I had just seen in a small bakery. But there was lots more ahead, which would continue to take my breath away. My next stop, just a few metres ahead, was Swarovski’s flagship store. This is the largest Swarovski store in the world, spread over three magnificent floors. In contrast to the modest interiors of the Hotel Sacher, this store radiates opulence everywhere. It is described by its owners as a “sparkling fusion of design, architecture and a shimmering shopping landscape in the heart of Vienna”.
And indeed it is all this, and much more. Across all floors are installations created by famous artists, and most of these showpieces are made of Swarovski crystals. For instance, a big window display features the Petite Party , an installation by the set designer Stuart Henry.
It shows well dressed miniature-versions of ladies celebrating on a delightfully glittering pink carousel, which in turn is set on a bed of light pink and milk-white crystal. Not far away is the Lake of Shimmer , a wall installation by the Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka. Made using over 16,000 continuously moving octagonal mirrors, this wall evokes the constant, timeless sparkle of crystal. It was magical to look at, even as I rode up the escalator of the store.
If you think this store is all about its art installations, then you only have to see the huge variety of Swarovski products on all three floors. These include, brilliant jewellery, eye-catching crystal figurines and crystal objects of wondrous design. The store is remarkably crowded, drawing an estimated 5,000 visitors each day. With nearly 2-million shoppers coming in to this single store each year, it must surely be raking in excellent business, in addition to serving as a fabulous means of display for Swarovski. Brilliant art that epitomises the brand, and great commerce that reflects the strength of the brand – this combination represents exactly what a grand flagship store should be. Heady from my encounters with delicious chocolate cake and sparkling glass crystal, I walked back out onto the Karntnerstrasse. I was somewhat surprised to see virtually every second person on the street licking cones of ice cream. But wait a moment; this was not ordinary ice cream. The cones looked particularly colourful and attractive. Walking ahead, I saw a large queue, over 50 people-long, gathered outside a small ice-cream parlour, bearing the name of “Eis Greissler”. I looked in. Once again, like the Sacher Torte bakery and the Swarovski flagship showroom, I had stumbled upon a unique ice cream store.
It was unique because the blackboard outside the store spoke of imaginative and fantastical flavours of ice creams, such as goat cheese, cherry yoghurt and pumpkin seed oil, which I had never ever heard of before. It was also unique because the façade and interiors of the store were very cute, even featuring a sculpted head of a very happy cow. And then again, the scoop sizes looked very generous, and sat incredibly well on top of the cone, as if scooped out by a painter or artist. Here was artisanal ice cream, made using only organic milk sourced from family-owned farms, and organic fruits from the region. No wonder the queue outside Eis Greissler always stretches so long, and no wonder some customers have actually nicknamed these ice creams ‘frozen versions of Mozart’s symphonies’.
Shopping and Art Back on the street again, licking my sturm wine ice-cream, I reflected on what these three stores on the Karnterstrasse in Vienna had taught me. Their simple lesson was that, whatever be the product or store, we can, with extreme attention and craft, turn the shopping journey into a beautiful experience that mirrors great art. Whether it is selling cake or crystal or ice cream, the store can always tell a wonderful, unique story. Sometimes this story is based on heritage, at other times on grandeur, at other times on sheer imagination. But these stories, and the manner of their narration, can merge an otherwise mundane act of shopping with the beauty of art to create something magical.
(The writer is also author of ‘Tata Log : Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution’. These are his personal views. He can be reached at email@example.com)