One of the most impressive historic cafes in Vienna is the Landtmann, which was founded in 1873. Next to the Burg Theatre and across from the Town Hall (the Rathaus), with its large open terrace in summer, it’s just a wonderful place. To Austrians, it’s known as the favourite café of Freud. Even Altenberg, the writer who was practically living in the Café Central, would occasionally drop by to mix with the great figures of his time.
To Bulgarians, though, the Landtmann is the place where, reportedly, a delegation from Bulgaria took the future Prince (later King) Ferdinand to convince him to become the ruler of their country. This was at the end of the nineteenth century soon after Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman occupation. At the time, the capital Sofia looked hardly better than a slightly oversized village and it must have been a bitter disappointment to an aristocrat used to the sophistication of Vienna. Ferdinand did become King, though. The rumour was that the Bulgarians had to cover his quite significant gambling debts and this might have had something to do with his decision. In any case, and not surprisingly, he wasn’t thrilled to find himself in Bulgaria. When asked what he found the best thing about Sofia, he reportedly said: “the train to Vienna.” Not particularly grateful, all considering.
The other day I was sitting in the Landtmann, reading a book by the late Tony Judt entitled A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (1996). I was thinking about Ferdinand’s disappointment. It seemed quite a pertinent topic in the context of the shifting borders of the EU, Brexit, and, more generally, the discussions of what exactly constitutes Europe, where it begins and where it ends. Ferdinand’s predicament was to find himself in a place, which from the perspective of the time, certainly from the Viennese perspective, wasn’t Europe at all. As Metternich, the nineteenth-century Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and one of the most influential diplomats of his time, had famously said: “Asia begins at the Landstrasse,” the Landstrasse being one of the large streets in Vienna. Much more recently Tony Judt would call the project of a united Europe a “grand illusion,” a great idea that is very unlikely to work.