When asked how his production of Goodnight Vienna was going down with audiences in Huddersfield, Noel Coward is reputed to have replied ‘about as well as Goodnight Huddersfield would be going down with audiences in Vienna.’
I cannot vouch for Huddersfield’s cultural riches but there has never been a better time to visit Austria’s ‘City of Dreams and Music’. Over the past couple of years, many of Vienna’s most important buildings have undergone a thorough clean in preparation for the 150th anniversary of the World’s Fair. The sprucing up has certainly paid off; buildings once shrouded in layers of soot now gleam sugar white against the clear summer sky.
Mired by setbacks, the 1873 fair was one of the biggest of its kind and cost a whopping £23.4 million to stage. After weeks of unrelenting rain, the Danube burst its banks, deluging the exhibition ground days before the grand opening. Meanwhile, an epidemic of cholera swept through the city just as the stock exchange crashed. Despite a shaky start, the fair attracted around seven million visitors to the city’s Prater Park where 26,000 exhibitors from countries as diverse as China and the USA came to show off their wares.
Visitors could look at silk kimonos from China and decorative jewellery from the Middle East, held in decorative pavilions built in the vernacular of each country. It was here that Europeans had their first taste of cocktails, a US invention that caused quite a stir at the time.
As well as celebrating the best of Austro-Hungarian industry and culture, the fair also commemorated Franz Joseph I’s 25th year as emperor. Sadly, the magnificent centrepiece, a rotunda designed by Scottish engineer John Scott Russell, was destroyed by fire in 1937. Today, only one of the original pavilions remains along with the handsome ferris wheel made famous by Orson Welles in his film The Third Man.