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A Stroll Before Sunrise through Vienna, Austria

We arrived in beautiful and historic Vienna with our Rick Steves guidebook in hand, the self-guided walking tour of the city bookmarked like it always is in every guidebook I use. While we see plenty of groups touring cities on foot, with a hired guide shouting toward the people at the back who might be out of earshot, often a small flag in the guide’s hand so his group can easily detect her in the throngs of tourists, Christine and I prefer the walking tours in the Rick Steves books. He maps out various on-foot itineraries, includes photos so you know what to look for, and then gives the key information and back stories. We love that we can take our time, detouring when an interesting distraction presents itself, or stopping to sit when our feet demand it. In Vienna, though, I’d also brought a second walking tour with me, printed pages folded in one of my backpack’s pockets: a walking tour of some of the filming sites from Richard Linklater’s 1995 classic film, Before Sunrise.

I’d first rented the film at a Blockbuster video down in Palm Bay, Florida back in ’95, and was immediately taken by this odd, quiet film. It lacked formal plot and seemed to ignore structure, focusing instead on two young characters, around my age back then in the mid-nineties, who meet on a European train traveling from Budapest to Paris. He’s an American riding the rails after a recent breakup; she’s a Parisian heading home after visiting her grandmother. They get off the train in Vienna almost on a dare, two near-strangers discovering each other as they stroll the streets with no particular destination in mind, the movie content to simply follow them as they walk and chat, about their pasts, about the future, and about nothing much in particular. The audience is a voyeur, eavesdropping. It’s simple, and leisurely, and contemplative, and one of my favorite films of all time.

Back then, I had few social connections and plenty of free time, especially at night. Watching Before Sunrise felt less like watching a movie and more like spending a couple hours with interesting people. I guess you could say it made me, for a short time, less lonely. Admittedly, back then I had no idea where Vienna was. I knew it was a European city, but that was about it. I’m not sure it even registered on that first viewing that they were in a city called Vienna. To me, they were just somewhere in Europe. But deep inside me, despite not knowing anything about where they were, I felt a longing to do what they were doing—exploring distant cities, connecting to a world outside my own. In Florida, things felt small: working odd jobs I hated, watching TV at night, taking rides in my car for no real reason. The beach was close, and sometimes I’d park in front of it and listen to music and watch the waves, the moon dancing off its choppy surface, surf slapping the sand, the repetition and monotony a reflection of my days. Before Sunrise, with its premise launched by a moment of spontaneity, felt foreign to me.

* * *

We spent the day reading and following the Rick Steves walking tour, visiting the Hofburg, the official residence of every Austrian ruler since 1275, the Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the iconic Spanish Riding School with its classic white horses, and the world-renowned Vienna State Opera House. But during the tour I also paid attention to that paper in my backpack with the printout of the filming locations. Whenever we felt like we were closing in on a location, I dog-eared the guidebook and slid it into a pocket and turned my attention to the movie. We first climbed up to the balcony of the Albertina Palais Museum and sat at the base of the equestrian statue of Emperor Franz Joseph I. In the film, Celine lies on her back with her head nestled on Jesse’s lap, waiting out their final moments before she needs to board her morning train for Paris. He strokes her hair and they tilt their faces toward the sunrise like sunflowers, Jesse reciting impromptu poetry. Christine leaned back and put her head on my lap, and we sat quietly for a while. I brushed the glossy stonework with my fingers. “We’re doing it backwards,” I finally said, breaking a long silence. “This was the end of the movie.”

Later, we followed our map to a small, out-of-the-way church, the Baroque Mariahilferkirche. In the film, Jesse and Celine slip inside this empty church and sit together in a pew, where Jesse relays a story of a Quaker wedding he’d gone to in which the bride and groom simply stared at one another, for a lengthy period of time, and eventually were deemed married, as if looking into each other’s eyes, each other’s souls, had spiritually bonded them. Jesse finishes the story and they fall into silence, Jesse staring quietly at Celine until she becomes self-conscious and diverts her eyes. Christine and I strolled the quiet church, our footfalls echoing in the empty space, and we finally sat in a pew to appreciate the silence.

We returned to our hotel room late in the afternoon for a rest, then had a simple meal and some wine before heading back out at dusk. We found the green-girded bridge where, early in the film, Jesse and Celine come across a pair of locals who promote a show they’re performing that evening. Trains ratcheted by below the Zollamssteg Bridge at an angle, the bridge’s green arches appealing and recognizable. We leaned on the steel and took a few pictures, then headed out of town on foot to find Prater Park.

We crossed over the Donaukanal (Danube Canal) with its subset concrete walkway peppered in graffiti. It’s where a street poet writes a spontaneous poem for the two, inserting the word “milkshake” per Jesse’s request. After, Jesse, skeptical, wonders if the man uses the same poem over and over and just substitutes the requested word, tipping his cynical hand to Celine.

Eventually we came upon Prater Park, well outside the city’s urban sprawl. The Prater dates back to 1873, when the land was used for that year’s World’s Fair before morphing into an amusement park. The centerpiece has to be the historic 212-foot high Ferris wheel, constructed originally in 1897 and at the time the tallest in the world until 1985. While many cities across both Europe and the U.S. now boast their own massive Ferris wheels, the Wiener Riesenrad is in a category of its own, much the way a one hundred-year-old wooden rollercoaster captures the imagination more easily than the modern and twisted steel coasters of today. The Wiener Riesenrad (meaning Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel) consists of thirty boxy gondolas, many of which were replaced following heavy damage in World War II. The attraction has been features in plenty of films over the decades, including Orson Welles’ The Third Man and the James Bond feature The Living Daylights, but I know it more prevalently as the place where Jesse and Celine share their first kiss, high above the park and the city. Christine and I considered tickets, but turns out they were seventeen euros each, 34€ for essentially a photo op. In the film, they follow their ride by walking the park and at one point dancing a few steps together, Jesse turning Celine in a pirouette under the stars. Christine and I shared a kiss for my camera, with the iconic wheel framed behind us and the sun sinking into the tree line, the sky alighted in pastel brush strokes. The rides and attractions settled into silhouettes and the neon lights of the park took over. The distant laughter and screams of joy sounded a little louder now, amplified by the dusk. It felt cooler now, so Christine took her jeans jacket out of her bag and put it on. She leaned into me, I leaned into her, and we began our walk back into Vienna, following the sunset.

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