The heat rises in waves from the street as temperatures soar to 38 degrees Celcius in Vienna. Several horses and carriages stand in this sweltering heat in front of the Albertina.
But, along the Fürichgasse where large trees pour their shade out over the park onto the street giving a reprieve from direct sun to both horse carriages and drivers, Fiaker drivers pass out water buckets, smoke cigarettes and wait their turn to move forward in the line and into the heat.
This oasis of shade was once the site of a handsome 1865 apartment house - the Philipphof - in whose cellars hundreds had sought refuge from American bombs until a direct hit destroyed both building and shelter, killing everyone inside – in one of the most gruesome civilian tragedies of the war.
Now this lovely simple garden of grass and trees is a living testament to these “other” victims of war. They are not forgotten, but time has mercifully altered how we remember. Now, an American can walk her dog and take time to pet horses, and have a chat with the most traditional of Viennese, the Fiaker Fahrer.
Wolfgang Stoffler sits in one of two folding chairs in the shade reading a paper, a cooler at his feet. He has been a Fiaker Fahrer since 1983. His chosen career for the last 30 years has kept him fit, tanned, full of humor and life. My dog discovers his hand and he pats her lightly on the head while offering me a chair.
Glancing over at the horses, heads hanging as they stand patiently in the burning sun, I ask him the question most people think they already know the answer to: “How do the horses hold up in the heat?”
“Oh, they like the sun and heat,” Wolfgang assured me, “actually, far better than standing in the cold. And of course we rotate them from the shade to the sunny waiting spot, so no team is in the sun full time.” Good thing too, because Wolfgang tells me that they earn most of their income from May to August.
But many clearly don’t understand, don’t know horses, he says, and make their feelings known. “People often shout at me, calling us drivers animal torturers.” Then he opens the cooler at his feet. I was expecting sandwiches and cold drinks… But no. It was full of bite size carrots and apples for the horses. These horse treats are what the people don’t see – evidence of the bond between drivers and their horses.
Wolfgang walks me over and introduces me to his team of 5-year-old grays, Peter and Paul, who immediately react to the sound of their names. Soft muzzles find their place in my hand and their affection is immediate.
Wolfgang’s team is next up. Until a customer arrives he has time to talk about what happens to horses that don’t have a job as these Fiaker horses do. In his younger days, he had a trotting racehorse and worked in a barn full of race trotters.
Most all owners want a fast horse and if a horse is not fast enough, his boss was ordered to send horses with no injuries even as young as four years old to the butcher shop for the price of their meat.
One owner he remembers had just two horses left from a 100 racehorses within a few years. I’m aghast. Wolfgang states the simple fact – these people have no relationship to their horses. Fiaker Farhrer do, he tells me. “Our horses are like family.” Many of the Fiaker horses are ex-trotting racehorses that are saved by Fiaker Fahrer like Wolfgang.
The reality of this traditional trade in Vienna is not just employment for drivers, but a role in life for the horses, who might otherwise end up as “Pferde Leberkäse”, a traditional Austrian sausage made of horsemeat.
According to DIEFLEISCHER.AT at the Vienna Wirtschaftskammer, they claim that most of their horse meat comes from the Haflinger and the Noriker horse, a moderately heavy Austrian draught horse, bred for slaughter like cattle.
They even have a market for young horses, foals that are a mere six months when they are slaughtered and claim that Austrians eat about 200 tons of horsemeat a year.
Fiaker horses are lucky. They have a job and work 260 days a year and a maximum of 4 days a week, leaving them 125 days of rest, much more than the rest of us have and certainly more than the drivers get. There are around 400 horses registered with the veterinarian government office and 58 licenses to drive horse-drawn carriages.
On any given day, approximately 116 horses are at work in Vienna. Unlike the unlucky racehorses, the Fiaker horses can often reach the ripe old age of 30.
The story of how the carriages came to be called Fiaker begins with a 7th century Irish saint named Saint Fiachra, better known in France, where he built a hospice for travelers in what is now known as Saint-Fiacre outside of Paris.
The connection between Saint Fiacre and the French word “fiacre”, which refers to a carriage drawn by two horses, comes from the coaches that lined up at the Hotel Saint-Fiacre in Paris to take their guests to the hospice for treatment. People referred to the small hackney coaches as “Fiacre cabs” and eventually just as “fiacres”.
In Vienna, these horse-drawn buggies became known as Fiaker, a Germanized version of the same name. Thus, today’s Fiaker harks back to 7th century Irish monks. Well, perhaps that’s fitting: The Irish are known for their love of horses.
Now, every time I catch the sight of one these lovely 19th century carriages pulled by a plodding, and sometimes even a prancing pair, I count myself lucky to live in a city that cherishes the past as easily as it reaches to the future.
Here in Vienna, what was once the magnificent horse and carriage facilities of the Habsburgs have been brilliantly transformed into the MuseumsQuartier. Time stands still here in Vienna, yet at the same time rushes forward into the future.
As Wolfgang pulls away with his next customer, I settle back on my park bench to take in the scene: as an exhaust-free hybrid bus moves silently and efficiently alongside these elegant Fiaker horses, tradition and innovation move together side by side.
By Shelley Stark