Going underground: In Vienna, a maze of tunnels and cellars beneath the city contains variety of treasures

Built and used by everyone from nuns and tradesmen to thieves and murderers, the underground network provides an enticing look at the dark side of this ancient and somewhat macabre city.

Beneath the streets of Pioneer Square lies a hidden piece of Seattle's past — sidewalks and stores that show how the downtown came to be.

But Seattle isn't the only city with a buried past.

Vienna, Austria's elegant and mysterious capital, rests on an underground network of cellars, vaults, stables and tunnels dating from medieval and even Roman times that hold keys to much of its history.

Built and used by everyone from nuns and tradesmen to thieves and murderers, the underground network provides an enticing look at the dark side of this ancient and somewhat macabre city, which stands at what used to be the old boundary between the Soviet bloc and the free world, and was long a haven for spies.

The most famous subterranean structure is the city's massive sewer system. Its huge vaulted floodways and narrow staircases built beneath innocent-looking poster-plastered kiosks allowed Harry Lime, the character played by Orson Wells in the 1949 noir film "The Third Man," to move clandestinely through the city during its post-World War II occupation.

You can explore these unusual and slightly sinister constructions on informal walking tours, which are growing in popularity in many European cities and are, for my money, among the best ways to absorb a sense of place.

One of Vienna's most intriguing underground tours is given by Brigitte Timmermann, who has written a soon-to-be-published book on "The Third Man," placing the film in its historical context. Though it takes you through the sewers where the film was shot, rest assured, it isn't a stinker. These are mostly storm drains, and access depends on low rainfall. As with all the cellar tours, it is advisable to bring a flashlight and sensible shoes.

In addition to the sewers, Timmermann and daughter Barbara have negotiated access to a number of cellars that are off the usual tour circuit. One of these belongs to the city fire department, which used it as a training area for decades. The department would light fires in the cellar and send crews in to fight them.

Visiting the blackened stone chambers is decidedly eerie, but despite the close quarters and charred walls, no one is reported to have died there. In 1999, the fire department moved its training to a new facility.

Vienna has enjoyed a boom in cellar discoveries in recent years. At the end of World War II, every fourth building in Vienna lay in ruins from bombing. In haste to rebuild, owners left rubble in many cellars. Eventually, those who knew about tunnels and chambers died, moved or just forgot.

But in 1995, workers renovating a house on Laurenzerbergasse began to clear out old rubble beneath a room that had been quickly refinished after the war. Over a period of days, a huge room emerged that went three stories below street level. More excavation revealed more bricked rooms and underground tunnels to other houses. The rooms turned out to be part of a convent founded in the 14th century and dissolved in 1782 by the emperor Joseph II, who was closing religious institutions across the empire.

Up until the early 1900s, people used such tunnels to visit other houses, avoiding the rain and grime of the streets, says Timmermann. But many tunnels were closed off after World War I as criminals began to use them, presenting a security risk.

The chambers of the former convent are now converted into a private wine club known as Der Keller (www.derkeller.at). Members keep their dusty (and valuable) bottles in gated alcoves, and groups use the windowless but brightly lit cellar for meetings, conferences and parties.

The convent discovery touched off a cottage industry in clearing rubble from houses, and other deep cellars were found. Some turned up Roman columns. Some just opened vast new spaces for businesses.

Today, many restaurants in the Schwedenplatz district, one of the centers of night life in the old city, have cellars that date to antiquity. Vienna's twentysomethings call Schwedenplatz the "Bermuda Triangle" because people visiting its popular bars and restaurants keep disappearing into cellars, making them difficult for friends to find.

Vienna's movie theaters also make use of the cellars. If you visit a cinema, and there are several showing English-language films in the "Bermuda Triangle," you'll likely be seated in a big underground room, sometimes several flights below street level. The arrangement allows for offices and apartments on the upper floors — and presumably good soundproofing.

Among the most historical of the recently uncovered sites is a synagogue built in what is now Judenplatz, or Jewish Square, in the mid-13th century. It was, in its time, one of the most important Talmud schools in the German-speaking world and made this part of Vienna the center of Jewish life until 1421, when the temple was destroyed during a pogrom. The ruins, excavated beginning in 1995, stretch under the square and are visible today with entry through the Jewish Museum, Judenplatz 8.

A memorial to Austria's 65,000 Holocaust victims, completed by British artist Rachel Whiteread in 2000, stands starkly in the quiet square, and makes an especially moving tribute to the lives and contributions of Vienna's Jews, who made up a tenth of the city's population before the wars. It is estimated that as many as 7,000 Jews survived the Holocaust by hiding in Vienna's cellars.

Another eerie reminder of Vienna's past lies, literally, in the crypt of St. Michael's Church, in Michaelerplatz, near the entrance to the Imperial Palace. This somber cathedral became the preferred burial site for families who, for social reasons, sought eternal rest in the parish church of the imperial court.

Dozens of brittle wooden caskets and many uncannily well-preserved bodies can be seen as you walk around the dimly lighted crypt beneath the arched brick ceiling. The bodies, still clothed and packed in wood shavings, are a startling sight; the effect is enhanced by stacks of bones and skulls from caskets that fell apart over the centuries. Photographs are forbidden, and none of the dead are identified, although Mozart librettist Pietro Metastasio is said to be among them.

If you need something cheerful after returning to street level, head for a different sort of cellar — a Heuriger, or wine bar — to mull your experiences and Viennese character. Heuriger means "this year," a reference to the new wine served. As you nurse your glass, try to come to grips with the spirit of Vienna, a city as steeped in Gothic architecture, tunnels and death as it is in Baroque frills and gardens.

When he's not exploring tunnels, Alwyn Scott can be reached at 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com.