Vienna (Feb 4-7)

Our journey to Vienna was very pleasant.  It was a direct train trip from Prague, taking just over 4 hours.  The train was very impressive – clean, quiet and with a very modern and well equipped carriage.  We enjoyed the view along the way, which especially at the beginning consisted of forests interspersed with lakes and steams (often frozen), and some snow.  And I took the opportunity to write my Prague blog post.

Vienna itself was much larger than Prague, and felt much more like a modern cosmopolitan centre.  It was grander, and felt richer, than Prague.  But didn’t quite manage the same old-world charm and beauty that Prague embodied for me.  Our hotel couldn’t have been more of a contrast from Prague.  Both were excellent, but very different.  Hotel Hollmann Bertage was another small boutique hotel, but there the similarity ended.  It had a very modern design, which even extended to free iPad loans from reception.  It also had a library with a piano, and a listening area with couch, CDs and headphones.  And it’s own small cinema showing relevant classics such as the Third Man every evening, complete with popcorn dispenser outside!  Our room was very well appointed, and the large bathroom was particularly superb – with excellent shower, separate large bathtub and underfloor heating.  In the morning we discovered that the breakfast was outstanding – with up to 5 courses on offer!  We started with bread, including fresh croissants.  Greg enjoyed the fresh fruit.  Then a selection of cold meats and cheeses.  For the next course we could chose a freshly cooked option, and I opted for the ‘egg of the day’ which turned out to be Vienesse egg in a glass.  Finally there was a dessert – a very splendid ‘warm chocolate cake’ which was like a mini-souffle.

Getting around Vienna was very easy.  The metro and tram system was extremely efficient and although more expensive than Prague it was cheaper than the UK (€2 per journey, €6.70 for a day travel card).  Our first outing took us to Hofburg palace, home to the Habsburg dynasty.  There was an exhibition of crockery, cutlery and other table items more lavish than I’d ever envisaged, including a wide range of fine gilt plates and some very fine porcelain.  From here we explored the royal apartments via audio tour, and learned about the Habsburgs in general and about the sad life of princess Sisi in particular (with several parallels to Princess Diana).  Lunch was at the impressive and historic Central Cafe.  From there we visited the royal tombs, which are beneath the Capuchin monastery – founded by the Habsburgs for the purpose of looking after their remains!  Atmospheric and a little spooky.  We also saw the Church of St Augustine, which was pretty impressive in it’s baroque styling.  Our final visit for the day was to the Imperial Furniture museum, which held the movable items for the Imperial family safe and transported them between their palaces.  Their collection includes over 15 thousand chairs, a huge number and variety of which are on display.  They even used to lend items out to the film industry, until in the interests of better preserving their valuables from damage the practice ceased.  After that long day we’d felt we’d earned some R&R, and so we headed out to Therme Wein (just over half an hour via metro and then bus).  There we unwound for several hours, enjoying the many steam rooms, saunas and pools.  In contrast to the Prague spa this was of very modern design, but like Prague it was sparklingly clean.  It also had very regular Aufgass sessions.  During an Aufguss session the Saunameister uses a large towel to circulate the hot air through the sauna, intensifying sweating and the perception of heat.  Sometimes these were run by staff, and other times (rather humorously we observed) facilitated by an enthusiastic customer.

Our second day was focussed around Schönbrunn, one of the summer palaces of the Habsburgs.  We spent most of the morning there at the zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn), which was originally created by the Emperor as part of the palace gardens.  We tend to like zoos, and Schönbrunn is particularly well regarded as one of the best in Europe.  We were impressed, though perhaps not as much as we expected to be.  Maybe the cold weather didn’t help, as many of the animals were keeping themselves warm inside.  I did enjoy seeing the arctic wolves though, which were a less usual and very interesting sight.  We had a fine lunch at the Imperial Cafe at Schönbrunn in splendid surroundings (carrot and ginger soup, fresh ciabatta, dark hot chocolate).  During the afternoon we toured the palace itself, and learnt more about the impressive Habsburg family and in particular Emperor Franz Joseph, who rose at 4:30am and considered himself the “first servant of the Empire”.  We also spent a short time admiring the vast grounds – in the distance you can still see the Gloriette, and that is only halfway to the garden boundary!  We also managed to make it to the Palm House prior to closing, and enjoyed a short but very agreeable wander through the warm house, the cold house and the hot house, each housing a delightful assortment of flora in a beautiful old building (which reminded me of the tropical houses in the Glasgow botanical gardens).  After this it was cake time, and we visited the Hotel Sacher, home of the famous Sachertorte – a renowned moist chocolate cake with apricot jam filling.

On the way back from here we managed a little shopping and I bought a few shirts and a couple of jumpers.  There was a great selection of good styles and particularly of interesting colours, which helped to explain why the standard of dress we’d observed worn in Vienna was a distinct improvement from back home.  Although we had had to wander a little while before finding a suitable store – for a surprisingly long time we were surrounded by high fashion outlets way beyond our price range; as Greg happily noted, we were passing by all of the big names such Prada, Gucci and Armani Couture (the precise hierachy I forget).  In fact overall Vienna gave every indication of being an affluent city still.  We returned to our hotel, and enjoyed a complimentary glass of prosecco and some homemade pate whilst we planned our dinner venue.  In the end we ate at a very friendly local Austrian restaurant (Oswald & Kalb) recommended by our hotel, and enjoyed an excellent meal of traditional fare – Weiner Schnitzel (done properly, with veal) and Tafelspitz (beef with spätzle) together with a glass of Austrian wine.

For our last day we visited the Leopold art gallery.  We started with the permanent exhibition, which features many splendid works including some by Klimt, though I liked some of the other work better such as Summer in the Garden by Theodor von Hoermann.  We also enjoyed their two temporary exhibitions, Fragile Japan and Male Nudes, both of which were interesting.  Male Nudes apparently caused somewhat of a stir when it launched due to the frank advertising featuring French footballers.  After the museum we grabbed a bite to eat at a local bakery cafe and headed towards the Natural History Museum for the afternoon.  We haven’t been to the one in London for a while, but we found this one excellent.  In particular the section with gemstones was very impressive, as was the section on meteors – which had excellent information even for us English speakers.  The building which housed the museum was also impressive, having been first built by the Habsurgs as a pair – the twin opposite housing the History of Art museum, both at one end of the palace gardens.  For dinner we headed to an Italian (Cantinetta am Ring);  we wondered whether Austria sharing a border with Italy would mean it was authentic.  We found it so, and shared an excellent mushroom risotto for our starter, followed by delicious Bistecca alla Fiorentina cooked perfectly rare, and which we have not had since we went to Tuscany many years ago with friends.  We skipped dessert at the restaurant and returned to our hotel via a rather fine cafe we’d discovered that served fantastic ice-cream, which we ate as we walked home.

We’d only scratched the surface of what Vienna had to offer, and it was easy to see why it scored very highly in ‘livable city’ indexes and the like, but unfortunately it was time to go.  So in the morning we headed to the train station for what was to be a short train ride to our next destination – Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic!

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