Vienna - Glory past and present
Written by Diane Naar-Elphee
Resident Diane Naar-Elphee reveals parts of a seriously sophisticated city that successfully bridges the gap between modernity and the imperial traditions of yesteryear. Experience Vienna’s laid-back – but by no means lethargic – spirit.
Usually, quiet pervades the heart of Vienna’s otherwise bustling city centre after shops close at 7pm. But this warm, late evening, I’m stopped in my tracks by masses of people staring upwards: “It’s Tom Cruise,” someone shouts. And sure enough, perched on the parapet of the venerable State Opera house roof is Hollywood’s famed icon. I can see there’s a young lady clinging on to him as he grabs a thick rope, jumps into the air and, as he lands softly on the ground, the crowd breaks out into spontaneous cheers of delight, clapping as he turns and smiles. I realise that I have just witnessed the filming of a scene from the fifth Mission Impossible movie, out in 2015.
After all the excitement, across the street at the legendary Hotel Sacher, the epitome of Viennese hospitality and home to the delicious chocolate cake, all is still again. “The Viennese love their many traditions – as long as they are combined with the spirit of modern-day life,” explains its proprietor, Elisabeth Gürtler. “Pampering our guests whilst preserving the Sacher’s historic aura is paramount to our success.” Accordingly, she spurred her hotel on into the 21st century with recent additions that include spacious penthouse suites with huge rooftop terraces, following on from earlier refurbishments.
Over the road there’s a more conspicuous merging of past and present in the form of a gigantic floating wing – designed by the late Hans Hollein, Pritzker Prize winner and Austria’s leading postmodern architect – hovering above the entrance to the Albertina. Besides housing the world’s largest collection of master drawings from Michelangelo to Picasso, this splendid museum holds impressive temporary exhibitions. Surrealist Joan Miró’s most popular paintings can be seen until January 2015.
Nowhere is there a better opportunity to grasp the significance of Austria’s glorious past than by wandering through the sprawling Hofburg Palace. Used by the Habsburg dynasty as their official residence for over 600 years until 1918, the country’s elected presidents use just one of the 17 wings as their official seat today. Taking a closer look at some of the fascinating museums housed within these walls helps one grasp the magnitude of the realm Habsburg emperors and kings once ruled over.
Visit the Imperial Treasury, dripping in splendour: glittering regalia, huge diamonds, and gem-studded crowns; heirlooms, and, as big as a cricket ball, one of the world’s largest Colombian emeralds. These priceless symbols of the power of the Habsburg rulers helped legitimise their exalted position within the epicentre of European history.
Entertainment at the time was the display of equestrian prowess by the white Lipizzaner stallions – a special breed of Spanish, Arabian, and Berber horse. Shows still take place here twice a week in what connoisseurs consider to be ‘the most elegant baroque riding hall in the world’.
On Michaelerplatz, just outside the Hofburg, stand the famous fiacres (horse-drawn carriages), waiting for customers to board and be trundled through the streets.
Across the street, on the elegant thoroughfare Kohlmarkt, again, the mix of old and new is apparent. Although imposing classic façades line the street, inside most boutiques there’s a more contemporary, minimalist approach.
Only a few traditional interiors have survived. Demel’s dessert paradise is one of them. Since these wood-panelled premises were opened in 1888, nothing seems to have changed; even the waitresses dress in the same formal black attire. The fruit strudels, cream sponges, and sweet cakes they balance on their silver trays are still made according to the recipes written centuries ago by Bohemian and Moravian nannies. Not to mention their delicious hot chocolate, which I consider to be the best in the city. “Maintaining Demel’s 200-year-old tradition of sumptuous pastries and handmade confectionery calls for a lot of imagination,” admits Attila Dogudan, owner and head of Austria’s biggest international caterers. A lot of such imagination went into creating all the weird and wonderful treasures in the cellar of the very same house: a huge array of intriguing, comical figures and busts of celebrities (from Mozart to Muhammad Ali, Empress Sisi to opera diva and Vienna resident Anna Netrebko), created almost entirely from marzipan and icing sugar, and originally used as eye-catching window displays.
An equally glitzy world of glamour waits around the corner in the recently developed ‘Golden Quarter’, Vienna’s newest luxury shopping precinct. Here, famous brands and flagship stores include Prada, Gucci, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton. At Am Hof, where the Golden Quarter begins, there’s a jaw-dropping art deco jewel which serves as a perfect lunch spot: The Bank restaurant in the newly opened luxury hotel Park Hyatt.
For an appropriate final chord, I recommend an elevator ride up to the terrace of the north tower of the State Opera House. Here, as the sun begins to set, Vienna in all its magic, from Danube banks to vineyards and the Vienna Woods, lies at one’s feet.
Considering such a view, I can’t help thinking Tom Cruise might want to jump down from here next time.
One of Vienna’s well-kept secrets is the city’s oldest baroque garden at Augarten. Only a short 10-minute taxi ride from the city centre to the 2nd district and within the high walls surrounding the park, discover the world of Augarten porcelain, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary.
For nearly 300 years this porcelain factory has maintained its rank as one of the finest producers of exquisite china. Watch while sedulous experts create superb figurines, vases, and elegant tableware. Unique showcase pieces include the white Lipizzaner stallion figurine, a much-loved collector’s item.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21)
Experimental artist Carsten Höller’s exhibition ‘Leben’ (Life) entices all the senses. He was once a scientist and his creations delve into a fantasy world beyond the norm. Exhibits include a flotation tank, dream-enhancing toothpaste, and a very special elevated bed. Even overnight stays are possible.
What’s on in October
Vienna’s Long Night of Museums:Offers over 100 places to see this month. Tickets are valid from 6pm until 1am. Ticket and info point: Maria-Theresien-Platz. My tip: House of Music, Demel’s, Belvedere, and Mozart House.
Blickfang:Celebrating its 10th birthday, the cutting-edge design fair held in the MAK presents over 200 innovative labels. Try on outfits, test new products, and meet the designers. October 17–19, MAK Museum of Applied Art, Stubenring 5, 1010 Vienna.
Vienna Design Week:Spot those blue chairs standing around on the street; these are just a small part of Vienna’s Design Week, taking place until October 5. Installations, parties, and ‘passion paths’ will spotlight Landstrasse, Vienna’s 3rd district, this year.
Vienna International Film Festival:For two weeks the Viennale brings exciting films to various screens. A festival of informative, innovative cinematic works one is unlikely to see elsewhere. From October 23 until November 6.
Altmann & Kühne
I just happen to love chocolates, and these tiny handmade ones, which are almost too beautiful to eat – but not quite – are among my favourites. Altmann and Kühne has perfected the art of candy making, with each piece individually crafted and packed into dainty boxes, drawers, and chests: the perfect gift to take back home for loved ones. Am Graben 30, 1010 Vienna, +43 1 5330927
Anyone with a passion for classical music could try their luck for tickets to one of the concerts in the spectacular golden hall (Grosser Saal). This is where the New Year’s Concert, broadcast to television audiences across the globe, takes place. Tickets for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra should be booked well in advance. However, tickets for visiting orchestras or solo recitals are usually available. Musikvereinsplatz 1, Bösendorferstrasse 12, 1010 Vienna, +43 1 5058190
Shops selling crystal abound in Vienna, but the finest glassware in town can be found at the Lobmeyr store. An excellent display of glass masterpieces and exquisite historic pieces is on show in the museum on the second floor. As early as 1870, the family firm was supplying lamps to the Middle East, and the chandeliers in the Grand Mosques of Mecca and Medina actually came from here. Entrance to the glass museum is free (open during shop hours). Mon–Sat. 10am–6pm. Kärntner Strasse 26, 1010 Vienna, +43 1 5120508
Distance: 3,983 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 10 minutes