The Austrians have one joke. In every other shop you walk into in Vienna, the silhouette of a kangaroo in a yellow warning sign appears on tee-shirts, posters, fridge magnets and tote bags, bearing the legend: NO KANGAROOS IN AUSTRIA. This single sally into hilarity aside, the Viennese are a pleasant, serious-minded, chilled-out bunch; rightly proud of their clean, safe, elegant city.
Built on a site inhabited for 3,000 years by Bronze Age settlers, Celts, Romans and Germanic tribes, the city of Vienna came into its own under the Habsburg dynasty, who ruled over the mighty Austrian empire from 1282 until their fall during World War I. The early Habsburgs had to contend with inheritance disputes, religious upheaval and ongoing wars with the Ottoman Turks. When the Turks were defeated conclusively in 1683, the Habsburgs turned their attention to beautifying their empire’s capital. The result is some of finest Baroque architecture in the world, centred around the vast, lavish palace complex known as The Hofburg.
My wife Aurore and I visited in late August. The day-time temperatures were in the early thirties, the nights were velvet-warm and perfect for strolling, and every park and handsome square was full of happy visitors. Vienna’s tourist season peaks in high summer and again in November – December, when opera season is at its height and festive holiday-makers spill in to the city for the magical Christmas markets.
We stayed at the Hotel Motto, a delightful Parisian-themed boutique hotel on bustling Mariahilferstrasse. Just around the corner was the Naschmarkt, the sprawling, lively market where you find your senses bombarded by new sights and smells every few yards. The name most likely derives from the German naschen- to nibble, and that is what we did, stopping at one stall for bratwurst, another for chicken shawarma, another for half litre glasses of locally brewed Ottokringer lager.
State opera and Lippizanner stallions
A short walk from the Naschmarkt brings one to the Staatsoper, the magnificent Vienna State Opera House. Vienna has long been considered Europe’s capital of classical music, and was at various times home to some of the brightest stars in the classical firmament, including Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven and of course Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose name is synonymous with the city. Opera season in the three big opera houses normally runs from September to June, so we had to settle for an interesting guided tour of the Staatsoper.
Perhaps the greatest highlight of our stay was a visit to the Spanish Riding School, to see its famous Lippizanner stallions perform their repertoire of classical dressage movements to the accompaniment of music from members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Whenever I glanced at Aurore throughout the performance, she had tears in her eyes. The Spanish Riding School was founded in 1572 to cultivate the skills of haute ecole horsemanship. The opulent Winter Riding School, all marble columns, ornate plasterwork and glittering chandeliers, was built in the Hofburg in 1729, and the white Lippizanners have been delighting visitors there ever since.
One could spend an entire holiday simply exploring the Hofburg, with its museums and galleries and riot of architectural styles from different eras. We took in the splendid Prunksaal, the largest Baroque library in Europe, before strolling westward into the Stephansdom Quarter, the historic heart of Vienna. The soaring Gothic Stephansdom Cathedral towers over this part of the city, and is one of Vienna’s most distinctive landmarks. A little to the north stands the jaw-droppingly lavish Peterskirche, the 18th century church inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
On the last morning of our holiday, we boarded a catamaran run by the Twin City Liner Company to take us the 50 miles or so down the Danube to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia. Neither of us had ever felt a burning desire to see Slovakia, but the novelty of taking a river cruise to a whole new country was irresistible.
Regardless of what Johann Strauss had to say on the subject, the Danube was a dull olive green colour, but I felt a quiet thrill in the knowledge that we were cruising down one of the great rivers of Europe. The countryside was flat and wooded, pretty in an understated way, with here and there a rocky crag crowned by crumbling fortifications.
The Slovakians, as far as I could judge, do not stretch to even the one joke. Bratislava’s old town, climbing uphill from the north bank of the river, is perfectly charming; full of meandering cobbled streets, sun-splashed squares and quirky medieval architecture.
Further afield, the little city still has an air of shaking off its post-Communist hangover. There is certainly some kind of hangover involved – I have never been in a town that put such emphasis on boozing. “MANY SHOTS! 4 EURO!!” or “FREE DRINK!!” the signs outside the taverns exclaimed.
The shops and restaurants were noticeably cheaper than in Vienna, but the service, on the whole, was not up to much. It is not that the waiters despise you and want you to know that you are lower than a worm, as they do in Paris. It just doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that smiling might be good for business.
Sausage and goulash
We took the train back to Vienna that evening. As we walked to our hotel past the Rathaus, the impressive Neo-Gothic town hall, we were drawn by the animated crowds assembled in the park that lies around its feet. We had stumbled upon the Rathausplatz Culture and Culinary Festival, which runs every summer on the grounds of the town hall. There were dozens of stalls offering cuisine from all over the world, seating for hundreds before a giant screen broadcasting an opera recorded at the Staatsoper, and the most wonderful, vibrant atmosphere.
To watch the locals good-naturedly quaffing beer and dining on sausage and goulash while absorbed in Verdi’s Ernani was to be given a glimpse of the very soul of Vienna. CL
• Aer Lingus operates daily flights to Vienna.
• We stayed at the excellent Hotel Motto on Mariahilferstrasse. Prices from €200 per night. Check out hotelmotto.at.
• Twin City Liner runs cruises to Bratislava and back throughout the year. Rates from €34 per person per trip. Check out twincityliner.com