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Savouring old and new in Vienna
Vienna is one of Europe’s great cultural capitals. Home to Habsburg palaces, the Secession and other Jugendstil and early modernist buildings, and once the residence of Freud, Klimt, Schiele, Mahler, Schönberg, Mozart, Strauss and yes, Hitler too. You can’t wander the streets here without being continuously confronted by history. To paraphrase Tony Blair, on a visit here you do feel the hand of history on your shoulder, guiding you along the city’s winding streets.
The old centre of the city is a labyrinth of cobbled streets, where flakers – the traditional Viennese horse and cart – clip-clop along, showing tourists the major sights. Once, old city walls, built after the Turkish siege of 1683, surrounded this area, but in 1857 the Emperor Franz Josef I ordered their demolition, because the Ottoman threat was receding. In its place, he built the Ringstraße, a U-shaped series of imperial boulevards which, together with the Danube Canal, encircle the city. Twelve major public buildings were built along the route, including the Hofburg Gardens, Rathaus, Parlament and major museums.
A couple of steps on from the Staatsoper (Vienna’s State Opera House and the first landmark building to be erected along the Ringstraße) are the two hotels I was to stay in. Standing almost opposite each other, they share the most exclusive of addresses. South from here is Karlsplatz,a park that looks onto Karlskirche, the finest of the city’s Baroque churches, whose Italianate dome dominates the skyline. Running north, the main shopping street of Kärntner Straße leads directly into Stephansplatz, the main city square, dominated itself by Stephansdom, the towering cathedral that dates back to 1304.
The Grand Hotel, on the north side of the Ringstraße, was first opened in 1870, and has long stood as one of the city’s most prestigious and popular places to stay. No wonder it is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. Reopened in 1994 after a period of renovation, the hotel is decorated and furnished in the style of the Belle Époque, a golden age for the European upper classes that ran through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The decor echoes that era in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A large chandelier hangs above the lobby, a large opulent space with a bar at one end and reception desks at the other. Directly ahead of the doorway, stairs run up to the first floor, a mezzanine looking over the lobby, with one of four restaurants at one end. The best of the restaurants, Le Ciel, is found on the seventh floor, overlooking Vienna’s rooftops and serving French and Viennese cuisine. Of note also is Unkai, a sushi bar on the ground floor.
The German-language radio show came out of the telephone. It took me several moments to figure out how to turn the wretched thing offand enjoy the tranquillity of the room
Staff here were very polite, if a little cold, and quite professional, although I was left to find my room by myself: not something I expected, in all this opulence. And on arriving at my suite, one of 30 (there are a further 175 standard, but still elegant, rooms), having a porter would have been very useful: Austrian radio was blaring
out, and it took me several moments before I could work out from where. There was no sign of a television or radio in the room. No, the German-language chatshow came out of the telephone. It took me some time to figure out how to turn the wretched thing off and enjoy the subsequent tranquillity of the room.
I suspect though, that the staff leave the radio on so you discover the phone’s other functions. While trying to master its buttons and kill the radio show, I had managed to phone room service, turn on the TV hidden in an antique-style cabinet, flash on and off a number of lamps and lights, and make the blinds – trapped inside the double-glazed windows – go up and down several times. I may also have increased the room temperature, though I can’t be sure if that was just me.
This sort of technology, as much as I like it in the right places, means nothing to me in a room such as this. Such a classically furnished room should be managed by the guest in a no-fuss manner. Other than that small annoyance, everything else was done perfectly, though it did feel a little tired. The furniture, as beautiful as it is, was worn and frayed, and the bathroom, despite twin sinks, did not have a stand-alone shower, limiting you to standing in the bath.
Perhaps I was less impressed with The Grand Hotel due to my earlier stay at The Ring, on the south side of the road. It celebrated its first anniversary since opening in November, and felt fresh, clean and contemporary. Behind the historical façade, the lobby was a much smaller and more modest affair than at The Grand. Decorated in browns and beiges, comfortable sofas were picked out in green, and a computer sat unobtrusively in the corner, available for guests to browse the web. Friendly, happy staff were keen to greet me and, after reaching my room (also unaccompanied, but due to the hotel’s contemporary nature, this felt more acceptable),a porter swiftly arrived bearing a fresh plate of fruit and ready to answer any questions I might have had.
There were 68 rooms and suites here. I stayed in the X-Ordinary, their top room category, which felt a little like a suite itself. A sofa at one end looked at a plasma-screen TV in the middle, which spun around to face the bed at the other end. The TV also allowed web access, radio, and music on demand from a large library. The sound could also be sent through to the bathroom, which had its own volume control. Such services are simple to use and a good solution to problems that you didn’t know existed before, but were glad they had fixed. And they left you able to draw the curtains by hand. Up on the seventh floor, gym machines looked over the city skyline, and the small spa had both a steam room and sauna, fitted with an oval window framing the Karlskirche in the distance. Quite a place to relax. A shame, though, that there was no pool.
Downstairs, the quiet restaurant served classic dishes in a nicely modern setting. Deepset windows prevented traffic noise from disturbing the atmosphere, though every now and then there was the rumble of a passing tram – which in fact added to the ambience. There was something simply romantic about it. The only flaw was the slightly weedy chairs among the chunky tables, slightly reminiscent of a Novotel.
Ultimately, though, it’s The Ring for me, a cool, fresh place to unwind after a day’s sightseeing in this historic city.