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Vienna - The Gilded City

A. Burchard gives you her insider’s knowledge of the best of the city so you’ll still have some money in your pocket. crack

Anyone who appreciates the style of Cheltenham will absolutely adore Vienna, but nothing can prepare you for the scale of Vienna’s grandeur. A life-time would not suffice to explore this former imperial capital. The Viennese have always been entertainment addicts. There are hundreds of museums, coffee houses, bars, music concerts and shows each day.

Tourism - outside the box
For our stay we decided to rent a small apartment to have a home from home. In Vienna coffee and one slice of torte (cream cake) for two people costs around of £18 - £20; an evening meal easily runs into treble figures.

We found the perfect solution with GAL Apartments, minutes from the historic town centre. Clemens, the owner of several apartments in the same building, was extremely helpful. The accommodation was perfectly designed and immaculate. We ate what we wanted for breakfast and dinner and saved a great deal of money. Our spare money was spent in the grand cafés eating heavenly cakes, as many Viennese do daily as tradition dictates.

To travel around we bought an 8-day strip ticket sold at newspaper kiosks so we could travel by tram as often as we liked. This proved an excellent deal. We stocked up with the week’s necessities on the Naschmarkt, the best food market in Europe. It overflows with fresh produce straight from Hungary just a couple of hours away. You can smell the mushrooms, fruits and delicious breads before you can see the stalls selling them.

Café culture
Viennese cafés are legendary. They play an important part in everyone’s day. In 1683, when 150 000 Turks were beaten into retreat after a long siege, they left their precious stores of coffee behind. The Viennese seized the opportunity and coffee houses sprang up all over the city. Like in Italy, there are endless varieties of coffee. The interiors of many cafés are inspired by Renaissance Venice and the Orient. Some, like the Café Central, resemble a palace. The waiters still wear tuxedos and bow ties, but mass tourism has arrived. Some tourists come to stare at the Byzantine vaulted ceilings, then walk out again, just to say they’ve seen it.

The famous Café Hawelka is worth visiting for coffee only. Not long ago house keys, messages or even dogs could be left in the safekeeping with one of the old waiters for a few hours. Today this café seems to make a virtue of its neglect. We sat under a giant photograph of the Hawelkas family when the original owner’s son, also a Hawelka, came to greet us personally with a handshake after serving us two outrageously expensive Viennese sausages. For a bite to eat go to Treschniewski opposite. They serve the famous beisl, a tiny open sandwich loaded with salmon, scrambled egg or fish with gherkin pastes. They cost 1 Euro a piece and you can eat them there with a tiny glass of beer called ein pfiff (a whistle) or you can take a box of beisls away to eat at home. For lunch we went to the Frauenhuber restaurant in the Himmelpfortgasse (Heaven’s gate lane). The menu was written uncompromisingly only in German, so many tourists do not dare enter. It is the oldest café- restaurant in Vienna where Beethoven performed and Mozart gave his last concert. We had some superb stuffed peppers for lunch. Another delicious lunch of potato Knödel (dumplings) with Schwammerlsauce (mushrooms) was served at the Schwarzenberger Café on the Kärntner Ring. Zum Fliglmüller, which boast the most famous Schnitzel in Vienna, year in year out it is packed out for both lunch and dinner, so book a table.

City of Palaces
After they had beaten the Turks into a hasty retreat, a succession of royals built their palaces in the centre of town. Today these house museums which hold the treasures of the once great Austro-Hungarian empire. The Nationalbibliothek (National Library) is especially worth visiting. Its Prunksaal is stacked to the ceiling with rare books. There is nothing in Europe to compare with it. Going through the Hofburg one comes to the Kunsthistorische Museum, the equivalent of the V&A in London, and the Natural History Museum. Their painted ceilings, gilded columns and gigantic stairs will leave you speechless.

Post-war Vienna became famous through the film The Third Man, starring Orson Wells. For years war damaged Vienna was sad and grey. The Third Man was filmed at that time in the underground network of passages and sewers of the city which were used by war-time black-marketers. You can tour these film locations with Vienna Walks & Talks. They also do walks around the Jewish quarter, a warren of picturesque streets and alleys with reminders of the grim events of the 1940s deportation.

Most tourists miss the best of the city which is to be found in the small winding streets. The Köllnerhofgasse near the cathedral where I lived as a child, the Sonnenfelsgasse and the Wollzeile, are free of tourists but full of the real Viennese character. Here you’ll find wonderful toyshops and even a wine library. For peace and quiet slip into the serene Heiligenkreuzer Hof, once the site of a vast monastery. Go via the Grashofgasse past the Kärntnerhof Hotel. From 1945-1955 this was the Russians military headquarter. The officers families lived on the 5th floor and the Russian women hung their silk underwear in the open windows to show us, living opposite, that it was they who were now wearing the fine underwear. It was their way of demonstrating that they had won the war.

At the Freyung a fairytale building, once called the Palace of Winds has a spectacular arcade and intersecting marble staircases. This is now a hotel and conference centre. The Schottenkirche is one of the most beautiful churches of Vienna. Its monastery housed Scottish monks who travelled across Europe in the Middle Ages to copy religious books. But for a totally over-the-top Baroque experience, take a look at the Michaelskirche, facing the entrance to the Hofburg.

The highlight of our stay was the Karlskirche, a vast church on the Karlsplatz. We were allowed to climb the restorers’ scaffolding up to the giant domed roof decorated with breathtaking frescos. It felt as though Michelangelo had just popped off for a tea break.

We gave up on the Opera, as we couldn’t face the jostling Japanese tourist groups. Instead we took a tram all around the city centre, getting off here and there.

The Schönbrunn palace is overcrowded at weekends. The Stadtpark (city park) is a great place to relax. Rows of benches still line every path. It’s a Viennese tradition to sit here and chat with total strangers. The Donau Kanal (Danube canal), built in 1598 to bring fresh water to the city, runs through the park and is a beautiful feature. Along its bank people jog or sit in the sun in the deckchairs provided by the city. The Prater with its big wheel is a little disappointing out of season.

At night Viennese streets are wonderful. The many bars, mainly in the Jewish Quarter, are full but there is no drunkenness in the streets. In the Alt Wien bar in the Bäckergasse, the most famous, the walls are hung with posters of the music events in town.

Exclusive shopping
In the Graben there stands a grim monument. Graben means ditch or trench and this is where the victims of the plague were buried in a mass grave. Today the top fashion designers have their shops here. But there are an astonishing number of small boutiques around. Explore the small side streets off the Graben and around the cathedral for tiny boutiques with very original fashions and accessories.

Viennese women are famous for their ‘chic’; they don’t go for the cheap and cheerful look. I was window shopping when I saw two students next to me who were secretly sketching a dress in the shop window. ‘We’re going to copy this at home. We can’t afford to buy it,’ one of them grinned at me guiltily,’’

If you don’t like the cold Vienna in winter is not for you. If you do, then the Christmas Market is the best in the world. The Danube makes for high humidity which produces extreme cold from December to about March. September is ideal - it is still summer in Vienna.

For advance information Google:

GAL Apartments or speak to Clemens at Tel: (+43) 650 56 11 942

Information about Vienna Walks & Talks, Biking Vienna, maps etc. from the Viennese Tourist Office.