Vienna is known especially as a city of art, history, music.……..and cake. Suffice it to say that we enjoyed all these in abundance during our 6-day stay. You can see more photos here.
After an easy coach journey to Heathrow and flight with BA, we landed in Vienna in hot afternoon sunshine to be met by our guide Ursula, whom we quickly found was a real treasure – knowledgeable, clear, organised but relaxed and with a lovely sense of humour. Our bond was complete when she discovered that she had the same breed of dog (Hovawart) as our Chairman and his wife!
Our hotel was a little out of the centre of Vienna, as staying in the centre adds considerably to the cost. It proved an excellent choice with an expansive choice at breakfast, its friendly, efficient staff and modern well-equipped rooms with the added bonus of all our single travellers enjoying a double or twin room. After settling in, we all got together for a glass of bubbly before what was a really rather good buffet dinner in the hotel.
Next morning, Ursula was waiting for us with a coach to take us into the centre for a morning’s introduction to the city and tours of the contrasting splendours of Romanesque and Gothic St Stephen’s Cathedral and Baroque Karlskirche. Highlights in St Stephens were the ornately patterned roof, richly carved pulpit and altar triptychs; while in the Karlskirche we were bathed in the golden light from the altarpiece and admired the great frescoes in the dome. You can get a close look at these via a specially installed lift (though this perhaps detracted from the overall ambience of the church) and also get a grand view over the city.
At this point we were introduced to a resident of Vienna that assumed major importance in our tour – a Green Rabbit. Perched uneasily atop a kiosk outside the Albertina Museum – and a stone’s throw from the Hotel Sacher, home of Sachertorte – he (or was it she?) became our regular meeting point. So, fortified by strudel, cake, crepes or more healthy options, we met Ursula in the afternoon at the Green Rabbit to go and see the Secession Building, a kind of architectural symbol of the ‘secession’ of a group of rebel artists from the established fine art tradition. Refurbished in gleaming white and gold, the building is most famous for Klimt’s extraordinary Beethoven Frieze, ably interpreted for us by Ursula.
For the rest of the day – but in the only serious rain on our tour – we were free to go different ways. Music is high on most people’s Vienna to do list and some enjoyed a Vivaldi concert, with extra pieces by an excellent counter-tenor, back at the Karlskirche. About half the group had chosen to see the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Once we had worked out the unique Viennese system of numbering seats (at first the tickets seemed to mean at least two people were sitting in each seat!), we were able to enjoy a delightful concert. Led by their engaging and enthusiastic choir master, the boys gave us a medley of old and new, sacred and secular, accompanied and unaccompanied pieces, with the soloists especially notable. Afterwards many of us enjoyed a good meal at a restaurant with worryingly memorable puddings (and a decorated deer’s skull as the table centrepiece!).
The next day our coach took us off down the Danube valley to see the great Benedictine Abbey at Melk overlooking the Danube. A monastery has been here for nearly 1000 years, but the present buildings, in the Baroque style, date from the C18th. After time to explore the gardens and have a coffee – and even cake – our tour showed us outstanding religious treasures before we saw the richly decorated marble hall, chapel and library. The latter contains some 100,000 volumes, including some 750 incunabula.
From Melk we embarked on our river cruise down the scenic Danube valley aboard what we likened to a busy floating restaurant! Alighting at the pretty old town of Krems, we had time to walk through the town, glimpse a wedding and have an ice cream (just a change from cake). All too soon we needed to board the coach back to Vienna and our hotel.
On Sunday morning we had free time to explore more of Vienna’s museums, with the impressive art collection in the Albertina a highlight. Many of us had opted to book for a performance by the famous Spanish Riding School in their special arena in the Hofburg Palace. Set to music, the display of both finesse and power by the lovely Lippizaner horses and their riders was spectacular.
Meeting after lunch (or cake) at – you guessed it – the Green Rabbit, we walked through a park, past a statue of Mozart set off by a floral G Clef, to the Kunsthistoriches, Vienna’s premier fine arts museum. Ursula first showed us some of the highlights of the world famous Kunstkammer collection of Renaissance and Baroque rare fine art objects collected by the Hapsburg emperors.
Outstanding goldsmith work, elaborate automata and beautiful, sometimes bizarre sculptures were among the items we saw. We were then free to wander some of the rest of the museum, a room of large, typically busy scenes by Pieter Bruegel the Elder being especially memorable.
Some went to Vienna’s famous State Opera House that evening to enjoy a performance of La Traviata, while others went to one of the other numerous concerts held every day in Vienna, relaxed at the hotel or enjoyed exploring the city centre.
Another lovely sunny and warm day dawned on Monday morning when we had some more free time to explore. This time Ursula took us on a trip on the U-Bahn as the coach company had made an error and could not pick us up for our transfer to the city centre. We were soon at the Green Rabbit, from which some then walked over to the Leopold Museum, which had special exhibitions of Klimt and Schiele, the anniversary of whose deaths fell this year. There is so much to see in Vienna with its grand Baroque buildings, pedestrianised shopping streets in the centre and coffee houses round every corner – more cake opportunities!
After lunch we met for the last time at the sign of the faithful Green Rabbit for our coach transfer to Schönbrunn Palace. Ursula showed us round the principal rooms of this grand 18th C former summer residence of the Hapsburg emperors.
Much influenced by Maria Theresa, wife of Emperor Franz Stephan and mother of Marie-Antoinette, the style is too ornate for many modern tastes, but the magnificence of the rooms cannot be denied, the great gallery and mirrors room leaving particularly lasting impressions. We were then free to explore the extensive gardens and wonder at the extraordinary height of the clipped hedges, the lovely Neptune fountain, and, if we got that far, the view from the Gloriette up on the hill; looking down over the grand parterre to the palace, its famous ‘Schönbrunn yellow’ façade basking in the sunshine. In truth though, it was a good afternoon for just relaxing with an ice cream (or cake).
That might have been enough for one day but more was still to come for many of us who took the U-Bahn to a concert at the Kursalon. While designed for visitors, the medley of music, songs and dance by Mozart, Strauss and other Viennese composers was nevertheless of good quality and notable for two excellent young opera singers. We enjoyed the unexpected free glass of bubbly in the interval too! Other members of the group went to other concerts, the circus or just enjoyed an evening at one of the restaurants near our hotel.
On our final morning, another hot and sunny one, we loaded our bags on the coach and went to the Upper Belvedere Palace. Another C18th Baroque masterpiece, the lovely Upper Palace now houses a great collection of Austrian art, including the world’s largest Klimt collection – yes, The Kiss is there – complemented by works by Impressionist and other international artists.
Ursula gave us her usual excellent introductory tour before, pausing only for a final coffee and slice of cake, we spent more time individually looking round the galleries and gardens, which enjoy lovely views over the city.
Then it was time to board the coach for the last time, bid a fond farewell to Ursula and get our flight to Heathrow, taking many happy memories of Vienna and its treasures (and cakes).