Hubert Burda Media

A Viennese Waltz

With only one Sunday to spare, Anisha Shah dances her way through the City of Music

Autumnal trees deliberately sprinkle generous doses of rustic auburn leaves into my pathway. The soundtrack of Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss are infused deep into the veins of Vienna; gentle echoes resound, caressing my eardrum; a soothing backdrop to my city ramblings. The archetypal architecture is exhilarating, threading through with dramatic resonance; less sparse flashes, more definitive backdrop. You’ll be challenged to find a building not coated in carved cherubs, flamboyant figureheads and capped by dramatic domes.
Exuberant alleyways, poetic properties and artistic heritage whisper life into this fantastical playground of storybook whimsy. Just as every façade exudes elegant grandeur and every street proudly heralds its own Viennese coffee house. Overflowing in molten chocolates, steaming espressos and gourmet patisseries, these institutions are deeply etched into Viennese culture, flaunting rich histories of literary greats, musical geniuses and artistic masters. Vienna is quintessential Europe.
Its ubiquitous energy resonates and infiltrates upon landing. Like most, I visit for a weekend, devoting myself to a heart-fluttering fling with a city also known as the City of Music and the City of Dreams.
As crowded streets and frenetic bustle are not my penchant, I discover autumnal Vienna to be a rustic haven. Locals wander to the opera, ballet and theatres wrapped up like porcelain dolls in the evening breeze. Couples hold hands, exchanging loving looks as they shelter from the misty chill inside one of the many Viennese coffee houses, serenaded by pianists, string quartets and sopranos. With its vibrant blend of history, legacy and culture, Vienna, according to the 2012 Mercer report, is officially one of the best cities in the world in which to live, and I say, to visit.
Sundays in Vienna is particularly soul-nourishing and sublime. Like the gloriously old-fashioned city it is, everything shuts down on God’s day of rest. For culture-vultures, however, this is the day to visit the plethora of modern exhibitions, and art and history museums across the city, or lose oneself in the labyrinth of cobbled streets in Old Town.
This Sunday, however, I’m invited to a rare performance of the world-renowned Vienna Boys Choir. As the boys tour the globe, tickets are a scarcity, and I’m blessed to be in town the same time they are.
Being ushered into the intimate and iconic chapel HofMusikkapelle, inside the imperial Hofburg Palace, feels like an honour. Encased by the stunning winter palace of the former Austro-Hungarian Habsburg dynasty, a sense of occasion emanates. When mass begins, I, like the rest of the audience, am left in speechless awe when, from up above, and beyond view, a chorus of angelic vocals shower down, filling the chapel with heavenly harmonies. Only during their final piece, a Mozart rendition in Latin, do the boys appear before the crowd, creating wonderful frenzy as all of us rise to our feet to a chorus of camera clicks.
If Vienna is a rotating cog, the city revolves around the Hofburg Palace crux. The imperial winter palace belonged to the Habsburg Empire, credited with transforming Vienna from fortified city to one that is exceedingly elegant and lush. The seat of culture and a key to Austrian history, the vast complex comprises statues, figurines, museums, an equestrian school, a treasury, chapels and courtyards.
Still reeling from my cultural immersion, I hotfoot it across Vienna’s best-known square, Josefplatz, to the world-famous Spanish Riding School. Like the Vienna Boys Choir, the celebrated institution is known for touring the globe, but today, they are home, performing in their grand, baroque-style Winter Riding School arena. Under its opulent chandeliers and beside a velvet-draped bay window, I have one of the best seats in the house.
Europe’s oldest horse breed with Spanish, Italian and Oriental bloodlines, the Lipizzaner stallions are powerful and graceful creatures. The highest level of skill is displayed as the stallions glide through elegant dressage moves. Accustomed to the limelight, the horses are unfazed by the glare of expectant eyes. That is, except for one or two boisterous young stallions in training, with which I inevitably fall in love.
After a blessed morning of music and culture, the equally enticing culinary delights call out to me in the form of traditional Viennese coffee houses. Café Central, once a key meeting place of the Viennese intellectual scene in the Innere Stadt district, is particularly sublime.
On approach, the building resembles a huge Christmas box, occupying an entire city block. Inside, waiters hover in traditional attire (crisp white shirts, waistcoats and polished shoes) and mature adults are turned into wide-eyed children at the sight of all the delectable goodies.
I’m instantly drawn towards the fantasy gourmet cake counter. Encircled by sweet fancies, I give in to the little devil tugging on my taste buds and select a raspberry and rose macaroon. Accompanied by a cup of dark hot chocolate with cream, this is Sunday afternoon tea at its finest.
But, I’m not done and cannot resist making yet another sweet stop. Nearby, Demel Café, an open-plan bakery with chocolatiers creating artistic masterpieces in full view of the public, is a more traditional affair. Spread over four floors, the shop is a chocoholic haven in which both locals and tourists indulge.
Recharged by cocoa, I saunter off into the hazy afternoon to explore the thread-like arteries of Vienna’s Old Town, where a sweet, musty aroma hits the back of my throat. My nose is led to a vintage tobacco shop; a tiny box tucked away in the corner of a cobbled back street. The window is crammed full of old smoking pipes, shisha pipes and apparatus from all over the world. A little further, a charming antique map and navigation shop filled with old maps, bronze compasses and vintage navigation tools, invites me in; such is my hobbyhorse as a world-traveller.
Vienna’s Old Town is a canopy of quirky charm and eclectic character, like heaven’s carousel of cherubs. Narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways intertwine, revealing galleries, age-old churches, monasteries, memorials, pubs and restaurants. Vibrant street art festoons the quarter as do centuries-old frescoes on crumbling brick walls.
Deeper explorations through intense nightfall teleport me to 1950s London; of Medieval lamp-lined streets and frosty cold air. As I navigate the labyrinth, I stumble across a building I later learn to be the Alte Schmiede, or Old Smithy, which hosts a myriad of Vienna Arts Association initiatives. Like a beacon of light through an open door, it extends an invitation to me.
Posters adorn the inner walls. A sign points down winding stairs into a basement. Translated from German, it reads: “To concert downstairs, free entry”. Sheer curiosity leads me down into the intimate tunnel-style basement. As I peer in, a group of musicians are about to perform before an affluent and cultured audience.
The unusual classical quintet comprises a violin, harmonica, bass, trombone and cello player. Each instrument portrays a character, the most vicarious being the trombone. Like a grumpy old man, his expressive bursts have the crowd laughing out loud. Unexpected, engaging and free, a visit to Alte Schmiede is a fantastic local experience I’ll highly recommend.
Dinnertime in the Old Town is a smorgasbord of choices. I opt for Specht, an inviting joint along Backerstrasse with hearty fare. My thyme and Parmesan risotto emerges — jet-black — dyed with squid ink and topped with king prawns. The flavours are divine. Sipping a glass of full-bodied merlot, I sit and partake in a spot of people-watching and allow my mind to wander.
In this city, I muse, romance renders itself as an amble through medieval streets, glorious boulevards and ornate courtyards brimming with old-world charm dusted in magic.
If Time Permits…
The most magical way to explore the city is by traditional horse-drawn carriage. At the Hofburg Palace gates, glamorous polished wood carriages recreate the nostalgic romance of the city; complete with blankets to ensconce lovers in a whimsical nest as they whisk past eons of history. One such historical treasure is the elaborate and lavish Osterreichische Prunksaal, the Baroque State Hall, one of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Spend time looking up, as the ceiling is painstakingly adorned in embellished frescoes, depicting contrasts between war and heaven. It holds more than 200,000 original books in tall nut wood cases and is currently in the process of being digitised to become the world’s oldest and largest digital collection.
Viennese culture is intertwined with church, of which there are many fine architectural specimens from the baroque to neo-classical. One of the most cherished yet delightfully individual is the Karlskirche (St Charles Church), which lies south of the Ringstrasse, a circular artery that threads through the heart of the city encapsulating many of its major sights. Its ceiling is emblazoned with angels and cherubs in a marvellous 3D effect. And from the dizzying heights of its wide dome (accessible by glass elevator), breathtaking views can be had. My other personal favourites include the Church of the Capuchin Friars and the Church of the Minorites, which bear a little more soul and a little less show. The 14th century French Gothic style Church of the Minorite even houses a vivid mosaic replica of The Last Supper.
The two most iconic buildings in Vienna are arguably St Stephen’s Cathedral and City Hall (or the Rathaus). The cathedral’s towers dominate Vienna’s skyline, and its Romanesque façade boasts intricate carvings. City Hall, on the other hand, boasts opulent interiors and its grand Gothic façade is interspersed with flashes of red bouquets by elegant bay windows. Directly opposite City Hall sits the glitzy, razzle dazzle of the Hofburg Theatre. Its impressive interior is home to generations of infamous and much-loved productions.
Sacher Hotel, by the bustling Ringstrasse, is the meeting point of Viennese society. Here, the legendary Sacher-Torte, a chocolate cake, is best sampled post-meal in the exquisite Blaues Bar with a glass of vintage Taittinger in hand. Made from a well-guarded recipe that dates back to the 1830s, its rich chocolate gives way to a thin layer of apricot jam. To seek a taste of it is to savour the history, culture, royalty and style of Vienna in one morsel.