Today we are up before it’s light, only slightly marred by the effects of last night’s wine consumption, to head to the airport and jet off to Vienna.
Austria’s capital is our chosen destination for celebrating the baby bro’s 30th birthday, and as none of us have even been before, we are all pretty excited (despite the hangovers).
It’s a short two hour flight and we take off as dawn is breaking and land mid-morning – the whole day still ahead of us. The airport is in the industrial outskirts of the city and so we hop a cab to our hotel which is central.
Once we leave the smoky chimneys behind we are greeted by strange trees whose leaves grow in little blobs, reminding me of a child’s painting, and apartment blocks in varying shades of cream and yellow, their windows framed by ornate stucco trims. keeping us company on our ride is the great Danube river, not so blue today, but rather a murky green.
All the architecture here is outstanding – a marriage of Baroque, Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Classical – and we simply don’t know which way to turn our heads. Columns and elaborate decorative details adorn façades and even the rooftops here have intricately sculptured cornices that conjure up images of Greek or Roman temples. We whizz past the Museum Quarter which has our jaws dropping, each building looking like some sort of grand palace rather than homes for artwork and curiosities.
Our hotel is just as palatial, and we are met at the curbside before being ushered down a marble hallway to check in where we are promptly given hot towels and lemon tea. The rooms are gorgeous, with no little attention to detail spared, and we quickly freshen up before heading out for lunch. On a recommendation we pop down the road to Glacis Brisi, a no-frills traditional Austrian eatery. Embracing the vibe we opt for soup, one apiece of chestnut, carrot and ginger and a clear beef broth with beef-filled pierogi, followed by three rounds of Wiener Schnitzel.
I’ve never eaten schnitzel before and it comes out in all its breadcrumbed glory with a wedge of lemon and side dishes of hashed potatoes cooked in butter and caraway seeds, thick-cut chips and a salad which is essentially more potatoes with a smattering of beetroot and sauerkraut.
We devour everything hungrily and overall are pretty pleased with our first sampling of the local cuisine. Full to bursting, we amble down past the Museum Quarter to Michaelerplatz, a cobbled square behind The Hofburg Palace. The air here is so fresh and crisp in a way that I’ve only ever experienced whilst high up in the mountains, and it’s a welcome change to be breathing city air this pure.
I can’t get over how clean and quiet it is. Wide expansive pavements cater for pedestrians, there’s minimal traffic – instead trams and rentable electric scooters are the main form of transport – and there’s not a spot of litter anywhere.
We arrive at Michaelerplatz just in time for our open-topped guided horse and carriage ride. We climb aboard and cups of steaming glühwein are passed around as we trot off.
Our driver kindly points out various landmarks including The Hofburg Palace (whose open courtyards we pass through), the Spanish Riding School, museums, the National Library and several churches. Our ride takes us past the oldest coffee house in Vienna, The Albertina art gallery, and The Volksgarten public garden where over 400 species of roses grow.
Our glühwein sloshes precariously as we turn into tiny side streets, bobbing up and down over the cobbles. We see Griechenbeisl, the oldest cafe in Vienna built in 1447, as well as the deepest and oldest wine cellar in the city.
Our carriage ride complete, we head down onto the Ringstraße grand boulevard for coffee at the glass-atrium fronted Café Landtmann. Frequented by Freud in his time, it overlooks the impressive Burgtheater, the Austrian National Theatre, as well as the equally impressive Rathaus, Vienna’s City Hall.
By the time we have finished, twilight has descended and so we decide to brave the electric scooters and zoom off back to our hotel (well, some of us zoomed, some of us went slowly and still nearly crashed multiple times, ahem).
Our glad rags on, we head down to the the bar in our hotel – simply called Le Bar – which has an intimate parlour vibe about it, and is low-lit for ambience. We are greeted by our friendly drinks expert Julio and guided to a small marble table in the corner with high-backed velvet chairs. We are here for our champagne tasting session and Julio brings three bottles to present to us: a brut, a rosé and a vintage. He explains the main grapes used for champagne are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Each sample is poured for us in wide-bottomed wine glasses rather than flutes which allows the champagne to open more quickly so we can really catch its flavour.
Every glass is paired with a sensational-looking canapé, from salmon topped with roe, to rare beef wrapped around a fig, although my favourite is definitely the little choux pastry profiterole stuffed with goats cheese and honey.
We are advised to give the corks and each glass a good sniff before tasting, then sip, and then drink again after eating the matching culinary delight. Our first champagne is treacley, warm from the oak barrels the wine has matured in before being made into champagne.
The rosé is a revelation, a delicate rose-gold colour when held to the light and against a white napkin (on Julio’s advice) and to me it tastes of blossoms, although the bro picks out summer berries.
Everyones favourite by far though is the vintage, which is like butterscotch or honey, managing to taste both simultaneously rich and dry on the palette. Declaring it a winner we are promised one more glass upon our return from our evening’s outing, and so we bid farewell to Julio for now and take a cab to Saint Anna’s Church, an unassuming church nestled in a side street off the main shopping drag. We are here for a classical music performance by a string quartet, and once inside the church it’s clear why this little place of worship has been chosen as the venue. It’s simply stunning. Marble pillars support a vaulted ceiling adorned by painted frescos in the late-baroque style which are brought to life by delicate pastels and brilliant golden embellishments.
Our performers arrive and take us on a journey through 18th century Viennese music, starting with Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet in C Major before moving on to Haydn’s Emperor Quartet also in C Major. They’re performed beautifully on antique instruments and although the Mozart is outstanding, the cheery pace of the Emperor’s piece – which was previously used as the melody of the Austrian National Anthem – is definitely my favourite (sorry Mozart!).
The players receive a standing ovation and return for a galloping encore piece, and we roll out into the evening imbued with culture. We decide to electric scooter it back again, only this time I am far more confident in my riding skills. I manage to use the full speed range, and the night air fills my lungs as we fly past the beautiful Museum Quarter whose buildings loom like great alabaster spectres against the inky night sky.
Once back, we revisit to Le Bar to enjoy our waiting glasses of champagne and a late-night supper, followed by cocktails, before hitting the hay – exhausted from our whirlwind of a first day and excited for more Viennese adventures tomorrow.