It’s a couple of degrees colder this morning and we’re all slightly shivery as we arrive at The Albertina to begin our walking tour. Our guide today is a lovely gentleman named Wolfgang (yes, like Mozart) and he begins by taking us up onto the roof of the gallery so we can look out across the city of Wien – what the Viennese call Vienna in their native German tongue. He points out the famous Vienna Opera House, which was built around 150 years ago and was the first major structure to be built on the now-busy Vienna Ringstraße, which also plays home to the Civic Hall and Parliament building. This boulevard was where the old city walls used to stand before being torn down by Emperor Franz Josef, Vienna’s longest reigning Emperor, and part of the Habsburg Dynasty that ruled over Austria for over 600 years.
We make our way down from the roof and cross the road to see the Vienna Monument Against War and Fascism which commemorates the dark role Austria played in the second World War when it came under Nazi rule. It’s a striking and powerful piece and intended to be a reminder that that horrors which occurred during this time must never be repeated. It’s split into two to represent the gates of a concentration camp, and there’s carvings that depict gas masks, chained slave labourers, and victims of medical experimentations. At the base of the sculpture is a stone figure bent on his hands and knees cleaning the street with a brush, as many of the Jews in Vienna were forced to do during the war to to remove anti-Nazi graffiti.
We walk onwards, through the grounds of The Hofburg Palace, which has over 4000 rooms, and was home of the Habsburg dynasty until the monarchy was abolished in 1918. At the back of the palace is the National Library and next to it the Augustine Church where all previous royal weddings took place, including that of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor Francis’ daughter Marie Louise.
We pass through the oldest courtyard of the palace which is 800 years old, and out onto Hero Square, which is flanked by statues of Archduke Charles of Austria and Prince Eugene of Savoy. We look up towards the palaces’ rooftop balcony where in March 1938 Hitler gave a speech to over 200,000 German Austrians announcing the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. It’s brightly backlit by the mid-morning sun, causing us to squint in the glare, and it feels extremely eerie to be looking up at a spot where such an evil man once stood brainwashing his supporters with the idea of a ‘Greater Germany’ – perhaps a spooky foreshadowing of some of the sentiments certain politicians are still promising these days…
We walk on and see the Kapuzinergruft, the Imperial Crypt where the bodies of the Habsburg’s are all interred, before visiting the home where Mozart lived up to until his death at age 35, plus where he gave his last ever concert at Café Frauenhuber, Vienna’s oldest coffee house.
Wolfgang tells us that Mozart was buried in a mass grave, but it was a myth that this was because he died a pauper. In fact, after his death his widow paid up front for ten years’ worth of masses at St Stephan’s Cathedral. The reason he was buried in a mass grave was that Emperor Josef II reformed the rules around burial (along with enacting other changes in his lifetime such as making schooling compulsory, and awarding the freedom for those in Austria to practice Judaism) and it was during this time of reform that Mozart died.
We move on towards Stephansdom – St Stephan’s Cathedral, a great Gothic structure built in the 14th century. The seat of the Archbishop of Vienna, it has a beautiful and brightly-coloured tiled roof with the Austrian Eagle and Vienna Coat of Arms designs. Its North tower however remains unfinished, not as legend would have it due to a cursed builders apprentice falling from its scaffolding, but likely because the Habsburg’s ran out of money to keep building.
We next visit the intricate Anker clock, designed by painter and sculptor Franz Matsch in the typical Art Nouveau style that today we mostly associate with the the work of his contemporary Gustav Klimt. 12 historical figures rotate slowly across the clock face as each hour chimes by.
We finish our tour in the Jewish Quarter which used to be home to a population of over 200,000 Jews before 1938, but only 4,000 after the war. There’s one synagogue here, the only one in Vienna, and it has a constant armed police guard to protect it.
We move to stand in the shadows of the oldest church which is also in this quarter, St Rupert’s, built around the 1100s in the old Romanesque style and looking like something from Hansel and Gretel, its sides overgrown with trailing ivy. Wolfgang explains that if we turn out towards the road and the river beyond, we can see a monument marking what was during the war the headquarters of the Gestapo. We hear how when the Nazi secret police told Sigmund Freud to leave Vienna because he was Jewish, he initially refused and so they kidnapped his daughter Anna to try and force his hand. Freud stood steadfast, but when Anna threatened to take her life whilst imprisoned, it was only then that he relented and he and his family left. Once this happened, many other Jews also felt it was time to follow suit – for if the famous Dr Freud must leave, what hope did they have? It’s a sombre end to our morning that gives a real pause for though on what has been a completely immersive journey into Vienna’s rich, wonderful, and – at times – sullied history.
We walk over to Vienna’s Naschmarkt (food market) which has both stalls selling ingredients and eateries providing cooked food, and grab a spot of lunch. We plump for Neni Am, which serves up delicious Tel Aviv cuisine in a packed two-floor cafe, and gobble down baba ganoush, charred aubergine, meatballs, lamb-filled filo pastries and beetroot hummus.
After lunch we head back towards The Palace to take a tour of the Spanish Riding School. A late-Baroque style riding school, it was opened by Emperor Karl VI, although it was Emperor Ferdinand I who when returning from Spain to take up his rule in Vienna, brought with him Spanish horses, riders and the tradition of horse dressage. Today the school has a stud farm in Piber and breeds horses known as Lipizzaners, a descendant stock of those original Baroque horses.
The school has 70 stallions (it only uses male horses) from six sire lines and it takes between 9-14 years for the riders to fully train in the prestigious art of Spanish dressage and learn the difficult movements. Each rider is assigned 5-8 stallions to ride and the majority of riders are men, as the school only opened to female riders in 2008.
After seeing the light and airy performance hall, with its cream and grey stucco, great pillars, and chandeliers, we head to the stables to meet the horses, who are all a brilliant white, save one deep chestnut-brown horse who our guide says is there for luck. We visit the saddle room where beautiful Swiss hand-crafted saddles and bridles are stored, the smell of leather overpowering, before finishing up our tour where the horses get their exercise, a sort of horse treadmill arrangement. We are reassured though that the horses are all regularly switched out from their performance duties, and every ten weeks go to the stud farm to relax and horse around (sorry!).
Riding School tour complete, we head back to our hotel, get ready and hit the bar for a quick aperitif before heading to the two-Michelin starred Steirereck, our chosen destination for tonight’s meal and the reason d’être for our visit to Vienna. Billed as cuisine in a contemporary setting, Chef Heinz Reitbauer runs the restaurant that has been in his family for several generations, skilfully incorporating Austrian traditions and local produce into his visionary fare.
Set back in the leafy Stadtpark, the restaurant is a striking, modern and almost futuristic building. As you walk in a vague smell of cheese hits you right away, emanating from the bountiful cheese larder downstairs.
We take our seats in the wide glass-walled dining area at a large table covered in a pristine white linen cloth. A drinks cart comes round and we are poured three glasses of fine champagne whilst we peruse our menus.
All the waiters and waitresses here wear white cotton gloves, handbags are given their own little resting tables, and if you leave your seat for any reason your napkins are promptly replaced with freshly pressed ones served with tongs from a platter.
A man arrives pushing a bread cart that is overflowing with around 20 different types of bread that are made especially for the restaurant by no less than ten separate bakeries. I plump for blood sausage bread – warmed through with soft, melting black pudding, which is almost a meal in itself – and a lavender-infused rye.
We all order the seven course tasting menu, each of which is paired with a complementary Austrian wine. Whilst we wait we are brought a selection of amuse-bouches, my favourite of which is a dried pig crisp with horseradish.
Each course comes with a little card placed with great ceremony in front of us listing the ingredients and providing some information about the origins of one or two of these.
We begin with bitter salad stuffed with venison heart cured in juniper berries, roasted cashew nuts and covered in a sharon fruit and pineapple sage vinaigrette. It manages to be both bitter and sweet at the same time, and is as beautiful to eat as it is to look at.
Next is fennel bergamot, figs and lovage. With caramelised fennel seeds and nutty hemp seeds, the small dish has an intense aniseed flavour.
Following this is our fish course. Tench, a little-eaten fresh and brackish-water fish, is soft and nutty, its flavour enhanced by beurre noisette, kale, parsnip cream and apricots.
Pheasant comes after, the breast tender, and paired with bitter radicchio and a delicate artichoke cream, plus a confit pheasant leg mixed with peanut butter which is a flavour revelation.
The final meat course is probably my favourite. Pigeon served with pom pom blanc (lion’s mane mushroom), apple and artichoke. Its soft, velvety breast is covered with buttered breadcrumbs and the apple – sweet from caramel – adds a delicious note as the flesh explodes with flavour on my tongue.
Like the bread-man before him, we now met another gentleman pushing a cart full of wares, this time a plethora of cheeses. From mountain and goats cheeses, to vintage and blue cheeses, we are simply spoilt for choice. I am the only lover of strong cheese, so I plump for a blue, and stinking melted variety that practically blows my head off.
Finally, dessert is a barley malt soufflé which melts in my mouth like a cup of bubbling hot cocoa and reminds me a little of the skim atop of a pint of Guinness.
After we have finished, the birthday tart comes out complete with fizzing sparkler candle and we all sing our wishes to the bro. We have an after-dinner schnapps from the returning drinks trolley, which is actually really strong and not at all like the sweet stuff we get back home.
We take our time, savouring the fullness after all the beautiful food and wine, chatting with our sommelier before wishing everyone farewell, extolling our thank yous, and heading back to the hotel after yet another sensational day that started in historic Vienna and brought us all the way back up to it’s most modern incarnation.