AESTHETIC ADVENTURES IN MODERN MITTELEUROPA
Aesthetic Adventures In Modern Mitteleuropa - Luxury Travel Magazine
Aesthetic Adventures In Modern Mitteleuropa
|By: Timothy Morrell, Issue 47 – Winter 11|
|AFTER NEARLY A CENTURY VIENNA, ONCE A GRAND IMPERIAL CAPITAL, HAS FINALLY REGAINED ITS OLD SPARKLE. THE CITY’S HERITAGE AS A COSMOPOLITAN CROSSROADS HAS NOW BEEN RESTORED ALONG WITH ITS GORGEOUS ARCHITECTURE. AS TIMOTHY MORRELL DISCOVERED, PART OF THAT HERITAGE IS THE CONFIDENCE TO BE AN ARTISTIC HOTHOUSE.|
Vienna used to be the last stop before you hit the Iron Curtain. The first time I went there the city seemed grey and prim, and the lady who sold tickets to the opera wore a hat and appeared to be dressed for church. Common sense tells you that the home of Sigmund Freud and whipped cream has to be an interesting place, and it always has been, but Vienna managed to suppress its waltzing exuberant side for an awfully long time. Not any more. Now at the centre of the new Europe, Vienna is buzzing. Last year, for the second time in a row, it was listed by the Mercer survey* as the world’s most livable city.
The Hapsburg dynasty that for centuries ruled half of Europe seems to have lived by the motto “power is pleasure”, and evidence of this is all around you. The characteristic architecture of belle époque Vienna looks as though it was produced by a confectioner with a giant icing bag and seething sex fantasies, but the stripped-bare look of radical modern design was also invented here at almost the same time.
Vienna’s magic moment around the dawn of the 20th century has been seductively packaged in the exhibition Vienna: Art & Design at the National Gallery of Victoria (18 June – 9 October). The gold-flecked, mosaic-like portraits by painter Gustav Klimt and the geometric silver grids of designer Josef Hoffmann provide insights to a sumptuous but highly refined milieu that can still be experienced in Vienna. I went there in May as spring was approaching, the best time to appreciate a city that’s thawing out.
Vienna enjoys its past and hasn’t withdrawn reverentially into it as if taking refuge in a museum. Performances in the extravagantly gilded Musikverein concert hall have the atmosphere of a good party, and in the celebrated coffee shops society still gathers to absorb calories, not history, although they’re saturated with both. Daring new buildings continue to be ingeniously inserted among the cherished heritage monuments, just as one of the landmarks of modernist architecture rose directly in front of the imperial palace at the beginning of the last century (to the outrage of Emperor Franz Josef).
I was a guest of the new Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, which like everything that’s best about this city, is boldly adventurous and just slightly crazy. The hotel’s take on high style may be too extreme for travellers who prefer cosy surroundings, but for many this establishment is destined to become a favourite destination. I asked for one of the three suites that are entirely black (most are all grey, but you can also have pure white). My sprawling digs were uncarpeted, unornamented and gave the intriguing impression that they could be hosed down after use. The sensory deprivation of a totally black room is remarkably soothing after the initial shock, and coupled with a bed that’s deep and wide enough to get lost in, absorbs and eliminates jetlag.
Despite being the last word in minimalism, the hotel is not without a sense of fun. As an antidote to the all-pervading monochrome severity, architect Jean Nouvel commissioned Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist to produce several intensely coloured, back-lit and video-animated ceilings. The main one is in Le Loft restaurant, which occupies the entire top floor. At night the illuminated ceiling is reflected in the tall glass walls like a lurid sunset over the lights of the city, the centre of which is encircled directly below by the great Ringstrasse boulevard. You’re very well placed to explore this ideal walking city.
Within the Ringstrasse are countless little side streets, so splendidly restored that they appear to have been constructed for a movie about Mozart. Inside the 18th century houses, however, you may find someone like the freewheeling designer Lena Hoschek selling dresses that are part 1950s housewife, part biker’s moll. Hoschek also makes traditional Austrian dirndls because as she points out, they’re really sexy.
I took a walking tour of boutiques and ateliers in the 7th district, Vienna’s hot new style sector in the middle of town. We were accompanied by a vivacious art student who seemed to be on kissing terms with most of the proprietors. One of the more memorable establishments was Tiberius, which started out catering to the S&M crowd but discovered how chic latex and chains can be when adapted to formal evening gowns. The garments there will certainly get you noticed, but most are quite conventionally elegant when not accessorised with something from their range of riding crops. Tiberius, needless to say, has also redefined lederhosen for the modern man.
Interior design too can be conspicuously frisky here. Standing amidst a menagerie of strange forms produced from recycled plastic packaging at the Walking-Chair design studio, co-founder Fidel Peugeot told us that the war is over. The bleakness inflicted on Vienna by 20th century history has at last lifted. It’s time to have fun again. From 30 September to 9 October Vienna will be celebrating the renewed vitality of its style during the annual Design Week. There also seems to have been a minor revolution in food. Nothing over the top, but a highly sensitive response to the contemporary demand for fine ingredients simply and perfectly presented. My first clue was the discovery that Austrian Airlines provides the services of an on-board chef, complete with a tall white hat, who prepares the meals in business class.
I was a bit slow to pick up on the new Austrian cuisine. Trying to do the right thing in Vienna I ordered a traditional wiener schnitzel, which was no better and no worse than the solidly satisfying version served in an Aussie pub. The real treats were not the ubiquitous, to die for (or from), cakes, but the complex flavours of fantastically fresh salads made from assorted meadow greens I’d never seen before. Even the dumplings were delicate. If you’re looking for carbohydrate heaven you’ll find it in Vienna, but it’s also a serious food city.
Not all the treasures of its many superb museums are included in the permanent collection. I repeatedly discovered museum cafés that serve food with the same attention to quality and detail that the curators devote to their exhibits. It’s a tribute to the innovative brilliance of the collection displays devised by major international artists in the MAK design museum that visitors go to look at them instead of spending all their time in the museum’s Österreicher restaurant.
Elsewhere, the collections need to be superlative to compete with the buildings that house them. The Belvedere palaces bracket a vast pleasure garden, and their spectacular rooms contain the finest collection of Austrian art and masterpieces of French impressionism. This architectural ensemble is itself a baroque masterpiece.
Downtown, St Stephan’s Square, is also distinguished by mix and match masterpieces. Directly opposite the venerable cathedral is the playfully post-modern Haas House, which struck a blow for contemporary progress in the heart of the city. The stir caused by this construction is hard to understand when the cathedral’s zigzag roofing tile pattern is, if anything, wilder than the new building. You can get a good view of St Stephan’s through the bulging glass curtain walls of the Haas House, where despite being right in the centre of the continent and a long way from the sea, you can enjoy excellent, super-fresh sushi at the top floor restaurant.
Vienna, most unexpectedly, rocks. If, as history suggests, it also creates the need for therapy you may want to recover from its multiple personalities by going somewhere quieter afterwards. I came home via Zurich, that haven of Swiss common sense and chocolate.
Being the world capital of money that dare not speak its name, Zurich always seems discreetly prosperous. I spent an afternoon on a ferry chugging between the swans on the lake, a million miles from care and a couple of hundred metres from the lakeside mansions. Walking among the solidly handsome stone buildings of the old town is likewise convincing evidence that life can be calm and orderly.
If you still have an appetite for excess, however, there’s always Café Schober. The displays of confectionary are so beautiful that you might be able to leave feeling fully satisfied without eating anything. Otherwise go upstairs to the intimate 19th century salons and discover what comfort food really means.
|Vienna retains the top spot as the city with the world’s best quality of living, according to the Mercer 2010 Quality of Living Survey. Zurich and Geneva follow in second and third position, respectively, while Vancouver and Auckland remain joint fourth in the rankings.|
Mercer conducts the ranking to help governments and multi-national companies compensate employees fairly when placing them on international assignments. The rankings are based on a point-scoring index, which sees Vienna score 108.6 and Baghdad 14.7. Cities are ranked against New York as the base city, with an index score of 100.
|Austrian Airlines flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Vienna via Bangkok daily. Return business class fares start from A$9,161 and economy from A$2,796.|
|WHERE TO STAY|
|Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom|
Praterstrasse 1, Vienna, Austria
|RATES: Classic Room from A$291 per night, Prestige Suite from A$618 per night.|
|WHEN TO GO|
|The climate in Vienna is generally mild and pleasant. Winter can be cold with snow. July and August can be especially busy, as well as the Christmas period. Spring or autumn offer fine weather and fewer tourists.|