Wherein I spend three days in a fifteen hundred year old imperial city giggling about my hotel room
Prologue: I plan to write these trip reports more often, but by no means are these "travel guides" since I will make no pretense of going to these cities for any reason other than my personal enjoyment. Think of them more as "trip reports" or whatever, but as with everything else in here, expect this to be opinionated, for those opinions to be wrong, and to be mostly for my own amusement.
I've been to Vienna once before, last September, but that was after a work-related trip to Munich and this was pure vacation. The emotional state of a post-work "vacation" is a very different beast from an actual, proper, no work expected capital 'V' Vacation. There's probably a whole article I could write reminding Americans how to take a proper capital 'V' Vacation, but in truth this was my first capital 'V' Vacation in nearly two years and I suffer from the same leisure-aversion malady that afflicts most of my fellow countrymen.
Visiting Vienna, particularly staying in the First District (where all the history is), it is impossible to forget that you are staying in a proper Imperial City. At the center of the Museum Quarter is a three story tall statue of the Empress Maria Theresa. Every European capital has a museum for the national crown jewels. Most of them are not then, also, a thousand-year history of Catholicism and politics across Western Europe, while doubling as a history of just one family. Just sitting in the middle of a room is the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, and off in the corner the Imperial Cross, a reliquary for the True Cross, and the head of the Holy Lance. At one point, Vienna was the center of an empire that stretched continuously from the Rhineland to the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire, with annexes in Spain, Mexico, North Africa. Vienna was the center of this empire, and even today is one of the largest cities in the European Union and the headquarters of, among other organizations, the IAEA, OPEC, and an alphabet soup of United Nations and EU organizations. They also have one hell of a café scene.
So these are my notes from spending three days in Vienna.
On the last trip, I stayed at the Hotel Bristol Wien1, located right next to the Wiener Staatsoper2. I enjoyed that hotel, and respected that it tried very hard to maintain the careful balance between being an 'historic old hotel' while trying to avoid being a museum.
This time around I opted to take advantage of a Cash+Points deal and stay at the Park Hyatt Vienna. This is the kind of hotel that takes pride telling you on the front page of the in-room hotel literature where the hotel restaurant gets its asparagus.
The gentleman at the front desk showed me around the lobby and up into my room, which was a little irritating because I was trying very hard to keep my cool when what I really wanted to do was giggle at the absurd luxury of it all. My room (and I assume most rooms) had a marble hallway with an all-marble bathroom, which is the sort of design that leaves very little space between ostentatious and tasteful and, in this case, manages to fall on tasteful side.
The hotel is well-appointed, with a restaurant -- more on that later -- and a scotch and cigar lounge in a wood-paneled room3. The hotel is located about two blocks from the Michaelerplatz and the Hofburg, and right next to the high end outdoor shopping mall that culminates not too far from Stephansplatz and St. Stephen's Cathedral. This puts it right on the northern edge of the big outdoor shopping street, and when I arrived there was a carnival going on in square that hosts the Advent Market every Christmas.
If I had one complaint, it's that this hotel has a scale in the bathroom, which exactly quantified the extent of my growing girth since turning thirty a few years ago. But life is about setting worthwhile goals and taking steps to achieve them, and that scale set a very clear goal, and for that I thank you, Park Hyatt Vienna, for your very rude but very necessary room amenity.
This is the second time a five-star hotel's concierge sent me to Labstelle, a restaurant located next to a statue of Johannes Gutenberg which in the US would be some protected city landmark but in a city as full of statues as Vienna is a nice place to chill out and eat your ice cream cone.
When I arrived at Labstelle, the restaurant was empty, but almost every table had a little "RESERVIERT" sign on it, so my guess is that it's possible to get a reservation within 24 hours, but you should probably be sure to have a reservation. I note for reference this is a Monday night. I assume Friday and Saturday requires more forethought.
I dined al fresco, which is Italian for 'in a narrow courtyard between two buildings that random people and the occassional homeless person walk through'. It was a pleasant evening, but the people freely walking through the courtyard meant that I had such encounters as a (I assume homeless) man in a suit and sandals ask me for money with a folded up lamenated sign and families on vacation speaking about ten decibels louder than necessary about where they will go next and employees of the architecture firm in the second floor of the neighboring building coming back in from a smoke break. It was actually mostly pleasant, but "everything was fine" makes for mediocre storytelling.
Being that this was my second time to Labstelle, I decided to actually take some notes on the place to remember where it was, what I ate, &c. The last time I was here was for birthday #32, where I may have already had most of a bottle of champagne and my memory of the evening was fuzzy aside from the general impression of 'I ate too much, and it was very good'. I think my note-taking and my eating alone may have given the impression that I was a food critic or something4 because I got a lot more attention than I'm used to from a restaurant like this. I decided to respond to this with grace and magnanimity, while playing it cool since I didn't exactly lie to them and I wasn't certain what was going on and I'm pretty sure telling my waitress "I'm not actually a food critic" would be weird.
The I think manager/bartender came out to deliver my second cocktail, a gin rum and lemon lime w/ salt and pepper mixture that did a great job of evoking a good margarita while also transcending the margarita genre into something more refreshing and less syrupy-gross-American-happy-hour. The same gentleman came out later to ask how my meal had gone, and to deliver an additional plate with some fruit, a piece of meringue, and an interesting pastry with some sort of cheese creme filling and mint, all on what looked like sytrofoam bits but which had a nice light crunch to them. He also brought out, with the second drink, some Iranian honey-vinegar concoction I'd never heard of before (and which I missed the name of) with a dried Viennese lemon. I asked how I should consume this little mix, and was told to go wild, and landed on putting the h.-v.c. on the dried lemon and sorta sucking it off, since the lemon was too chewy for my tastes. This was a flavor mix I'd never had before, and it was a delight, and I wish I had the actual name of the h.-v.c. so that I could look it up and try to duplicate it.
I scribbled some notes about what I ate, a four course chef's choice with two cocktails and a surprise opening appetizer, and I could recount the whole meal, which would frankly be quite boring for the both of us, so I will focus on the most interesting bits. The first two official courses of the meal -- a venison terrine and "wild pig" -- stick out. The venison terrine was light and refreshing, not the usual description of a terrine, and was helped along by some small mushrooms which had a citrus aspect, adding a nice acid to the mix, and by a small bit of greens to add the necessary bitterness. Light and refreshing terrine. The wild pig was smoked and served in thin slices, and the flavor was rich and complex and a little gamey in the best possible way. The other two courses, an asparagus soup (apparently Vienna has a deep love for asparagus once it comes into season) and a veal and asparagus dish5 were well-done but not as surprising as "light and refreshing venison".
The Labstelle dinner was my first night, and my day of travel was catching up with me6, and I crashed shortly after dinner, full from an unexpectedly six-course four-course dinner, and slept for nine hours.
During my trip, I stopped by the Vienna Clock Museum. It's a small museum with about a thousand clocks on exhibit starting with the earliest timekeeping devices and concluding with exhibits of modern wrist watches, with everything in between. Japanese clocks, set to start every "day" at sundown and measure off twelve "hours" a day, calibrated to the season. Analog musical clocks that play like the world's most elaborate player pianos, on the hour. Large decorative clocks where, on the hour, an mechanical miners spring to life and a whole excavation project is played out in automata. The museum itself was pretty empty when I visited, but the docents were friendly and, for €7, an interesting visit if you're into these types of things.
Vienna is a great city for museums, with several clustered around the Museum Quarter. The Leopold museum is one of the largest collections of modern Viennese art, mostly Gustav Klimt and his short-lived heir Egon Schiele. A separate, special exhibit at the Albertina featured Schiele works from non-Leopold sources and, having visited the Leopold during my last trip to Vienna, decided to try out the Albertina exhibit.
Simultaneous to the chronologically arranged Egon Schiele exhibit -- which touched on some pretty dark periods of his life, like the time he ended up in jail for corrupting minors for nude paintings of the children of a small town he was living in with his mistress, charges that were eventually dropped -- was an exhibit of Monet and Picasso which was much better attended. If museums are hard up for attendance, it seems a reliable way to sell tickets is to throw out a big banner out front that says "Impressionists". I believe this is mostly because people recognize Impressionist paintings from their computer wallpapers. I am briefly amused at the thought of someone using one of Egon Schiele's nude self-portraits as computer wallpaper.
I also opted to visit the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna's art museum for everything from deep pre-history to roughly Renaissance and a bit after. The museum had a special exhibit on the oldest gold mines in Europe, found in Bulgaria and dated to roughly the 3rd century BC. The rooms in the permanent exhibit are two stories tall plus, and many of them are covered floor to ceiling with art. You see Peter Paul Reubens paintings in textbooks, and you wonder why you should care. You should care because his paintings are all life size or bigger; two story tall depictions of classical themes in meticulous Northern Renaissance detail. There is an enormous collection of tapestries depicting the Habsburg wars for northern Africa, to protect their Spanish holdings from the Ottomans. And at the end of all this, you can sit down under a beautiful naturally-lit dome and enjoy a glass of reasonably priced wine and write down your notes from the trip.
I rounded out my museum visits by going to the two branches of the Vienna Jewish Museum. I started at the annex at the Judenplatz, which sits where the old Medieval Synagogue was until Duke Albrecht V decided to expel all the Jews from Austria in 1421, and the entrance faces a monument to Austrian Holocaust victims. This museum was mostly focused on Medieval Jewish life in Vienna before the expulsion, and leads down to the site of what remains of the synagogue. The main museum, located in the Palais Eskeles, focuses more on twentieth century Jewish history, and had a special exhibit on how anti-modernists at the turn of the last century targeted department stores and the Jewish owners of some of those department stores over how global capitalism was destroying traditional values, concluding with the Aryanization of the Jewish-owned department stores after the Anschluss. There is an ongoing effort either sponsored by the museum or organized through it (I'm not quite sure) to reunite families with the belongings and heirlooms taken from them during the 1930s. Perhaps to hammer home the point that we are not as civilized and modern as some of us would like to believe, the main campus of the Jewish Museum was the only place in Vienna that had armed private security manning the doors and keeping a close eye on people walking through.
Not visited in this trip, but worth your time, are the Leopold (mostly modern art, mostly Klimt and Schiele), the Staatsoper Vienna (where the concessions only take cards you can do the actual slide over carbon paper thing, which meant I was paying a lot of foreign transaction fees for all that champagne.), the Kaisergruft (where Habsburgs from across the globe have been buried for four hundred years), the various exhibits in the Hofburg (crown jewels, Sisi Museum, Spanish riding, &c.), Schonbrunn (the Habsburg summer home, a sort of mini-Versaille, and a jam packed musuem building).
All hotel restaurants are mediocre. This has been my experience from everything from 3-star chain locations in Albuquerque to 5-star boutiques in Tokyo. My expert opinion is that this is because hotels are not, contrary to popular belief, restaurants. This was reaffirmed with two meals at the Park Hyatt, and though the food was serviceable it did not justify the cost.
This mistake was mostly mine, suckered in by the otherwise stellar trappings of the hotel. Perhaps this one would be different; the cafe was solid, after all, and the prices at the restaurant were on the high side of normal, not the usual thirty per cent markup I've come to expect.
And in truth, everything was fine, it's just that it wasn't great, and for the price I could have had great. My lunch risotto was creamy and properly cooked, as was the braised lamb shoulder with dinner the next night, and the wine pairing suggested there showed that the waiter knew what was up. The problem was the vegetables, and there were two problems here: (1) they were underseasoned and not integrated with the rest of the plate, giving the impression that they were added as a colorful afterthought and (2) they were the exact same between a vegetarian risotto and a hunk of meat7. Fortunately, this was all saved by the room I had the lamb in.
However, the evening was saved when I received rapid fire texts and phone calls from an unknown +43 number that turned out to be an old friend I had tried to contact before the trip, who now lives in the eastern bits of Austria, and who, through another mutual friend that I had dinner with the night before, learned that I was in town and that he hadn't given me his phone number so my text messages must have deeply confused the unknown German heir to his previous number.
With a little google work and the help of one of the hotel concierges7 we ended up going to American Bar by Stephansplatz.
I don't usually check reviews before visiting a place, because I end up in over-analysis land, trying to understand why there is an extra half-star between two restaurants based on five hundred aggregated patron reviews. Bars are an exception, because there are many bars whose potables do not live up to their pretentions and prices.
American Bar lived up to expectations, with an emphasis on their mixed drinks. This is not a place for a Scotch neat (although that didn't stop me) -- the brown liquid selection is pretty standard mid-grade stuff, which is great for mixing and perfectly fine for drinking neat, but nothing revelatory -- and the beer selection is the standard Germanic bier8. The cocktails, though, were spot on, and refreshing and enjoyable. American Bar is on a side street, and the indoor bit is all wood paneling with six foot tall ceilings in the downstairs bathroom area which, as a person taller than six feet, made for an uncomfortable two minutes, and the sidewalk bit is pretty standard patio fare. The bartenders were young and clearly enjoyed being bartenders, and the few moments where their not being experienced bartenders was offset by a general happy attitude. And why not be happy, when you're slinging quality booze juice at reasonable prices in a prime location?
The following morning, for breakfast, I visited the simply raw bakery a block north of the Park Hyatt. The muesli was as good as I've had, and the coffee was very, very good as well.
This is what I think I love the most about Vienna. There are myriad museums, sure, and the city has that old grand European feel in a way that feels less forced upon you than in, say, Paris. As a coffee junky, I can safely say the Viennese coffee scene is the best in Europe. The Café Maria Theresia may be the single best fancy-pants coffee drink in the world. By virtue of being located right where Germany and Italy meet Eastern Europe, Vienna is a city of fusion food -- Wiener Schnitzel is a Habsburg Viennese take on northern Italian veal cutlet, and Hungarian goulash mixes with the fine German tradition of pulling every bit of flavor possible out of a head of cabbage and some vinegar. Don't even get me started about the pastries that get served with the coffee...
Which was built in the late 1800s and, I was sad to find out, was forced to Aryanize in 1938 under German occupation and its Jewish owner was forced to sell and then was deported to, and died at, Theresienstadt. This tidbit was not highlighted on the wall describing the hotel's history.
Where I decided, having never seen an opera, I should start off with Tannhauser. I had forgotten that Wagner was not shy about forcing the audience to live through his German nationalistic fantasy lands, and with two intermissions this opera ended up running over five hours.
I am not a cigar smoker, so I cannot comment intelligently on the cigars, although they had a sizable collection of Cuban cigars, and as I noted in a previous post I have been to Cuba and I can tell you that I did enjoy the handful of cigars I was more or less culturally obligated to try there.
On the other hand, I AM qualified to comment on the scotch selection, and I felt it needed some work. Every time I go abroad, I go into bars with amazing lists of single malt Speysides and sherry cask finished Islays and the magical stuff the Japanese are producing (seriously, if you've been living under a rock for a decade, the Japanese are the current kings of distilled malted barley), but then when they go to North America they order Crown Royal, Jim Beam, and maybe, if they're very knowledgeable, you'll see something from Hudson or something like that. There is one exception to this, which is a bar in Copenhagen that has all manner of fantastic American whiskey and bourbon, but which I will not name because I don't want to run the risk of the place being overrun by tourists.
This poor selection gives the impression that Americans produce crap, which was a popular refrain but which is starting to change, particularly with beer now that US craft beers are more readily available in Europe and the Germans are realizing their smug Teutonic sense of superiority in the suds department is unfounded. The truth is, if you get past the mass-est of mass-market alcohol, the United States is among the best in the world at making interesting, flavorful booze that range from avant-garde takes to the most traditional processes. Of course, none of that was reflected in the scotch and cigar bar at the Park Hyatt Vienna.
Which, I guess, since I'm writing this here now, that makes me a food critic, although not a particularly influential or good one.)
I have my moral qualms about veal, but I didn't know it was coming and if I sent it back it would've been thrown away, and Europeans are generally less averse to veal than Americans, so I was sorta stuck and just ate the thing.
I booked this as an award flight, but there were no award flights from Denver to Vienna, so I had to fly to Chicago and then book the award flight Chicago to Vienna. Because these were separate itineraries, I was worried (overly so) about missing a connecting flight and being left in the lurch by my airline, so I had a six hour layover in Chicago. This wouldn't have been so bad -- the Swiss business class lounge that they share with Austrian is comfortable if a little small -- but I arrived nearly two hours before Austrian was even checking anybody in, so I had to sit and wait in the international check-in area of O'Hare, which has nowhere near enough seats and is a cramped space beside, passing time until I could sneak through. Also, while going through the security line, the drug sniffing dog stuck his nose right up my butt, which frankly I would've preferred a TSA pat-down where both parties get to be embarrassed to be going through this charade.
Serious shit, it was identically sliced carrot, radish, some white thing that had the texture of a softer carrot but not enough flavor to figure out what it was, and a roasted tomato. I'm a big fan of all of these, even the mystery vegetable was fine, but it desperately needed some sort of seasoning and something to actually tie it in with the rest of the plate. I mean, if you're braising lamb, just throw the vegetables in with the lamb, and that alone will tie the whole thing together. Risotto with spring vegetables is a little harder. But the fact that they were identically cut was peculiar.
Who lacked the Clefs d'Or of his more senior coworker, and who was uncomfortably warm and dripping sweat and commenting on it, and yes it was a bit warm but not THAT warm, which made me a little concerned for his welfare.
I contrast this with some of the microbreweries in Vienna, such as 1516 Brewing House, which take a stab at the more exotic forms of beer, even if they don't necessarily hit them out of the park. But then, I've tried the oldest microbrewery in my hometown, which has about thirty or something, and it is probably the most disappointing of the lot. So first tries are seldom the best, but someone has to take the first step, and kudos to them for trying.