x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A bridge links the past and present in Vienna

Spend a weekend enjoying art and architecture in Austria's modern, culture-rich capital.

Le Loft sits on the top floor of the newly opened Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom. The glass-encased restaurant is the perfect place to gaze out over the city. Courtesy of P Ruault / Sofitel
Le Loft sits on the top floor of the newly opened Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom. The glass-encased restaurant is the perfect place to gaze out over the city. Courtesy of P Ruault / Sofitel
It's 5pm on a chilly afternoon when I arrive in Vienna. A mist is descending as I get into a taxi at Schwechat airport and I sink down into my sheepskin coat as we set off into a blurry dusk. My BlackBerry rings and I'm not paying much attention to my surroundings until suddenly - I had forgotten how close the airport is to the centre - the taxi stops and I am scrabbling for the ?35 (Dh175) fare while looking out of the taxi window in astonishment.
When was the last time that a city hotel really thrilled you? As in make you do a double-take as you walk up to it - that slanted glass roof - and grin with delight as you enter? I stare around me. Glass, light, soaring modernity. But this is Vienna - a history lesson of a city, where everything's old - and I've booked into a Sofitel, which used to be about as bland a hotel group as you could find. Yet here in a months-old hotel is architectural excitement and decor - both courtesy of Jean Nouvel - that I want to examine in covetous detail.
"Yes, Vienna is changing," smiles the receptionist, handing back my passport.
Upstairs, in the room, I find myself grinning again. By now a wintry fogginess has descended on the city, but the view from the wall of glass is fantastic. Directly below, the water of the Danube Canal glitters briefly as the headlights of cars passing over the bridge illuminate it. Spot-lit, the spire of the central St Stephens Cathedral seems to hang mid-air over a sea of muffled lights. The room is a white-on-white retreat with the bathroom concealed (or not) behind a sliding door. I eat the complimentary biscuits by the tea and coffee-making stuff (not so elevated by my surroundings to have cast off a childish habit, I'm sorry to say), and call Astrid, an Austrian friend of a friend, who I'm meeting for dinner. Then I run a bath and pull a Vienna guidebook out of my hand luggage to continue where I left off on the plane.
Before I go out, I speed up to the 17th floor for a quick look at the multicoloured ceiling of the bar and restaurant. Well, and wow again. But the hotel's deli and hammam will have to wait until tomorrow. Down in the lobby, the concierge marks the restaurant on a map and I step out into the fog. Opposite the hotel is another new addition to this new Vienna: a ferry dock on the Danube where high-speed boats can get you to Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, in only 30 minutes. I cross the bridge, pulling my collar up, and as I walk I leave behind this new Vienna and the decades fall away.
I cross the Ringstrasse - the broad boulevard lined either side with 19th-century palaces and mansions and grand buildings that replaced the city walls Emperor Franz Josef had torn down in the 1850s. Enclosed within the Ringstrasse is the old city of Vienna, and by the time I have reached the little square where the restaurant Artner is located, I am all the way back in the 18th century.
Street lanterns in wrought iron protrude from the corners of elaborately plastered fascia. Pillared entrances reveal marble foyers. Yes, this is the old Vienna I remember from the first time I came here in 1991. A flying visit to one of the 300-odd balls that take place each January to March, held under a zillion chandeliers in the Hofburg Palace, it was one of the most fun, glamorous nights of my 20s. Despite the legions of footmen in white breeches and powdered white wigs and Austrian soldiers in Ruritanian uniforms of pale blue and gold as spare dance partners, I have to admit that my main memory is of feeling hysterical all night because of the unnatural constraint of my tightly fitting long dress. At least waltzing was easier than having to walk with tiny steps up a flight of white marble stairs at the entrance, though.
Pushing back a heavy black velvet curtain that stops the front door from letting cold air in, Artner is all minimalist white decor, with white rods creating a screen between one row of tables.
"Cool, yes?" smiles Astrid. "But the menu is classic Viennese. So - wiener schnitzel?" She looks so Austrian, with her blonde hair, blue eyes and healthy perfect skin that as we talk, I'm not surprised to hear that where she grew up, in the north of Austria, people still often wear traditional costume. Soon we are conversationally criss-crossing the centuries. We flit from the present (Le Loft, the rooftop French-Austrian restaurant at the Sofitel has become such a must-see that there's a three-week waiting list for a table) to the remote past (the reason there is such a honeycomb of cellar bars under the old city, she says, is that until the city walls were torn down there was no way to expand a property except downwards). En-route, we touch on that ever-engrossing subject, in this part of the world - the Second World War.
Vienna eagerly welcomed the arrival of Hitler's troops in 1938 - Hitler himself was Austrian, of course - and for a decade after the Nazis' defeat in 1945, Vienna was divided into four sectors, each governed by one of the four victorious powers, Britain, France, America and Russia. According to my bathtime reading, the Russian soldiers were so terrifyingly uncouth that Viennese women in their sector would go to the main square to sleep out in the open each night rather than risk being discovered alone at home. Was that really true? In a city with such bitterly cold winters?
"Oh, completely true. My grandmother was one of those women," Astrid says. "I remember she said hundreds of them would sleep in the open, just on the ground, wrapped in blankets, because it was so much safer with witnesses around. That was very near where we are right now, in fact." I could hug her. What's more fascinating - and satisfying - than the next best thing to a witness?
After dinner, she takes me to see the most famous of the old cellar bars. The Esterhazy is another step back down the centuries. Steep steps, too, that run so precipitously close to the entrance I'm amazed there aren't a heap of broken arms and legs at the bottom. Waiters in lederhosen zoom about delivering trays laden with drinks to customers packed into wooden booths. The atmosphere is a fug of warmth and noise but we don't stay - Astrid has suggested dessert at one of the city's coffee houses. We get on one of the old trams that clank up and down the Ringstrasse - what is it about these things that is so insanely romantic? - and despite it being now past 11pm, find the high-ceilinged Café Pruckel, which first opened in 1904, not only open, but packed with customers. Earnest conversations are taking place over coffees - decaf, I assume - and cake.
"Talk, talk, talk - the Viennese obsession," Astrid says as we find a table. Which reminds me, I think, I must visit Freud's house tomorrow.
With her help, I plot out what I'm going to do the next day. It is impossible to cram into just one day even a hundredth of what there is to see in this art-stuffed city of 110 museums. Still, it helps that most of the highlights sit within the Ringstrasse, where nothing is more than a 20-minute walk or brief tram ride away.
On my list: the new Museumsquartier that has brought together the city's modern art collections in the former imperial stables. The Vienna 1900 exhibition there is devoted to the city's artistic heyday, before the First World War brought an end to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the 750-year rule of the Habsburgs. I would love to see the famous Lipizzaner horses at the Spanish Riding School. I have to have an hour or two with the Rubens and Breughels in the Kunsthistoriches, the main art museum. There are old coffee-houses to see in between - the Central, the Sperl, the Braunerhof, the wood-panelled Hawelka. I've got to try the new glass-box cafe Kaas, near the Sofitel, for breakfast. I absolutely have to see the MUK design shop in the Museum of Applied Arts.
"And you have to see the new young hang-out at the Nachtsmarket," says Astrid. "It's a reclaimed market area with cafes and food stalls."
At midnight, she goes off to the Metro and I walk back to the hotel. The fog has lifted a little, and after making my husband irritable by waking him up to gabble on about what an inspiring and energising city this clean and cultured capital has become, I lie in my bed looking at that view. I feel suspended in time and space, looking forward to a day of art and deliciousness, in love again with the world.
 
If You Go
The flight Direct flights with Emirates ( www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Vienna cost from Dh4,015 return, including taxes
The hotel A double room at the Sofitel Stephansdom ( www.sofitel.com; 00 43 1 906160) costs from ?230 (Dh1,152) including taxes. Its spa will open fully on April 17. The ball season culminates with the masked Rudolfina Redoute on March 7, so there's still time to get tickets ( www.vienna.info). If you can't waltz at all, you can get a private one-hour lesson at the Tanzschule Elmayer ( www.elmayer.com) for ?58 (Dh290)