Story and photos by Mark Wessel

This article is from the February 2018 Issue of Forever Young

FYng Feb 2018 Vienna Market

When I first visited Vienna in 2016, the city’s promotional theme was ‘Vienna, Now or Never.” It was inspired by the fact that the city had been recognized that year by consulting firm Mercer, as number one in the world for quality of living. So the thought process was that you really should go there to find out what the fuss is all about, or perhaps you never will. Of course, what those crafty Viennese knew all along is that once you experience this achingly beautiful city, you will feel the urge to return from the moment you depart; and that urge will stay with you until you go back again.

Last summer, a little more than a year after my first visit, our 30th anniversary was more than enough justification to both share not only some of my favourite Vienna experiences with my wife Dee-Anne, but also to continue to explore the city’s enticing mix of old an new, with each district possessing its own unique character.

For those who have never visited, Vienna conjures up the image of the city as the birthplace of Mozart (and Marie Antoinette), home of the world class Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Boys’ Choir and arguably, the centre of the classical music universe (although the Germans and Italians may wish to dispute that. And while all of that is true, Vienna is so much more.

But far from being a museum piece, Vienna’s vibrancy stems from the fact that it is constantly reinventing itself and finding new ways to showcase the old with the new. The first time this reality hit home was when we checked in to the grätzlhotel. The whole premise behind grätzlhotel’s unique experiential model, is to transform abandoned stores into hotel rooms. So instead of the stereotypical bricks and mortar of most hotels, grätzlhotel consists of a pod of suites situated in different neighbourhoods throughout the city.

We stayed in the grätzlhotel Karmelitermarkt neighbourhood and in the spirit of what’s old is new again, our lamplighter suite, which was once a lighting store, had been transformed into a tastefully decorated self-contained suite. In addition, blending functionality with art by showcasing some of the former store’s lighting fixtures, we found the suite had much more of an apartment feel to it, with a stainless-steel kitchenette, a full-sized kitchen table on the lower level, and a few steps up, an open concept bathroom and bedroom area.

The great thing about the grätzlhotel concept is that instead of staying in a hotel district as a tourist, you are ensconced in a lively neighbourhood, replete with hip shops and restaurants and as the Karmelitermarktr name suggests, a full-blown farmers’ market every weekend. And because we were staying in a former storefront operation, everything was literally at our doorstep. So on any given day, we would walk over to the bakery for fresh baked goods, I would traipse around the corner while wife Dee was exploring the shops to patronize Brendl, which showcases local microbrews. Or we’d grab a late-night snack and cocktails at Tewa am Markt, the local Israeli restaurant specializing in organic Mediterranean cuisine.

 

One of the reasons Vienna ranks so high as a place to live is the city’s exceptional transit system. With 109 stations, five lines and 83km of track, you easily make your way to the MuseumsQuartier in the 7th district and then pop over to visit the historic 1st district Innere Stadte, where city hall, the Hofburg Palace and dozens of other historic buildings beckon. And that’s precisely what we did.

For anyone who prefers Musée d’Orsay over the Louvre when visiting Paris, because it is easier to navigate and focuses more on works from the 19th century, for the same reason you will want to visit the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Yet another example of contrasting the old with the new, from the outside the Leopold projects a futuristic aura with its cuboid design and solid stone shell. And yet it is home primarily to 19th century works of the figurative Aton Schiele, known for his intensely raw nude paintings and Gustav Klimt, a symbolist painter best known for ‘The Kiss’. To see the latter, you have to take yet another relatively short subway ride (which we did) to the Belvedere Museum, which is situated in the grand summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736). Exploring the baroque landscaping of the grounds of the Belvedere make the visit that much more worthwhile.

Notwithstanding Vienna’s great transit system, the 1st district and historic city core is immensely walkable. From the Leopold, it is little more than a 10-minute stroll to get to Volksgarten, where in addition to the Hofburg Palace, the large public garden serves as a walking history lesson, with numerous monuments, fountains and arguably the largest rose garden you’ll ever visit. Even if you have more of a brown than green thumb such as myself, in the summer months you can’t ignore the fact that the garden’s 3,000 bushes and 200 different varieties of roses is visually stunning. So much so that you’ll feel compelled to park yourself on one of the numerous benches on the grounds, to take it all in.

Apart from its visual splendour, one of the more pleasant experiences you can have, is to simply explore the city to discover everything from hidden alleyways with upscale restaurants to popup parks with everything from playgrounds to fenced in soccer pitches. You’ll also stumble across arts and culture attractions purely by accident, simply because so much is going on there.

Such was the case when we walked just a few minutes away from Volksgarten to check out the architecture of the neo-gothic Rathaus (City Hall). Constructed between 1872 to 1873 (just a few years after our own Parliament buildings), while the building itself was impressive, equally impressive was the fact that it was serving as the backdrop for the city’s highly popular outdoor Film Festival.

Arriving in mid afternoon, we discovered dozens of food booths, with every conceivable ethnic dish alongside more conventional Austrian fare (including some of the best wiener schnitzel you’ve ever tasted) as well as booths showcasing some of the area’s microbreweries. Not long after the afternoon sun melted away, the event organizers screened one of Leonard Cohen’s last performances (Leonard Cohen in Dublin) on a massive screen that made you feel you were taking in a live show. We thought it was equally fitting for them to welcome us, however accidentally, with a Canadian legend.

It was our second last day there that evening, and I could tell that not unlike myself, my wife now too had a wistful longing for this city, even though we had yet to leave. The reality for the both of us was we didn’t feel it was Vienna ‘now or never’ but rather, ‘never say never’ as we would surely return to explore more of this great city.