Vienna in 48 hours

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018
View from the top: The Viennese book the Ferris wheel at Prater for birthday and dinner parties

View from the top: The Viennese book the Ferris wheel at Prater for birthday and dinner parties   -  Shutterstock

Walking past history: The Austrian capital is full of buildings that effortlessly blend vintage architecture with modernity

Walking past history: The Austrian capital is full of buildings that effortlessly blend vintage architecture with modernity   -  Shutterstock

Place of prayer: The St Stephen’s Cathedral is so significant to the Viennese that the exterior of the old sandstone building is cleaned round the year

Place of prayer: The St Stephen’s Cathedral is so significant to the Viennese that the exterior of the old sandstone building is cleaned round the year   -  Shutterstock

It’s possible to pack in all the sights, even for a historic city richly endowed as this

Memory, it’s a wily creature. When it prunes all extraneous matter, the blurry past suddenly acquires an unexpected focus. Our visit to Vienna was an exercise executed with military precision. We had two days to see the Austrian capital, which still wears the bruises of WWII as a gentle reminder to a harrowing past, so too as a memento of outliving it. Ilse Heigerth, our guide, knows that no time is too little. She had drawn up an itinerary that crunched, apart from our bones, a historic city into 48 hours. And we did much in those two days. We walked a great deal, took the tram, hopped into the metro, went up and down the Ferris wheel, visited museums and hotels, watched horses in practice and smelled the vineyards. Yet the memory one bounds back to, is the evening at Fuhrgassl-Huber, the wine tavern in Neustift.

The tavern is a showpiece. One those sprinting away from glass and chrome will flock to. Like a lot of Viennese buildings, it smacks of the past and ages gently. The wooden floor and wood-panelled ceiling are polished to shine. It is clearly a boisterous evening, but the women waiters in the traditional dirndl go about their work stoically. Their hands effortlessly balance dinner for a dozen — large platters piled with crumbed chicken and vegetables, and glass pitchers of white wine produced in-house. The delightfully light wine and the lethal schnapp strips away the weariness of a day spent outdoors. A band plays what we are told is a Hindi song from the 1950s which no one recognises. Some lousy singing of our own follows. The request for a Viennese song puts Heigerth and George-Victor Kutschera, an organiser of the trip, through animated discussions before they agree on one.

Earlier in the evening, we had travelled to the wine region, no means large, but the only one in the world to fall entirely within the boundaries of a metropolis. On the way, passing through Dobling, Heigerth showed us the Karl Marx-Hof, a massive apartment complex built for the working class in the 1920s. Over a kilometre long, the red building is the longest linked building in the world. It’s a legacy of Vienna’s socialist past, one which gave it the name Red Vienna. The wide-arched building and the idea it stood for — reasonable housing for the working class — forced a collective sigh in the bus; most of us came from the melee that was Delhi.

Our group of six journalists had flown to the Austrian city in Air India’s first direct flight from New Delhi. At the Indira Gandhi International Airport, the Air India counter had a palpable buzz around it. Flowers and streamers decked the desk. Women in the uniform printed silk sari, severely pleated and pinned, strutted around purposefully. Amid the hullabaloo I became convinced that I was rather underwhelmingly dressed for the occasion.

Before boarding, we queued up for a slice of the large cake that was cut, and paused for passengers who wanted selfies with the crew. The lady next to me in the flight was returning home after a funeral in Delhi. The woman behind was appalled that the in-flight entertainment had no Punjabi songs.

The ‘momentousness’ of the flight only really hits us when we land at the small Vienna airport. Arvind Kathpalia, the captain of the Dreamliner and a veteran pilot, instructs passengers to look out the window for a glimpse of the water salute. The local press is here and Kathpalia and his crew are much in demand among the photographers. The press conference is attended by the Indian Ambassador to Austria. And samosa is among the snacks served.

We’re put up at the Ritz Carlton. The building effortlessly blends vintage architecture with modernity. The rooms are about clean cuts and soft tones, while the dining area, once a bank’s cash cellar, has gold leaf patterns on its low ceiling.

The next morning, we walk around the inner city with Heigerth. We pass the concert hall where an upcoming Zubin Mehta concert is sold out already. Heigerth has handy information on everything we see: luxury hotels, and baroque and Renaissance churches, of which there are a handful. The water pipeline to the city, she says, was opened in the 1860s and the 150-km-long pipe brings water directly from the Alps.

After a stop at the Swarovski flagship store and some champagne, we reach the St Stephen’s cathedral, a 12th-century Gothic structure. It’s a monument so significant to the Viennese that the cleaning of the old sandstone building takes place round the year. The cathedral too had borne the brunt of WWII.

Captain Kathpalia joins us on our walk. For someone who has flown for decades, Vienna was at best a stopover, not a destination. He quickly becomes the curious first-timer. Each city, quaint or well-known, holds a story for Kathpalia. He remembers the layover in Kozhikode, my hometown, for the appam and stew at Paragon restaurant.

History and old-world charm are soon left behind as we hop into the metro to get to the amusement park at Prater. Heigerth had talked much about the Ferris wheel with its railway wagon-like cabins. The wheel, well over 100 years old, is getting some modern touches. The cabin we occupy is done up like a contemporary coffee-shop. The bird’s-eye view has the meadows and woods of Vienna on one side and multi-coloured apartments on the other. The Viennese often book the wheel for birthday dinners and children’s parties.

On our second and last day in Vienna, we walk to the Spanish riding school. The training session is underway as we slip into our front-row seats at the arena. Rows of spectators witness the perfect understanding between the horse and the trainer. The trainer rewards each flawless manoeuvre with a cube of sugar. The actual performances over the weekend draw much larger crowds. The arena itself is nearly three centuries old, and the tradition of the shows even older.

In the stable are at least 72 lipizzaners, considered Europe’s oldest breed. Their bloodline is a matter of much pride and is traced back to Arab, Spanish and Italian ancestors. The young horses in the stable are pure black and they shed the colour just a little with every passing year to eventually become pristine-white performance horses. Hausberger, the chief rider, says the school has an India connection dating back to the 1930s. Two stallions from here were bought by the maharaja of Mysore and the chief trainer accompanied the horses to their new home to help them acclimatise. “It took three weeks to reach there and half a year to train them,” says Hausberger.

Adjacent to the riding school is the imperial apartments, where the royal Habsburgs lived.. Austrians have an almost Diana-like fixation with empress Elizabeth, popularly known as Sisi. She, like Diana, married young. The marriage to emperor Franz Joseph turned loveless pretty soon. The separate living sections of Joseph and Sisi are maintained immaculately, and one is struck by the sheer simplicity of Joseph’s quarter against the opulence of Sisi’s, which even has a potty with printed patterns in the washroom.

Among our final stops is the Palais Coburg, another palace converted into a luxury hotel. We are shepherded to its avant-garde wine cellar constructed inside historical ruins. By then we all looked like we could do with a drop from one of those stored 60,000 bottles, a few of which were a couple of centuries old. The hotel staff, though, was more eager to show us what they thought would matter much to us. Up in the elevator we went and, ta-da!, we were at the suite where actor Ranbir Kapoor stayed in during the shoot of Ai Dil Hai Muskhil. Our rather limp reaction must have come as anticlimactic, in hindsight.

Hours later, we are back at the airport. In between we managed to visit the Belvedere in the rains and saw the Klimt collection. We dined on baked spinach cakes and the famed pastries at Demel. We shopped for magnets and mugs. Months later, though, it’s still the bonhomie at the tavern that stays with me. And the captain’s off-key singing.

Travel log

Getting there

Air India operates a direct flight from New Delhi to Vienna, three days a week


Ritz-Carlton is centrally located. Monuments and shopping arcades are at walking distance


Carry a good pair of walking shoes as most attractions in Vienna are best visited on foot. The vineyards at the city’s end and the taverns in the bordering villages will let you experience the city differently. One could also travel to Kahlenberg in the Viennna woods

(The writer was in Vienna on the invitation of Air India)


The article has been corrected for an error in name.

Published on August 26, 2016

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