Austrian Adventure: Land of Lipizzaners, Liszt and lederhosen

CAROLINE HURRY visits Vienna and discovers a city steeped in imperial nostalgia, art, music and cool cafes. Further afield are ruined castles, snow covered mountains and medieval towns

I have always believed things work out for the best, ever since a friend missed her flight on the ill-fated Helderberg. So when I discovered two hours before boarding a plane for Bratislava that I needed a visa to visit Slovakia, I tried not to panic. The travel agent at Flight Centre had neglected to mention this little detail but in fairness, it was an easy mistake to make. The website categorically states that South Africans don't need a visa to visit the country, which proves you can't believe everything you read on the internet. My husband was to meet me in Vienna and whisk me off to Bratislava, where he was working. Instead he had to drive back to Slovakia alone, where he hired a lawyer to try and expedite the process -- not that it made any discernable difference.
I booked into the NH Airport Hotel, until the Slovakian Embassy in Vienna granted my visa. Every day for a week I made the long, traffic-laden journey to the embassy, a tiny room redolent of sweat and garlic, to join the disorderly queue. And every day I was met with the same response to what soon became a rhetorical question about my visa. "Nein!"
"Nine would be fine," I replied, but nobody laughed. It wasn't that funny.
Still, there are worse places to get waylaid than this cultured Austrian capital noted for symphonies, opera, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Klimt. Here the skyline of slender spires, sculptures and Aztec-style roofs look much the same as they did in Haydn's day. No matter which direction you take, you can't avoid colliding with history. Even the Slovakian Embassy is just around the corner from the house where Beethoven died of pneumonia in 1827. Though the bad-tempered Beethoven reeked of BO and frequently left his unemptied chamber pot under the piano, he was popular with women and apparently suffered from syphilis, referred to in his letters as 'a malady I cannot change and which brings me nearer to death'.
I set off for The Hoffburg, a hotchpotch of a palace that belonged to the Hapsburg dynasty. It is also the venue of the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Reitschule) and the streets were filled with dancing white Lipizzaners, some pulling carriages, as morning sunlight shimmered across a glass pavilion, flirting with the bold Gothic decoration, statues and giddy rococo architecture, seemingly untouched by any World War II bombing. The copper-domed palace edged in gold lattice with a party of winged beasts on its roof, houses the Imperial Apartments, the former in-town digs of Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph, whose marriage was not unlike Prince Charles and Princess Diana's. By all accounts Franz-Josef was a boorish Mummy's boy who frequented brothels during their honeymoon, while Elisabeth, or Sisi, as she was known, won people's hearts with her beauty. Their only son Rudolph committed suicide and Sisi was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1897.
The Sisi Museum's melodramatic displays begin with the Empress Elisabeth's death mask. One of her lavish ball gowns dominates room 4 and there is a kitsch collection of half-sized plaster statues of the royal couple through the decades, rather like a complete set of imperial garden gnomes.
Vienna is famous for its café society. Whether you take your coffee reclining in a velvet chair in an austere, dark-wooded establishment or in a sweet shop stocked with art deco-boxed chocolates, Viennese java is a major production. I lingered at Demel, which was established in 1786 and still advertises itself as the imperial and royal confectioners. Downstairs, pastry chefs rustle up a dazzling array of goodies and my espresso arrived on a silver tray, with a wicked slice of chocolate cake slathered in whipped cream.
The coffee alone cost six euros but that's a small price to pay for poring over newspapers and soaking up the culture of this art-swept city and its moody, brooding residents. Several carried cellos, while many others wore the pained, self-absorbed expressions of people composing symphonies in their heads.
Afterwards I took a leisurely stroll down the prime shopping streets of Graben and Kohlmarkt, past store windows filled with designer frocks, tweed suits and jackets sharp enough to cut a dash in the highest societies. The only problem was that they cost thousands. In Vienna it pays to be wealthy. Handcrafted miniature violins and nutcrackers go for princely prices. Just a beer can knock you back seven euros.
The next day, Pete and I set off for the KunstHaus Wien, an oddly compelling museum dedicated to the environmental architecture and paintings of Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), famous for lecturing in the nude and his penchant for uneven floors. "A straight line is godless," he once declared.

We got lost in a maze of small streets, but luckily I recognized one of the names: Einbahn! "That way," I pointed. "I definitely saw that street name before."

"Doubtlessly," replied Peter dryly. "Einbahn means One Way".
Eventually we found the KunstHaus. From the outside it looks like an unsteady assemblage of black and white checks that seem to be melting; inside, it boasts sloping mosaic floors and a jungle-like café thick with fronds and vines.
In 1983 Hundertwasser redesigned a dour council apartment block into Hundertwasserhaus, a higgledy-piggledy jumble of colours and textures comprising a frenzy of mosaics, ceramic pillars, a gilded onion dome and roof gardens. Around 200 residents still live there today, seemingly unperturbed by the tourist hordes.
Afterwards we went to the Prater, formerly a royal hunting reserve that was opened to the public in 1766. The park includes vast acres of forest, a miniature railway, a trade-fair centre, a planetarium, an amusement park and Vienna's giant ferris wheel, built in 1898. Praterfahrts (horse-drawn carriages) are available for hire but Peter and I opted for a canopied two-seater pedal carriage and cycled eight kms to one of the park's eateries for lunch, giggling like children as we raced other commuters down the wide avenue.

That weekend, we drove about 300 kms west of Vienna to a ski resort in Schladming, a name that made me think of the sound of slushy footsteps.

Seduced by the snow-covered mountains and crisp blue sky, I found myself belting out a few cheesy show tunes. High on a hill was a lonely goatherd, yay-oodle-lay, oodle-lay eeh-ooh! But I was no match for Klug, the Bavarian entertainer at the bar, who slapped his beefy thighs and yodeled as though his life depended on it. Was that an alphorn in his lederhosen, or was he just pleased to see me?
Sensing competition, Peter informed me that the lederhosen, usually fashioned from goat suede, never got washed and could be very smelly at close quarters. He would not say how he came by this information.

We also visited the medieval town of Hainburg, about 40kms east of Vienna dominated by a ruined castle built in the 10th century. The ransom paid for Richard the Lionheart, captured in 1197, was used for further extensions. A climb up a steep winding hill was arduous but the view from the top was worth it.

I had fallen in love with Austria and almost forgotten about my visa to Slovakia, when suddenly it arrived and Pete and I were able to set off together for Bratislava. But, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I'll be back!

Fact File:
Public Transport: Vienna's public transport system is one of the most efficient in the world. Trains are reliable, trams are smooth and buses run like clockwork.

Famous features: Arguably one of the most cultured cities in the world, Vienna is known for its coffee houses, concerts, cathedrals, palaces, baroque architecture, the Vienna Boys Choir, horse-drawn carriages and art.

Useful websites: is a tourist site for booking accommodation including self-catering, flights and car rental online. is the official Vienna tourist board's website while is the city council website. Although it is in German, it has a useful search engine that will find any address in the city for you on a map. Simply click on Stadtplan-Suche and write in the street name.

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