Vienna has culture, history, cuisine and above all, class

As the city prepares to host the 60th Eurovision Song Contest, Arlene Harris samples the delights of Vienna.

Vienna has culture, history, cuisine and above all, class

IT MAY be renowned for its musical history — with everyone from Mozart, Beethoven and even Vivaldi producing some of their greatest works in the city — but Vienna’s most famous composers must be turning in their graves at the very notion of a ‘bearded lady’ representing their fine country in the 60th Eurovision song contest next month (May).

However the very fact that Conchita Wurst (Thomas “Tom” Neuwirth) is responsible for bringing the competition to Vienna signifies how modern the city has become — while at the same time retaining all the culture, history, beauty and culinary delights it has always been famous for.

Residents of the Austrian capital are fiercely proud of their Eurovision winner as I discovered when I asked locals what they felt about the wonderfully talented and strangely beautiful drag queen.

As with everything else they have bestowed on the world, the Viennese (at least the ones I spoke to), are patriotic about the 26-year-old singer and feel he is just another example of their homegrown musical talent.

When I visited the city earlier in the year, the final preparations were being put in place for the competition which will be held there for the first time since 1966.

Wiener Stadthalle, the 16,000 seat arena which will be housing the contest, is located in the 15th District and while it is a bit of a trek on foot from the city centre, the tram and bus systems are so efficient that visitors won’t notice the trip across this beautiful metropolis.

I spent three nights at the Palais Hansen Kempinski Hotel on Schottenring in the 1st District and the plush five star venue was the perfect place to explore the sights and sounds of one of Europe’s most cultured capitals.

Although I was loathe to leave its sumptuous surroundings, there was so much to explore and so little time. But it’s easy to get around the centre on foot so after an obligatory slice of apple strudel; I reluctantly left my hotel and headed out into the crisp morning sunshine.

The first thing that struck me was an air of peace which seemed to permeate the atmosphere. There were plenty of people purposefully buzzing about but it still felt tranquil — and after discussing it with a local tour guide, I discovered why.

Town planners have gone to huge lengths to ensure the centre is both environmentally friendly and accessible to pedestrians and there is little or no traffic allowed in the heart of the city.

Most of the cars whizz along a few wide carriageways and in a genius move, smart cars are left dotted around the streets with the keys in the ignition.

So if locals get tired of walking, they simply scan their resident card and the doors open allowing them to drive the car to their required destination before leaving it for another customer.

The cost of this scheme to drivers is minimal and for those who really don’t want to have to pay for transport, hundreds of bicycles are located at various points around the city and are free-of-charge to residents and tourists alike.

Walking or cycling is a great way to get around Vienna as there is so much to see.

The architecture is stunning and everywhere you look, the remnants of different periods of European history are apparent — from the infamous balcony at the Habsburg Palace where Hitler informed the crowds that Austria was to be assimilated into the German Reich, to the various homes and watering holes of many famous names including Sigmund Freud, Mozart and Beethoven.

I spent the day exploring the city — from the artistic markets in Karlsplatz, to the Museum Quarter and in the footsteps of The Third Man, took a bus to the 100-year-old big wheel at the Prater amusement park.

This was an experience in itself — not least because I was very aware of the vintage of the contraption — as we were suspended high up in the air, the car rocking from a combination of wind and a wilful toddler running from one end to the next.

But it was worth it as the view over the city was breath-taking.

Vienna is also, without a doubt, one of the most culturally rich cities in the world, particularly for anyone interested in music. I had left it too late to book a Mozart concert, but to be honest, I was more interested in seeing the world famous boys’ choir.

Tickets to hear their performance during mass at the Hofmusikkapelle start at €9. Childishly excited at the thought of hearing these little boys sing, I was up bright and early and arrived at the chapel, which is located next to the Imperial Palace, with plenty of time to people-watch as I waited for the choir to begin.

Combined with the Philharmonic orchestra and the Vienna Men’s Choir, their angelic voices quite literally brought a tear to my eye.

And with all the modern technology around today it felt quite astonishing that the sounds produced by the orchestra were being played in real time by actual people seated a few feet away.

Across a courtyard from the chapel is the equally renowned Spanish riding school where the impressive Lipizzaner Stallions can be seen doing their morning exercise.

Those with a keen interest in equestrian antics can buy tickets to see their two-hour daily performance — but with little time on my hands, I was content with my ten minute show.

If retail therapy is your thing then The ‘Golden Quarter’, which is Vienna’s elite shopping area, is a must.

Home to some of the world’s most exclusive brand-names, shopaholics will be in seventh Heaven as along with the expensive stores, are all the regular high-street names and a few funky alternatives.

And while everyone knows the city is famous for cakes and the Weiner Schnitzel, not many are aware of the fact that it is the only capital in the world which makes its own wine.

There are over 700 hectares given over to vines and the Viennese are extremely proud of their local tipples which include Beerenauslese and Wiener Gemischter Satz. The vineyards are located a short tram ride away and anyone with an interest in wine, should make sure they make the time to visit.

Having spent a few days enjoying the splendour of the Palais Hansen, I also spent a night in one of the oldest hostelries in the city — the Hotel Sacher — which is renowned not only for the calibre of its guests over the years but also for a rich chocolate cake called Sachertorte.

So secret is the recipe for this sumptuous bake that the instructions are kept under lock and key in the hotel vault.

Having deposited my bags in another plush bedroom, the ornate surroundings of the hotel café provided the perfect backdrop to enjoy a slice of Sachertorte before heading back out into the city to soak up my last few hours of Viennese culture.

To celebrate 60 years of the Eurovision Song Contest, I can’t think of a single other venue which would be as appropriate as Vienna.

A good proportion of the Continent will descend on the city for the competition and I have no doubt that, like me, each and every visitor will be seriously impressed by its culture, history, cuisine and above all, class.

How to get there:

Flights from Dublin to Vienna start from €71.99 – www.aerlingus.com

Where to stay:

Accommodation at the Palais Hansen Kempinski Hotel starts from €279 per room – www.kempinski.com . Accommodation at the Hotel Sacher Wien starts €425 per room – www.sacher.com

What to see:

* Tickets to see the Vienna Boys’ Choir start from €9 – http://events.wien.info/en/gkr/holy-mass-with-the-vienna-boys-choir-at-the-hofburgkapelle/

* For contest tickets visit www.eurovision.tv/page/vienna-2015/about/tickets

* Spanish Riding School - www.srs.at All other info www.wien.info

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