“You must go to Vienna – it’s like Paris, but without the French!” So says the David Frost character in the film Frost/Nixon. But is he right?
Vienna has become a slightly unfashionable city these days, but it has half a dozen outstanding museums, the Metro stations are works of art in their own right and the Inner Ring (Innere Stadt) is still one of the most beautiful, if slightly cheesy, areas in any European city.
It’s difficult to know exactly where to start with so much art to wade through, but a solid run-through is given at the Kunsthistorisches (1 Maria-Theresien-Platz). Built to show off the power of the mighty Hapsburg empire, this temple to art includes Brueghel the Elder’s 'Hunters In The Snow', Vermeer’s haunting 'Allegory of Painting' and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s famous, bizarre 'Summer', 'Winter', 'Water' and 'Fire' paintings, which show a human face made from fruit, flowers, vegetables and twigs. Amazingly they were painted in the 1560s.
If that gets you in the mood, it’s time to experience some really Viennese decadence – at two of its shining palaces of art. The first is at the Belvedere, but beware: this is split into two buildings. The relevant one is the Oberes (Upper) Belvedere, which houses the works of Gustav Klimt, one of the founders of the Secessionist Art Nouveau School. Millions of tourists head straight for his famous 'The Kiss' (1908), which is certainly impressive and intensely detailed – some claim it is one of the most erotic pictures ever painted. However, make the most of the time there to look at his contemporary, Egon Schiele, whose work was, at the time, dismissed as ‘pornography’. His visceral, haunting look at human flesh is actually profoundly disturbing and moving, especially his painting of 'The Family', which shows a couple ravaged by poverty and disease.
Somehow it feels very Viennese, and there’s more in a wonderful new building in the renovated Museums Quartier, a renovated old stableyard that now houses three galleries. Head for the mighty Leopold. This houses more Schieles, their power bursting through the walls. It also has lots more Klimts, and upstairs the works of the unfairly neglected Oscar Kokoschka, whose frightening images invoke the horrors of the First World War. Also worth taking the time to see on the third floor is a look at Viennese town planning, architecture and style, with an introduction to the work of Otto Wagner, whose elegant Art Nouveau houses and Metro stations define Vienna.
From the Leopold, it’s a short stroll east along Getrelde, past the extraordinary Secessionist building, designed by one of Wagner’s students, to Wagner’s two Stadt Pavilions, finished in 1902. One is now a slightly tacky cafe, while the other forms the exit for the U4 line, and is well worth a close look. Go on a Sunday and it’s free; the tiny museum nonetheless packs in lots of photos and information about Wagner’s grand plans for Vienna, some of which were never realised.
One of his designs that still stands, although oddly it was used only once, is his station Heitzing, built for the Schloss Schonbrunn, the dwelling of Maria Therese in the 18th century. Wagner designed a pavillion to be used by the Court, the Hofpavilion, which he decorated with beautiful, elegant wrought iron lattice work, which creates a ramp to the imperial horse carriage, and a sumptuous waiting room. Bizarrely it was abandoned, but has now been restored to its former glory. Go on a Sunday afternoon, then walk over into the gardens of the palace. If it’s a hot day a real treat is to walk to the top of the folly in the gardens, the Gloriette, take a picture of the best view in Vienna, then head east, where you’ll find a wonderful swimming pool tucked away in the gardens.
If all of that Wagner architecture has just whetted your appetite, but you feel the need to get out of the busy Inner Ring, the answer is a walk through the Hutteldorf suburb. Take the 46 tram west, which takes you through a grubby suburb, get off just past the Gerhard Hanappi stadium on Linzer Strasse, and walk back about 50 yards. There, at number 375, you’ll see the Villa Vojcsik, built in 1901 by Otto Sconthal, a student of Wagner. It’s another Art Nouveau classic, with gorgeous, sinewy blue lines running through its windows and doorways and brimming with weird, leaf-like details.
Now, walk back along the main road, turn right at Huttelbergstrasse and walk up the hill through what appears to be a dull suburbia. Just as you think you’re on the edge of a wood, two amazing Wagner pavillions appear, right next to each other. Villa I is like a Palladian villa, now a museum showing the works of Ernest Fuchs, a Fantastic Realism painter. Just past it is Villa II, built as a summer house by Wagner. It is a perfect cube, with tons of period detail, and was Wagner’s last home.
Another real treat for architecture fans – more Deco than Nouveau – is a swim at the recently renovated Amalienbad, right at the end of line U1, Reumannplatz 23. Built during the city’s brief dabble with Marxist, for-the-people architecture in 1923, by Otto Nadel and Karl Schmalhofer, its modest exterior hides a glorious Deco-influenced pool, with steam rooms and saunas attached. At the time it was the largest indoor pool in Europe. A mere €3.50 buys you a day of steamy luxuriance.
To stay, if you want some real Viennese luxury and decadence, the Sacher Hotel is luxurious. It’s also where the famous Sachertorte was invented, a chocolate cake that oozes history and calories.
For fans of Art Deco and Nouveau art and architecture, Vienna is hard to beat. It has some of the best Modernist art, the loveliest parks and a Metro system to be proud of. It’s just a shame the people don’t live up to the billing David Frost apparently gave them.