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Viennese Waltzes

Vienna, Austria

I really hope you like chocolate. And I really hope you’re not on a diet.

The Viennese do a lot of things well – art and music, for example – but what they do best of all is food.  Everybody says that France is the culinary heart of Europe.  Don’t believe a word of it: I’d rather have a good honest wienerschnitzel and rosti than any of the fancy creations of Parisian haute cuisine.

The place to eat in Vienna is the Spittelberg.  It’s a car-free zone a little to the north of Mariahilfestrasse – which is where you’ll find most of the mid-range hotels.  The Spittelberg is a reminder of old Vienna.  Its cobbled streets and baroque façades were used as the setting for the Orson Welles movie The Third Man.  Eateries line every boulevard, and traditional Viennese cooking is at the heart of every menu.

Wienerschnitzel is, of course, the most famous of all the city’s dishes.  But why not try Tafelspitz mit G’röste?  This is made with thick slices of beef topside, which is boiled with seasonings.  It’s served with grated fried potatoes and horseradish sauce.  It’s real comfort food – fantastic, and very filling.

After your main course in the Spittelberg, wander westwards across the Ring – the circular inner boulevard built in the nineteenth century.  Walk through the grounds of the Natural History and Art museums, and past the Hofburg Palace.  You can see the grand exhibits of these places later.  Right now you’re on a mission to find Vienna’s greatest treasure – Sachertorte.

This most famous of chocolate cakes was invented in 1832 by a chef called Franz Sacher.  You can still buy cakes made to the original (secret!) recipe at the Hotel Sacher amid the bustle of Kärnter Strasse – the main shopping street of central Vienna.  Sit outside in the spring or autumn sunshine and enjoy the rich, dark flavours of your Sachertorte with an espresso.

Austria

When all this has digested a little, head north along Kärnter Strasse and feed the pigeons of the Stephansplatz, in the shadow of the Stephansdom – Vienna’s mighty gothic cathedral.  The Viennese design their buildings like the design their cakes – full of secret nooks and crannies and pleasant surprises.

Vienna was once the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – a pan-European superpower that controlled the centre and south of the continent.  And because the high-and-mighty always like to swagger a little, the ruling emperors gave their architects a lot of money and told them to think big.  There aren’t any skyscrapers, of course.  But few would argue that Viennese buildings such as the Hofburg and the Rathaus are every bit as imposing in their way as anything Manhattan can offer.  I once attended an open-air concert in the Rathausplatz, and couldn’t decide which was more entertaining – the Italian opera in front of me or the chocolate-box building soaring above.

After looking at all this you’re probably pretty thirsty.  There are plenty of cafés where you can order the local dry wine – Grüner Veltliner – by the glass.  But the other thing, apart from chocolate cake and architecture, that the Viennese have a genius for is brewing beer.  If you like beer, you’ll love the place.  Beer cellars abound, and hundreds of different brews are sold in litre and half-litre tankards.  You’ll find three basic types: wheat beers, in which wheat is used instead of hops or barley; standard European-style lagers, and dark beers rather like English bitter – but with a little more fizz, and served cooler.

Alps

The great thing about Vienna is that it’s small – you can walk across the centre of town in about ten minutes.  That means you don’t have to make too much effort to haul around all those naughty-but-nice calories you’ve taken on board.  If you’re just too stuffed to move under your own steam crawl aboard one of the superb trams that run everywhere.

If you want a really good vacation, think about pairing a week in Vienna with a week in the Austrian Alps.  After a few days in the city head over to the Salzkammergut region – and do a little hiking to wear off the pounds!

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