Viennese charm: Historic city offers more than just art and culture

AUSTRIA - On my visit to the Porsche headquarters for a tour of its assembly plant and museum in Stuttgart, Germany, I extended the trip to cover Vienna and Salzburg in Austria. The beautiful architecture of restored war-torn buildings there was telling of the nation's sad but rich history. What I saw left a deep and lasting impression.

For starters, I was fortunate enough to visit the Schonbrunn Palace, which means "beautiful spring" in the local language. It is one of the most important cultural monuments in the country and, since the 1960s, has been one of the major tourist attractions in Vienna.

It was the residence of the last emperor of Austria, Emperor Franz Joseph. I took a picture of his room, which clearly showed that he lived a frugal life, unusual for an emperor.

I was particularly fascinated by his strained marriage to the beautiful Empress Elizabeth, fondly known as Empress Sisi, an iconic fashion figure who wore corsets and never ate supper to keep her slender figure, never joining her family for dinner. Her long hair reached the floor and took hours to get ready every day with the help of her maids!

Although the Emperor loved his wife passionately, the empress never reciprocated his feelings and felt increasingly stifled by the court etiquette and blamed him for marrying her children off for political reasons.

To escape her loveless marriage, she left the palace to see the world, a fatal move for her.

Further reading about her life shows that while travelling in Geneva in 1898, she was stabbed to death by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni who had missed his chance to assassinate Prince Philippe, the Duke of Orléans, and wanted to kill the next member of royalty that he saw. What a tragic tale!

A strong economy

Unknown to many, Austria has a small population of 8.8 million but it is the 12th richest country in the world with a GDP of US$394,708 (S$492,910) and GDP per capita of US$46,330 in 2012.

Austria is a highly-developed industrialised country and has a strong service sector.

Its manufacturing, energy and mining sectors make up 31 per cent of its GDP, services including banking and tourism contribute 61 per cent.

The most important industry is tourism, which employs 220,000 people and contributes 10 per cent of the GDP. The land-locked central European country, surrounded by six countries, registered 23 million visitors in 2011.

Austria makes more than 800,000 car engines each year for various car manufacturers as well as microprocessors and integrated circuits for airbags, ABS braking systems, components for Airbus airliners and high-speed trains.

A modern and progressive EU member state, its well-managed economy maintains a low unemployment rate of 4.3 per cent.

Its capital and largest city, Vienna, or Wien in German, has a population of 1.757 million and is one of the most liveable cities in the world.

The city centre was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011 to preserve the early Celtic and Roman settlements of Medieval and Baroque architecture with grand buildings, gardens and monuments.

Musical prodigies

Vienna is also known as the City of Music because music is an important legacy of this historical city which produced several musical prodigies including Johann Strauss, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss II (known as "The Waltz King") and Arnold Schoenberg while Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler all worked there.

Vienna is also home to the world's most famous boys' choir, The Vienna Boys' Choir, which comprises about 100 choristers between the ages of 10 and 14, and is divided into four touring choirs that perform about 300 concerts annually.

I was amazed to learn that the choir was established 515 years ago in 1498.

The dynamic combination of art, music, historical sites and many other attractions from the Renaissance era has elevated Vienna to be the world's top destination for international congresses and attracts five million tourists each year.

I reckoned that staying in a conventional hotel would not contribute to enhancing the mood when visiting the city of music and art. So I scoured for one that would match the theme.

Artful hotel

Viennese Hotel Der Wilhelmshof fits the bill. It is an extraordinary four-star hotel that was artfully designed by artist Ty Waltinger and the hotel's owners.

It fulfilled my requirements; located in the city centre, affordable and close to popular places of interest as well as shopping streets.

The moment I entered the hotel, I could feel the Viennese charm and the unique design of the establishment exuded an atmosphere full of poetry.

The 105 rooms have artistic wall designs and are equipped with up-to-date furniture and classic or modern bathrooms. Matching fabrics and gorgeous painted lampshades create a tasteful ambience of exclusivity.

My room was spacious, cosy and clean. I was especially impressed by the friendly and helpful staff's personal attention.

The breakfast had a good spread which I enjoyed with a cup of aromatic coffee.

Since I had only three nights and two full days there, I carefully worked out my itinerary so as to visit as many interesting sites as possible. The hotel's helpful receptionist's tips and advice went a long way to help this little globetrotter with the most interesting sites to visit.

First giant ferris wheel

After dinner on the first night, I explored the area around the hotel and came to the Prater Amusement Park. The world's first giant ferris wheel, the Wiener Riesenrad, measuring 212 feet in height and constructed in 1897 to celebrate the golden jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I, was the first attraction to greet me behind the entrance.

Riding in one of its cars to the top arch, I had a good view of the city by night. That saved me the trouble and time of joining a tour to a hill for such a view.

After enjoying a couple of rides, I returned to the hotel.

The comfortable bed and artistic décor of the room offered me a restful slumber, recharging me for the next day.

I rose early the next morning and had a hearty breakfast before venturing out.

For an orientation of the city, I took a hop-on,hop-off tour without getting off at any of the stops to get an idea of the places that would catch my fancy and attract me to visit and spend time on later.

After the tour, I headed for the world-renowned opera house, the Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper in German.

Despite the fact that one of the two famous architects who designed the building committed suicide after the emperor said he did not like it, it is one of the busiest opera houses in the world and the venue of the internationally-acclaimed Vienna Opera Ball.

For music lovers, this is the theatre to enjoy the works of Mozart, Johann Strauss the father and Johann Strauss the son.

With the remaining time over those two days, I visited the Hofburg Palace, the museum quarter or the Museumquartier, which is a museum complex consisting of several museums, the natural history museum, which showcase life-sized dinosaurs and St Stephan's Cathedral located in the famous shopping district of Stephansplatz.

I also managed to take a cruise on the Danube which is the longest river in the European Union.

For lunch and dinner, I alternated between international cuisines (Italian, Indian and Mediterranean are popular) and local cuisines, and enjoyed a slice of the famous Sache torte every day during teatime.

Tefelspitz (the famed Viennese boiled beef in broth), goulash, Wiener Schnitzel as well as desserts such as palatschinke and esterházy torta are absolute musts.

On my next visit there I will visit the Military History Museum, the largest purpose-built military history museum in the world in the Landstrabe district.

If you are traveling to Europe, look up these places. You won't be disappointed.

Chermaine Poo is winner of "The Emerging Entrepreneur Woman of The Year" award, a Chartered Accountant turned actress, TV host and professional emcee.

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