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Dreams of Vienna at the Hotel Imperial

Admittedly our expectations were high. "The best in Vienna," they said. "Sensational!" "Beyond compare!" So we were ready to be impressed, albeit with a trace of the old ennui. And then we stepped through the revolving doors, looked up to the light, and nearly swooned.

It wasn't as if we'd never seen a chandelier before. And in Vienna, they seem to be hanging from the ceilings wherever one goes. Just the day before, in Lobmeyr's historic glass and china shop on nearby Kärntner Strasse, we were exposed to what we thought was an assemblage of the most gorgeous chandeliers in all the world. But at this moment, the collection of light-capturing cut-glass suspended from a height above us was casting a spell that was proving difficult to break. Finally we turned to look down the deep lobby that seemed to have no end, to the reflecting patterns in the mirror-like surface of the marble floor, to the paneled wood on either side polished to so high a sheen that it caught the light. And suitably enchanted, we entered the Hotel Imperial.

Many hotels are called palatial. But the Imperial actually was the palace of the Prince of Württemberg, husband of a grandniece of Emperor Franz Joseph. He was a German who fought with the Austrians against the Germans, came to Vienna after the war and built himself a palace. This was not too long after the city walls had come down and magnificent buildings had come up along the Ring Road in the classical and renaissance style, the prince's palace being one among them. Apparently he had good as well as expensive taste (although it's believed the bride's father footed the bill). But he gambled a lot, lost a lot, and within two years had run out of money.

About a decade later when the World Exhibition was held in Vienna, there weren't many hotels in the city, but there was that splendid unoccupied palace the prince had vacated long ago.  Accordingly, the Hotel Imperial was inaugurated in April of 1873; it has remained the city's premier property ever since.

But you don't need to know the history to recognize this is one legitimate palace. The lavish details and noble materials, the breath-taking stairway enclosed by faux-marble walls (the faux being more precious than the real thing because the application was such a prized and specialized art) that leads straight up from the lobby to the Bel-Etage where a life-sized statue of the Danube Nymph, a kind of Austrian Lorelei, stands beneath an enormous oil painting of Emperor Franz Joseph, the high-ceilinged, color-themed 76 guest rooms and 62 suites with ornamental plasterwork (virtually a lost art today), Persian carpets, antiques, original art, and, of course, an abundance of chandeliers are evidence enough.

While no two rooms are alike, all are contemporaneous except for the rooms and suites -- including three stylish duplexes -- on the fourth and fifth floors that were recently carved out of former attic/office space. These have stunning views of the city, some from terraces. Leave a terrace door open while a concert in the Musikverein behind the hotel is in progress, and you’ll be treated to a performance.  Step out, and you'll be looking down on figures of angels that adorn the concert hall’s roof. There have been reports of out-of-body experiences resulting from such a perspective. Still, as the Imperial was built before elevators were invented, the most desirable suites are on the lower floors.

The Royal Suites on the Bel-Etage have hosted world leaders, maestros, composers, writers, artists, cinema stars and directors, and enough royals of late, including the Queen of England and the King and Queen of Sweden, to lend continued truth to the suites’ designation. It still is possible to remove parts of the revolving front door so that a horse-drawn carriage can bring their majesties right through the lobby. But nowadays it would seem even kings and queens prefer to arrive by limo and walk the proverbial red carpet rolled out from the sidewalk through the lobby, passing under their national flag which is unfurled outside the hotel for the duration of their stay.

The red carpet-service may be restricted to royals, but all guests in the Imperial's suites get the butler service which can prove useful, witness the time a butler literally gave the maestro he was attending the shirt off his back to replace one that was stained.

The revolving door can be removed so a horse-drawn carriage can  enter the lobby- click to enlarge
The revolving door can be removed so a
horse-drawn carriage can  enter the lobby

Restaurant Imperial continues the regal theme. It is a formal, elegant space; tables covered in fine linens are laden with an abundance of gleaming silver plates and flatware and bowls of fragrant roses. The service befits the setting from the head waiter who describes in detail a  menu of Austrian and international specialties, to the sommelier who patiently and expertly advises on the suitable wines, to the many attendants who refill water glasses, clear at just the right moment, present dishes with efficiency and aplomb. As one would expect, the food lives up to the setting as well -- in our case, a salad based on a layer of sliced potatoes covered with raddichio, carrots, tomatoes and paper-thin slices of cucumber in a vinaigrette, creamy lobster soup to which a server added a bit of cognac from a heated pitcher, perch with Jerusalem artichokes, and filet of salmon over freshly made tagliarini with beets and celery. We drank a crisp and dry 2006 Morillon (Austrian Chardonnay) from the Manfred Tement vineyard in Berghausen. And from among the wealth of Viennese desserts, indulged in cream-white bread strudel with white curd ice cream and poppy-seed strudel with poppy ice cream. The experience was, in a word, imperial.

And yet in this multi-faceted property, luxury defines only part of the experience. Down a corridor off the palatial lobby, the Imperial Café embodies a different ambience, one of comfort, bonhomie, a Viennese coffee-house culture. There is a chandelier here too -- only it resembles  the explosive "Starburst" created by Lobmeyr for New York City's Metropolitan Opera House, an allusion to the dawning of the space age. Otherwise the dining room has a warm, traditional feel with blue banquettes and windows that look out to the street. It is a fond and familiar gathering spot for journalists and politicians who maintain a steady, lively buzz. At the same time, it is the kind of place where one can take a newspaper from the large wooden rack near the entrance and spend a couple of hours in solitude reading the news of the day over a cup of Viennese coffee and the world-famous Imperial Torte.

We had arranged to meet Petra Engl-Wurzer for lunch at the Café, although when we first saw the tall and slender, elegantly dressed young woman with the stylish blonde bob headed towards our table, we thought she was a high-fashion model who had just completed a shoot.

“I was born near the Italian border and came to Vienna as a student,” Petra said after  convincing us she was indeed the woman we were expecting, namely public relations director for Starwood Properties in Austria, and the three of us delved into the basket of rolls placed before us –warm salt sticks, twists doused with poppy, sesame, or pumpkin seeds, dark wheat buns with a hint of sour dough. “I loved the city from the start. It is full of culture -- concert halls and opera houses, museums, theaters. Every day in Vienna there is something to experience. And this hotel is very much a part of it.

Petra Engl-Wurzer, director of public relations for Starwood, Austria. - We mistook her for a high-fashion  - click to enlarge
Petra Engl-Wurzer, director of public relations for
Starwood, Austria. We mistook her for a high-fashion
model who had just completed a shoot.

“The history is tremendous," the effusive Petra continued. "I keep discovering new things, fascinating anecdotes. There's one about Thomas Mann that I love. The man who won a Nobel Prize for literature was a guest at the Imperial. Someone broke into his room, and this was ironic because he was working on 'Felix Krull'  at the time which is the story of a confidence man. Mann wrote to a friend that the foolish thief stole a few trinkets but neglected the item laid out in full view that was of far greater value -- his manuscript.


"Hitler was here. It wasn't the hotel then. It was the first house of the Nazi Party. They just took it over. Like in every city, they moved into the best place. Fortunately, the hotel was not damaged during the war, and afterwards the Russians took it over for the duration of the Occupation. There was a clever general manager here at that time. He moved out precious antiques, works of art, carpets, saying they had to be cleaned or restored. After the Russians left, they took everything out of storage and put them back in the hotel.

"When Kennedy met Khrushchev in Vienna, Khrushchev had a suite at the Imperial. Since it was the Cold War, the two of them could not be staying under the same roof so Kennedy had to stay at the Embassy. It's believed he was not very happy about it."

Petra speaks in paragraphs. She  pauses just long enough to take a quick breath and switches to a new topic altogether. "There is the incredible connection between the hotel and music," she now tells us. "So many of the great maestros and musicians have been guests. In 1875, Richard Wagner was here for a few weeks; he gave a big dinner for his sponsors.

Interior of Musikverein - Its acoustics are among the best in the world - click to enlarge
Interior of Musikverein - Its acoustics
are among the best in the world

"We always see the conductors having dinner and then going out the back entrance and across the street to the Musikverein. After the performances, concert-goers flock to the Café. We are filled up."

As we had attended a concert at the Musikverein the night before, we describe the experience to Petra, telling her how struck we were by the magnificent "Golden Hall" whose acoustics are said to be among the best in the world. Fabio Luisi had conducted the Viennese Symphony Orchestra in a thrilling performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony preceded by Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto which featured the dazzling fireworks of a beautiful, young pianist.  

Suddenly, a well-dressed middle-aged man who was dining alone at the table beside ours leaned over and interjected, "That was Lise de la Salle. She made her debut about eight years ago when she was only 13. Fabio Luisi met her in Paris and took her under his wing. He often does that with young players."

Before we had a chance to react, he continued, "I know all the conductors so believe me when I tell you how lucky you were to see him. He is Italian, very emotional. When he conducts, he is completely somewhere else. He exhausts himself."      

Who is this man, we wondered.  A manager of one of the musicians? A critic?  A composer?  "No," he demurred, "just someone with a lot of money who loves music and  gets to know great musicians so he can help them out. You could call me a patron of the arts."  And with that, he returned to his wienerschnitzel and beer, leaving us to mull over the strangeness of encountering a modern Medici in a Viennese café.

But there is nothing strange about encountering Michael Moser at the Hotel Imperial. The genial chief concierge with the warm and inviting smile is generally behind the concierge desk where, in addition to his other duties, he has been the resident expert on Vienna's musical scene for many years.

"I think Vienna attracts people primarily for its music," he told us. "We are known as the capital of music. There is so much tradition: Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Johann Strauss -- both father and son, Brahms, Schubert.

"I go to the performances very often.  I know every maestro. I know every performance. Many guests will call me and ask 'Is this something I will like? Should I go?'  And I give them my honest opinion. Sometimes we have rather modern productions; I can tell whether a particular guest will like it or not."

It was from Michael Moser that we learned Vienna has two major orchestras: the Vienna Symphony which we heard and the Vienna Philharmonic which performs every evening at the Opera House a few blocks away and at the Musikverein Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. "If you want a subscription to the Sunday morning concert series, you will have to wait ten years," he said. "The Vienna Symphony is the basis of Viennese music, sponsored by the city. They perform most of the cultural concerts in Vienna. The Philharmonic is more rare. They have no sponsor; the musicians run it themselves."

The Philharmonic performs the New Year's Day concerts we have seen so often, televised live from Vienna's Golden Hall. "For at least twenty years, Walter Cronkite used to broadcast the concert, and he stayed at the Imperial over the holiday," Michael Moser said. "It was amazing -- we've had so many prominent people here. But when he was here, all the Americans would turn around and say, 'Is this Walter Cronkite?'"

Michael Moser can tell you about Zubin Mehta, how he started as a music student in Vienna singing in the choir. Years later, when he had become the longest-running conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta presented Michael Moser with the baton he'd used for a New Year's Day concert. From the fabulous maestro to the equally fabulous concierge.

Chief Concierge Michael Moser: - resident expert of Vienna's musi - click to enlarge
Chief Concierge Michael Moser: - resident
expert of Vienna's musical scene

Michael Moser can tell you about Arturo Toscanini and his daughter Wanda when they were guests at the Imperial, how the conductor would get angry with the orchestra and break his baton when he thought they weren't playing well.

Michael Moser can tell you about Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein. "Mahler was not very popular in Vienna until Leonard Bernstein came here in the 1960s," the chief concierge said. "He started leading the Vienna Philharmonic in a Mahler  work, and they played it indifferently. At a certain point, he stopped conducting abruptly. 'Gentlemen, this is your music.  Mahler was Viennese; he was born here in Vienna,' he told them.  From then on, Vienna started playing and appreciating Mahler. And of course, today Mahler is so well regarded, one of the greats."

To spend some time with Michael Moser is to be transported into a world of maestros, composers, musicians, singers, the very heart of Vienna. To listen to Thomas Pleidl at the piano in the wood-paneled Bar Maria Theresia outside the Restaurant Imperial is to indulge in a nostalgic reverie. Although he is an accomplished classical pianist, it would seem he prefers playing American songs. Guests ply him with requests, and he is happy to oblige, he tells us, as he probably knows every number in what has become known as "The Great American Songbook."  The most frequent requests are for "As Time Goes By" from the film "Casablanca," he says, and he begins to play "You must remember this. . ."

We have a different request. Like Ingrid Bergman, one of us hums the first line of a melody. Thomas Pleidl smiles. "Ah, that is an old Viennese song, a waltz," he says. "I haven't heard it for a long time, but I remember it very well." He starts to play and sings the first line:  "Wien, Wien nur Du allein/Sollst stets die Stadt meiner Träume sein," ("Vienna, Vienna, only you alone/Shall always be the city of my dreams").

Thomas Pleidl, an accomplished classical pianist - who seems to prefer playing American songs - click to enlarge
Thomas Pleidl, an accomplished classical pianist -
who seems to prefer playing American songs

But we only know the English version: "I hear you calling me/Lovely Vienna so gay, so free," it begins. And it ends with a promise we hope to keep: "Someday the dream that I dream will come true/And I'll come back to you."

Hotel Imperial
Kärntner Ring 16
1015 Vienna, Austria
Phone: 01 501100 

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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