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
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
“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
Starwood, Austria. We mistook her for a
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
"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
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
|"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
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 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
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
Kärntner Ring 16
1015 Vienna, Austria
Phone: 01 501100
Photographs by Harvey Frommer
# # #
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights