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 Vienna's Hotel Bristol: Where the Past Is as Real as the Present

“This area was developed between 1850 and 1900 after the Emperor Franz Joseph got rid of the city walls. Vienna, like other European cities, was expanding, and the city walls were in the way. He dreamed of building another Champs Elysées, and that became the Ring Strasse (Ring Road), the broad boulevard with pedestrian islands that goes around the historic section of the city. Many of the famous buildings like the Parliament, Opera House, university, and museums are along that route."

Sitting in the luxurious oval lounge of the Hotel Bristol on a rainy November morning, we are sipping excellent Viennese coffee while general manager Oscar del Campo introduces us to the neighborhood. It is the first day of our first visit to the city; it is also our first extended conversation with anyone here. In the week ahead, we will get on the tram and travel the branches of the Ring Road as one flows into another (breaking only for a stretch along the Danube Canal), hopping off and getting back on again as we experience some of the many sites that figure into historic Vienna's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet already we understand the history of this city and its place in European culture will be an important subtext of our stay.

Oscar is tall, slim, and possessed of an aristocratic quality. He is Spanish but in the nearly three years that he has shepherded the 140-room Bristol, he has developed so strong a sense of its connection to Vienna, he might as well be Austrian. "The Bristol is very much set in its place," he says. "It's very much a part of the city and its character."

He continues, “Our address is Kärntner Ring 1; we are on the corner of Kärntner Ring and Kärntner Strasse, a major shopping avenue.  However the original hotel that opened in 1892 was Kärntner Ring 7, the building on the far end of the street. Little by little, the three adjacent buildings: 5, 3, and 1 were bought and added to the hotel until the entire street had become the 450-room Hotel Bristol. Then over the years, parts were sold, bought again, sold again. A portion was destroyed in the Second World War. At the war's end, only this building was left. It had been part of the Bristol since 1916."

Much has happened since 1916, the year of Franz Joseph's death. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Vienna was the capital, collapsed two years later. Decades of insecurity ensued. World War II wreaked horrific destruction of life and property. Vienna had always had a rich cultural, and intellectual life, witness composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, Strauss, Mahler, theorists  like Sigmund Freud, writers, scientists. And a great part of it came from Vienna's Jewish community which numbered 200,000 Jews before the war but only 20,000 afterwards. The post-war Occupation oversaw a city bereft of much of its human and cultural assets.

 "The city was on the edge for a while," Oscar said. "However, in October 1955 when the Occupation ended, one of the conditions of Austria's independence was that it remain neutral, and that put Vienna in a position to become the meeting place for East and West -- it was where Khrushchev met Kennedy. Out of that came Vienna being the seat of the UN, OPEC, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). When the King of Spain came to the Bristol for an OSCE conference, it was of particular interest to me.  Vienna had always been famous for its culture and its business. Now it was famous for its neutrality as well. It continues to play this central role.

"By the time the Berlin Wall fell, the whole region had picked up again. Opera and concert houses had been renovated and were up and running. Companies had opened their Eastern European headquarters in Vienna as geographically it was very close. Also because of their long history, the Austrians were looked upon as people to be trusted."

General Manager Oscar del Campo - click to enlarge
General Manager Oscar del Campo

He went on, "The Hotel Bristol has lived through and been part of all this history:  the war, the Occupation, the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet empire. As part of the American zone during the Occupation, the Bristol was headquarters for the American occupying forces; the American Embassy was housed here from 1951 to 1955. And since independence, the hotel has hosted important international gatherings, diplomats, United Nations officers, and statesmen."

Between 2007 and 2009, a complete refurbishment at a cost of 5 million Euros was undertaken. Public spaces and guest rooms and suites were refreshed. Twenty-first century technical and communication systems were installed providing individual climate control, hi-speed internet access, flat-screen televisions, and wrap-around sound systems.

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Still the hotel's original fin de siècle ambience remains as can be seen in the first floor corner suite. The entryway leads into a sizeable round foyer where a starburst design on a marble floor directs the eye to the double door that opens to a spectacular suite of living room and bedroom. French doors look out over Kärntner Strasse and the Vienna State Opera House directly across the way. Walls are covered with fabric in soothing shades of pale coral and green; chairs and sofas are upholstered in silk and velvet. An antique clock stands on the marble mantle of a 19th century fireplace.  Black-lacquer  cabinets are inlaid with mother of pearl; an etarge displays Asian vases and statuettes.

It is in Korso, however, that Art Nouveau dominates the décor. The hotel's all day restaurant, illuminated at night by shimmering chandeliers and candlelight, is punctuated by open screens of elaborate curvilinear woodwork that lend the illusion of private recesses and set a design motif that is repeated in the backs of chairs whose seats are ribbed gold and white velvet. In contrast, table settings are pure simplicity: three white rose blossoms floating in a glass bowl and a single tall white candle in the center of a white cloth. A fireplace is bordered with twisted pillars of pink marble, walls are paneled in rich, gleaming wood, floors are covered with plush carpeting. But all these recede before the spectacle of a transparent and illuminated free-standing wall of white onyx designed by architect Paolo Piva that divides the dining room from the bar. It takes the breath away.

Such environs set a high bar for cuisine, and it is handily met under the direction of lauded executive chef Christian Krumpholz.  Recently Korso's agenda expanded to include light meals served throughout the day, a feature appreciated by international travellers whose internal clocks are still in the process of adjusting to a time change as well as local Viennese who drop in for casual meetings and get-togethers. But we were there for a dinner whose "prelude" was a colorful salad of radicchio, snow peas, squares of pepper and yellow tomatoes, what at first glance appeared to be wedges of cantaloupe but were actually pumpkin (a suitable ingredient for an autumn evening), and melted goat cheese. The remaining symphony of delicacies included salmon confit with marinated turnips -- again an unexpected but satisfying combination; a rich, thick lobster cream soup with succulent lobster ravioli, tender fillet of beef with sautéed semolina strudel (!), and roasted monk fish with smoked wild mushrooms and cottage cheese ravioli. The finale was a delectable and original Viennese preparation: a lemon casserole of dried plums and rose hips.           

It had always seemed to us that Austrian wines are in short supply in the United States, an impression confirmed by Korso's sommelier Helmut Buchner. "Austria is a small country, and our focus is on quality," he told us. "If you have top quality, you have small quantity.  Fifty to sixty percent of our wines are Austrian; some of them are only to be found in Austria."

He suggested a red  2006 Blaufränkisch which comes from a vineyard very close to Vienna. "2006 was a very good year," he said, "and this is the kind of wine you want to drink before it's too old." It was deep bodied and somewhat fruity, an excellent companion to the food. We resolved to look for it back home as well as the red Sankt Laurent, and the dry white Grüner Veltliner, a grape found only in Austria.

"Korso," borrowed from the Italian "promenade," was a popular strolling site around the turn of the last century that ran from the front of the Bristol to its eastern edge. "Sirk Circle," name for the owner of a leather goods shop that once occupied the Bristol's corner site, was another pedestrian route taken by Viennese pedestrians out to see and be seen. It wrapped around the block from the corner of Kärntner Ring and Kärntner Strasse to the pedestrian Mahler Strasse behind the hotel and down Academy Strasse back to Kärntner Ring.

Today "Sirk," also known as the "Opera Box" is an event room on the mezzanine that stretches across the length of the Bristol along Kärntner Strasse directly across from the Opera House. Its walls are lined with photographs of famous opera stars and maestros.

“Vienna is the city of music, and the Bristol is the hotel of music,” Chief Concierge Dieter Ludewig told us. "All the rooms in the hotel that face the Opera House have the names of the directors of the Vienna State Opera like Herbert von Karajan, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss.  The suites are named after the great singers and composers who have been guests here in the early 20th-century: Enrico Caruso, Yehudi Menuni, Giacomo Puccini, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rubinstein, Arturo Toscanini. The Bristol also has the largest suite in Austria. Only it's named for the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, the only one not connected to someone from the world of music.

“We organize opera and concert tickets for guests. Some come here specifically because  we are so close to the Opera House.  Singers and musicians stay here too and often have dinner at Korso after the performance.

"I am great fan of the soprano Angela Gheorghiu. When she played Mimi in 'La Bohème' at the Opera House about a year ago, she was our guest. Once I was walking down the corridor and heard her doing her vocal exercises. I stopped and listened for a few minutes."

Chief Concierge Dieter Ludewig - click to enlarge
Chief Concierge Dieter Ludewig

Dieter, who looks like the actor Nicolas Cage, has been with the Bristol since 1995, having started in reception. “This hotel is not so big," he says. "It's a very cozy and comfortable place. The employees are of long standing, 20 years, even longer. Once you are here, you stay here. You can say we lost our heart here."

He goes on, “There are a lot of repeat guests; we know them by name. They know what to expect. We may have refurbished, but the hotel has not changed its character. There's the same intimate atmosphere in the bar and the restaurant. But it is also grand, palatial."

We walk around the property with Dieter, check out the Prince of Wales Suite. He shows us some of the valuable antiques, the historical paintings. On the mezzanine floor, there is a painting from 1910 by Hans Stalzer of some famous  figures of the day at a Bristol gathering. They include Archduke Franz Salvator -- son-in-law of Emperor Franz Joseph, other members of the nobility, diplomats and staff officers. There's a painting of Emperor Franz Joseph on a horse that has completely levitated with all four legs in the air.
 

As we start to go down the marble staircase from the mezzanine to the ground floor, Dieter points out dents in the beautiful brass banister. Somehow we had not noticed them before. "You know the Bristol was American headquarters for the Occupation," he tells us. "But during the first few weeks before the Americans took over, Russians soldiers stayed here. When they left, they used their rifle butts to leave their mark in the house of their former enemies. It's an interesting historical touch, isn't it? A reminder of where you are."
At the Bristol, you are always reminded of where you are, of what happened in Vienna.  The past is a powerful presence. But for now, the present seems good. "Last week the soccer championship games were held in Vienna," Dieter says. "Some of the members of the team from Turkey stayed here. They're gone now. But I know they've lost their hearts here."

Maybe we have too.

Hotel Bristol
Kärntner Ring 1
1015 Vienna
Austria

Phone:  +43 1 515 16 0

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
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

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

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