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
|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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Kärntner Ring 1
Phone: +43 1 515 16 0
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.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights