North Shields, United Kingdom
Generally speaking hotels are much of a much-ness when you get down to basics, serving as a place to rest your weary head or feet when you are away from home and only differing from one another by matters of degree. Five star, one star, guest house, cheap motel you use them, praise or grumble about them, forget them and they forget you. Occasionally you may come across one which breaks that mould, one which by dint of history or society has transcended the mundane and generated an existence of its own. Examples which spring to mind include Raffles in Singapore, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Savoy in London. I was lucky enough to spend a week in another one just recently the Bristol Hotel, Vienna.
This hotel is now part of the Weston Group and is offered under the Luxury Collection. We are Starwood Hotel loyalty card holders and so it seemed a logical choice as a place to stay.
The Bristol Hotel is situated on the Kärtnerring the boulevard which circles the old centre of Vienna. The hotel is part of an imposing Victorian block, built originally as residences and minor palaces of the well-to-do. The reception area is approached through a revolving door from the street attended by doormen and porters dressed in maroon jackets and caps. The first impression is of subdued grandeur, with marble columns, dark wood panelling and crystal chandeliers. The hotel personnel are attired in formal dress giving at first sight a reserved frosty aura. On the right, immediately inside, is the concierge desk and beyond that the reception area. This has a desk for two clerks and behind them, banks of pigeon holes for keys and guest messages. The small foyer is also home to a large old grandfather clock (from the original hotel), notice boards advertising all manner of operatic, dramatic and artistic events and a glass and china display cabinet (from the premier Viennese manufacturer Lobmyer).
Beyond the foyer is the guest area leading to the Bristol bar and the Korso restaurant. To the left is the main lift and staircase (again carrying through the feeling of elegance and dominated by black, white and brown marble, mirrored and wooden panelling and tapestries); to the right are the public conveniences and telephones.
The hotel has 140 rooms (including a number of suites) over six floors reached by one of two lifts or the staircase. Each floor is similarly decorated in creams and whites with overlarge heavyweight security doors marking each room. At the end of each floor was a janitorial corridor from which the maids worked. Something of the rambling history of the place could be deduced that the rooms were numbered on each floor from about 50 upwards. Some of the suites also bore the names of worthies from the realm of Viennese classical music. Room 269 was dedicated to Gustav Mahler.
Other facilities (which we did not necessarily investigate) included a fully business centre and access to a nearby fitness facility. There is a range of conference rooms and facilities. The hotel also arranges limousine transfers to and from the airport.
Check in on our arrival was very simple. Our arrival was expected and our Starwood membership number had been confirmed. Our first contact with the staff put us at our ease and that, far from being the starchy, upper crust, executive and exclusive establishment of first impression, everyone was friendly and would go out of their way to meet our needs however detailed or trivial.
We were greeted by Herr Thomas Smutny, the Reception Manager. We signed the necessary documents and were presented with our room key. This was worthy of some comment. The key itself was electronic, carrying a small security chip, and was attached to what could only be described as a marble and brass toilet chain pull. This in itself added to the security as it was too heavy to consider taking out of the hotel in your pocket.
We then made acquaintance with the Concierge staff. Led by Herr Heiko Brunner (yes, its true we did get onto personal terms with the staff very rapidly) we were able to explore our touring options (he booked tickets for the City Bus Tour and the excursion to the Wachau Valley including a cruise on the River Danube). He was also able to find a source of Viennese crystal and the rather scarce Austrian red Eiswein.
There is one note of caution. Although Vienna does accept credit cards, it is very much a cash driven society. We found many examples where discounts of 10%-15% were advertised in shops. We were warned that bookings through the Concierge desk, whether paid for by credit card or charged to the room account, would attract a surcharge of 8%. If however the charge was paid for before we checked out, that fee would be revoked.
We were placed on the second floor (of bedrooms) - a no smoking floor, which appeared to be the fourth physical floor there being the entrance level and a Mezzanine. On our first arrival we were presented with a complementary basket of fruit and a bottle of sparkling mineral water.
We had chosen a Deluxe king-sized room with en suite facilities. The security door opened from the corridor onto an internal passageway some 30 feet in length. Just inside the main door was a hanging cupboard and a walk-in closet. The corridor was decorated with wall hangings (rather than wallpaper), illuminated by wall lights and had pictures of Haydn and Schumann.
The main room was large with moulded ceiling and pendant lighting. The windows looked out the side street (Mahlerstrasse) where there were tables set out from the café below and onto the windows of the buildings opposite. The heavy velvet drapes were more than adequate to black out the light and sound proofing was also very good. The interior décor of the room carried through from the corridor with beige and buff wallpaper, drapes and curtains. In places the wallpaper had been replace by similar fabric.
This room was equipped with a king sized bed or rather two extra-long single beds bolted together. In continental fashion each bed had its own mattress, sheets and duvet. The bed was comfortable (the hotel have trade-marked this as the Heavenly Bed). The coverings were warm but light. There was a nightly turn-down service at which time a small box of Viennese chocolates were left on the pillow. A tea towel was also placed on the floor on each side of the bed.
The room had a large seating area with desk and easy chairs, television (with the usual multi-lingual channel options), CD player and minibar. There was a home safe in the wardrobe and a good supply of coat hangers. Also provided was a trouser press and a hair dryer. As is so often the case in continental hotels, there were no in-room coffee- or tea-making facilities.
There en suite bathroom was huge by most hotel standards and was approached through a small antechamber from the bedroom. The room was decorated with large slabs of black, grey and brown marble and had illuminated mirrors at either end. There was a standard bath with a shower above it. It was well stocked with shampoo, soap, shower gel, shower caps, sewing kit and heavy duty dressing gowns.
Maid service was very efficient. Indeed the room was tidied up twice a day as well as the turn down service I have already mentioned.
THE RESTAURANT AND BAR
The hotel has three restaurants and a bar.
The reception lobby opens up through double doors into the sitting room. This room is elegance personified with marble columns and fire place, lush carpet, wall fabrics, Regency portraits, Lobmyer chandelier, potted palms and antique furniture. This is a place for quiet reflection, a light snack or catching up with the complimentary newspaper.
The Bristol or American Bar
Through a door to the left is the (properly named) American Bar. This is an intimate inner sanctum, lined with dark wood panelling. The walls on three sides are decorated with comical English hunting and coaching scenes (a nineteenth century Thelwell perhaps). On the fourth wall is a series of signed photographs from some of the more illustrious guests including Herbert von Karajan, Yehudi Menhuin., Arthur Rubinstein and Paul McCartney.
The bar is presided over by Gabriela Reithofer who serves the driest of Martinis. As soon as you are seated a ubiquitous bowl of mixed nuts arrives at your table. The bar menu lists a range of beers, wines and spirits (Roederer Cristal Champage: €339 a bottle; Gösser draft beer 0.2l: €3.50). It is also liberally decorated with signatures of previous imbibers (Richard Strauss; Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands (I kid you not!!); Theorodore Roosevelt and Dame Nellie Melba)
The Korso Restaurant
Through the doors to the right from the sitting room is the Korso Restaurant. The room itself again epitomises grandeur and opulence. The centrepiece is a huge marble fireplace with ornate statuary and coat of arms. The walls and ceilings are decorated with polished wood panelling and it is illuminated (to a quite low level) by chandeliers and wall brackets. Tables are laid to seat couples, foursomes and larger parties.
My informants who should know these things tell me that Reinhard Gerer is one of the inner circle of world class chefs. He started his career at the restaurant in 1984. Since then he has been awarded a Michelin star (1986), four Gault Millau chef hats (the latest in 1999) and was named Chef of the Year in 1993.
We dined at the Korso twice during our stay. We were escorted to our table by Maitre d Franz Ramusch. He has been supervising the restaurant for many years with a fine degree of tact, charm and dry humour. He explained that the main menu was printed in German and English but the days specials were handwritten in German. We were happy to be guided by him. A three course dinner was prefaced by a chefs surprise (a small offering of salmon and vegetables with sauce). The wine list was extensive (and expensive). We tended to stick to Kir Royale (Champagne with Crème de Cassis - blackcurrant liqueur) and round off the meal with coffee and Eiswein. This full dinner for two was in the order of €180.
The Café Sirk
At street level, the hotel has its own coffee house. The Café Sirk serves coffee and torte and also provides a typical lunch and evening menu of Viennese dishes (Wiener Schnitzel, Goulash, Ice Creams). Prices are much more modest. Coffee and cake is about €6; lunch with a glass of beer €20.
The Restaurant Sirk
The third eating establishment is on the Mezzanine floor, approached through the hotel. This is primarily a Steak house and grill. However during the low season (which coincided with our stay) evening service had been suspended. It was used for the hotels breakfast service (6am to 10:30am). A typical hot and cold European buffet range was provided.
There is absolutely no argument that the Hotel Bristol occupies the premier site in the whole of Austrian capital. It is situated on the corner of the main boulevard (Opernring) and the main thoroughfare the Kärtnerstrasse. The Vienna State Opera House is directly opposite.
Vienna is a very compact city with a population of 1.5 million (Austrias population is about 8 million) and orientation is very easy as the old city walls were pulled down in the 1800s and were replaced with a wide circular boulevard the Ring. The historic old centre (District 1) built around the cathedral is enclosed inside and straddles the Ring. Much of the central area is a pedestrianised web of narrow streets and alleyways. There is excellent shopping along the Kärtnerstrasse and in the Naschmarkt (New Market) along Friedrichstrasse. Within the block is a new shopping centre which houses boutiques, cafes and a basement supermarket (Ringstraase Gallery). Most of the major sights the Hofburg, the Museums, the Spanish Riding School - are within easy walking distance.
The Ring is a wide tree-lined boulevard which, surprisingly, is a one way street. There is a taxi rank immediately outside the hotel. The Opern tram stop (routes 1, 2, J, D) is just outside the main door. Trams 1 (clockwise) and 2 (anti-clockwise) take a circular route around the Ring. There are also adjacent entrances into the subway leading to the Karlsplatz U-bahn station.
There are a number of notable cafes within easy walking distance (Café Imperial where Hitler declared the Anschluss; Café Mozart Graeme Greenes The Third Man; Café Sacher Home of Sachertorte)
BOOKING AND TRAVEL
There are very few places you can go in the world direct from Newcastle. The choice of gateway is also somewhat restricted and once you have discounted Heathrow and Gatwick you are looking largely at Amsterdam and Brussels. At the time we were investigating this trip (February 2003) there were a number of special offer packages which included flights and hotels on the internet from Expedia. The flights themselves were very aggressively discounted if a hotel was booked at the same time. We were able to print off a wealth of information about the hotel both from their own and from Starwoods web site.
The total cost of our package (tickets, taxes, hotel room charges) was £1943.69 Our room was described as a de luxe king sized room. The flight tickets were e-tickets (if youve never used these before, you print out the confirmation e-mail and present this at the airport in exchange for your boarding card). We were very surprised how quick and simple the arrangement was.
For comparison, the current Expedia price for these tickets is £337.38 (for two) but they do not currently offer this hotel. The cheapest rate for a comparable room at the Bristol, booking direct, is €490 per room per night. Bear in mind that hotel charges booked as part of a package deal do not qualify for loyalty points although spending charged to your room account while you are there does.
We travelled Saturday to Saturday, arriving in and departing from Vienna in mid afternoon. Our flights were with KLM, changing at Schipol airport, Amsterdam. Each leg was just over an hour. Meals (a sandwich!) were provided. We arrived at Schwechat Viennas International Airport. It is a small with a train station with links into the centre of the city (about €5 single journey). We took a taxi booked from one of the desks within the concourse straight to the hotel (€32 plus tip)
The Hotel Bristol is a memorable base from which to explore a memorable city. It has a remarkable history. It is elegant and luxurious. Its staff have placed it within the upper echelons of hostelries anywhere in the world. Despite this it is homely, comfortable and the service is both friendly and of the highest order.
It is an extremely popular venue with both the business fraternity and the performers and visitors of the Vienna State Opera House. During the season it can (quite justifiably) be expensive. However, at times, great bargains such as this one do come along. If the opportunity arises, this is an unreserved must do.
This stay really has been a delightful experience and one which we would hope to repeat in the years to come.
POSTSCRIPT: A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY.
As I indicated in my introduction, the Hotel Bristol is one of those places which is more than just a hotel. It is one of a select band of hotels around the world that has been subject to a biography. The book is left on your bedside table for purchase as a souvenir!
It was founded in 1892 by a Viennese businessman who owned the Monopole restaurant on the opposite side of the Kärtnerring. Imagine if you will a large square block of property, the corners of the streets being A, B, C and D. (A-B is the Kärtnerring; B-C, the Kärtnerstrasse, C-D, Mahlerstrasse). At the beginning the main entrance was on Corner A. Over the next few years, the hotel took over and incorporated adjacent buildings (3, 5 Kärtnerring and the Palace Hoyos-Sprintzenstein). By 1911, the hotel had reached the corner B (the corner of the Ring and the Kärtnerstrasse, directly opposite the State Opera House). The main entrance had also moved to its present spot.
Progressive developments and amalgamations brought the hotel to corner C by the time of World War II. At the end of the war part of the original building was destroyed by bombing. After the war, the building was used as headquarters for the occupying American Forces and then as the American Embassy. After they finally left in the middle 1950s further redevelopment occurred until the Bristol Hotel took its current form (running from corner B and around corner C)
One curiosity is the naming of the hotel. Some worthies believe that it is named after Frederick Hervey, the fourth Earl of Bristol who would travel the world and demand a certain standard of service from the places he stayed. The more likely is that the hotel was named after the City of Bristol. At that time, Vienna was acutely influenced by all things British and Victorian. Bristol was a bustling port and gateway to the New World which added an American influence. Perhaps most telling is the hotels coat of arms which is very similar to that of Bristol.
The café and restaurant Sirk, opened in 1978, were named after August Sirk who originally owned the property at No 1 Kärtnerstrasse and used it as a leather goods and accessory shop. The restaurant Korso took its name from the Italian name from promenade and commemorated the walk along the tree-lined boulevard in front of the hotel.
As mentioned above the hotel has had more than its share of famous visitors and residents. For any years, the conductors, soloists and composers working at the Opera House across the street would live in the hotel for the season. Today all the rooms facing the Opera House have been named after the directors of the opera from 1867 onwards. The suites are named after such worthies as Erico Caruso, Rachmaninoff and Puccini.
One further visitor should also be mentioned here who gave his name to the largest of the suites at the hotel the Prince of Wales suite. This relates to Edward VIII. Vienna was a favourite haunt of his in the mid 1930s and he would register as the Earl of Chester. He would then meet up with Wallis Simpson at the hotel incognito. When he visited in 1936 after the death of his father, George V, but before the planned coronation he signed the visitors book Edward R.I.
While we were there we asked if we could have a look around the suite. It is over 200 square metres of luxury apartment. Completely and lavishly overhauled in 1999 it now includes the most modern facilities and amenities tasteful and skilfully incorporated within an ornate environment decorated with antiques. There is a marble floored antechamber with leads to an elegant sitting room. There is a huge double bedroom, further sitting room, conference room and fitness room. If you would like to stay here, I can arrange it for you at a snip of €3770 to €4220 depending on season per night!!.