Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Even horrid service can't trump Vienna hotel's great location

It's a small matter really, and quite minuscule in the overall scheme of travel things. But it's been bugging us since early September. From the very moment, in fact, when we pushed open the doors of the Hotel Wandl in Vienna, and got a less-than-rapturous reception.

This was something we were not used to - and certainly not in a country so well schooled in the finer points of courtesy and hospitality.

The Wandl, we should point out, has been our Viennese hotel of choice for a very long time now, 15 or 20 years. And for three very good reasons: location, location, and location.

Sited in a pocket-sized square behind St. Peter's Church, just 100 paces off the Graben, a section of up-market pedestrian runway that cleaves through the very heart of this city's high powered shopping and entertainment district - the Wandl's situation is frankly unbeatable.

Add reasonable prices, decent-sized, attractive bedrooms, ample buffet breakfasts with oodles of meats and cheeses and hard crusted brotchen, and a cozy lobby filled with antiques and stern Wandl portraiture - from the selfsame Wandl family that has owned this hotel for 150 years. And it's got just about everything you could possibly ask for from a city hotel. Except an efficient front desk, and a friendly atmosphere.

And there's the rub.

In our experience, a front desk invariably sets the standards for the rest of a hotel. And the Wandl's proves this point - in spades.

They are invariably sluggish in responding to our reservation requests, quite imperious in their attitude towards guests, and particularly unhelpful with any kind of tourist information. Unless, of course, those expensive tickets to the opera, or the Lippizaner horse shows, are going to result in lucrative commissions.

That said, we shall probably continue to patronize the place - at least until we've found an equally well situated and affordable replacement. So much for our precious, and oft repeated, principles!

Anyway, on this particular September weekend, we weren't about to let a handful of Wandl hostiles affect our delight with this monumental and courtly city, especially as it seemed to be opening itself up to us as never before.

It started with the news on Vienna Radio 95.3 ("Hits und Oldies") that our arrival had happily coincided with several citywide festivals, the nearest of which was the annual Erntedankfest or harvest festival, which was taking place just up the street in the Heldenplatz, right in front of the Hofburg Palace.

We rushed up there to discover a large beer tent "mit musik" - a kind of Irish/Steirisch fusion. There was also a separate soundstage for cloggers and schuhplattlers and rosy-cheeked children's choruses. Plus a larger grassy area across the street planted with dozens of exhibits promoting local wines and produce, and a multitude of outdoorsy things like forest conservation and wood cutting, regional parks and hiking and biking and so forth

We went back several times, ate the requisite Vienna wursts and roasting chickens at one of the long tables in the crowded and smoky tent. We watched the colorfully noisy and energetic on-stage performers, strolled the exhibits, and even won a couple of prizes for guessing the amount of water in a turnip - and the percentage of forest land owned by the state!

That weekend, the whole of Vienna seemed to have transformed itself into one giant festival. For regardless of which square we happened upon, there was always one more organization putting on a show, with stalls and booths and demos.

In one, the Rote Kreuz (Red Cross) was taking blood and reviving make-believe "corpses." In another, the city's finest were taking names and "arresting" people. In a third, the fire brigade was showing off its equipment by hosing down the street. And so it went.

Vienna, which is already world famous for its tortes and schnitzels, is probably best known locally for its wine production. It has been ever since 1784, when Maria Theresa's son, Joseph II, signed an edict allowing wine grapes to be grown within city limits.

This is, in fact, the only capital in the world where a city viticulture flourishes and where some 320 wine growers produce more 2.4 million liters of wine a year.

That's an awful lot of rieslings and chardonnays, cabernets and merlots that have to be tasted. But one can make a solid start in one of 150 Heuriges - specially licensed and identified taverns - located in outlying villages such as Grinzing and Nussdorf and Stammersdorf.

And because every one of these establishments is readily reached via the city's highly efficient and wide-ranging public transport system - trams in this case - there's really nothing that can possibly upset the convivial atmosphere of an inviting tree-covered courtyard lined with picnic tables; the lilting strains of fiddles, zithers, or lederhosed strolling singers; the platefuls of schnitzels, pork chops, and sauerkraut - and the liters of free-flowing fresh young Vienna wines, all courtesy of the good Emperor.

And prosit to you, Joe II.

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