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Getaway with John Hagan
A Home with Art in Vienna
Special Contribution
By John Hagan
Outside of the Altstadt Hotel

Oh my, how he has succeeded! Otto Wiesenthal's philosophy of "Making this hotel an enjoyable place for my clients and my staff" has really paid off. The Altstadt is now one of Vienna's trendiest hotels and rightly enjoys the accolade of being amongst Austria's top five hostelries. A frequent business traveler himself, it was Wiesenthal's experience of large, impersonal, soul less hotels which inspired him to create a homely, relaxing boutique environment where guests would feel welcome and where they could be treated "as friends."

Situated in the Seventh District (Spittelberg), one of Vienna's most prestigious locales, the Altstadt, constructed in 1902 in the famous ‘ring-street' style, was the first building in the city to include reinforced concrete ceilings. Initially the home of an industrialist, it was in turn used as a showroom and store house, before becoming a pension which was very popular as a refuge for Russian emigres during the 1950s.

It was in the late 1980s that some of Wiesenthal's friends asked him to look out for a property which they could convert into a hotel. After extensive searching he suggested the Altstsdt, but as his friends thought it too small for their purposes, Wiesenthal decided to buy the premises himself and plunged into the hotel business. "That first year [1992] nearly killed me," admits Wiesenthal. "I made a loss of over 50,000 euros [nearly half a million rand] and the bank threatened to call in the loan." But Wiesenthal's previous reputation as a shrewd manager in the automobile and computer business, stood him in good stead with the bank which eventually agreed to continue its financial backing.

Since then Wiesenthal has lovingly and tastefully renovated five or six rooms each year. "It's something of a slow hotel," he pronounces with a smile. "Like slow food." He now has an assortment of 42 rooms and suites in operation, each with its own character and adorned with original art works. The rooms, with their high ceilings and parquet floors are furnished with freshness and flair. "I like good light and bold colours," declares Wiesenthal, yet while doing the refurbishment, he has managed to retain more than a modicum of old-fashioned charm, warmth and individuality. Bedrooms and suites are grouped in clusters behind stout apartment doors leading off the magnificent central stairway. One suite boasts a grand piano in the sitting room and another has a roof garden; but whether a room or a suite, all are equipped with flat screen televisions, CD and DVD players, broadband access, a mini-bar, halogen lighting, and ‘sink-into' beds.

A painting of Otto Wiesenthal which hangs in the hotel The Altstadt

Art from Wiesenthal's private collection decorates every room. "I love art," he states. "I bought my first big picture many years ago and when I took it home my wife didn't like it, so I brought it to the hotel" (the painting still hangs in the lounge). That was the impetus for the now burgeoning collection of artworks which ornament suites, individual rooms, the lounge, breakfast room and stairways. Leibowitzs and Warhols hang cheek-by-jowl with famous Austrian, and Viennese, artists. "I like to support local painters," says Wiesenthal, while he is also pleased to hang some works on loan from city museums.

The hub of the hotel is the lounge, with its easy chairs, plump floral sofas, open fire and of course the trademark art. Here, in the afternoon, free tea and cakes are served and, when possible, Wiesenthal mixes with his guests.

Despite all the impeccable taste exhibited in this bright jewel box, it is perhaps the staff which gives Wiesenthal the greatest satisfaction. Some have been with him for over ten years – a virtual lifetime in the hospitality business. "I have the best staff in the city," he asserts. A claim I can fully endorse. I found them to be attentive, caring and understanding, with a fund of knowledge about all the things which visitors need to know - which bus or train to take; who is performing at which venue; how much is it likely to cost by taxi to a designated location; booking theatre tickets; suggesting appropriate restaurants. All my queries and requests were treated with efficient consideration.

Located just outside ‘The Ring' and opposite the church of St Ulrich, the Altstadt is just a few minutes walk from the Museum District, with the Volkstheater, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Zoom Children's Museum at its heart. Just across the Museumsplatz are the Natural History and Fine Art Museums. But then Vienna is a very walkable and safe, city with the Opera House, the stores on Karntner Strasse, St Stephen's Cathedral and the central city block only a fifteen minute stroll from the hotel.

While the Altstadt serves a sumptuous Austrian breakfast, no other meals are provided. However, around the hotel are restaurants, heuriges (wine taverns), and coffee shops to cater for every taste and purse. My own favourite, a two minute walk from the Altstadt, is the quirky and atmospheric Kristian's Monastri, where main courses are in the 45 – 75 rand range. Just behind St Ulrich's church is Café Nepomuk which serves excellent coffee and a feast of strudel and Viennese pastries.

Otto Wiesenthal assures me that the Spittelberg District is at its best during December when, Europe's best, brightest and most famous Christmas Market is staged. But then, to me, the Altstsdt, like the city itself, is well worth a visit at any season.

For more information on the Altstadt – www.altstadt.at

For Vienna visitor information – www.wien.info



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John Hagan, who serves as a travel writer for The Seoul Times, is a freelance journalist based in Tasmania, Australia. Born in Ireland, and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the University of Wales, he emigrated to Australia in 1976 to take up a lecturing position. He contributes articles to a number of newspapers and magazines in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, UK and Australia.

 

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