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Hidden treasures; TRAVEL: Vienna has so much more to offer than palaces and a certain famous ferris wheel, as Margaret O'Reilly discovered.

Byline: Margaret O'Reilly

A traditional Viennese coffee house TUCKING into a rich slice of Sachertorte at the ornate Sacher Hotel where it was invented is the perfect way to begin a visit to Vienna.

But there's a lot more to this beautiful and civilised city than chocolate cake and whipped cream.

Vienna is renowned for its royal palaces and museums yet it's full of surprises, a place where the only slum is an art installation and where some of the world's greatest old masters are hung alongside the most contemporary of artworks.

It's a capital where hundreds of people descend on the plaza outside the city hall every Saturday night in summer for open air comic opera shown on a vast screen while the smells of street food from around the globe mingle in the air from open air stalls.

Vienna may have a very traditional image but shoppers can find a host of young designers selling everything from handbags made from biscuit wrappers to chairs from recycled wheelie bins.

First impressions are still of the splendid Habsburg palaces, the horse drawn carriages taking tourists on tours and art galleries filled with Titians, Canalettos, Reubens, Rembrandts, Breugels and Holbeins.

But perhaps the best way to see the different sides of the city is by bike because Vienna is a city which takes cycling seriously. Cycle paths are everywhere and well used by everyone from parents with young children in special seats to pensioners on three wheelers.

There are city bikes to be found at points across the city, the first two hours are free then it costs [ETH]1 an hour. As a visitor to the city you have to register to use them and they are quite heavy so if you want to spend more than a couple of hours sightseeing it's worth hiring a more comfortable, multi-geared option. Pedal Power delivered our bikes to our hotel, ready for us to explore.

It's a great way of getting around, the city is pretty flat and the excellent public transport system means there's a lot less traffic on the roads than in most capitals.

We were able to spot many of the city's finest buildings and take a spin through the sprawling funfair at Prater Park where the ferris wheel made famous by the film of The Third Man still runs, out to the bridge which spans the Danube where there's a water-based fun park at Danube Island.

We stopped off at one of the traditional coffee houses for a melange, a typical Viennese milky coffee. The city is dotted with old fashioned coffee hours where you can while away the hours with a newspaper.

That afternoon we took a walking tour of the Freihaus or 7th district with stylist Stefanie Lingg (www.7tm.at) where a total of 34 designer shops are scattered throughout the side streets with an eclectic mix of high fashion by mostly young designers.

The esoteric fashion at Wiener Konfektion is all made of second hand fabric while the tiny Kawaii has designers in a workshop at the back and fun, young underwear at the front. At First Sight had purses made from laminated wafer wrappers and shoulder bags created from vintage men's ties.

That evening we went to the Dome Hall of the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Fine Arts for a really special taste of Vienna. The museum is open at night for dinner, allowing visitors to dine in the grandest of surroundings in the cupola hall, feasting from delicious food and taking a tour of the galleries between courses.

We were able to sample a vast spread of Mediterranean-style appetisers ranging from griddled artichokes to cured meats before wandering among the Rembrandts and examples of Reubens at his zenith, with a portrait of his voluptuous second wife proving that cellulite isn't just a 21st century problem for women.

After delicious main courses including tender beef fillet in pepper sauce and bread dumplings it was on to Holbein and Bruegel, including three of his renowned seasons paintings, Raphael's Madonna of the Meadow, Canaletto and Titian, including his interpretation of Pontius Pilot when his arthritis was so bad he had to tie his brushes to his hands. With a final return to our table for traditional curd with raspberries and strudel, it was a unique and memorable evening (www.gerstner.at [ETH]48).

Another real highlight of our trip was a visit to the Spanish Riding School. We couldn't see one of the usual high school performances by the magnificent Lipizzaner stallions as they were off having their annual summer holidays kicking up their hooves in the fields but instead we had chance to see the Piber Meets Vienna event, when some of the young stallions, still unbroken, were turned into the ornate Winter Riding School of the Imperial Palace to play.

The sight of the youngsters, still in their dark grey coats, kicking, biting and galloping was a real experience, as was the chance to see some of the snow white mares inquisitively nuzzling up to visitors, their dark foals, just a few weeks old, hiding behind their mothers before racing around the arena on gangly legs.

With a tour of the stables and a chance to get up close to such special horses it was a wonderful and very different experience from the usual, highly disciplined classical riding shows. (www.srs.at, prices from [ETH]10, tour of stables [ETH]16).

Lipizzaners may be the royalty of the horse world but for a chance to get up close to the trappings of the Austrian royal families we took a trip to the Imperial Treasury packed with treasures, from the world's largest emerald to the Habsburgs' coronation robes, crowns, religious artifacts and a golden crib.

Next day we stopped at the Naschmarkt, a vast outdoor market and a place where you could easily spend hours wandering through the myriad of stalls with food from around the globe, some packed with a magnificent array of fish, others stacked with delicious pastries.

Among the people we met was Erwin Gegenbauer who has turned his family vinegar business into an art form. There's an art to tasting, just like with wine. You are encouraged to sniff the vinegars before putting a drop on the back of your hand and licking it off to discover just how varied and delicious vinegar can be.

There are plenty of stalls where you can get all you need for a delicious picnic but we opted to sit down in the open sided Tewa (www.tewa672.

com) where we chose from dishes ranging from Thai to Middle Eastern. I had the best falafel and hummus I've tasted, yet another of Vienna's many surprises.

As were the city "beaches" created along the Danube Canal for the summer season. Tons of sand along with deckchairs, umbrellas and play areas were imported specially to create beach scenes in the middle of the city centre.

In the evening we returned to the more traditional side of Vienna with a Haydn evening at the Maria Treu Basilica, where Haydn himself conducted some of his great works.

This was followed by a bizarre evening at the pounds Piaristenkeller next door where among the cloisters we ate dishes from Haydn's times and were encouraged to try on a selection of ornate hats from the hat museum (from [ETH]35, www.piaristenkeller.

pounds 343 the at). It certainly proved there are many sides of Vienna just waiting to be discovered.

FACTFILE For more information: www.austriatourism.com, www.wien.info/EasyJet fly from Luton and Gatwick (www.easyjet.com), KLM fly from Heathrow and Bristol (www.klm.com) or check www.skyscanner.net for prices from pounds 35 one way from London.

Das Tyrol Hotel (00 431587 5415, www.das-tyrol.at) is currently offering a two-night break based on two sharing on June 12 and 13 for [ETH]185, a considerable saving on the standard rate of [ETH]259. It is a very comfortable, boutique-style hotel in the centre of the city's shopping district.

If you have an early morning flight from Gatwick try the clean and comfortable Gatwick Moat House Hotel just beyond the airport perimeter. You can park on site and catch a regular shuttle for a hassle free start to your holiday.

Prices start at pounds 44 room only, pounds 79 for eight days' parking depending on dates. Tel 0871 2261 931, www.bestwestern.co.uk FLY
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 29, 2010
Words:1409
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