Category Archives: Travel

I love Stefanie

Or to be more formal, Hotel Stefanie, Vienna. I can thoroughly recommend it.

You know how things slowly move in some direction, and because it’s all gradual, you hardly notice the change [for the worse]? And then something comes back to you and you remember all that was lost.

That’s what it was like for me when Daughter and I stayed at the Stefanie in October. She’d stayed before and was hell-bent on returning, so we even shifted our stay by one day in order that they could accommodate us. I thought I understood why she wanted this, but it was only as we got there that I properly grasped what she’d discovered, and what I’d lost, decades ago.

I’ve had more recent ‘favourite’ hotels, by which I mean they have been places I’ve come back to for various reasons, including cost. But a hotel like the Stefanie I’ve not stayed at since I was a child. Not that we were well off, but we were lucky and I got to stay in some good hotels, and I clearly built my expectations from those occasions.

Hotel Stefanie is not enormous, nor is it small. It’s just right, in a Goldilocks kind of way. It employs a lot of staff, and it is they who make the place. They are professionals, whether helping people out of taxis and looking after their luggage like it was their baby, or bringing a tea-tray to your room. Or anything else. Remembering your room number. Offering you a clean knife at breakfast.

The decor is quietly classic, but the rooms have obviously been up-dated to what you need today. And it smells like a hotel. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Smells lead to powerful memories, and can move you anywhere, anytime. In my case it was straight back to childhood, the good bit.

The rooms. We’d booked two singles, in order to snore in peace and – erm – quiet. They had three rooms for us to look at. The head of reception knew we’d definitely want one of them, but wanted to give us the opportunity to look at two more before deciding. The rooms are not all identical, and we could soon see which second room would be best. It was a thoughtful offer, I felt.

The first day it rained hard, and someone had not packed her umbrella. By watching other guests as I waited in the foyer, I learned that they have umbrellas you can borrow. And when you bring it back, dripping wet, they take it off you, giving it a good professional shake.

Breakfast is rather pleasant. Polite service, coupled with the ubiquitous buffet where you can choose what you like. Continental quality bread, for instance. And … champagne, although we never tried that.

It’s so old style that you even hand your key in when you go out. Annoying if you are only popping out for five minutes, but it is gratifying to see them reach for your key before you’ve uttered a word.

On departure I was too exhausted to take the underground to the railway station. I asked for a taxi, which was ordered with a minimum of fuss, and the same lovely man who greeted me on the first day, saw me and my suitcase into the vehicle when it arrived.

I have no particular reason to return to Vienna soon. But I’d happily go back just to stay at the Stefanie. Time travel like this is a treat. Revisiting the mid-twentieth century, while still having access to wifi.

Heartfelt thanks to all of you who work at Hotel Stefanie.

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Strauss at the Musikverein

A week ago the Austrians celebrated their National Day. Daughter and I very accidentally happened to be in Vienna just then and – less accidentally – wanted to have a closer look at the Musikverein than you get from our sofa in front of the television on New Year’s Day. We discovered there was a Strauss concert on that very morning, so booked tickets to go.

It was all we had hoped. The concert hall really is that golden, and they really do cram in as many chairs as they can, wherever they can. We had good chairs on the side, quite close to the stage.

Musikverein

The Musikverein is housed in one of many elegant buildings in Vienna, and it was pretty much as I’d expected. The ushers speak English, and were most helpful. There are wardrobes for coats and larger bags, and there I learned – from the woman on my right (who, incidentally arrived long after me) – that you can say ‘bitte’ and be very very rude. She certainly wasn’t going to wait for anyone else to deposit their stuff, thank you very much! It pleased me no end to discover her halfway down a rather long queue for the ladies’ toilets later on. There are not enough toilets, but this is understandable in an older building.

Plenty of bars, however, and the audience indulged in eating and drinking. I’ve always wondered how they get the audience in and out on time when we see them on television. I’m still wondering that.

We enjoyed the concert. The Wiener Johann Strauss Orchester is no Wiener Philharmoniker, but that was fine. Likewise, conductor Johannes Wildner was no Karajan, but a chatty, bubbly chap who told jokes between numbers. At least I think he did. People laughed. My Austrian German wasn’t up to such detail.

We began with the Overture to Die Fledermaus, through lots of Strauss tunes, ending with Auf der Jagd and An der schönen blauen Donau. Much stomping and clapping rewarded us with another polka and the Radetzky March, enabling us to leave on a high. Daughter hadn’t quite dared hope for the latter, so was very happy.

They offer tours of the Musikverein, but I’d say go to a concert instead if you can. It doesn’t have to be the New Year’s Day one. After all, I don’t expect people can leave on January 1st and proceed to have coffee outside in the sunshine.

Or maybe they can. It’s Vienna, after all.

The unexpected Bull

We needed something to accompany our dinners last week, Daughter and I, sitting in our holiday house, all alone, with nowhere to go. So we rewatched a lot of episodes of Bull, to get us into the right mood for when Bull returns in ten days’ time.

At least we hope he returns, and that the heart attack was merely a nasty warning for him to take things easier.

Picking episodes at random, going between season one and season two, there was no big plan. I’ve only watched them once, so some were more forgotten than others, feeling almost new.

And then there was Light My Fire, from December 2016. It looked unexpectedly new to me. The longer I watched, the ‘newer’ it felt. I concluded that I must have missed that episode first time round.

Bull - Light My Fire

Hmm, I hadn’t expected that.

I blame it on it having been nearly Christmas. I might have been busy with other things. 😊

(Photo © CBS)

Happy 10th, Culture!

How to mark the occasion of ten years of CultureWitch? Especially now that there is less action here than formerly.

The sun was shining and it was warm – for September – so we decided to drive to Göstas at Steninge for some tea and cake and a sea view.

And there was action! There is nothing quite like a bit of car park rage on a nice day. First space was taken by car coming in the way out. Second space was about to be taken by the next car coming in the way out, except I planted myself in the way. I even informed the driver he was wrong.

Silly me.

He behaved so aggressively that I said; ‘You’re going to drive into me, anyway, aren’t you?’ My survival instincts kicked in and I moved. I was quite surprised when he drove off and parked illegally at the other end of the small car park instead, not running me down.

After which we all gathered for sustenance in Göstas…

Had intended to show you one of those tiresome photos of pretty cakes, but we had wolfed them down by the time I remembered. So here are two used cake plates,

Empty plates

a  flag, and

Flag

the beach.

Steninge

Herr Ped*rsen, check the road signs next time! That round one with a horizontal bar through it means No Entry. Which means no entry. Let’s hope we are both here in another ten years.

Runrig farewell concert

When I read in the local paper last autumn that Runrig were going to play their farewell concert in Stirling, I thought nothing of it. Because I’d never heard of them.

It’s not as if stuff mentioned in the Stirling Observer tends to be world news, exactly. I simply saw that some unknown group were going to play here. Within days the concert sold out, which was surprising, but then maybe not. I could see that a few hundred or even a thousand people might be interested. Music is nice, after all.

Runrig, last concert

And now it seems that with a second concert added, we are doubling the town’s population for the weekend. 45 000 people are invading, some of them from Australia.

Once this fact had sunk in, I asked the Resident IT Consultant, who is not known for being cool, if he had heard of Runrig. Before all this broke lose, I mean. He had. Daughter had. And Son. So that just left me. It was suggested that living so long in England might be the reason, as the English aren’t fond of culture from north of the border.

I spent last night trying to ascertain who I should compare Runrig to, just to get a reliable measure of how famous they are. Not so much who else plays that kind of music, but simply the level of fame. I’m not sure we managed an answer to that, except a lot more famous than I’d thought.

Then asked what kind of music they play… So Daughter treated us to an impromptu Spotify concert on her phone.

Not bad, I suppose.

And we might not be one of the 45 000, but it appears we will be able to hear the concert if we open the windows. More, if we go for a short walk, but that would probably mean in the company of the rest of Stirling; the ones who don’t have tickets.

An English afternoon tea

I appreciated the way we were able to sit for a few hours talking, even if the chairs were on the uncomfortable side. But if you charge the going rate for a hotel afternoon tea outside London – around £30 since you ask – you need to do more than call it afternoon tea. The taste and quality of what you offer should be at least passable, and the way you serve it, and when, is worth considering.

Or was the fact that we weren’t turfed out after a couple of hours a sign that not too many people were clamouring for our table? I mean, they knew what we didn’t.

Tea corner at the Randolph

I don’t know whether to feel embarrassed admitting to having gone twice, in two days. The first tea was sufficiently acceptable, and I enjoyed chatting to my friends in an unhurried way, which is why I booked a table for my next meeting, the following day.

And yes, I did get – partly – what I was looking for and again, I loved seeing people and talking for hours. But that was down to me having nice friends to meet up with, more than the tea or the service.

Day one the non-English head waiter was polite and pleasant, if not good at getting a tea order together. I forget the number of times we had to ask for milk. Meanwhile the tea stewed and got blacker and blacker, and the sandwiches dried. That’s what I thought, anyway. Until…

Day two the same non-English head waiter needed to have his sleeve pulled after a search to find him, when the placing of an order for tea got quite urgent. There is only so long you want to wait. Tried the Earl Grey in the hopes of less black tea, but that didn’t work. I.e. the tea was as strong as the previous day, and lukewarm. Later on when we asked for more hot water we were rather alarmed to discover the waiter wanted to simply pour it into the teapot.

The sandwiches were dry. It’s the only description for them. And the fillings had been sparingly applied. For £30 they could afford a bit more egg, say. And clingfilm to cover sandwiches so obviously made well in advance.

Would I go back to the Randolph in Oxford?

Maybe. The hotel is well placed for meetings. The room is pleasant enough. In fact, if you consider the cost of the tea more as a fee for a corner of the room we sat in, then yes, it’s OK. Just about. And I have no problem with non-English waiting staff, as long as they know how to serve an English afternoon tea in a vaguely English way. With milk.

(It can’t have been the wheelchair, can it? The second day? The first day they even wanted to hang our coats for us, while the second day we had all that time alone, putting the wheels away, and waiting for service. Surely not?)

Advent Roger

I have a crazy friend. Crazy is generally the best. But even so, I didn’t expect this.

This year for Advent, my friend is giving away gifts to her Facebook friends. You know, if money was no object, kind of thing. So after a safe start of a holiday in Florida and a £2,000,000 house in Devon, this morning it was my turn.

I had had my doubts. I am a notoriously difficult person, and I was mainly settling down to see what inappropriate gift ‘her money’ would provide. I take it all back! This is what I woke up to:

‘If I had money, I would offer so much of it to Roger Whittaker that he would agree to come and sing one last time, especially for you. As one of his signature songs is The Last Farewell, I would hire a tall ship and crew from Topsail to bring Roger over from the nearest port in France, where he now lives, to Leith. You and Roger would have a fine meal on board in the harbour, and Roger would sing The Last Farewell to you, before sailing away into the sunset.’

Roger Whittaker and CultureWitch

What a lucky witch I am, to have a friend like that!

She’s right. It is what I’d want. Well, maybe I’d whisper into Roger’s ear that he could pick a different song, if he felt up to it, but my goodness, what a spectacular gift!

(And for anyone who wants to help my friend get rich, do buy her books. I thoroughly recommend her Belgian trilogy for a good scare. It’s so scary I have recently learned that her husband couldn’t quite finish the last one… Here is a list of all Helen Grant’s books. They are very good. And very scary.)