The Levante Parliament
Certainly, it was a masterpiece of interior design, but with something of the forbidding aura you sense when entering an august art gallery, unsure whether to be openly awed or confidently appreciative. Even the lighting of the long corridor-like vestibule leading into the reception area of this Vienna boutique hotel seemed intimidating, but my lady had no such qualms.
‘Goodness,’ she gasped, facing two giant plinth-like glass sculptures. ‘It’s Ioan Nemtoi (sounded like Yo-han Nem-toy). I saw him in Westphalia – Düsseldorf, I think. He even has his work in the Vatican.’ Concluding that she was referring to the sculptor rather than the works of art – or, indeed, any of the multitude of glass pieces that caught her eye as she spun round excitedly in the hotel lobby – I didn’t feel any the wiser, though immensely impressed, not only with my companion’s knowledge, but also with first-sight of the hotel.
The Levante Parliament in Vienna’s Auerspergstrasse is a refreshingly new design hotel, opened in May (2006), though housed in a building that dates back to 1908 and started life as student accommodation. And its lobby and entrance hall are deliberately laid out and lit as a gallery space. Apparently, the Romania-born Nemtoi collaborated with the architect in the design of the hotel bar and the restaurant.
Along with the ubiquitous glass sculptures throughout the hotel, there are works by the celebrated Viennese photographer Curt Themessl (thankfully I’d heard of him). Themessl’s 420 elegant monochrome prints of ballet dancers from the Vienna State Opera can be seen all over the hotel, including the fitness and sauna area. All artworks are for sale but, sadly, out of this pair’s price range.
The reddish tinges of Nemtoi’s creations add a glow to the hotel’s 74 rooms and suites, which feature furniture of a dark, dense tropical wood from Africa known as wengé. The rooms are warm, welcoming and comfortable, with eiderdowned beds whose wide borders of coral orange add a glow to the soothing combination of browns and beiges in the fitted carpet and drapes.
While my lady was luxuriating in the waterfall shower surrounded by highly polished cream Italian marble and a comprehensive stock of designer supplies, I had the opportunity to explore the treasures and pleasures of the minibar’s exotic blends and vintages and to try out the free high-speed Internet. The latter was a handy way to fill in certain gaps in my knowledge of glass sculpture, humiliatingly exposed earlier.
It was the time of year to be grateful for the heated flooring and perhaps even, if venturing out, the umbrella that comes with the room. Fortunately the umbrella wasn’t needed when we looked in on the hotel’s private courtyard garden — 400 square metres, or the size of about four cricket pitches lying side by side. Its tranquillity was a comforting pre-prandial interlude before we settled down in the hotel’s unique glass bar and restaurant, whose seating areas are compartmentalised using screens of ‘fire’ that have the appearance of strands of glass spiralling animatedly towards their fiery tips.
First came expertly-crafted cocktails: a Pagu (Plymouth gin, triple sec, angostura bitters, lime juice) and a Slightly Bruised Vodka Martini (Grey Goose vodka, vermouth dry, lemon juice). The five-course menu looked daunting; Austrian food can certainly be heavy going and some traditional meals can take on epic proportions. Fortunately the courses of prosciutto with marinated figs and goat's cheese, Wienerschnitzel, beef consommé and deep-fried veal were both delicious and sensibly proportioned. We even managed to easily tackle the fantastic crème brûlée, and some dumplings with goat's cheese.
The hotel gets its name from the proximity of the Parliament building, which was as good a place as any to start our tour of Vienna early next morning. Then a glimpse of the city highlights on a ride in a Fiaker, a horse-drawn carriage driven by a man (or woman) in a bowler. And, to round off the morning, we caught the last hour of Spanish Riding School’s morning public rehearsal. For a snack lunch we opted for a Würstelstände or sausage stall, and headed for the one called the ‘Little Sacher’ (because it’s next door to the smart Hotel Sacher), where you can often mix with the cream of Vienna society. Frequently in the evenings you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with opera-lovers on parole during the interval, enjoying a snack in their evening gowns and dress suits, beer in hand.
We had saved musical Vienna until after lunch, when we’d explore the Musical Mile and its series of 70 marble stars embedded into the pavement, dedicated to all the celebrated names who’d had close ties with Vienna, before visiting the homes of greats like Mozart and Beethoven. Assailed by relics, images and sounds from their genius, I was able to compliment Mrs Smith on her knowledge and musical appreciation, while acquitting myself sufficiently to redeem my ego.
For the evening we amused ourselves on a tour of the city’s celebrated coffee houses. This one where Sigmund Freud used to cogitate. That one where Johann Strauss Jnr made his debut. The other one where Leon Trotsky was seen to declaim. Each coffee house has its own atmosphere and distinctive clientele and there is simply no better way to relax, take in the city and soak up Vienna's famously bohemian and intellectual ambience. It's enough to bring the philosopher out in anyone.
As we were leaving next morning, Mrs Smith took a wistful look back at the lobby with its dazzling glass sculptures and turned to chide me impishly: ‘You know, I was surprised you hadn’t heard of Nemtoi.’ Well, maybe I had, I hinted, citing a famous remark by the sculptor that I’d prepared earlier (God bless the internet): ‘Glass is like a woman who must be handled very gently.’ She was most impressed. ‘How true,’ she countered. ‘But perhaps also like the male ego which, however large and apparently robust, is easily shattered.’