Discover Austria’s capital, Vienna, and its healthy heartbeat

Discover Vienna’s healthy heartbeat

A Turkish woman wearing what appears to be only a hand towel and a perpetual smirk leads me into a wet room, hands me a scrap of cloth and instructs me to lie in the searing humidity for which my home town of Brisbane is better known.

But I am in neither Queensland’s capital nor Istanbul, for that matter — I’m smack bang in the heart of Vienna, in the city’s oldest hammam. And I’m indulging in one of Europe’s ancient spa cultures, which Vienna has embraced with the same gusto as sausage stalls, schnitzel and Strauss.

Perched in the old Jewish quarter, the Sofitel Vienna also offers prime position from which to embark on one of Vienna’s most authentic healthy activities: riding a bike.

I’m with an equally skimpily clad colleague (female) and we’re lying on a marble slab, heads resting on what resemble overturned dog bowls, no therapists in sight. It’s only a matter of time and willpower to see who will eventually break the muggy silence we’re punctuating with broiling sighs.

I crack first, announcing that I will go in search of our Turkish torturers and demand that they release us from this humid hell. But even that is easier said than done as I wade to the hammam door, clutching at both my soaked towel and last shred of dignity before calling out for help.

“It is hammam,” comes the deadpan reply, in the same indifferent manner I’d shrug off Brisbane’s searing summer heat to a whingeing southerner. And so, for the next two hours we are scrubbed, soaped, slapped and soaked in some kind of Viennese water torture the Turkish apparently find relaxing.

So dire do I find the modesty situation that my therapist and I even indulge in a tug-of-war over my body cloth until she eventually wins and I’m left exposed in only the paper G-string I have unwittingly worn back-to-front.

Beauty amid the spas

Yes, I am in the Austrian capital researching a spa and wellness story — and I am getting more than I bargained for at Aux Gazelles hammam. Hammam owner Christine Ruckendorfer, a native Austrian with a fascination for the Middle East, describes her establishment as a “hotel without rooms”. The former brick factory occupies 2000 square metres of space and incorporates a restaurant, shisha bar, nightclub and hammam.

“The vision was to create a space where you can spend a whole day,” she says. “I wanted to create a space with an eye to the bigger world than Austria. I didn’t want to import any folklore. The idea was always to combine business and pleasure here.”

Inexplicably, there’s even a tango class taking place between the tagines but, by the time I leave the hammam, even that no longer seems strange.

While it’s not known as one of Europe’s leading spa destinations, several intriguing healthy holiday options are flourishing in Vienna.

A gentler take on the Turkish hammam concept can be found at the Kempinski Spa, which sits in the upmarket Kempinski Hotel. Here, my spa therapist Doris starts with a hydrating cucumber wrap: I’m smothered in a cucumber butter and folded in sheets like a kind of giant salad wrap a more virtuous woman than I would order for lunch. This is followed by a massage, in which Doris cradles my head in her hands and suggests I think too much. It’s like she has read my mind (I am indeed contemplating what kind of woman would eat a cucumber wrap for lunch).

I’m indulging in the Kempinski’s Seasonal Body Combination — there’s one for spring, summer, autumn and winter — in Vienna’s only spa that offers HydraFacials or dermabrasion treatments, both popular among locals who take their beauty so seriously they even take out memberships to the spa.

One of Austria’s finest establishments, Hotel Sacher steals centre stage in the middle of town and is just as known for its superb hospitality as it is for its original sachertorte.

Furnished in rich reds and styled like a chic hammam, this spa boasts as their definitive treatment the Ottoman Experience, Rhassoul, in which guests are cleansed, detoxed and moisturised before experiencing a full-body massage.

My bed for the night lies across the Danube Canal at the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, a luxury hotel with 182 guest rooms and suites that embrace a minimalist vibe, unlike most other hotels in the capital. With its soaring, sloping tower wrapped in glass, the hotel is considered a living work of art. And so are some of its treatments in the So SPA, which adopts a global approach to its spa treatments, offering everything from a Japanese KoBiDo Ritual to Traditional Oriental Massage and Balinese Please. And, yes, there’s a traditional hammam treatment here, too … minus the tango.

Perched in the old Jewish quarter, the Sofitel Vienna also offers a prime position from which to embark on one of Vienna’s most authentic healthy activities: riding a bike. There are plenty of dedicated pathways in this city devoted to cycles, and companies such as Pedal Power will deliver a bike and helmet to your hotel. And, in this relatively flat cityscape, it’s completely doable to follow the pathway out to Vienna’s favourite park, the Prater, a former imperial hunting grounds to the public 250 years ago and now an amusement park with an iconic giant ferris wheel that graces the Vienna skyline.

A delicious indulgence

Vienna’s heart is bedecked by the luxurious Hotel Sacher in which I find myself the following day. One of Austria’s finest establishments, Hotel Sacher steals centre stage in the middle of town and is just as known for its superb hospitality as it is for its original sachertorte, a world-famous chocolate cake that dates back to 1832. More than 360,000 of these preservative-free cakes are handmade every year and sold throughout Austria and around the world.

Those watching their weight can indulge in all the delights of the Sacher — without gaining a kilogram — in one of the Sacher Spa’s Time to Chocolate treatments, said to “sweeten your soul and nourish your skin”. The deliciously named Dream of Chocolate starts with a full-body cacao scrub followed by a shower. You are then smothered in a rich chocolate body mask and wrapped in a sheet — just like a giant profiterole — before relaxing for 10 minutes as the scent of chocolate permeates the room. I may not be the kind of woman who eats a cucumber wrap, but a giant profiterole is another matter indeed …

Healthy eating

In a city renowned for its superior schnitzels, vegetarian restaurant Tian Bistro, sitting in a cobblestone corner in 7th district, is a welcome addition to the healthier side of the equation. Relax in a glass-domed courtyard and enjoy the Chefs Garden sharing plates made from fresh local ingredients such as potatoes, mushrooms, asparagus, carrots and raspberries.

Over in Vienna’s 4th district, restaurant Heuer am Karlsplatz is surrounded by a garden that’s part of an urban farming project. Chef Peter Fallnbugl sources his ingredients from more than 30 different small farmers and specialists to support the region and deliver quality dishes such as vegan appetisers with flatbread, a salad with grilled oyster mushrooms and the signature HEUER burger.

Take a walking tour with a local guide such as Alexa Brauner, who knows all of this capital’s secrets.

For a fresh palate cleanser here, the homemade lemonade shrub is steeped in organic beech-splinter vinegar and flavoured with elderflower, rhubarb, raspberry or lemon. Try the sloe gin, too, made from sloes (a blackthorn with a sharp, sour taste) harvested in the wild. The building shares its space with the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna’s Art Hall.

The eponymous Konstantin Filippou back in the 1st district, Vienna’s Old Town, is a Michelin-star establishment with a deliberately Spartan décor that highlights its superior dishes. Here, you can feast on the likes of scallops with hazelnuts, dashi and truffle; stuffed quail with mushroom, carrots and garam masala; and blackberry with Jerusalem artichoke and mascarpone.

Walk & talk

For the health-conscious, Vienna is a great walking city as it’s flat and compact. Take a walking tour with a local guide such as Alexa Brauner, who knows all this capital’s secrets, including some of the ancient vendors to Austria’s former royal and imperial courts.

Chef Peter Fallnbugl sources his ingredients from more than 30 different small farmers and specialists to support the region and deliver quality dishes.

If you’re after some retail therapy, amble along cobbled streets to Lobmeyr crystal store, which sells grand chandeliers for as much as AU$90,000. This sixth-generation family business, which sits in a grand 19th century building, delivered a drinking set to the royal court as its first customer. Its second customer was the Hotel Sacher, which Lobmeyr furnished with chandeliers.

Around the corner, another family business is Kochert, jewellers in the city since 1814 and creators of the crown jewels. While Vienna was still regarded as the centre of Europe after World War I, things changed after World War II and the Kochert family had to find a new market with overseas tourists. It remains one of the few businesses in Vienna with its workshop in-house. Pieces in this store range from AU$450 to AU$30,000. One of the most famous works created by Kochert is the Sisi Star, made for the flowing auburn locks of Elisabeth, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph.

Walk around the corner to hit the luxury trifecta with a visit to Scheer, Vienna shoemakers that specialise in handmade shoes that take six to seven months to make and cost from AU$7500. You’ll see layers of the 1860s building on the walls of this establishment, best known for supplying footwear to European aristocrats. There’s even an exhibition of ancient footwear downstairs.

Add some cultural therapy

The Spanish Riding School is a different kind of therapy that blends sportsmanship with culture and has been entertaining visitors for the past 281 years. Its show, A Tribute to Vienna, showcases the talents and riders of the white stallions trained at this Austrian institution.

Want more culture? Head to the imposing Schonbrunn Palace, home of former Emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled the Hapsburg monarch for 68 years, and his wife Elisabeth, for whom the Kocherts made her iconic hair jewels.

Here you’ll learn that Franz Joseph was a man of discipline, waking at 3am and working religiously at his desk until 9pm. Such a stickler for routine was he that he actually died shortly after 9pm. A tour of this grand palace will tell you the story of this Hapsburg family, ending in the yawning palace gardens, which are accessible to tourists and locals, who like to use the grounds for exercise. It’s the ideal place to finish your fit and fabulous tour of Vienna.

Christine Retschlag

Christine Retschlag

Christine Retschlag is an award-winning Australian journalist who has worked in newspapers, magazines and online for the past 27 years in Australia, Hong Kong, London and Singapore. In 2006, she won the Australian Travel Writer of the Year award for Best Trade Story as well as the Jack Butters Memorial Award for Travel Writing Excellence. In 2007, she won Best Australian Story over 1000 words and in 2014 won Best Food Travel Story.

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