Travel

The Hotel Sacher in Vienna, Austria, has old-school charms

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VIENNA — The Hotel Sacher will never be mistaken for a hip hotel. The elaborate gilt trim in public rooms, the old-school celebrity photos that adorn the walls and the tourists in line to sample Sacher torte — all evidence that guests are unlikely to think of Philippe Starck or Shawn Hausman as they explore the place.

What's more, everything about the hotel is expensive — overpriced some might say. It's easy to imagine the Sacher's halcyon days are over.

And yet.

The fin de siècle charm of the place is undeniable. Spend some time in the Blaue (Blue) Bar, a jewel box of a room with brocade walls, chinoiserie, crystal chandeliers and lushly upholstered couches, and you couldn't be blamed for feeling transported to, say, the 1890s or the 1920s.

My husband, Steve, and I check into the Hotel Sacher about 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon in late September, the second stop on a European trip that starts in Bratislava, Slovakia, and concludes in Rome. Our room is not quite ready — do we mind waiting 15 minutes? Thus, the first visit to the Blaue Bar, where we order bottled water and café mit schlag. Vienna, after all, is a city known for its coffee and coffeehouses — and sweets. The coffee service is beautiful and is accompanied by three bowls of nuts. The price of this respite? Almost $30.

At the moment we receive the bill, we are notified that the room is ready — we can swoon over the prices in private.

Our bedroom, about 15 by 20 feet, is tastefully appointed; the color scheme — red, beige and white — is soothing and used for almost everything — linens, lamps, carpet and wallpaper with pastoral scenes of what appear to be 18th century gentlemen with hunting dogs.

We spy two plates on a side table, one with a handful of small, artful chocolates and two individual servings of Sacher torte, a dessert that has been sold and touted by the hotel for more than 100 years. The other plate offers an apple, a fig, an apricot and green and red grapes. I open one of the tortes immediately. There's nothing subtle about the chocolate cake drenched in a chocolate glaze, and that's just fine.

The bathroom is sumptuous, with a separate tub and shower, two sinks and yet another flat-screen TV. Even though the view out the window (an interior service courtyard) is not particularly scenic, I'm too busy examining the bathtub pillow, the chocolate-scented shampoo, the shower mitt and the red rose in a silver vase to give it a second thought.

The caffeine fuels a walk through the city center, which is vaguely reminiscent of Times Square on a beautiful day. Everyone in the world seems to be in Vienna, touring the Stephansdom (St. Stephen's) cathedral or shopping at Zara or Frey Wille. Pedestrians mingle (and sometimes compete) with horse-drawn carriages.

We amble down the narrow Naglergasse and observe a string of buildings with elaborate ornamentation. Then we make our way to Michaelerplatz and examine some Roman remains. The Hofburg complex — a series of apartments, museums, political offices, libraries and home of the Spanish Riding School — beckons from across the street, and we promise ourselves a return trip.

Recalling the bill from the Blaue Bar, we leave the hotel for dinner and end up at the nearby 1516 Brewing Co., a pub full of high-energy patrons. Our fare consists of beer, schnitzel — and more beer.

The next morning we engage in an act that must violate a municipal ordinance: We grab lattes from a Starbucks across the street from the hotel. Naturally, we cannot stand in the lobby of the Hotel Sacher clutching cups that shout "coffee shop chain that is devouring the world," so we walk to the Opera House and then to the Secession Building to spend time gazing at Gustav Klimt's "Beethoven Frieze."

The contemplation of art has made us hungry — so we venture back to the hotel and the Sacher Eck, a sunny cafe that sits on a busy corner of the hotel building, which takes up the better part of a city block.

Steve orders sausages and a roll; I ask for figs and burrata. The sausages arrive first, and the truth is they taste like hot dogs — good hot dogs, but hot dogs nonetheless. On the other hand, the accompanying roll is hot and delicious, the horseradish tastes as if it were grated in the kitchen two minutes before it was served, and the mustard is superb. My order, the figs and burrata, accompanied by prosciutto and arugula, turns out to be an excellent second course. We dine leisurely, sitting at a tall table and observing wave after wave of guests grinning and photographing their food, especially the Sacher torte.

After every excursion into the central city — to the Michaelerkirche (St. Michael's, a church with 13th century origins), the Spanish Riding School stables, the Mozart Memorial — we find an excuse to sit in the hotel lobby. The large central gathering spot leaves a visitor with one lasting impression: red. There are red brocade couches and chairs and enormous vases of red flowers. Table lamps and wall sconces are topped with red fringed shades. Smaller public rooms are decorated with hundreds of portraits of guests — Liz Taylor and Jimmy Carter, Donovan and Liza Minnelli, Bing Crosby and Maximilian Schell. Some of the photographs date to the 19th century.

As do the origins of the hotel. Franz Sacher was born in Vienna in 1816 and destined, seemingly, to be a chef. Historical sources state that he was an apprentice chef in Prince Metternich's palace and earned a place in history — or legend, at least — when the chief cook became ill and he had to create a dessert for a big dinner. That dessert turned out to be the first incarnation of the Sacher torte, a sweet that has inspired copycats, lawsuits and reams of promotional material. Franz's son Eduard became a restaurateur and hotelier, opening the Hotel de l'Opera in 1876, which was eventually rechristened the Sacher Hotel.

Eduard's wife, Anna, took over the business in the 1890s, an era when Vienna was flourishing. According to one history of the hotel, Anna "collected chiefly celebrities … their portraits hung like trophies on the walls of her small offices."

That photo collection continues to grow, evidence of the hotel's ability to survive wars, invaders and a 1969 John and Yoko news conference.

The Sacher houses an elaborate spa, decorated in beige, black and white. Products, many of which can be purchased, are displayed in cabinets that line the walls. Chocolate is a theme in the spa, as well as the restaurants, with spa treatments named "A Symphony in Chocolate," "A Dream in Chocolate" and "A Taste of Chocolate." Prices are steep; the aroma, divine.

The power of chocolate is undeniable. When we leave the Hotel Sacher, our bags are slightly heavier because I've grabbed all the chocolate toiletries that remain in our room and the leftover candy from our first day. Not that they were necessary. Our parting gift? Two tiny Sacher tortes, reminders that chocolate — and caffeine — make the world go round.

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