The Walpole Collection

There are many good reasons to love the art collections of the Hermitage, but there are also many intriguing sub-plots for the visitor to think about. One small task one can undertake without too much strain is to identify the paintings commonly collectively known as the Walpole Collection.

We must, as Lewis Carroll once suggested, begin at the beginning. Houghton Hall was built in the 1720s for Great Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Walpole assembled one of the finest collections of European art, using Houghton Hall as a gallery for his collected treasures.

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole (Vanloo)

Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole (Vanloo)

After Walpole’s death in 1745, Houghton Hall was inherited by his son and later, his grandson. By this time, the Walpole family were undergoing economic difficulties and the art collection of more than 200 works was sold to Catherine the Great of Russia. Most of the paintings are housed at The Hermitage. Some remain in Russia at other galleries while a few were sold to art galleries in other parts of the world. Several works were sold during Stalin’s reign in order to help fund the Soviet war effort. That appeared to be the end of the story for the Walpole Collection, but a lucky find in 2010 brought an unexpected twist to the tale. Some sketches were discovered, hidden away in a desk in a long-unused room at Houghton Hall. These sketches revealed the exact location of the paintings. Agreement was reached with the Hermitage for some 70 of the paintings to be loaned back to Houghton Hall, where they could be exhibited in their original settings. A few others from the collection were borrowed from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D C, which had acquired part of the Walpole Collection during the Stalin era.

Portrait of an Elderly Lady (Rembrandt)

Portrait of an Elderly Lady (Rembrandt)

Portrait of Inigo Jones (van Dyck)

Portrait of Inigo Jones (van Dyck)

The collection contains works by Teniers, van Dyck, Hals, Rubens and Rembrandt among many other notables of European art. The project at Houghton Hall allowed the paintings to be assembled in a single collection during the six months of the loan in 2013. The ‘Houghton Revisited’ exhibition attracted 114,00 visitors during the six months of the loan.

Arch of Ferdinand (Rubens)

Arch of Ferdinand (Rubens)

Adoration of the Magi (Jan Brueghel)

Adoration of the Magi (Jan Brueghel)

All of the artworks have now been returned and visitors to the Hermitage can provide themselves with a little extra amusement and pleasure by looking out for the paintings known as the Walpole Collection.

The Kitchen (Teniers)

The Kitchen (Teniers)

Christina Robertson – Fife’s Unknown Artist

The Hermitage in St Petersburg stands apart, in so many ways, from even the finest art galleries in Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world. There is, however, one aspect that marks it as similar; there are few works of art by women. Female artists are, happily, much more commonplace these days, but it was not always so.

It comes as a surprise, then, to encounter works by women artists among the great collections. It comes as an even bigger surprise to note that one of the few women to be represented at The Hermitage – and who, indeed, became a favourite of the Russian royal court – was a native of Fife.

Christina Sanders was born in Kinghorn in 1796. Little seems to be known about her early life or her first forays into painting. There appears to have been some art connection, however, as she married the artist James Robertson in 1822. The couple settled in London and the marriage produced eight children, though four died in childhood.

What seems certain is that Christina must already have been quite a serious artist at the time of her marriage. In 1823, she was exhibiting works at the Royal Academy and by 1829, she had been elected as an honorary member of the Scottish Academy, a first for a woman.

Christina Robertson (self portrait)

Christina Robertson (self portrait)

By the 1830s, she was making her name as a portrait painter, her work featuring in several magazines and journals. Through these, she caught the attention of the Russian aristocracy in St Petersburg. In Paris in1837, she painted portraits of a number of Russian nobles and notables. Doubtless, her talents were reported back to the Imperial Court by one or more of her sitters.

Empress Alexandra Fedorovna

Empress Alexandra Fedorovna

It was a good time to be a British artist around the Russian court. Russian high society had developed a love of all things British and by 1839, Robertson had exhibited several works at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. The following year brought a major breakthrough when she was commissioned to paint full-length portraits of the Emperor Nicholas I and the Empress Alexandra. She received numerous other commissions and was soon elected an honorary member of the St Petersburg Academy before returning to Britain in 1841.

Empress Maria Aleksandrovna

Duchess Maria Aleksandrovna

Robertson was to visit St Petersburg again in 1847 and was to remain there until her death in 1854. Although relations between Britain and Russia were less than cordial – the Crimean War was looming – she remained a popular guest and continued to receive commissions from the Russian royal family. In particular, she painted several portraits of the Emperor’s daughter-in-law, the Grand Duchess Maria Aleksandrovna. She established her own studio in St Petersburg in 1849.

Duchesses Olga Nikolaevna and Alexandra Nikolaevna

Duchesses Olga Nikolaevna and Alexandra Nikolaevna

Sadly, Robertson’s health was failing by the early 1850s and with suggestions that a number of her clients were refusing to pay her, she may well have been struggling financially as well. She died in St. Petersburg, in 1854 and was buried in the city’s Volkovo Cemetery, the final resting place for many writers, scientists and other esteemed figures. The Crimean War had commenced in 1853, so while Britain and Russia may have been at war, there appears to have been no personal animosity towards Christina Robertson.

Even today, it could be argued that women are not fully recognised in the world of art. This was certainly true in the 19th century. A number of women were successful as novelists – though even a brilliant writer like George Eliot felt obliged to write under a male pseudonym – but very few even dared to embark on a career as a painter. Robertson was a rarity and there were few other women in her position. The Hungarian-born Serbian painter, Katarina Ivanovic, a younger contemporary, was one of the few, though she did not achieve the recognition of her Scottish counterpart, at least during her own lifetime.

Christina Robertson, though, remains prominent in Russia today, though understandably her popularity waned following the Revolution of 1917, when all things relating to the aristocracy suddenly suffered a diminution of interest. Some fifteen of her works can be seen in The Hermitage and several more are on permanent display in the other great art gallery of St Petersburg, the Russian Museum. That, alone, is a testimony to her skill as an artist. The fact that she achieved what she did in such a male-dominated world is astonishing – and particularly remarkable for a woman from a small coastal town in Fife.

Great Museums – The Hermitage

 The State Hermitage Museum, to give it its official title, is quite simply the finest in the world. With more than three million exhibits spread across its five interlinked buildings containing over 400 halls, it is not small. Those wanting a quick visit should allow at least four hours. If you’re looking for something more substantial, but are restricted to a single day, Wednesday has the longest opening hours, with a start at half-past ten and a closing time of nine o’clock in the evening. As is standard practise for museums all over the world, the Hermitage is not open on Mondays.

The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace

On entering, it’s wise to pick up a plan of the museum at the reception desk. This shows the layout of the halls and their numbers. It might seem a bit geeky to tick off the halls as you make your way through the museum, but it’s not the worst idea, as it’s all too easy to end up going round in circles. There is also the possibility of running into large groups, so there are some rooms that you’ll probably want to revisit once they are a bit quieter.

We're in!

We’re in!

Even if the extraordinary collections were to be removed, the visitor would still be stunned by the décor. The buildings would be worth seeing purely for their magnificence, particularly in the original Winter Palace. The famous Jordan Staircase is a flamboyant concoction of marble and gold and the Pavilion Hall is looked over by 28 crystal chandeliers. It’s worth taking a little extra time to look at the exhibition halls in their own right, as one can be overwhelmed by the art displayed within them and to miss the sheer beauty innate to the halls.

Jordan Staircase

Jordan Staircase

The Pavilion Hall is home to the astonishing creation that is the Peacock Clock. It was designed by the London goldsmith James Cox and presented to Catherine the Great in 1781. The clock still functions, the huge gilded peacock spreading its wings as the other attendant creatures also perform for astonished visitors.

The Peacock Clock

The Peacock Clock

While it’s tempting to head straight for the paintings, there is a fine collection of antiquities to see. The Greek, Roman and Egyptian discoveries would make for an impressive museum by themselves. There is also a spectacular collection of gold, silver and royal jewels in the aptly named Treasure Gallery.

Jupiter

Jupiter

The first floor is, essentially, a Who’s Who of art. There is a solitary work by Michelangelo, his sculpture Crouching Boy, and this is possibly the most photographed piece in the entire museum. The muscle definition on the figure is remarkable, though note the unfinished feet!

From Italy, Tintoretto, Leonardo, Lippi, Caravaggio and Canaletto. From Spain, Goya, Velazquez, El Greco and Murillo. Flemish art is represented in large numbers by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, various members of the Brueghel clan and Rubens. Duck Holiday was especially delighted to see a work by the Dutch artist Jacob Duck. Even Britain, a country not renowned for producing great artists, shows what can be done in the shape of works by Morland, Reynolds and Gainsborough.

The empresses Elizabeth and Catherine were notable Francophiles and this is reflected in the huge French collection. Only the Louvre holds more French art than the Hermitage. The Renoir portraits are especially noteworthy and include his delightful Young Woman with a Fan. Other types of fans, those of Impressionism and post-Impressionism will have a field day among the Monets, Matisses, Cezannes and Gauguins on the museum’s second floor. The Impressionist gallery is not solely French; Picasso and van Gogh also feature strongly.

Renoir

Renoir

As residents of Fife, it was pleasing to see nine portraits by the Fife native Christina Robertson. She was highly respected at the Russian imperial court in the middle of the 19th century and ended her days in St Petersburg. Her grave is in the city. There are also four works, including a self-portrait, by another woman, the renowned Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman.

Another Briton, George Dawe, painted portraits of no less than 329 generals who were engaged in the campaign against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Like Christina Robertson, he relocated to St Petersburg and his work can be seen in the Military Gallery.

Military Gallery

Military Gallery

Back among the Italian collection, look out for the superlative view of Venice created by Canaletto, bearing the snappy title The Reception of the French Ambassador Jacques–Vincent Languet, Compte de Gergy at the Doge’s Palace, 4 November 1726. There is an interesting little exercise to undertake here. Walk slowly back and forth in front of the painting and keep your eyes focussed on the buildings. Their distance from the edge of the painting seems to change as you go from side to side.

Canaletto

Canaletto

Another diverting little game for the visitor from Britain is to look out for the collection of art acquired from Houghton Hall. This was the Norfolk home of the British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose legacy was somewhat squandered by his successors. The collection was sold to Catherine the Great, but as a BBC4 documentary revealed recently, some sketches were found at Houghton Hall, showing not only the paintings, but where they were located in the house. The Hermitage generously agreed to a request for a loan of the collection, and for a year, the pictures were restored to their original places on the walls of Houghton Hall. They are now back in St Petersburg, but the visitor can see from where paintings were acquired by the descriptions accompanying them. A considerable number of them are by Van Dyck, including the many portraits undertaken during his time as court painter to Charles I in England.

There are, naturally enough, several shops within the museum. These sell a wide range of books, prints, gifts and other artefacts and are not, in general, particularly expensive. The potential visitor should note, however, that it’s advisable to have a good breakfast if you’re intending to spend all day at the Hermitage. The café is, quite frankly, a bit rubbish and the queues can be rather long. The prices aren’t outrageous, but it’s not really up to much. Far better to hold on for a decent meal in one of the many excellent restaurants in St Petersburg. There should, after all, be plenty to discuss over a pleasant dinner and a bottle of Georgian wine. It’s best to prepare for a long day, but it should be a richly rewarding day.

Moscow Metro – Subterranean Art

Moscow’s underground system is cheap, efficient and a very good way of getting around in a city populated by millions of people. Trains appear every couple of minutes and the twelve lines shift an astonishing average of seven million people a day. The metro is also getting bigger, with considerable expansion currently taking place and a number of new stations due to be open by 2020.

For the art lover, however, the metro is a treasure trove waiting to be explored. The range of artwork is remarkable and varies from station to station. Stained-glass windows, mosaics, bronze sculptures, marble statues and paintings catch the eye in the early stations of the metro system.

The Koltsevaya, or Circle, is probably the most famous of the lines. It is not the oldest, having being built in the early 1950s, but this was at the peak of the Stalinist architecture period and any of the twelve stations are worth a look.

Novoslobodskaya is particularly notable for its stained-glass panels, which in turn are set in beautiful marble columns and surrounded by ornate brass borders. The station also displays a large mosaic by the artist Pavel Korin.

Novoslobodskaya

Novoslobodskaya

Novoslobodskaya window

Novoslobodskaya window

Novoslobodskaya mosaic

Novoslobodskaya mosaic

The next stop, going clockwise round the circle, is Prospekt Mira. This is also adorned with white marble columns and the décor is on the theme of the development of agriculture in the Soviet Union.

Prospekt Mira

Prospekt Mira

Prospekt Mira chandeliers

Prospekt Mira chandeliers

One more stop brings us to Komsomolskaya, which stands out for its flamboyant, yellow Baroque ceiling. There is another outburst of marble columns and the station looks more like a St Petersburg ballroom than a Moscow underground station. Lenin looks out rather sternly from a bust at the end of the hall between the two platforms.

Komsomolskaya - Baroque alert!

Komsomolskaya – Baroque alert!

Komsomolskaya - Lenin

Komsomolskaya – Lenin

Komsomolskaya - it's that man again

Komsomolskaya – it’s that man again

Further round the circle, Kievskaya has a dazzling collection of even larger mosaics, set between marble arches and set under chandeliers that would not be out of place in an opera house. Another notable sight at Kievskaya is a large portrait of Lenin.

Uncle Joe's happy army

Uncle Joe’s happy army (Kievskaya)

Kievskaya - surely not Trotsky?

Kievskaya – surely not Trotsky?

Kievskaya - Vlad again

Kievskaya – Vlad again

Kievskaya - can't keep a good man down

Kievskaya – can’t keep a good man down

Kievskaya - wow!

Kievskaya – wow!

Away from the circle, on the Zamoskvoretskaya Line (green line), is the beautiful (and older) Mayakovskaya station. Changing from the circle at Belorusskaya, this is the next stop on the Zamoskvoretskaya, the columns in Mayakovskaya are particularly wonderful and the station has a charming elegance. This station has mosaics, too. They are in the ceiling and are firmly in the Soviet Realist tradition. The best view is obtained by lying flat on the ground and looking upwards, though this is only recommended when the station is fairly quiet.

Mayakovskaya

Mayakovskaya

Mayakovskaya - a ski jumper passes overhead

Mayakovskaya – a ski jumper passes overhead

One of the most famous stations requires another change of line. Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) station is on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line (blue line) and is another early 1950s construction. This is the ‘station of the bronze sculptures’, all 76 of them. Soldiers, workers, athletes and scientists stand guard at the two platforms and it is a remarkable sight. Note the statue of the guard with a dog whose nose has been discoloured and worn by the constant stream of people who rub it for good luck.

Ploshchad Revolyutsii - the glory of labour

Ploshchad Revolyutsii – the glory of labour

Ploshchad Revolyutsii - the glory of sport

Ploshchad Revolyutsii – the glory of sport

One other station (also on the on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line) worth a visit is Smolenskaya. It is another feast of white marble columns. The most striking artwork is a bas-relief entitled ‘The Defenders of Russia, depicting the Red Army, or at least a small portion of it, in action.

Smolenskaya station

Smolenskaya station

Smolenskaya - ceiling detail

Smolenskaya – ceiling detail

Smolenskaya - the Defenders of Russia

Smolenskaya – the Defenders of Russia

Trooping from metro station to metro station might seem, frankly, like a rather strange way of spending one’s time. However, some of the stations and their artwork are so stunning that it is worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. It’s good value too – assuming that you don’t leave any of the stations you visit, you’ll only need to buy a single ticket.

There are sometimes complaints from English speakers that there are no signs or announcements in English on the metro. For goodness’ sake, this is another country with its own language and script. Would these same people expect to see and hear Russian and Cyrillic on the London Underground? The Russian alphabet has only 33 letters, many of which are the same as in the Latin script. It is not that difficult and surely part of the pleasure of travelling is taking in new experiences. Exploration is much more rewarding when you have some idea of where you are going and a little bit of effort enhances the reward.

Street Sculpture

On Edinburgh’s Dalry Road, there is a sculpture of two draymen rolling a beer barrel. It is set slightly back from the pavement and is probably not even noticed by the shoppers and office workers who hurry past it each day. The sculpture is a tribute to Edinburgh’s brewing industry, prominent in that part of the city.

The sculpture is notable because it is a rare example of this type of art in Britain. Of course, there are many statues, but street sculpture, with its underlying sense of humour, is not easily found in the UK. In Eastern Europe, though, it is much more prevalent.

It's that man(hole) again

It’s that man(hole) again

Perhaps the best-known location for the genre is Bratislava. The Slovakian capital has some fine and famous examples of the art. How many tourists have stopped to take pictures of the figure appearing from a manhole or snapped their friends sitting by the Napoleonic soldier leaning on a bench? It is certain that the rather seedy-looking paparazzo, sneaking a photo outside a restaurant, has in turn been photographed on thousands of occasions.

Empire building is hard work

Empire building is hard work

Take a stroll through Riga and you will encounter a rather Bohemian-looking character lolling against a park fence. The figure is that of Kārlis Padegs, one of Latvia’s most famous artists, who died from tuberculosis at the absurdly young age of 28. The statue stands outside the Vērmanes Garden in central Riga.

Kārlis Padegs dresses down

Kārlis Padegs dresses down

Skopje houses a riot of statues and monuments. Some of them, like the Alexander the Great statue in Macedonia Square, are magnificently over the top. Others, dotted randomly about the city, are just plain crackers.

Alexander (the Great's) Ragtime Band

Alexander (the Great’s) Ragtime Band

By the river, a woman is about to dive into the river. A friend has already taken the plunge, as we can see the feet of the previous diver. There are musicians, giant fish and all sorts of surreal lunacy.

Where's that weird fish?

Where’s that weird fish?

Fish loses bicycle

Fish loses bicycle

Skopje has a seemingly insatiable desire for statues of great historical figures, but in contrast to all this stands a sculpture of a trendy young woman in dark glasses, mobile phone pressed to her right ear.

Hi, I'm out shopping

Hi, I’m out shopping

The Balkan region is a good source of strange artwork popping up in unexpected places. In Ljubljana, take a stroll through Tivoli Park and you’ll spot an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench. Nothing too strange so far, but glance to his left and a miniature version of the figure is perched on the arm of the seat.

You've shrunk since I saw you last...

You’ve shrunk since I saw you last…

The new Butchers’ Bridge, across from the Central Market in Ljubljana, is even more zany. Adam and Eve, Prometheus and a startled Satyr vie for attention with a host of grotesque frogs, shellfish and other oddballs. The bridge has become a spot for lovers to attach padlocks, optimistically proclaiming their eternal love.

Beyond Satyr

Beyond Satyr

Sofia, by comparison, is relatively sober in its art. Even so, a walk through the City Garden might cause a little surprise as you encounter a muddy-looking car with a large head on its roof. Closer inspection reveals that the work is, in fact, a tribute to the Trabant, the legendary, if horribly inefficient, East German car.

A Trabant breaks down

A Trabant breaks down

Finally, a couple of favourites from Budapest. A fat and rather pompous-looking soldier stands guard amidst the shoppers in the city centre, looking slightly like a Magyar version of Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring.

Don't tell him, Pike

Don’t tell him, Pike

Another well-photographed figure in the city is the ‘Little Princess’, the girl reaching out to a dog to retrieve the ball in its mouth. The statue is in Vigadó Square, the small garden outside one of Budapest’s famous concert halls.

Token cute photo

Token cute photo

These works add something to their surroundings. There is, in the best of them, an undercurrent of humour. This is art that doesn’t take itself too seriously and that cannot be a bad thing.

Great Museums – Kunsthistorisches

Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches is, essentially, the legacy of the avid collecting of the Habsburgs. The result is one of the finest collections in the world, with a particularly outstanding selection of Old Masters.

The collection is housed in a suitably impressive building in Italian Renaissance style, which is not, perhaps, quite as old as it initially appears, having opened only in 1891. It has an identical twin immediately opposite across Maria-Theresien-Platz in the shape of the Natural History Museum.

Kunsthistorisches

Kunsthistorisches

There is a huge trove of paintings, but much else besides. The numismatic collection alone has more than 700,000 coins and notes from all parts of the world, covering three millennia. Greek and Roman antiquities, another Habsburg obsession, are also abundant, but perhaps the most interesting of the non-paintings is the Egyptian collection, a truly huge mass of treasures. The most charming piece is surely the rather lugubrious blue hippo, whose flanks are decorated with scenes of its surroundings and reminding us that Egypt was once a much more fertile land than it is now.

Blue Hippo

Blue Hippo

The paintings are ordered by place and date largely form the 16th and 17th centuries. The Venetian Renaissance features prominently, with Titian, Veronese, Canaletto and Tintoretto to the fore. Venetian artists tended to be valued a great deal more outside their homeland; it’s quite difficult, for example, to even find a Canaletto painting in Venice.

The Dogana at Venice (Canaletto)

The Dogana at Venice (Canaletto)

The Flemish collection’s highlight is Rubens’ The Fur, an intimate portrait of his wife. The picture is in classical style, the artist’s wife posing as Venus. The gallery also features a generous helping of works by van Dyck.

The Fur (Rubens)

The Fur (Rubens)

Not surprisingly, there is a considerable German collection, with many works by Dürer and a fine selection of portraits by Holbein. Dürer painted many Madonnas and one of the most famous resides in Vienna, a depiction of Mary with a child holding a pear.

Madonna and child with pear (Durer)

Madonna and child with pear (Durer)

A Rembrandt self-portrait stands out among the Dutch collection. It is one of his later works and depicts the artist looking just a little down-at-heel, but defiantly staring front-on to the world.

Self portrait (Rembrandt)

Self portrait (Rembrandt)

A personal favourite among the Dutch works is The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, painted by Pieter Bruegel in 1559. It is a wonderfully eventful painting – there is just so much happening. By a happy and strange coincidence, a detail from the painting graces the Penguin edition of the cover of another personal favourite, the Rabelais masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel. There is a substantial collection of Bruegel’s works – the largest in the world – at the museum.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (Bruegel)

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (Bruegel)

The Kunsthistorisches has a catalogue that reads like a history of art: Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Vermeer, Raphael, Velazquez and a host of others. Set aside a few hours; you can punctuate the visit with a break (or two) for a leisurely cup of coffee and perhaps even a little slice of cake at the museum’s decorative and appealing café. Coffee, like art, should never be rushed.

Footnote: the museum has an excellent website at http://www.khm.at/en/

Vienna – Art and Coffee

It was five degrees below zero and there was snow lying around. No matter; trains, trams and buses were running perfectly normally. These little things matter. In the UK, it sometimes seems that the merest drop in temperature or a little snow causes the entire transport network to cave in completely, though obviously cold or wet weather is so unusual in Britain that the chaos is entirely understandable. In mainland Europe, though, life continues.

National Library at the Hofburg Palace

National Library at the Hofburg Palace

If you’re on a three-night trip and planning to use public transport and visit museums, it’s worth buying either a Vienna card (for about €20) or a 72-hour public transport pass for €14.50. You don’t get a big discount for museums (most are 10%), but there isn’t much of a difference. If you’re visiting in freezing temperatures, there is more of a temptation to dash down into the warmth of the U-Bahn for a short while.

There is no shortage when it comes to museums. The Neue Burg at the Hofburg Palace has three museums, the Ephesus Museum, the Museum of Musical Instruments and the Kunsthistorisches (or Museum of Fine Arts, if you don’t want to spend half an hour unravelling your tongue). The Musical Instruments Museum contains some delightful oddities, several of which appear to have been designed for an octopus with three mouths.

A personal choice would be to visit the museums in the order listed above. The Kunsthistorisches is likely to take quite a while, as the collection is vast. It is simply too big to do justice to in this brief article and will be considered as part of a little series on museums and galleries.

Kunsthistorisches

Kunsthistorisches

Museums of Natural History are not generally, I concede, my favourites. All too often, there is a rather moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals and that is as far as it goes. The Vienna version, however, has a lot going for it. Yes, the taxidermists have been kept in employment, but there is a wealth of fossils and minerals here, enough to keep an army of David Attenboroughs happy for several days.

The city has more than a hundred museums and some of them are decidedly different. Those with a sense of the morbid might enjoy a trip to the Undertakers’ Museum, perhaps after seeing how victims may have been despatched by a look round the Kriminalmuseum. There are also museums dedicated to those favourite Viennese drinks, schnapps and coffee.

Music, of course, is another Viennese speciality. The Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) is both an opera house (in Neo-Renaissance style)and opera company and is possibly the busiest in the world. There is something happening throughout the year and it’s perfectly easy to turn up on the night and buy a cheap ticket if you don’t mind standing. Going to an opera or a classical performance is not the preserve of the elite in Vienna.

Not too far from the opera house is the Secession Building, an extraordinary Art Nouveau concoction that acts as an exhibition hall. The features the Beethoven Frieze, a work by Gustav Klimt that was originally intended only as a one-off for an exhibition, but has stuck around for more than a hundred years. Adding to the general lunacy, there is a statue of Mark Antony being hauled around in a chariot by a team of lions.

Secession Building

Secession Building

Visiting a coffee house feels obligatory. How could one go to Vienna and not visit a coffee house? Naturally, they get rather busy when it’s cold, but there are plenty of them and you should be able to squeeze in somewhere. If all else fails, then you can book a table for another time. Only in Vienna could you imagine booking a table for a cup of coffee.

There are quite a few cafés near the park. A couple of good ones are Café Diglas and Café Pruckel, but there is not exactly a dearth. The ideal is a sense that you have been transported back in time and if you can immerse yourself in a deep philosophical debate while enjoying your coffee, even better.

Stadtpark (with ducks on holiday)

Stadtpark (with ducks on holiday)

The ‘park’, of course, means the Stadtpark, the huge municipal park in the city centre. It’s filled with monuments and sculptures, including the famous gilded bronze affair that portrays Johann Strauss. Franz Schubert is also well-represented, with a fine monument. The music of Strauss and Schubert can still be heard in the park, at the Kursalon, a beautiful pavilion in Italian renaissance style.

Strauss statue

Strauss statue

Vienna has a particularly impressive public transport system. The U-Bahn has six lines and the trains are amazingly frequent. To miss a train by seconds early on a Sunday morning may sound like a serious annoyance, but the indicator boards reassure you that you’ll only have to wait a few minutes for the next one.

Also impressive is the CAT (City Airport Train), especially for those of us used to the legalised extortion racket that is the Heathrow Excess Express. The CAT is not exactly dirt cheap, but ten euros for a single (using a Vienna card) isn’t too bad. The trip takes fifteen minutes or so and you get a nice big double-decker train to sit on.

Vienna is no different to any other capital city in that there are expensive places to eat and drink, and there are not-so-expensive places. Food leans towards the meaty, but just about everywhere has a vegetarian option and one particularly pleasant evening was spent in the Palatschinkenpfandl, a pancake house where spinach and sheep’s cheese pancakes were washed down with several glasses of Salzburg’s Stiegl beer. There are many, many worse ways of spending about 20 euros.

One pleasing thing about Vienna (not that it’s too hard to find pleasing things) is that there are some delightfully old-fashioned bars. Bane’s Bar represents a throwback to days when pubs were for drinking beer in, rather than posing ostentatiously and pretending that you really want to eat roasted polenta with crispy ostrich droppings in a rich salmon and chocolate sauce. Bane’s offers beer, atmosphere and the feel of a good local, all served with a pleasing background of jazz and blues music.

Austria, naturally, is rather overshadowed by its German neighbour when it comes to beer, but has a good range of both breweries and beer. Another brewery from the west of the country, Hofbräu Kaltenhausen, dates to the 15th century and is notable for its wheat beer (under the Edelweiss name). It also produces some intriguing dark beers, including a black lager and a creamy chocolate stout.

Ah, Vienna

Ah, Vienna

There really isn’t a bad time to visit Vienna. There is always something pleasing about sitting outside a café or bar on a warm summer’s day, but a trip in the cold of winter is just fine. A little walking around can be interspersed with strategic disappearances into cafés, museums, restaurants, bars and any of the myriad delights on offer. Besides, a little chill in the air does no harm if you really want to revisit the eighties and do that coat-collar-up thing from the Ultravox video.