Eurovision leaves even its fans bemused, but whatever else they expected from last year’s song contest, it probably wasn’t Conchita Wurst. When the bearded glamazon took to the stage to sing the winning entry, it was time for anyone who had Austria down as all dirndls, lederhosen and The Sound of Music to reassess.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. As anyone will know who has visited Vienna in recent years, the capital has re-invented itself.
Yes, the grand old Hapsburg palaces and turn-of-the-century coffee houses are still there; the Lipizzaner stallions still prance gracefully around the Spanish Riding School; and the Vienna Boys’ Choir sings as angelically as ever. But you’ll also find hip new hotels and bars, a thriving electronic music scene and restaurants with bright young chefs.
So as Conchita Wurst welcomes contestants to Vienna for the 2015 Grand Final, prepare to be surprised by what the city has to offer…
1. You can try your hand at conducting
Among the interactive exhibits at the Haus der Musik museum is a Virtual Conductor: Zubin Mehta himself appears on a screen in front of you, inviting you to pick up the electronic baton and do your best with the Vienna Philharmonic arrayed behind him.
Get it right and you’re rewarded with applause. Get it wrong and one of the musicians may stand up in exasperation, asking what on earth you’re doing. Getting to see the Vienna Philharmonic in real life isn’t always easy, with tickets in high demand. But every summer the orchestra puts on a free concert in the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace.
Applications for their traditional three end-of-year concerts are drawn by lot, but if you aren’t successful just pile on the layers and head to Rathausplatz on New Year’s Day, where the concert is relayed live on a giant screen to the crowd waltzing in the square below.
2. Sachertorte is not the only cake
The city’s most famous cake is sachertorte – dense chocolate sponge filled with apricot jam and covered in a dark chocolate glaze – and the queues outside Café Sacher (official home to the original) might suggest it’s the only one worth trying. But there are plenty of other creations.
Try Hungary’s esterhazy torte – layers of almond sponge sandwiched with custardy buttercream and topped with prettily patterned icing – or kardinalschnitte, a rich mix of meringue and sponge fingers, infused with coffee and brandy.
Kaiserschmarrn are warm, fluffy pancakes, shredded and served with plum compote, while the lattice-topped linzer torte has a nutty pastry base filled with redcurrant jam.
And if you want to learn the secrets of making a perfect apple strudel, drop in to Schönbrunn Palace and sign up for the Strudelshow – every hour a cookery demonstration is given by a professional pastry chef, and freshly baked slices of strudel are passed round to enjoy with your coffee.