The Great Torte Debate

In Vienna, there is a cake so celebrated that for decades, a legal war has been waged between two well-established bakeries about who gets to call their version the ‘Original’.

I am of course speaking about the Sacher Torte, created by a humble kitchen helper in 1832 when he, at the last minute, became charged with making a dessert fit for the prince.

The son of said kitchen helper, Eduard Sacher, perfected his father’s recipe while working at the bakery Demel. Legal battles ensued when the Hotel Sacher trademarked the name ‘The Original Sacher Torte’.

Hotel Sacher Torte Cafe

Both Demel and Hotel Sacher laid claim to the original torte, so on a blustery day in Vienna, I set about on a quest I like to call ‘The Great Sacher Torte Debate’. Never mind whose torte was the ‘original’, I wanted to know whose torte was the tastiest.

I started off at Hotel Sacher, and was not surprised to join the line of tourists outside the door. Thankfully, the queue moved steadily along, and about 15 minutes later, we found ourselves seated at a cramped little table inside the famed Sacher Café.

Hotel Sacher Torte CafePictures of celebrities who had, in their heyday frequented the Sacher Hotel, lined the walls. We ordered: two slices of original Sacher torte with whipped cream and Sacher hot chocolates to wash it down. (All in the name of research, of course!).

Hotel Sacher Torte Cafe

The cakes and drinks arrived within minutes (to assist a speedy turnover rate, I presume). It was beautifully presented with the famous Sacher chocolate medallion on top. The first bite, my introduction to Sacher torte, was good. Not excellent, but good.

Hotel Sacher Torte CafeHotel Sacher Torte Cafe

The cake was not as rich as I expected. The middle part – which was soaked in marmalade – was delicious, but the cake itself was a little dry to be honest, and the whipped cream was certainly a good idea. The icing was lovely, and the quality of chocolate used was of course of highest standards. Yet, I could not see what the decades of fuss were about.

Hotel Sacher Torte CafeSacher Hotel cafte Torte

Afterwards, we bundled up in our coats and scarves and walked the 10 or 15 minutes it took to get to Demel. Also full of tourists I immediately noticed the glass paneling opened into the bakery at the back of the shop where we could actually see the Sacher tortes being made.

Demel Sacher TorteDemel Sacher TorteDemel Sacher Torte

The line to be seated in Demel was absurdly long; we waited well over 30 minutes. The seating areas upstairs are wonderfully decorated with pastel paints and large chandeliers. The ambience though, like in the Sacher Café, is ruined by harried waiters and waitresses, aiming to turn over the tables as quickly as possible.

Demel Sacher TorteDemel Sacher Torte

Demel’s torte did not have the marmalade layer in the centre, yet the cake was deliciously moist and silky. Demel’s answer to Hotel Sacher’s chocolate medallion is a triangular chocolate seal on top of each slice.

Demel Sacher TorteDemel Sacher Torte

We left, buzzing on a chocolate high, pondering the question of the day. Who does Sacher torte better?

I would say that at Hotel Sacher, the tortes are presented much better, and boxed to perfection if you’d like to take them away as gifs.

Sacher Torte Hotel CafeAlthough it was at Demel, that the taste won hands down. Sacher Torte DemelBut since I like to play fair, I’m going to give Hotel Sacher a chance to change my mind – which only means a trip back to Vienna in the very near future.

7 Things Travel Has Thought Me

It’s that time of the year again when everyone’s reflecting on the twelve months gone by – the highs and lows; and are earnestly making resolutions that they fully intend to keep.

I’ve been looking back at the past year, thinking about my travels and making my dream ‘bucket list’ for 2014. However, I feel hesitant to close the book on 2013 just yet because my travels in the year, have brought me so much joy.

My birthday trip to Mexico was one of the best vacations I ever experienced. Sunshine in February? What’s not to love!?

A memorable trip to Vienna, staying at the incredible Sofitel Stephansdom is another cherished memory.

I enjoyed gallivanting in Berlin for a couple of days in August; and setting foot in Hungary for the first time just before Christmas.

But above all, I managed to squeeze in not one but TWO month-long trips to South Africa this year (not an easy feat with a full time job!), and I loved every moment spent with family and friends back home.

There have been so many highs and lows I’ve experienced while travelling, but my love for getting on a plane/ boat/ car in a quest to discover a new place will never diminish.

So, while I’m reflecting on this year and feeling all philosophical, here are 7 things my travels in 2013 have thought me.

1. Getting lost can help you find yourself

Whether it be missing the bus on an organized tour, or straying from the well-signed path to find the perfect gelato…getting lost in a foreign country can be a frightening experience. First, think cloud. Then, think silver lining and let yourself discover what would have never been if you hadn’t strayed.

7 things travel taught me

(Source: iwantcovers.com)

2. Attitude is everything

It’s been said a thousand times, but the attitude in which you approach any situation can spell the difference between a great day or a bad one. This is especially true when travelling.

7 things travel taught me

(Source: engineerleader.com)

3. Language barriers are just an excuse

Yes, no one there speaks English. Yes, Mandarin may very well be the world’s most difficult language. But you know what? People will find a way to communicate when they need to. Be it wild hand gestures or good ‘ol Google translate – language barriers should never be the reason not to travel.

7 things travel taught me

(Source: izta.org)

7 things travel taught me

(Source: bestworldtraveldestinations.com)

4. My <insert issue here> problem is really insignificant

Travel opens our eyes to the real issues of this world. Typically if you’re fortunate enough to be able to travel, you’re probably better off than a vast majority of the world’s population. Complaints about the weather or traffic somehow get put into perspective once you’ve spent some time outside your comfort zone.

7 things travel taught me

(Source: loveparkhs.blogspot.com)

5. People are inherently good

Sure I’ve been a victim of crime – I’ve had my bag snatched right in the middle of a bustling Champs-Élysées. I’ve seen more than my fair share of tourist traps and scams aimed at unsuspecting travelers. And yet, I know that generally speaking, most people are inherently good. Maybe it was that stranger in Berlin who took a full ten minutes to give me directions to the East Side Gallery, and then went on to mark all the appropriate metro stops on my map. All I know is, I’ve stumbled across far more good people on my travels than bad, and at the core, we all just want the same thing: to live and let live.

7 things travel taught me

(Source: fentonreport.com)

6. Patience is a virtue

You’ve heard the old adage before, and as a traveler the words should be etched onto the cover of your passport. Waiting for planes, waiting for buses, trains or boats, waiting in line at the temples or museums…put a smile on your face and live in the moment.

7 things travel taught me

(Source: affirmyourlife.blogspot.com)

7. Plan, plan, plan – and then leave room for the unexpected

I’m a control freak. There – I said it. I like to plan everything down to the last detail, and rarely leave anything to chance.  And while most of the time I do enjoy the fruits of my planning labor, I am all too aware that even the best laid plans can go awry, and the unexpected can be just around the corner.

7 things travel taught me

(Source: mentalpilote.com)

So armed with these 7 travel life lessons, I’m ready to conquer 2014, and all it has to bring!

7 Things travel taught me

See you here in 2014?

Happy New Year and Bon Voyage!

7 Things travel taught me

(Source: thlvacations.wordpress.com)

Designer Deluxe

Hotel Review : Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, Vienna – Austria

Located along the banks of the Danube canal, the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is rightfully described as a living work of art. All geometric slants and angles, the building appears sloping, as if to give its neighbor a peck on the cheek. A skyscraping structure of sleek glass paneling, this spunky hotel designed by French architect Jean Nouvel is a contemporary haven.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

From the onset as you enter the hotel – your eyes are drawn to the illuminated ceiling, and you know immediately that it’s going to be a very special stay. The first ‘bonjour’ of the day comes from the handsome bellman as he ushers us inside.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomThe check in (preceded by quite a few more ‘bonjours)’ is seamless, but since our room was not yet ready, we are taken on a guided tour of the spa and fitness area. Presented with two exotic fruit smoothies, we perch awkwardly, fully dressed, on the enormous white geometric loungers in the spa’s relaxation room for a few minutes before we were quickly whisked away to our suite on the 15th floor.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Jean Nouvel chose three monochromatic palettes for the rooms; black, grey and white. Our room happens to be grey. And I mean really grey! The floors are grey, as are the walls. The bedside cupboards are grey, the desk and chair are grey, the large modern seating area is, yep, you guessed it: grey.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomThe bathroom comprises of a walk-in shower, large rectangular bathtub (grey, obviously) and his and hers vanities (also grey!). We find an abundance of sumptuous Hermès bath products and well appointed toiletries including a nail kit.Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Looking back I can see that the monochrome design may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we loved it. The room was sleek and modern, well designed and spacious.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

You would think the best part would be the view; staring directly over the canal and onto St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Even the (grey) window blinds could be geometrically opened to allow you to select the size of your window depending on your mood.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

But no, the best part for me was the SoBed. A celebration of all that is heavenly, this bed is virtually indescribable. But I’ll try: It’s large. So large in fact that it’s easy to lose yourself amongst its pillowy softness. That secret of that softness? The SoBed’s additional layer of plush called the ‘Featherbed’ that lies on top of the SoBed, creating that ‘sleeping on a cloud’ feeling. Along with a pillow menu of various choices (synthetic or real down) and a crisp white duvet, it made for the comfiest bed in the whole entire world.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

That evening we slip on our waffle robes and head for the spa. Not exceptionally large for a hotel of this size, the spa area is nevertheless as sleek and modern as the rest of the hotel.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomTwo black slate Jacuzzis are bubbling quietly on either side, surrounded by large slanting windows. There are two hammans filled with eucalyptus steam. The atrium houses a relaxation area with aforementioned geometric loungers, while a state of the art gym caters to those so inclined.Sofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomWe eat dinner at the hotel’s famed Le Loft occupying the 18th floor, and have the most memorable meal in the glamorous restaurant whose chef was awarded three Michelin stars. You can read about that experience here.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The location of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom could not be more perfect for visiting the city’s sights. Its namesake, St Stephan’s Cathedral, only a short walk away, and other major attractions are easily reached by foot or public transport.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomBreakfast is a casual affair, also served at Le Loft. The restaurant is starkly beautiful by day, the views just as impressive without the golden glow of the ceiling’s illumination. We enjoy fresh mixed berries, Greek yogurt and honey; followed by deliciously cooked scrambled eggs on seeded bread rolls. Sipping on French-pressed coffees and flutes of champagne, we take in the stunning 360° vistas le Loft offers.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Again that evening after a long day of sightseeing, we head to the spa to unwind and relax. A full range of spa treatments are on offer (at a fee), and while I’m tempted by the 24 carat old massage, due to time constraints, I reluctantly refrain from making a booking.

We dine in-room, and the speed and quality of room service is exceptional. My order of risotto arrives piping hot, with a fresh bread basket, butter and condiments. The room service prices are outstandingly good value for a hotel of this standard.

Of course, wifi is complimentary, and we never had any issues, irrespective of the number of gadgets we connected.

But for me, perhaps the most enduring memory of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is hotel’s façade at night, with the two illuminated ceilings creating a breathtaking silhouette after dark. Each evening after dinner we head out and stroll along the canal to admire the hotel’s design.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Two days later, when it’s time to check out I have to dig deep and find superhuman strength to leave the blissful cocoon of the SoBed.

All in all, the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is one of the most spectacular hotels I’ve stayed at. The service is second to none and the daring design and glamorous details will surely see us heading back in a few months (and this time I will ensure enough time to experience the spa treatments!).

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The prices are as expected, hardly cheap, but for those seeking contemporary luxury in the heart of Vienna, for whom great service is non-negotiable – the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is well worth the indulgence.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

 Rates from 200€ to >3000€. For more information and special offers, visit the hotel’s official website.

 

 

Sky-High Dining Splendor

Restaurant Review: Le Loft – Sofitel Stephansdom Vienna, Austria

Located on the 18th floor of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom hotel, with ceiling-to-floor glass windows on all sides; restaurant Le Loft makes it easy to imagine you’re suspended in the air, floating above the beautiful city of Vienna.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomI’m not sure if it is unbelievable vistas in every direction that make my jaw go slack; or if it is the vibrant, illuminated work of art designed by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist that stretches across the ceiling, creating a sublime contrast with Jean Nouvel’s minimalist interior. Perhaps I will never know.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Its 8:30 pm and Le Loft is buzzing. The raised bar at the centre of the restaurant is awash with beautiful people sipping even more beautiful cocktails. The decadent pops from champagne bottles being open and wine corks being pulled create the background music. The tables along the gargantuan windows are by now, all occupied, save for one – right in front (or so it seems), of the gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, for which the Sofitel Vienna is named.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomAnd as luck would have it, we’re escorted to the lone free table by the friendly maître‘d. I sit down with a sense of reverie. The ceiling is alive. Animated with eccentric videos (I’ve read that in the videos, Rist aims to capture the viewpoint of a child looking up into the world). The crispness of the autumn leaves on the ceiling canvas casts a golden glow around the restaurant and onto the surrounding glass panels. The view! Oh the view! Breathtaking and unparalleled, the sights stretch well over the city and is sure to provide one of the most memorable dining experiences ever.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Le Loft’s French head chef, Antoine Westermann grew up in the Alsace region of France and his dishes are a delicious fusion of Alsatian and Viennese influences. In a rather unprecedented move, after being awarded a highly prestigious three Michelin stars for his Strasbourg restaurant Le Buerehiesel,  he shortly thereafter chose to hand over the reins of the restaurant to his son Eric.  The French chef remains ever nonchalant about his success, recognition and his choice to leave the Michelin star hype behind him. In an interview with FooDiva he explains: “It’s another life after the three stars. I am really, really happy without having to think about Michelin. My priority is making my customers happy, finding the right produce and offering a great price.” 

At his side, is his protégée Raphael Dworak, who he worked with at Le Buerehiesel, and the two continue to collaborate closely at Le Loft.

At our table, we scan the menu and are presented with crisp bread basket (of which the olive bread is to die for) and beurre CharentesPoitou. The chef’s suggested four and six course tasting-menus look well-defined and impeccably planned, but a little too adventurous for my tame palate (I dont eat red meat or chicken). I stick to a traditional three-course a la carte preference, while Mr. Wolf is positively salivating at the prospect of patés, foie gras and beef filets.

We each commence with an aperitif of kir-royale whilst still staring, speechlessly at the view that lay before us.

Le Loft Sofitel

Le Loft’s sommelier is knowledgeable, and suggests an impeccable white wine to pair with my fish appetizer and mains, whilst Mr. Wolf is presented with a Austrian burgundy to complement his menu choices.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomThe chef’s amuse bouche – a lobster cappuccino is presented in espresso cups. The soup is frothy, creamy and deliciously decadent.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

For the appetizers I decide upon the poached pike served with crayfish, pumpkin purée, parsley coulis and jus vadouvan. The pike is cooked to perfection and the pumpkin puree melts like butter in my mouth.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomMr. Wolf enjoys paté en croute, which consisted of foie gras and pigeon breast served with elderberry gelee. I can’t comment much on the dish apart from its excellent presentation, but I safely say from the decadent sighs of satisfaction coming from the other end of the table that is was delicious.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomLe Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomIf you’re expecting a quick meal, I’d advise you not to book at Le Loft. The service at the restaurant is incredibly slow. And rightfully so! Each dish, a work of art, is consumed slowly and celebrated bite by bite. In between courses, the view itself will provide endless distraction between soft chatter and clinking glasses.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

For my main dish I select the pan-fried lake char with porcini mushrooms, homemade tortellini and mushroom sauce. The char is fried crispy on the outside and soft and delicious through the center, while the porcini mushrooms add an earthy, nutty flavor to the dish.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

My dining companion has chosen the beef fillet. The dish is typically served with brussel sprout ragout, potatoes gratin and truffle jus. However, being allergic (self diagnosed!) to brussel sprouts, Mr. Wolf kindly requests an alternative. He’s pleasantly surprised when his fillet is served with the potatoes gratin, but instead of the ragout, there is a side of soft, buttery gnocchi. After having a bite of the gnocchi, I can honestly attest that it was the best I had ever eaten.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomLe Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Selecting dessert is the most difficult part of the evening for me. Each mouth-watering option holds its own merits, but in the end my love affair with chocolate dictates my choice.

Mr. Wolf concurs, and we both choose the chocolate and mint liaison: Jivara chocolate mousse and mint ice cream served in an elaborate chocolate cage shaped like an egg.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The mint ice cream is truly impeccable. Forget the mild store-bought variety with prerequisite choc-chips – this ice cream is made from freshly ground mint leaves that give a hint of sharpness to the cream. I enjoy every last bite.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomWashed down with coffees and the chef’s beautiful (and ample) mignardise selection, we are completely satisfied.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The dining experience at Le Loft is not cheap, but it is well and truly exquisite, and so worth the splurge. An excerpt from the hotel’s website: “The restaurant exudes exclusivity and extravagance, combining Viennese charm and international flair”.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The hotel, as seen from the street, with restaurant Le Loft illuminated on the top floor

This perfectly sums up our experience of the night, dining on fabulous dishes, in a surreal setting, literally on top of the world.

Disclaimer: Mr Wolf and I were treated to a complimentary dinner at Le Loft during our stay at the Sofitel Stephansdom Vienna, although I hope you will see that has in no way affected my experience or any opinions expressed in this post.

For more please visit the official website.

Booking at Le Loft should be made 3-4 weeks in advance to guarantee a seating.

A hop, skip & a jump!

Tips on Bagging that Perfect Weekend Break

I absolutely adore the concept of the ‘weekend break’.

While these few days away can be relaxing in just about any continent on earth, there is just something about a weekend break when you live in Europe.

I mean, with just a little hop, skip and jump on a plane you can find yourself sipping coffee at a corner shop in Vienna, soaking up the sun in any of Greece’s Cyclades islands, or gliding down the Canal Grande on a gondola in Venice, gelato in hand.

French people love to vacation. Come July and August, the offices are practically empty. Add to this a 36 hour work week (with compensated time off), numerous public holidays (and forced office closures when those public holidays fall on a Tuesday or Thursday), and voilà! You have the perfect excuse to take those long weekend breaks in just about any European city your heart desires.

I may not be French, but I have adopted their love for weekend traveling.

Venice Weekend Break

Sleeping Gondolas, Venice

I’m going to share my best tips on booking that dream weekend break at the best price. Ready? Here we go.

The first and most important thing is flexibility. Ok, so your office is closed from Thursday until Monday for Ascension/Spring/ Bastille/ Assumption Day. But that trip to Rome has a great deal on a package departing Friday and returning Tuesday. If your budget (and most importantly, your boss) will allow, why not take the Tuesday off and grab that deal. You won’t be sorry when you toss your wish coin into the Fontana di Trevi knowing that by doing so, legend has it you will one day return to magical Rome.

Weekend break Rome

Make a Wish, Fontana di Trevi, Rome

Be flexible also on when you will travel. The Easter weekend is typically a no-no if you’re budget conscious, as prices skyrocket no matter how long in advance you book. Similarly, trying to book a weekend in just about any major city for New Year’s Eve celebrations can be daunting.

Go back. And again.

Most cities, especially those in Europe, are just so full of enticing history and culture. A weekend will get you acquainted, but I doubt you’ll become best friends in that first meeting. Surely you couldn’t discover, in depth, the hidden treasures of Barcelona or understand fully the complexities of Prague in just one weekend.

If you have the opportunity, go back. Again and again if you so wish. Peel back the layers of the city like an onion, and discover its depth on every subsequent visit.

Barcelona Weekend Break

Gaudi’s La Pedrera, Barcelona

It’s like my love affair with London. I’ve been back numerous times over the years, for a quick weekend dash, or longer ‘weekends’, or what some may call a weekend, minus the end.

On some of these breaks, London’s flashy and loud. On others, she’s grey, secretive and cultural. And then there are those days when she surprises you with you a new off the wall restaurant, or a tiny bookshop you never thought to enter, but is actually full of little gems. London never fails to deliver. “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Samuel Johnson got it right.

Last minute.

If you’re everything I’m not (which is an annoyingly anal control frEak!) you could be happy with the cést la vie attitude to vacation planning. I have always admired those free spirits who could just put together a camping bag at the last minute and hit the road. But since I’ve never been the camping type (and don’t even get me started on ‘glamping’), I like to plan every last detail before I even click ‘buy’ on the airline tickets.

But there is something to be said about last minute deals. I’ve found fantastic savings on everything from luxury resorts to boutique hotels simply by making a late purchase. In fact one of my most memorable visits to Santorini was booked a mere 3 days before depature. Sure, I had to scramble to get my vacation approved, and ensure that dress I ordered from Asos arrived by express delivery, but it was all worth it when I lay on the beach, mojito in hand, knowing I saved 50% more than those suckers in the loungers next to me. 😉

Greece weekend break, luxury travel

Santorini, the lost city of Atlantis?

Places you never dreamed off.

London, Paris, Madrid and Rome all receive their fair share of fame in the weekend city break category. But there are several lesser known cities that have been overlooked by travellers in terms of their touristic potential, just waiting to be discovered.

The key here is to be open-minded, instead of going for the sake of going. It’s all about thinking out of the box. A weekend in Kiev? Avid opera enthusiasts can find dirt cheap tickets and a lovely stroll through the city brings to view its famous cathedral, Saint Sophia (Unesco World Heritage site).

Got a couple of days to spare? Why not explore Ljubljana? Don’t let the tongue twister of a name scare you away – I found the Slovenian capital to be oddly charming. The little winding streets of the old town are best explored on foot and a visit to the medieval castle high up on the hill overlooking the city is a must.

Other underrated cities include Bratislava, Saint Petersburg, Dubrovnik, Valencia and Brussels to name a few.

To promote tourism to these cities, one may, by chance stumble across wonderfully priced weekend packages on some private sale vacation sites, if you’re on the lookout.

Which brings me to my final tip: Register on private sale vacation sites.

I’ve personally used Voyage Privé numerous times when booking vacations. I recently found a particularly lovely boutique hotel in Dubrovnik for the fraction of the cost on their site, which included access to the hotel spa. I love that they incorporate mostly luxury branded hotels in their vacation packages, and the fact that some of these vacations are up to 70% off the regular price doesn’t hurt either.

Dubrovnik Weekend Break

Dubrovnik

Their customer service (on the French site anyways) leaves a little something to be desired, but again, the huge discounts offered on top notch hotels helps me sometimes overlook that.

These private, invite-only vacation sales are becoming increasingly popular, and I won’t mention them here as a quick Google search can get you all the most updated info.

I just think it’s worth registering your email, and browsing through their latest offers when you’re ready to book. Or in my case, during every lunch break at work.

Seriously, Mr Wolf calls these online brochures my “porn”. I just call them “my preeeeccciousss”.