The Eggs Factor: Fabergé, fine food and grand style in Austria's exquisite capital city

I am standing in the great treasure-house of Austria’s decadent Habsburg dynasty, joining a crowd of 21st century bling addicts to gawp over the last hedonistic hurrah of another dying empire.

In front of me are a clutch of gorgeous, gem-studded eggs and other priceless confections, created by Fabergé and the army of 500 goldsmiths that the Russian court jeweller put at the disposal of the Romanovs. These doomed tsars filled their palaces with exquisite trinkets while millions starved.

The lion of Vienna: The Austrian capital is alive with cultural landmarks, such as the Hofburg Palace

The lion of Vienna: The Austrian capital is alive with cultural landmarks, such as the Hofburg Palace

You can see why items like a tiny solid gold model of the Trans-Siberian Express – a diamond and ruby-studded celebration of the then-newborn railway line, which cost so many lives in the building - would help to sow the seeds of revolution when it was exhibited at the world’s fair of 1900.

This masterpiece was the surprise inside an egg, hewn from precious metals, made by Fabergé that year. Not that this was a rare event. The jeweller presented such a gift to the Tsar - for Russia’s ruler to give to his nearest and dearest – every Easter during the last three decades of the monarchy.

I am gazing at this splendid array of Fabergé creations at Vienna’s fabled Kunsthistorisches Museum – which has travelled to the Austrian capital from Moscow.

Faberge egg
Faberge egg

Jewels of the past: The Memory of Azov egg (left) and the Kremlin egg (right) - two of Faberge's finest creations

Other items on display are the Memory of Azov egg, whose surprise is a teensy gold and platinum model of the Russian naval cruiser Pamiat Azova – and the Kremlin egg of 1905, the largest ever made by Fabergé. Forget the jewels – the marvel here is the tiny oval glass plate on which the interior of the Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki (which was then under Russian rule) has been painted in exquisite miniature, to be glimpsed through gilded windows within the shell of the egg.

Most poignant of all is the final, unfinished 1917 Constellation egg. Its blue rock crystal surface was all set to be embellished with rose-cut diamonds – supposedly to symbolise the stars under which the heir to the throne, who reached his teens in the year of its creation, was born.

But before it could be presented, the Russian Revolution swept the Romanovs from power. Its tidal wave finished off the dynasty, and did nothing for Fabergé, which was the toast of Moscow and Odessa, as well as St Petersburg – but was nationalised by the new Bolshevik government in 1918.

A full century and a thousand miles away from the fall of the Tsars, I emerge into the heart of Vienna – the Hofburg Palace, with its Spanish Riding School is just across the street – feeling privileged to be reliving the Baroque high life almost a century after Austria’s own imperial age came to an end.

Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna
Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

A fine setting for any exhibition: Vienna's Kunsthistoriches Museum is as impressive as any of the art it holds

That said, there are plenty of echoes of these golden years in the streets around Vienna’s centre. Many of those who furnished the Habsburgs remain in business today, their emporia unsullied by the brutalist architects who punctuated Russia’s city skylines with post-Revolutionary monstrosities.

I stroll past the rococo facades of warrant-holders – Lobmeyr (glass and chandeliers), Demel (extraordinary cakes and pastries), and Vienna’s own court jeweller, A.E. Kochert, which still makes diamond stars – on my way to Cafe Central.

This is the vaulted shrine of a coffee house (you can’t visit Vienna without trying at least three of the most famous), where Sigmund Freud and other Viennese intellectuals once enjoyed cakes and conversation – as, ironically, did Lenin and Trotsky in the years before they toppled the Romanovs.

I get to sleep in one of Vienna’s last explosions of Baroque luxury - the Palais Hansen Kempinski, built for the 1873 World’s Fair on the grand boulevard that is the Ringstrasse, which circles the inner city. Due to a cholera epidemic, the hotel’s opening was postponed – and it would take 140 years for it to open its doors to guests, spending most of its intervening life as the city’s police headquarters.

A different sort of palace: Anthea stayed at the city's luxurious Palais Hansen Kempinski

A different sort of palace: Anthea stayed at the city's luxurious Palais Hansen Kempinski

Old Vienna is everywhere. I dine on goulash, strudel and other delicacies from far-flung outposts of the Austro-Hungarian empire at Zum Schwarzes Kameel, the city’s oldest restaurant.

I go to hear Mozart at the Konzerthaus, another classic Vienna treat. The city plays heavily to its association with the famous composer; hordes of costumed lookalikes ply tourists with concert flyers on the city's shopping boulevards.

Yet scratch the surface and new, happening Vienna is lurking underneath.

The first of the city’s dashing young blades were art nouveau visionaries like architect Otto Wagner, whose two most gorgeous buildings sit side by side alongside the fabulous Naschmarkt open food market – and Gustav Klimt, whose iconic painting The Kiss is Vienna’s most visited attraction.

It sits in the Belvedere gallery, yet another Baroque treasure-house, whose wedding-cake sculptures and curlicues have been preserved in all their glory.

But Vienna has great modern architecture too – such as the stunning conversion of the old imperial stables into the Museums Quarter, with a spacious plaza where hip young Viennese gather to drink wine as well as coffee, and listen to DJ sounds in summer.

What's your beef? Platchutta serves a respected take on tafelspitz - classic Austrian boiled beef

What's your beef? Platchutta serves a respected take on tafelspitz - classic Austrian boiled beef

There is also edgy food. While beisls - gastro-pubs – continue to exist in cosy, original, wood-panelled form throughout Vienna, Glacis Beisl (in the Museum Quarter) offers more contemporary decor and cuisine. Holy Moly, on the ramshackle Badeschiff barge, attracts sunbathers and swimmers in summer, and disco dancers and foodies all year round.

It also adds a contemporary twist to traditional dishes like offal stew, and conjures up the most delicious, feather-light curd cheese dessert dumplings.

Diners can also find award-winning fare – not least at Steirereck, a temple of high gastronomy in the city park, which is currently positioned at number nine in the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

But my favourite meal is the tafelspitz at Plachutta – beef gently simmered with carrots and marrowbone, and served in its own delicious broth with chive sauce, apple-horseradish relish, and toasted black bread on which to spread the sumptuous marrowbone.

No-one does this Viennese speciality better than Plachutta, a family business which looks as if it served the Habsburgs, but is only 20 years old.

Sir Terence Conran has found favour in a city which celebrates cutting-edge design as well as rococo. The Guest House is the third boutique hotel he has furnished in Vienna, and I loved lounging in my studio apartment, with its free in-room wine, state-of-the-art coffee machine and window seats overlooking the buzzy Albertinaplatz.

A blast of the new: The Guest House adds a dash of the modern to the Viennese imperial template

A blast of the new: The Guest House adds a dash of the modern to the Viennese imperial template

But the best view in town is from the restaurant of another high design hotel, Do & Co. – which offers panoramic seventh-floor snapshots of Vienna’s Stephansdom Cathedral, and authentic sushi from a Japanese master (as well as all the old imperial favourites).

It is a fine place to gaze on old Vienna from the comforts of the new – a heady mix of experiences which makes this a rewarding city to visit, even without the Fabergé eggs, which are the icing on the sachertorte this spring.

Travel Facts

easyJet ( serves Vienna daily from £32.49 one-way.

Rooms at the Palais Hansen Kempinski ( cost from €255 a night.

Rooms at The Guest House ( cost from €230 per night.

The World of Faberge is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum ( until May 18.