Art and history in Vienna, Austria: The scandalous secrets of Vienna

High art and imperial history make Vienna a capital of culture, but that doesn't make visiting a chore.

It's only mid-morning in Vienna, and Uniworld has organised alcohol, several naked ladies and a tour guide with an unholy interest in the sexual peccadillos of the Hapsburg emperors.

The alcohol is a bellini, proffered beneath the gilt and statues of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I'm not sure why the ladies are naked. They're combing their hair, lying in fields or chatting to fully-dressed male friends, seemingly unaware their clothes have fallen off. They're pleasingly plump, dimpled and dishevelled. The Hapsburgs – many no lightweights themselves – clearly liked hefty buttocks and blancmange-like bosoms when it came to collecting art.

Art and history are usually approached with reverence in Vienna, but historian Regina isn't your ordinary shore-excursion guide. "The Austrians always complain about the present until it becomes the past, and then they glorify it," she sniffs.

"But I tell you, the past was just as bad as now."

 Regina is informative about the museum's paintings and why they're important, but leavens her talk with Benny Hill winks about ravished nymphs and shepherd boys playing their flutes.

She makes it clear the Hapsburgs were mad as hatters, like 17th-century emperor Ferdinand II, who locked prostitutes in cages; or transvestite archduke Ludwig Viktor, banished for brawling in a Vienna bathhouse.

''His friends called him Lutzi Wutzi and he held gay soirees at his palace just along the Ringstrasse. But what's so bad about that? I'm afraid the rest of our imperial family all intermarried too much. The first wife of Leopold I was both his cousin and his niece. It makes my head ache!''

We're having a hoot along with our art and history at this stop in Vienna, part of a Danube River cruise. As we hurry past the Hofburg palace, Regina points out the equestrian statue of Austria's great military hero Prince Eugene of Savoy, who in his youth dressed up as Madame Simone for nights on the town. And isn't our ship named after empress Maria Theresa? Oh dear, her son Joseph II was notoriously stingy. He introduced compulsory recyclable ''economy coffins'' with a flap in the underside through which corpses simply fell into the grave.

''Unlike many Hapsburgs, he loved his wife, but Isabel of Parma fancied his sister Maria Christina. When she died, Maria Theresa persuaded Joseph to marry again, but the second wife had rotten teeth and pimples. It wasn't a success. Poor man!''

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Our Uniworld tour lurches onwards past the stables of the Spanish Riding School, where Lipizzaner stallions snort from stalls. The horses perform under the baroque ceilings of the Hofburg in a last salute to imperial pageantry. Then we veer down Braunerstrasse, lined by fine neoclassical mansions. It has interesting shops that include Steiff toymakers – considered the inventor of the teddy bear in 1903 – and seventh-generation shoemaker Rudolf Scheer & Sohne. It's one of several Vienna companies that still displays honorary title ''k.u.k. Hoflieferant'', official purveyor to the imperial court. At street's end, gentleman outfitter Knize, which once catered to archdukes, has a lovely interior designed by leading modernist architect Adolf Loos.

The sweet thing about Vienna is that it wears its credentials like a comfortable old coat. Vienna has moved from being a once-grand imperial city to the capital of a small, quiet country, and so you can stand here in the midst of high history and eat simple sausage from street kiosk Zum Goldenen Wurstel. Regina soon has us comparing Kasekrainer – lightly smoked and oozing cheese – with bratwurst and Grillwirst Scharf, which has a chilli kick.

As we plunge our sausages into mustard we have a view into the Graben, Vienna old town's main shopping street. Regina points out a bust of Leopold I wedged into the base of the knobbly plague column that rises at its centre. The emperor, she points out, had the worst of the Hapsburg's infamous lantern jaws.

''He was nicknamed Leopold the Hogmouth and, poor man, had the hooked nose and big lower lip of the family too,'' says Regina. ''He was grotesque, really. No wonder he was shy and dithering, and far too keen on the Virgin Mary.''

And with this thought off we go, down the Graben towards St Stephen's Cathedral and the end of our tour. Which, as the best tours should, will forever make me see this city with new eyes, and a healthy dose of irreverence.

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CRUISE

Uniworld's 10-day Enchanting Danube and Munich (between March and November 2018) and Enchanting Danube and Prague (May and November 2018) incorporate city hotel stays followed by a river cruise between Passau and Budapest. From $5599 for an all-inclusive fare. Phone 1300 780 231, see uniworld.com/au

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Uniworld.

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