They whirled around the ballroom like antique windup dolls transported from the days when they were shiny and new. The women's voluminous gowns swished against the floor as they danced. Their tuxedoed partners turned with them, quickly to the 1,2,3, 1,2,3 of the orchestra, more slowly as part of the mass that circled the fabulous space. All it would take was one of them to falter to bring the entire spectacle to a halt. Like a speck of dust in the works of a fine timepiece.
I was that speck of dust.
The last time I wore a tux was in the University of Pennsylvania glee club. My waltzing days, if ever, were further away still. Yet here we were, the lady from New York and I, dancing at the Imperial Ball in the Hofburg Palace on New Year's Eve in Vienna.
"As you see, waltzing is turning," said dancing instructor Matthias Brandstetter. Matthias was a young man and serious. We'd hired him three days before the ball to prepare us for our night at the palace. On a late afternoon we took our positions in the large, bare practice room at the Elmayer School of Dancing. "The man guides the lady and she does the opposite," he said. "I do that naturally," said the lady from New York.
Matthias placed us together and had me walk quickly forward with long steps to show that I shouldn't step on the lady's feet. Then he modified the step. My right foot went both forward and to the right. The left continued the turn. The other steps followed and almost automatically we'd spun 180 degrees.
I could have lived with that but not Matthias. His objective was a complete 360 degree turn in one direction while simultaneously sweeping around the room in the other. And this to music considerably faster than we'd been practicing to. Matthias had found his sense of humor.
"There are three ways not to get dizzy," he said as we stopped and nearly toppled over. "Drink something with sugar. Eat something ith sugar. Practice." Since it was too late for the last and the
first two were highly suspect, he added, "When you stop, stand in position and hold on to your partner." That made sense.
Viennese balls evolved from an edict by Empress Maria Theresia that masks should not be worn in the streets. It seems that in the mid 18th century the custom of allowing the lower classes to don them during the season of Lent and to anonymously mock the nobility and clergy had gotten out of hand. So with her decree the celebrations moved indoors to become parties for the aristocracy.
The season officially starts with the Imperial Ball on New Year's Eve and ends with the Opera Ball in February. During that time, with a little spillover at both ends, there are more than 300 balls in Vienna. There are the lawyers', physicians' and hunters' balls. Waiters, chamber maids, pastry makers, detectives all have their own. There are even anti-ball balls - the Ball of Bad Taste, the Homeless Ball, the Wallflower Ball where the person with the dullest costume wins a prize. But at each, the waltz is still king.
Yet this most genteel of dances was once wild and immoral, suitable only for the common people. Until the Strauss family came along. Soon music in three quarter time was so popular that the dance gained royal approval and the Duke of Devonshire, who had declared, "I would never marry a woman who danced the waltz," had to eat his words.
The Hofburg, the winter palace of the Hapsbergs, dates back to the 1200's. Over the centuries emperors and empresses added their own wings and buildings until now it is a massive sprawl of magnificently ornamented architecture. A hundred years ago, on the last night of the year, carriages bedecked with coats of arms rolled over cobblestone streets to deposit grandly garbed ladies and gentlemen at the entrance to the palace ballrooms. It all ended with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.
"Our company revived the Imperial Ball in 1970," Said Regina Macho, who spent the entire year overseeing preparations for the festivities. When I mentioned that the Viennese waltz was something of an athletic event, she said, "You can't waltz all night. It's exhausting. Even in the old days they had one waltz or two. Then they danced in groups, the gavotte or quadrille."
"Although people come from all over the world, it's the French who predominate," she said. "They like to dress up." We didn't doubt her, but it was Italians who seemed to have flooded historic old Vienna, a land-locked peninsula originally enclosed by a semi-circular wall that began and ended at the Danube. From 1859 to 1888 the wall was replaced by a ring boulevard on which great mansions and palaces were erected by the nobility.
During the days after Christmas, chalet-shaped kiosks had begun sprouting up on the widest pedestrian streets of the Old Town. In squares, metal frameworks and platforms were being transformed into stages. A giant screen was erected in front of the rathaus, the enormous town hall. The annual New Year's Eve Trail was being created.
On the afternoon of the day itself, the kiosks opened their windows and musicians unpacked their instruments. Champagne, beer and an amazing variety of fruit punches were sold along with giant hotdogs - sorry, wursts - sliced and roasted potatoes and piggies. Pigs are considered good luck in Austria, and you could buy piggie hats, stuffed pigs, pig charms, even piggy porn.
In every square bands played various kinds of music. "I Shot the Sheriff" in one. Elvis Presley in another. Children gazed transfixed at a puppet show in the square devoted to them. In front of the rathaus, men on stage demonstrated how to dance the Viennese waltz. First an Austrian, then an Italian, finally a Japanese man who danced with the only Japanese woman in sight. In spite of a light drizzle, couples threw themselves into it, men with women, boys with girls, moms and their kids, women with women. Everyone was having fun.
When bodies got cold or energy flagged there was always a coffeehouse nearby. Cafe Diglas occupies the corner of one of Vienna's massive old buildings in a neighborhood of book stores. Two large rooms on either side of a long pastry counter contain traditional marble-topped tables and banquettes of heavy upholstery. Chandeliers hang from the ceilings; an armoire holds newspapers and magazines; partitions section off little nooks and crannies. With noone hurrying you the feeling is of a well used, very comfortable and very large living room.
"Coffeehouses were for the wealthy at the end of the 19th century," said Hans Diglas, whose grandfather was the cafe's first proprietor. "People had mail sent to 'their' coffeehouses as their home address. Even today people leave keys with us when they go on holiday."
While Diglas spoke, trays laden with cakes and strudels, napoleans and tortes were carried into the cafe. At his invitation we chose a cream "schnitte" and an Olympian chocolate cake, created by his chefs in honor of the Austrian Olympics. "I have two pastry chefs," he said. "They don't speak to each other."
Mr. Diglas left to deliver a melange, a mixture of espresso and steamed milk, to newcoming guests. "Vienna is well known for its pastries," he said when he returned. "Many of them, croissants for example, originated here. But you have to see the Austrian cuisine as as part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire. The cooks of the best families came from Prague."
We'd been told that only three to four hundred of the 2,500 or more attendees of the Imperial Ball were coming for the banquet that preceded it. All of them that evening seemed to have arrived moments before our taxi deposited us at the entrance to the palace. They were gathered in the foyer at the foot of a marble staircase bordered with huge bouquets of red carnations. Crystal chandeliers twinkled overhead while palms spread languidly against white-columned walls. Footmen dressed in 19th century finery stood motionless between the columns. As we mingled with the throng, similarly costumed waiters offered a champagne cocktail to the lady from New York who discretely examined the fashionable European women, awarding points.
Suddenly it was announced that the emperor and his wife were ready to receive us and the stairway filled with the cream of European society, anxious as teenagers to make their acquaintance. A half hour later we arrived at the top and saw a young Emperor Franz-Josef, much more handsome than the person in photographs, and the beloved Sisi,
Empress Elizabeth. An actress hired for the occasion, she bravely maintained a radiant smile while admirers vied for a photo with her.
Then we fanned out, each to his and her respec- tive dining room. Ours, the Zeremonienshall, had a curved white ceiling supported by 22 marble columns as thick around as sequoias. 26 double chandeliers, 52 in all, lit the room. 22 arches flanked the walls. Round tables filled the room, each set for ten. Yet space was left for an orchestra to play and for dancers to dance, which they did between courses. Not, however to the band that was playing a medley of Tyrolean folk songs when we entered.
A woman at our table from Cologne, Germany explained that the best local bands in Austria had
been assembled for our entertainment. After their 15 minute set they marched off to another banquet room while a new group of musicians trooped in.
The grandest room was the Festival Hall. Bedecked with flowers it was two stories high, a balcony running its length. A white-gowned female string orchestra was playing a slow waltz when when we came to watch the dancers. "I can do that," I thought but kept my thoughts to myself. Not to be dissuaded, the lady from New York took my hands and we waltzed into the maelstrom.
For the rest of the evening we danced and explored the other ballrooms. At times Regina Macho's elegant face would pop up surveying the scene to make sure everything was going as planned. Two young newlyweds from our table, she from Australia, he from Scotland, crossed our path and filled us in on what was going on where.
Before we realized it both hands of the enormous clock in the Festival Hall were pointing to twelve and the deep pealing of the Pummerin, the giant bell of Saint Stephen's Cathedral, rang over Vienna. On stage the orchestra launched into the Blue Danube Waltz. Above it the royal couple emerged on the balcony to wish Happy New Year in several languages to the muli- tongued throng. Then they danced the first waltz of 2004, followed below by their subjects. As the hall filled with guests until not an inch was unoccupied, singers and dancers from the Royal Opera House performed numbers from favorite operettas. More Viennese than this it was impossible to get.
It was gloomy next afternoon when we stood in front of the huge screen at the Rathaus square. Since the New Year's Day concert in the Musikverein had sold out a year in advance, the city fathers had thoughtfully arranged for it to be shown here. Where the day before, joyful partygoers had filled the square, now a smattering of warm-coated tourists and locals stared silently at Ricardo Muti leading the Vienna Philharmonic in yet more waltzes.
Suddenly a boy turned to his girlfriend, reached for her hands and whirled her into the square. While a desultory sun tried with sporadic success to brighten heavy grey clouds, other couples began dancing to the strains of one of the world's great orchestras. Turning to the lady from New York, I took her hands, drew her to me and did likewise.
THINGS TO DO IN VIENNA
1. Attend the Imperial Ball and banquet on New Year's Eve at the Hofburg Palace. (www.hofburg.com/e/va/ for tickets). The best and most expensive seating is in the Festsaal. To prepare, take waltzing lessons at the Elmayer School of Dancing (Braunerstrasse 13, tel. 512 71 97, www.elmayer.at.)
2. Take in the famous New Year's Day concert in the Musikverein, Vienna's premier concert hall (Bosendorferstrasse 12). Tickets, available on the web, sell out in January, but word is that certain concierges can sometimes work magic. (www.wienerphilharmoniker.at.
Operetta lovers should go no further than the Vienna State Opera which is sure to be playing favorites. (Opernring 2, www.wiener-staatsoper.at).
3. See the famous Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. (Michaelerplatz 1. www.srs.at.)
4. Stop by Julius Meinl (19 Am Graben, www.meinl.com), Vienna's premier gourmet food emporium, for some fabulous takeout.
5. Indulge in the home-made pastries at the fashionable Cafe Demel (Kohlmarkt 14), or the Cafe Landtmann (Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring 4). Catch up on the news in the English language newspapers while lingering over a coffee "melange" at the traditional Cafe Diglas (Wollzeile 10, www.diglas.at). Note: Non-smokers will have to be tolerant of cigarette smoke at most of Vienna's public establishments.
6. Shop for crystal at Swarovski (Karntner Strasse 8) in the Old Town. Then visit Hellmut Lang (Seilergasse 6) or the four stores of Ludwig Reiter who, unlike Hermes (Graben 2) or Cartier (Kohlmarkt) are actually Austrian.
7. Feast on the creations of Vienna's finest chefs at the Palais Coburg (Coburgbastei 4, www.palais-coburg.at), Steirereck (Rasumofskygasse 2, www.steirereck.at), Vestibul (Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring 2, www.vestibuel.at) and Rubens (Furstengasse 1, www.rubens.at).
8. Place a bid at the Dorotheum (Dorotheergass 17, www.dorotheum.com), Vienna's leading auction house which was founded by Emperor Joseph the First in 1707.
9. Decide if the sachertorte at the Hotel Sacher is superior to the Imperial torte at the Hotel Imperial.
10. Don't miss the hundreds of stands selling fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry, fish and wonderful breads at the daily market at the Naschmarkt.
11. See the dishes on which the Hapsburgs took their meals in the Hofburg, the winter palace. Then make the short trip to their summer digs, the Schonbrunn Palace (www.schoenbrunn.at) to see their more frugal version of Versailles.
12. Visit the world-class collection of Bruegels at the massive Museum of Fine Arts (Maria Theresien Platz, www.khm.at). When done, cross the street to the MuseumsQuartier (museumsplatz 1, www.museumsquartier.at) to see how the imperial stables have been converted into cutting edge exhibit halls. Have lunch at nearby Do & Co Albertina.
Enjoy the Fine Arts Museum's Thursday evening buffet in the fabulous Domed Hall (http://www.khm.at/homeE2066.html). Visit the galleries between courses.
13. Dine royally in the Imperial Dinner Train (www.imperialtrain.com) while the luxurious salon cars transport you on a round trip from Vienna through the Austrian countryside. April through October.
14. Take the "Third Man Tour" with Dr. Brigitte Timmermann (tel. 894 53 63, www.viennawalks.com). An expert on the film, she will lead you to sights where scenes were shot in occupied, post-war Vienna, including descending to the underground river where Orson Welles (and his double) desperately ran from the police.
15. Visit the Freihausviertel, the Free House Quarter, a Soho-like neighborhood. Over the last 5 years art galleries, new restaurants, boutiques and 2nd hand clothes imported from the U.S. have opened. Interesting, hip and fun. Schleifinulilgasse is the main street. Then go to Spittelberg, a neighborhood of small 18th and 19th century houses where "beisls," low-priced restaurants offering such traditional fare as goulash, dumplings and schnitzl, have upgraded their decor, menus and prices in what has become a trendy locale.
WHERE TO STAY
The Hotel Imperial (800 325-3589, www.luxurycollection.com/imperial) is the Austrian government's first choice when accommodating foreign dignitaries. Built as a private residence for the Prince of Wurttemberg, it was opened as a hotel by Emperor Franz-Josef in 1873. Rooms and suites on the first two floors are grand in size, ornate and opulent with soaring ceilings and beautifully inlaid floors that capture the spirit of 19th century Vienna. Ceilings and prices are lower on the upper three floors where rooms are lighter and more modern. Guests, 30% of whom are American, return time and again to their favorites. Personal butlers attend to the needs of guests in Imperial Rooms and Suites.
The Restaurant Imperial is renowned for its blend of traditional Austrian specialities with creative and light international cuisine. On New Year's Day, those unable to find seats in the next door Musikverein can view the televised concert at the Imperial's celebrated brunch.
The Hotel Bristol (800 325-3589, www.luxurycollection.com/bristol) is epitomized by its elegant old elevator with corner seats of rich padded leather and the grand staircase's thick brass railings, creamy marble walls and tall arched mirrors. Most of the Classic, Executive and Deluxe rooms and suites contain original 1892 fireplaces. Many have views of the magnificent Vienna Opera House across the street. The Prince of Wales Suite - two living rooms, 4 fireplaces, precious antiques and private exercise room with sauna - is the largest in Austria. "Ours is really a family hotel," said Public Relations Director, Petra Engl-Wurzer. "Everyone is so well treated. The staff has been here for many years."
Chef Reinhard Gehrer of the hotel's Korso Restaurant, is famous throughout Austria for his creative regional and International cuisine. It is served in one of the most beautifully atmospheric spaces in Vienna.
The Grand Hotel (800 223-6800, www.grandhotelwien.com) was built in 1994 with the latest technological amenities including a bedside console to which lights, music, T.V., window curtains and the chambermaid are all electronically connected. Yet the hotel resides behind the facade of one of the Ring's glorious old late 19th century mansions. While broad creamy corridors lead to bright, newly designed rooms and suites, former times are reflected in elaborate moldings, traditional wainscotting and bathrooms with brass fixtures and elegant marble accents. The Grand Hotel is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World.
The gourmet restaurant, Le Ciel, serves traditional French and Viennese cuisine and has a spectacular view over Vienna. Unkai offers a wide variety of Japanese specialties and offers a weekend sushi brunch.
HOW TO GET THERE: Austrian Airlines (800 843-0002, www.austrianair.com) flies non-stop from New York and Washington, D.C. to Vienna. United Airlines (800 241-6522, www.ual.com) shares some of Austrian's flights.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: The Vienna Tourist Board, www.vienna.info. The Austrian Tourist Board (US), 212 944-6880, www.austria.info/us. Also www.aboutvienna.org and www.viennahype.at.