By John Blanchette
Late June is the start of the summer ball season in Vienna — not soccer, basketball, football or volleyball, but the country’s national pastime, waltzing. When I was there the Vienna Boys Choir and the country’s top opera tenor, Michael Schade, sang the opening introduction. Among the dignitaries who were present was Dr. Heinz Fischer, president of Austria.
Hundreds of young debutantes dressed in white gowns with red sashes and their escorts in tuxedos started the ball, swirling into the famous Viennese waltz. Three thousand others joined in, following as the music changed to fox trots, tangos and myriad other dances.
Without skipping a beat, attendees continued to dance the night away — literally. The orchestra’s music and the colorful twirling didn’t stop until 4 a.m. I could have danced all night, like the song says, but there was exploring to do the next day in one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals.
Viennese balls are held everywhere around the globe, but there is nothing like those in the original city. People had come from all over the world for the opening of the Vienna summer ball season.
The Fete Imperiale was organized by Elizabeth Guertler, managing director of the Sacher Hotel of Sacher-torte fame. In the past she has also chaired the annual Vienna Opera Ball. A horsewoman, she is the CEO of the Spanish Riding School, home of the famous white Lipizzaner stallions, who are also equally adept dancers. The ball is a major fundraiser for the school.
Following a dinner at Restaurant Anna Sacher and a gala cocktail reception at the hotel, guests in gowns and black ties were escorted to horse-drawn carriages waiting outside and then paraded through the streets to St. Michael’s Cupola. From there a marching band led the way to the Hofburg Palace and the Winter Riding School, where the Fete Imperiale took place.
The following day it was off to Wetzdorf Castle in Heldenberg, Lower Austria. There is a large stable and dressage arena on the castle grounds where hundreds of horse enthusiasts gathered to see the magnificent Lipizzaners in action. These amazing equines are a mix of Andalusian, Arabian and Berber horses, and they truly know how to shake a leg.
But it’s not all dancing and horseplay in Vienna. Another important component to the city is its desserts, especially of the chocolate variety. Nowhere else does a city have a dance, coffee and pastries named after it. I enjoyed some Viennese roast coffee with one of the world’s most famous desserts, the original Sacher-Torte mit schlag (unsweetened cream) on the Sacher Hotel patio, where it has been served since 1876.
For Viennese pastries Demel is Valhalla. It has been in the same location since 1857, and the shop preserves its original decor. Order your dessert from the case when you enter, then find a table in one of the rooms on the first or second floors. Your order will be brought to you. They also make the best coffee mit schlag I’ve ever been served.
Page 2 of 2 - For pure chocolate, no one is better than Wolfgang Leschanz, “The Vienna Chocolate King” (Wiener Schokolade Konig) and proprietor of Leschanz. This paradise for chocoholics is located at 1 Freisingergasse in a former 18th-century button shop that still has all its ancient cabinetry and an array of buttons displayed throughout the store. Dip fruit in the chocolate fountain or indulge in a selection of his handmade sweets, beautifully assembled in period-style boxes. Leschanz was a childhood friend of Wolfgang Puck and his first pastry chef when he opened Spago in Beverly Hills in the 1980s. He returned to Vienna to work for Sacher and Demel before opening his own shop in 1995.
When you want to break your sugar rush head to Naschmarkt (literally nosh market) behind the Opera House, six blocks of everything savory and sour, cured, fresh and salted as well as inexpensive restaurants and bakeries. The best-tasting sauerkraut in the world is made by Leo “the Sauerkraut Man.” Those are his words and now mine. He made me buy one of his pickles in exchange for taking his photo serving up kraut from one of the 30-gallon wooden barrels aging his brined cabbage.
Just down the way was the vinegar baron Erwin Gegenbauer, who sold 27 varieties (20 to 30 euros per bottle) like perfume, putting a drop on the back of my hand so I could appreciate the aroma. Across from him was the cheese and cured-meat stand Urbanek, where 80 local farmhouse cheeses were available along with wursts and cured hams to be chased with a glass of the local wine — my favorite stand in the
WHEN YOU GO
I flew Air Berlin from Los Angeles to Dusseldorf and then on to Vienna. They offer the most reasonable rates to central Europe from U.S. gateways that include Chicago, New York and Miami: www.airberlin.com.
While in Vienna I stayed at the newly remodeled Sacher Hotel, which retains all of its Old World charm and service: www.sacher.com.
Orders for Wolfgang Leschanz’s chocolate can be shipped overseas from his website, www.leschanz.at.
For housing options, restaurant information, shopping tips, event listings, guidebooks, brochures and maps, contact the Austrian Tourist Office, 212-944-6880 or www.austria.info. Pick up a 72-hour Vienna Card (20 euros) for unlimited rides on the trains, trams and buses as well as discounts at 210 museums and other sites around town.
Don’t miss the Museum of Fine Arts, which has an amazing collection. I visited the new “Kunstkammer” exhibit, which contained more than 2,100 valuable and unusual objects collected by the Hapsburg Royal Family, most notably Rudolf II. The Hapsburgs ruled Austria for 600 years, until 1918.
To find out what’s going on, look for the free monthly magazine Enjoy Vienna, which lists events in English and German.