This article won a Bronze prize at the 2010 NATJA Awards in Category 150: Cultural, Educational, Travel
“Wouldn’t it be great to go to Vienna for one of those fancy balls?” I said idly to my friend Joe on a recent visit to Toronto. Since Joe was of Austrian descent, I should have known better than to make off-the-cuff comments like this. Two months later he phoned me in Nova Scotia and informed me that he was arranging for tickets to the Imperial Ball in Vienna and that I’d better get cracking because tickets had to be ordered over a year in advance. Joe’s wife, Diane, was a travel agent and could take care of the details. In a moment of weakness I acquiesced.
Despite the name “Imperial Ball,” Austria no longer has an emperor or empress on the throne. Apparently the populace grew discontented with the ruling Habsburg family after the First World War (being on the losing side) and exiled poor emperor Charles I after a brief two-year reign; this was terribly unfair as it was Charles’ grand-uncle Franz Joseph who got the empire into the mess.
Fortunately, the ballroom of the winter palace used by generations of the royal family thus became vacant. It is now available for use by common rabble such as us, though for a rather princely sum.
Having irrevocably committed myself to the endeavour, there now remained a number of problems. First of all, what does one wear to an Imperial Ball? My wife had an easy solution. “I know this lovely designer who will make me a gown.” (And for only the equivalent of about two mortgage payments.)
My problem was solved when I discovered my father had a set of tails which were in remarkable condition and fit me as if tailor-made, as they probably did him around 1965. The tickets did call for black tie, including tuxedo or tails, and I figured if I were going to do this I may as well do it in style.
With the garments out of the way, the next difficulty was to tackle the intricacies of Viennese waltzing. I knew in theory that the waltz was done in ¾ time, but in practice getting my two left feet coordinated to this tempo proved more difficult. Waltz lessons effected some improvement so we ventured out for a few lessons at a local dinner/dance club.
It’s surprising how quickly a year can pass, and before I could say “my checking account is overdrawn,” we were ready to depart for Vienna. Leaving on December 28th on the “Red Eye” from Halifax to London, we connected with Austrian Airlines to Vienna. After flashing our passports to a customs agent who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Austrian 80s pop star Falco, we wrangled our luggage and grabbed a cab into town.
Unfortunately, though I had the name of the pension where we were to be staying, I had neglected to bring the address, erroneously assuming a cab driver would know where to find it. I did know that it was near the State Opera House or Staatsoper. After ten circumnavigations of the opera house a look of murderous intent began to appear in my spouse’s eyes. With typical Viennese aplomb, the cab driver finally stopped at a phone booth, blocking two lanes of traffic in the process and managed to track down the location of our lodgings. He even refused the tip I offered him, no doubt feeling that getting rid of us was reward enough.
Our accommodations were well located within walking distance of both the Hofburg Palace, where the ball was held, and the Staatsoper, where we planned to take in a New Year’s Day tradition performance of Strauss’ “Die Fliedermaus” (“The Bat”).
The next day we took in a performance of the Lippizaner Stallions at the Baroque Spanish Riding School. The arena itself was worth the price of admission. A large painting the school’s founder, Carl VI, stood at one end of the of the ring and it had been traditional for centuries that members of the cavalry participating in intricate drills would doff their hats to the image as a sign of respect.
The riders performed a series of maneuvers, both beautiful and highly practical in the days when the cavalry were an important arm of the empire’s military machine. The snow white Lippizaners (who start life black) are magnificent steeds that are specially bred in Styria, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now within the borders of Slovenia.
After a couple of delightful days exploring old Vienna, December 31 finally arrived. That day I discovered in conversation with an Austrian that “black tie” means “white tie” when you are wearing tails. Since, unlike the Lippizaners, my black bow tie was not capable of changing from black to white, this presented a problem. Fortunately Vienna has more formal-wear shops than Toronto has McDonald’s, and I quickly located suitable neck ware of the right color.
Later that evening, adorned with my new white bow tie and tails, we wended our way through a few medieval blocks to the Winter Palace. On entry we encountered a band playing Strauss waltzes in a large antechamber with an honor guard in 19th Century hussars’ uniforms. Mounting the red carpeted marble staircase, we were greeted by actors dressed as Emperor Franz Joseph and his spouse, the Empress Elizabeth. All the ladies were presented with a gift bottle of perfume.
The ballroom proved to be a huge complex of mainly 18th century provenance. Where guests were seated depended on which of three levels of tickets they had purchased. We elected to purchase the ones that included dinner in the Ceremonial Hall, a regal chamber with ornate marble columns and 50 foot high ceilings.
The gleaming crystal chandeliers, gilded molding, classical statuary and multi-hued marble me feel as if I’d entered a story penned by the brothers Grimm. Not surprisingly, the Ceremonial Hall once served as the throne room for Maria Theresa and the other Habsburg monarchs.
Supper included a bottle of Austrian Riesling per person, a nice salmon pate appetizer and pleasant beef course with chocolate mousse for dessert. Champagne was available to ring in the New Year and ranged from the ubiquitous Henkel Trocken to vintage Dom Perignon.
After supper we took a tour of the palace, which proved to be an hour-and-a-half undertaking. It is comprised of a maze of large and medium-sized halls with a total of sixteen bands playing on the premises. These ranged from traditional Strauss waltzes to gypsy music, with even a “big band” playing swing music. I hadn’t expected to be jiving that evening, let alone in the room in which Maria Theresa was baptized! On a huge back stair case dominated by gargantuan marble statues we encountered a young couple, the man on his knees and obviously proposing marriage. We tactfully tiptoed back the way we came.
Midnight was signaled by a huge clock in the Festival Hall. This hall is adjacent to, and even larger than the Ceremonial Hall. The décor included ceiling frescoes and the room was adorned with real flowering shrubs and trees from the imperial greenhouses, giving the illusion of being outside on a summer evening.
The New Year arrived in a traditional manner with popping of corks and the singing of “Auld Lange Syne”. (Who would have thought?) After midnight the orchestra struck up a series of waltzes and we danced until the wee hours of the morning…
The next day we somewhat groggily made our way to the Staatsoper and the performance of Strauss’ “Die Fliedermaus.” Apparently most of the seats are reserved for VIPs; only by applying a year in advance did we manage to obtain tickets. To our dismay we discovered that our seats did not include a view of the stage! The guests in the front row of our box left after the first act and kindly gave us their seats, from which, if you leaned forward and craned your neck, you could see about half the stage.
We learned afterwards that this is a common problem with 19th century opera houses. Caveat emptor.
In any event, we’d had a spectacular holiday and enjoyed what is perhaps the most unique way to spend a New Year’s Eve.
One final quandary — what do we do next year to ring in the New Year?
“Fine dining at the Hofberg Palace” © George Burden
“Franz Joseph and his Empress greet guests as they enter the palace” © George Burden
“Author relaxes with a glass of champagne and Cuban cigar in one of the palace’s myriad rooms” © George Burden
“Stefansdom cathedral in old Vienna” © George Burden
Feature photo: “Hofberg Palace at Night” Public Domain