There are times when you know quite instinctively that something is going to go well. This was going to be one of those occasions. Before landing (on time no less) at Vienna airport our Austrian Airlines crew served a refreshing breakfast to start the day right. Customs and Immigration formalities were a snap and before I knew it we were on our way to our hotel.
As we pulled up to the hotel entrance, porters busied themselves with our luggage, which I did not see again until I was inside a very well appointed room. After a quick freshen up, I headed off to our first appointment and dropped my room key off with the concierge who greeted me ever so cordially, by name. Now at this point, I must admit that a friend of mine in Britain told me that my hotel in Vienna was particularly good indeed. And, I am not the slightest bit reluctant to tell you that my entire stay at the Imperial Hotel in Vienna was superb. You may follow this link for a further commentary regarding my stay.
As press trips go, this would be a very short and focused study on the Vienna Ball Season. Our first luncheon would provide a wonderful format for a quick round of questions where we could get some of the basics out of the way. For example, if something has a season, that means there is a beginning and an end. So first of all, I learned that The Vienna Ball Season takes place during Fasching. What’s Fasching? Well, depending where you are there can be some slight variations in the start / finish details of Fasching season. In some areas of Austria, Fasching begins at 11:00 a.m., on the 11th day of the 11th month. It’s not entirely a stretch that in a similar fashion to France’s Nouveaux Beaujolais, this Fasching date is the point where a young Austrian wine blossoms into maturity and is ready for consumption.
As it turns out, there is another way to determine beginning to end of The Ball Season: Traditionally, the first major Ball of the season, The Imperial Ball, takes place on New Year’s Eve at the Hofburg, and the last of the great traditional Balls is organized by the Catholic couleur wearing fraternity Rudolfina. This Ball, the Rudolfina Redoute is held at Hofburg Palace each year on the last Monday before Ash Wednesday.
It’s worth noting a bit of historical significance in that this Ball, is named for Duke Rudolf IV, who founded Vienna University in 1365. While Ball tradition does not go back this far, it nevertheless has its roots in the monarchy. It is also worth noting that the Redoute is the only surviving Masked Ball of the many that used to take place. Masks are no longer compulsory, but in this instance this Ball serves as a vivid reminder of the original Fasching custom.
By now I had learned that that 300 balls attracting 5,500 to 200 attendees will take place between New Years Eve and the Monday before Ash Wednesday each year.
Moving on to the next topic, we wanted to find out how difficult it would be for visitors to get some help in brushing up on their waltzing skills. I was directed to the dancing school Elmayer which is situated next to the stables of the Spanish Riding School – home of the famous white Lipizzaner stallions – in the heart of Old Vienna. The Elmayer Dancing School was founded by a former officer of the Austrian Imperial Army, Willy Elmayer von Vestenbrugg in 1919. In chatting with Rudolf Peschke, director of The Dancing School Elmayer, it is obvious that the School not only welcomes American visitors – they have a curriculum that will suit the novice all the way to an advanced student. The Elmayer school can provide lessons per couple for about €58 per lesson. You may follow this link to visit Tanzschule Elmayer online. . . Editor’s note: Mr. Elmayer is a very popular Master of Ceremonies at the most prestigious traditional Viennese Balls.
The next question that came to mind was: What if the lady wants to purchase a new gown for the ball? We got the answer from the friendly people at Popp and Kretschmer, a dress shop that would be right at home on Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue or Union Square. This is a company that is in tune with its customers. According to the store manager, P&K had a minimum of 300 dresses on hand on any particular day. As a precaution, they purchase only one item in any given color or size. If they have sold an item in a given color to someone who will attend a particular Ball, P&K records will prevent two of their customers from arriving in the same style, same color dress. Current prices on gowns range from €1300 to €4,000. Alterations are possible, depending upon the gown selected, even upon short notice.
In conversations throughout the day I learned a lot. For example, there are few if any restrictions upon visitors who might want to attend a Ball in Vienna. The most likely impediment would be that all tickets are sold out. This can best be overcome by enquiring and ordering early. It’s even possible to introduce one’s daughter to Viennese Society. This possibility is of course is a bit more involved and the young lady concerned would have to demonstrate her dancing skills and other attributes as a debutante – but it can be done.
On my return to the Imperial Hotel, the reception clerk and concierge welcomed me back by name once again and had my key at the ready before I had even requested it. Time now to freshen up, don my tuxedo and be presentable by 7:30 p.m. for an enjoyable dinner with my traveling colleagues. We gathered in the main dining room of the hotel for a superb three-course meal. This was one of the many times during this visit that I reminded myself that Vienna is one of the few cities that can boast of a cuisine that is uniquely identified with its namesake city. The chef had outdone himself. Each course complimented its predecessor handsomely. And, each course was accompanied by an appropriately selected Austrian wine. At 8:00 p.m. we rushed for our coats and were met outside by a group of horse drawn carriages that would take us to the Imperial Palace and The Coffeehouse Owners Ball.
When we arrived at the Imperial Palace it became obvious how long and how well and the organizers of these Balls had been perfecting their skills. The line to check credentials moved quickly and the politeness amongst those cueing up was refreshingly apparent. With such different surroundings and so many people, it was obvious that this would be a feast for anyone wanting to gather in a sense of this extraordinary event.
After ticketing formalities were completed, it remained for all of us to ascend the stairs leading to the interior portions of the palace. It crossed my mind that the Habsburgs must have employed these lengthy staircases as a lesson to those who would seek to petition them for some consideration or other favors. Tonight, photographers took up strategic locations on the staircases and would gladly trade you a ticket number to match a snapshot they just took of you as you ascended the next level.
First stop was the cloak room, where numbers on tickets matched corresponding hooks that in turn awaited garments to be hung. By now, the opening ceremony was getting under way in the Main Ballroom. The Ball committee gathered, and youthful debutantes and their escorts began to form their ranks. All the while, a murmur arose from conversations taking place between stationary figures on the very edge of the corridor. Meanwhile couples continued to flow toward their eventual destination that surely awaits them somewhere within the vast expanse of this great palace.
The theme of the 2010 Coffeehouse Owners Ball was Mexico. So when the musical program turned to Spanish, I knew that fairly soon the master of ceremonies would declare “Alles Waltzer” which means “Everyone Waltz!”. For my part I kept exploring. Everything I encountered was new . My remaining goal was to make my way to the gallery of the Spanish Riding School, which this year was pressed into service as additional seating for the Coffeehouse Owners Ball. I had visited the Spanish Riding School on a previous visit to Vienna. The gallery is so elegant it would serve equally well as a salon created for the artistic activities of men. That a facility, so conceived, would serve as a showcase for horsemanship defines the extent of the ultimate refinement exhibited by the Habsburgs.
The highlight at midnight, as at other prestigious Balls, is the quadrille, which has been danced since the 19th century. The most popular is the Fledermaus quadrille by Johann Strauss. The steps to this jaunty pair and group dance are fairly complicated and are always explained in advance by the dance master. Not infrequently, however, the mad dash through the passages between the rows of dancers ends in a predictable but good-humored chaos. At all events, it's one way of giving renewed energy to tired dancers, who will need it, since the Ball never ends before 4 am.
The Johann Strauss Ball was held for the first time in 2002. It is remarkable that the Waltz King, whose music so dominates Vienna's Fasching scene so completely, had never had a Ball devoted to him before. As befits this famous figure, the young Ball has all the classic insignia: from the opening with the State Opera Ballet to the quadrille and, of course, a midnight show.
It was about this point where I learned that real Ball goers show up at about midnight . . . about the time that some of the earliest arrivals would be getting ready to call it a night. Like well trained distance runners these late arrivals will pace themselves to go the distance at the Ball and hold a reserve of energy to be seen at the Landtmann Café enjoying a beer and the traditional delicious bowl of goulash.
By this time, I had no other point of reference to any other event even remotely close to a Viennese Ball. Rarely had I seen so many people enjoy themselves in such wholeheartedly good spirits. Truly, the Viennese are an extraordinarily cultured people who genuinely know how to enjoy living life.
To our readers, I say without hesitation, that a Vienna Ball is one of the finest shared experiences we could possibly recommend to any couple. Depending upon your profession or lifestyle interests, there’s bound to be a Ball that will pique your interest or offer you a sense of belonging through a professional affinity. Beyond the Ball, for those who seek an exceptional European experience look no farther than Old Vienna for one of the most enjoyable cultural and romantic interludes of a lifetime.
Now I hate to use the word convenience in reference to visiting a wonderful city like Vienna. However, in four days I never found it necessary to leave Old Vienna. Yet I was able to dine with the Masters at the Fine Arts Museum, visited the galleries at the Upper Belvedere - where I was able to see "The Kiss", dropped by the Leopold Museum and MUMOK at MuseumsQuartier, ditto The Albertina and enjoyed a wonderful ballet production of Romeo und Julia by John Cranko at the Wiener Staatsoper. Along the way I stumbled upon a mini-antiques district (which I'll have to backtrack in order to pinpoint it more precisely) after visiting what used to be whispered as "the Emperors pawn shop" the auction house, Dorotheum. On our last evening in Vienna we enjoyed a special private tour of Schonbrunn Palace after dark. From there it was on to the restaurant Plachutta for a wonderful Viennese traditional meal of "Tafelspitz”.
I am grateful to Vienna Tourism and the Austrian National Tourist Office for their hospitality as well as their continued interest in informing our readers about the exceptional experiences that await them in Vienna and throughout Austria.
Links to expert visitor information on Austria, Vienna and Austrian Airlines . . .