Once Upon a Time in Vienna
By Amy Rosen

Sometimes travel can be a fairy tale with a happy ending. Amy Rosen becomes a princess and breezes through sumptuous feasts, horse-drawn carriages, and a grand ball in Vienna.

Vienna ball

Once upon a time in the great city of Vienna there was a very unhappy travel writer named Amyrella. She had landed in the city on an overnight flight, hadn't slept a wink and was terribly jet lagged (even though the service provided on Austrian Airlines was strictly top drawer.) And so she wandered dazed along the fabled streets for hours, the white–flecked wintry air swirling around her like a snow globe.

Vienna Austria cafe

Within two days of Amyrella's arrival, she had already done more legwork than most visitors do in a week. She had visited a dozen coffee houses, from the old–school honesty of Diglas to the cushy splendor of Mozart; the elegance of Sacher to the casual vibe of Sperl. She had been to the Vienna State Opera where she witnessed Romeo and Juliet tragically die in each others' arms. The Kunsthistorisches Museum intrigued her and the Jewish Museum moved her. She ate traditional dishes, such as rosti with fried egg and spinach sauce, and drank much traditional beer.

She even learned how to make apple strudel during a baking class taught by a pastry chef from Gerstner at the Palais Todesco. (Gerster is a pastry shop that has served the Imperial Court since 1848.) And even though, at the end of each day, she was able to lay her weary head upon the plush pillows of the Rathaus Wein boutique hotel—home to the most astounding buffet breakfasts she had ever seen—Amyrella was a jet–lagged travel writer in a foreign country, and no matter which way you sliced the tasty Sacher torte, there was still work to be done.

On her third night in Vienna, Amyrella arrived back at her hotel to find an elegant black dress hanging in her room. Attached to it was an intriguing note:

"Enjoy the Coffee House Owners Ball. With compliments, your Fairy Godmother. P.S. Stick around until 4 a.m. because you really won't want to miss the traditional goulash soup at Café Landtman."

Well, now this was exciting stuff! After all, Amyrella had never been to a Viennese ball before. And she understood that she'd be partaking in a proud tradition. Beginning each year on New Year's Eve and coinciding with Fasching, Austria's version of the pre–Lent carnival celebration that ends approximately one month later, the ball season is packed with dozens of different formal celebrations, from the world famous Opera Ball to other balls representing sundry professions, including the florists, pharmacists, doctors, hunters and lawyers' balls, and the largest ball of all, the Coffee House Owners Ball—the very ball that Amyrella would be attending this evening. Anyone can go to a Viennese ball, the tickets average $100 euros each and the only real rule is that you must be formerly dressed, in a tux if you're a lad, or a floor length dress if you're a lady.

At 7p.m. on the night of the ball, Amyrella sat down to dinner at the Hotel Imperial, where she enjoyed a royal feast with some other ball–going friends. From there, they journeyed by horse and carriage for the short trip along the bumpy cobblestones to the grand archway leading to the inner court of the Imperial Palace. There was a terrific traffic jam of carriages led by men wearing boulder caps and woolen capes with shiny mares clip–clopping their way through the archway. But within moments Amyrella is swept into the ball.

Vienna Austria ball
© WienTourismus/Heinz Angermayr

There she spotted ladies elegantly fanning themselves while they sipped flutes of sparkling Schlumberger Brut. The orchestra struck up "Polonaise" as the starting procession of debutants filed in, arm in arm, which led to the quadrille of two couples streaming in at a time, arm in arm in arm in arm. Chandeliers sparkled like disco balls and gilded mirrors reflected happy images of high society: The men were in tails and bowties, the young women in white dresses and long satiny gloves. The non–debutants wore jewel–toned ball gowns, ruby and emerald, garnet and canary. There were stoles of mink and coats of sable. Delicate fingers smoked slender cigarettes. Meatier hands clutched fat cigars.

Then the Coffee House Owners Ball really hit its stride with the group dancing, a few couples forming rings and then larger rings within rings, all of them waltzing the waltz of Johann Strauss, the beautiful Blue Danube starting the evening in earnest. And what a magical dance it was! White on black; penguins and swans. Thomas Schaefer–Elmayer of the famed Elmayer Dance School directed the men to spin their partners this way and that, faster and faster until it all broke down into a big mess and a laugh–riot. Amyrella had never in all her life had such a beautiful night, dancing and drinking and spinning and spilling. And as the evening turned into morning, she started to look forward to that spicy goulash soup.

Yet sometime during the ball she had taken off her shoes in order to really get her groove on, and now they were hopelessly lost amidst the 5,000 revelers in one of the hundreds of rooms of the Imperial Palace. The more she looks for her shoes, the more lost she became: One room was plush and red; the next had white marble columns and golden balconies. In one room they were serving prosciutto and oysters, in another, espressos and chocolates. Amyrella made her way through the Spanish riding stables, covered in carpets and floral arrangements for this magical evening. One vast hall led to another and then the one after that. Upstairs and downstairs, turning and twisting, until she reached the rooftop and took in the most beautiful views of this storybook city she had ever seen.

The clock struck 4 a.m. Dejected and limping (she had found one shoe), Amyrella runs down the sweeping central staircase and out the front doors of the Imperial Palace. But what's this? Prince Charming was right there waiting for her, smiling broadly before a horse–drawn carriage. As she approached, Prince Charming got down upon bended knee and presented Amyrella with her missing shoe.

"I retrieved it when you were dancing the "running man"", said the prince.

"You stole my shoe?" asked Amyrella, somewhat annoyed by this dashing stranger.

"It was to insure that I saw you again," whispered Prince Charming.

"Oh, all right," said Amyrella as she let the prince's hand guide her into the waiting carriage.

"Now let's go get some goulash soup."

Vienna horse and carriage

If you go:
Austrian Tourism
Vienna Tourism
The Coffee House Owners Ball

Amy Rosen is a food and travel writer who pens and illustrates the weekly "Dish" column in the National Post and is a contributing editor for enRoute magazine, for which she ate her away across Canada twice. A James Beard nominee, and regular contributor to Chatelaine and Food & Wine among others, a story she wrote about cooking with Daniel Boulud is featured in the Best Food Writing 2008. Visit her at www.thenationalnosh.blogspot.com.

All photos by Amy Rosen except where indicated.

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