Tales of the Vienna Woods… and ballrooms

In a travel world that increasingly defines luxury with unique, “experiential” travel, many look to the newest (a chic or 6 star hotel), most remote (newly reopened Burma or Bhutan) or most challenging (a climb to Everest Base camp or Gorilla watching in Congo) trip to add to their travel portfolio. Finding any of these, combined with the requisite 5 star creature comforts-or as close as possible—creates the travel opportunity to “experience” life more fully.

All good, all fulfilling, and I did many, if not most, in my 17 years as head of the Smithsonian Institution’s International travel portfolio. However, more challenging is to return to familiar spots and find entrée to join the local culture and experience their day to day life, as if you have lived there all your life. Not during manufactured “tastes of local” culture, but by really joining their fun and learning about their lifestyle and passions.

Recently I was invited by the iconic Sacher Hotels to join them in Vienna.

The invitation was to attend the third year of the wildly successful Fete Imperiale which is a rare summer ball in Vienna, which hosts over 300 balls in the winter months. The Fete is a white tie ball to raise funds for the Lipizzaner horses, held in the Spanish Riding School and chaired by Austria’s “First Lady” of culture, Ms. Elizabeth Gurtler. Ms Gurtler is also owner of the Sacher Hotels and tirelessly promotes all things Austrian to the world.

What follows is a bulleted road map of my time in Vienna which I hope will provide you with the same sense of place and time that I experienced and allow you to replicate my immersion-to any degree you fancy.

• Arrival at the new, sparkling Vienna airport. Dramatic signage (ads sounds too harsh) letting you know that imperial, turn of the century and 2012 Vienna awaits right around the corner

• Check in at the Sacher Hotel. This is more like entering an elegant nineteenth century home with a butler at the front door, check in at a desk in a discreet cozy little room off the entry hall and all covered with lush deep red fabrics, dark woods and flowers.

• Arrival at my suite which overlooks the Opera House, same lush fabrics, huge windows and antique furniture. Can I really put my Mac on that desk and not ruin the moment?

• And of course there are Sacher Tortes to welcome and make sure I do not starve.

• First evening adventure, we take a hike up into the vineyards surrounding Vienna, to learn and taste the local production. The view of all Vienna (just 20 min away) is magnificent and the wine exceptional. We meet a local vintner who is passionate about preserving this pre-Roman vino-culture and fights to keep every acre of vineyard protected. We spent 3 fascinating hours with him, hiking up the vineyards, viewing vines, hearing his challenges and most importantly tasting the various varieties of wine. I am now a fan and an informed fan! Dinner was at one of the much-touted Heurigens-exceptional again.

• The next morning our small group of five attended much needed dancing (and etiquette) lessons at the Elmayer Dancing School, the foremost in Vienna and founded in 1919. Could they really help me? Two hours later, with many laughing attempts and new friends, I can almost waltz and know three of the steps for the quadrilles (1, 3 and 6) that we will dance at midnight. As for etiquette, I now know how to refuse (subtly) when a man tries to kiss my hand – not been a big problem in the US, but is one apparently here! A highlight was meeting the professional “students” at the school who pretended we were very graceful.

• Now an afternoon to “get ready”

• Since my pre-ball toilette is limited to a quick bath and blow dry, I use the time not at the salon, but visiting the Imperial Apartments of the Hofburg.

• These take me back to the time of Franz Joseph and his “Princess Diana”, Cissy or Princess Elisabeth. A story any tabloid today would adore. These are a typical tourist stop, but walking through them and the Silver Vaults helped me understand Vienna’s pivotal role in the world pre World War I. I walked around with my book, enjoying the opportunity to visit each room alone as I waited for groups to pass through.

• Time for cocktails with Ms. Gurtler and her friends. An intimate, illustrious gathering with a who’s who of Austria and the diplomatic corps. After many introductions, whispers of who was who, I felt I was a houseguest for a grand weekend party and most welcome.

• We then processed as a group the three blocks to the Spanish Riding School. Other guests, local and tourists were arriving on foot and in horse drawn carriages.

• The grand opening began at 10 pm and the performances were stellar, from bands, ballets, opera and donkeys (the horses get spooked with the noise, the donkeys less so) and then the debutantes. Beautiful dancing, trying to join the quadrilles and delicious food and drink. I think every ball in the US should have hay bales and wurst stands outside for when you get bored with the dancing.

• We returned the Sacher, still awake and excited at 4 am for drinks in their intimate blue bar, where we found some of the guest performers reviewing the evening. We were welcomed and joined in the discussions. As if we all met in this bar after every ball in Vienna.

I know I mentioned this was an experience you could replicate in Vienna and I sense your incredulity. However, as mentioned, there are over 300 winter balls in Vienna, now one in summer and a newly introduced Salzburg ball at the end of the famous Salzburg Festival (you saw it in The Sound of Music). You can attend any and take dancing lessons and bring your own group to enjoy the fun. Try it out. Plan your trip not around sites but around local events and then join in. PS – I even bought a Dirndl.

Jean Glock is Director, Leisure and Group Travel Services of Connoisseur Travel Ltd.

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Comments (1)

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  1. Sofia says:

    Sounds like a wonderful experience. Vienna has a very luxurious style over the whole city, it’s so easy to just pretend that you’ve traveled back into the past!

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