Thursday 13 December 2018

Caught up in a Viennese whirl - dance lessons, carriage rides and Christmas markets

Vienna is a city of dreams, of ideals, of beauty and of vision, says a smitten Gemma Fullam

Part of the 6,000 strong crowd dancing at a ball in the magnificent Hofburg Palace, once an imperial residence. Photo: Wien Tourismus
Part of the 6,000 strong crowd dancing at a ball in the magnificent Hofburg Palace, once an imperial residence. Photo: Wien Tourismus
Gemma arriving at the Hofburg Palace
Cafe museum Wien Turismums Christian Stemper
Das Loft Wien Turismums
Gloriette at winter, Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna

Gemma Fullam

A century ago, Vienna was such a hotbed of creativity that the writer Stefan Zweig quipped to Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, that "sperm was in the air".

The fin de siecle period prior to the horrors of the Great War was a special time in the City Of Music, and many of that era left an enduring legacy to Vienna and, indeed, the world.

Throughout this year, Vienna has been celebrating Viennese Modernism and some of its most famous proponents - artists Klimt, Schiele and Moser, and architect Otto Wagner - all of whom died 100 years ago in 1918. Theirs was an age of newness and discovery, with Klimt and Moser (considered the first graphic designer) co-founding the breakaway Secession movement, similar to art nouveau, which had at its centre an eponymous exhibition space, affectionately known by locals as the Krauthappel or cabbage head. The entrance displays the collective's motto: "To every age its art; to art its freedom".

Viennese Modernism broke free of the stultifying chains of the past, and influenced areas as diverse as art, literature, architecture, psychology and philosophy.

Despite its driving desire for the new, Vienna has held on to its traditions, not least that of its legendary ball season. More than 450 balls are held in the city each year, attended by over 500,000 people, 70pc of whom are locals. I visited the city in January to attend the prestigious Kaffeesiederball (Coffee-house Owners' Ball), dance the Viennese waltz and explore the lives and works of the visionary Modernists.

The Park Hyatt Vienna, my lodgings in Am Hof, the largest, oldest square in inner-city Vienna, set the tone for the trip: gobsmacking gorgeousness. The hotel, a former bank, is the last word in cocooning luxury, with acres of marble and dark wood offset by shimmering mother of pearl at every turn. There's even a replica of the mirrored staircase at Chanel's Rue Cambon apartment, and the hotel has its own coffee house, Cafe Am Hof, inspired by the city's famous 19th Century incarnations.

Gemma arriving at the Hofburg Palace
Gemma arriving at the Hofburg Palace

My suite was to die for, with a gigantic marble bathroom, vast amounts of closet space and the most lavish mini-bar I've encountered to date, with its delights ranging from a coffee machine to Haribo.

The hotel is in the First District, one of the city's most upmarket, with an array of designer shops running the gamut from Chanel to Prada. One of the city's institutions is here, too, the 17th Century Zum Schwarzen Kameel, a bar and patisserie, which had an art nouveau makeover in 1901. It's a lovely place to linger with a glass of sekt and a selection of the Kameel's famous brightly-hued open sambos, which are works of art. It's a tourist trap, but a delightful one, and very much a locals' haunt, too; Beethoven was once a regular.

Revived by the bubbles and Beinschinken (boiled ham and horseradish), it was time to get ball-ready. Dancing is a serious business in Vienna, and due to the sheer amount of balls on the social calendar, many choose to rent their attire. The Flossman family's store, Vondru, is the place to go for the most glamorous glad-rags. Once you've chosen a dress, the store's fitters will pin it to your measurements and deliver the altered garment to your hotel prior to the ball. The rental price also includes collection and cleaning.

Next on the agenda: a dance lesson. The most prestigious dance school in the Austrian capital is Tanzschule Elmayer, where a waltzing lesson will set you back about €58 (per couple). The waltz, once considered very naughty indeed, due to the necessity of chest-to-chest contact, began life as a peasant dance, but by the 17th Century had found its place in the Habsburg court. Religious leaders considered it sinful, while the basic nature of the easy-to-master steps meant dance masters saw it as a threat. Despite the objections, waltzing thrived; and composers began to write waltz music. The Waltz King himself, Johann Strauss Jr's work was admired by his contemporaries, among them Wagner and Brahms. Brahms, upon meeting Strauss's wife, who requested an autograph, inscribed her fan with notes from Strauss's Blue Danube accompanied by the words, "Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms".

Fittingly, the Elmayer dance school is adjacent to another legendary school, the Spanish Riding School. It's the oldest riding academy in the world and home to the iconic Lipizzaner Stallions, a rare breed of horse with an extraordinary ability to perform highly technical dressage.

We are greeted at the dance school by the dapper Thomas Elmayer, grandson of the founder, and an expert in etiquette; he has written five books on manners. Coordination is not my forte, but I soon forget my awkwardness and fall in with the 'one, two, three' rhythm of the class, until we are all twirling across the floor like professionals on Strictly. I am further reassured when Professor Elmayer explains that he will be at the ball, along with his troupe of taxi dancers - dance professionals from the school who will willingly dance with those who are inexpert or without a partner.

Gloriette at winter, Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna
Gloriette at winter, Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna

After a quick change back at the hotel of dreams, we walk in crocodile to the Danube canal bank and Restaurant Motto am Fluss, a cleverly designed boat-like building on the water. The red and monochrome interior is romantic and sophisticated, while the food is stellar.

I spend the next morning exploring the city with guide Alexa Brauner. Vienna is undeniably one of Europe's most beautiful capitals, and its history stretches back to the Stone Age. It became an important trading centre in the 12th Century under the Babenburgs, and that dynasty gave way to the Bohemian King, Oktar II, until 1278, when the Habsburgs took control of the city; they would remain in power for over 600 years. By the late 18th Century, Vienna was enjoying a golden age of music, with Gluck, Haydn and Mozart at its epicentre, while the genius of Beethoven and Schubert entranced the Viennese in the following century. The year 1918 saw the fall of the Habsburgs, and the death of four key members of the Secession movement. Today, Klimt's works are arguably the most lucrative of the quartet; last year, a 1907 painting of his sold at Sotheby's for £42.5m.

Going to a ball in Vienna is film-star fairy-tale stuff. Once dressed in our finery and glammed up to the nines - hair and make-up came to the hotel, no less - we dined in the hotel's Bank Brasserie; a glorious marble hall lit by giant Swarovski glitterballs. Then, it was down to the foyer, where outside, a phalanx of horse-drawn carriages arrive to ferry us to the ball in style. Clip-clopping through the cobbled streets of Vienna at night is like being transported back in time; you feel at any moment a highwayman might materialise, demanding "Your money or your life!"

Our carriage ride ended at the Hofburg Palace, the grand setting for the ball; it is a former imperial residence and now the official seat of Austria's president. Kaffeesiederball tickets cost €150, and this guarantees entry only, you must pay extra if you want a seat - however most of the 6,000 attendees have no interest in sitting, they come to dance the night away.

Despite the huge numbers, the palace doesn't seem crowded, and aside from the main ballroom, there are innumerable smaller dance floors, bands and bars throughout the place over several floors. We have a dance-floor-side seat, with a prime view of the action.

The stunning ballroom is decorated in the year's chosen colours of pink, white and gold, and the people-watching opportunities are huge. The entertainment includes an opera duet, and some spectacular ballet, before the moment we have all been waiting for: the debutantes performance. The girls in virginal white, the boys in white tie, emerge, rows upon rows of them, until the huge dance floor is full, and the Polonaise begins. What follows is choreographed perfection; I can see the concentration in their teenage faces; they must not let their dance teachers down. They do not; it is flawless.

The room erupts when the young ones have finished, and the call comes, "Alles walzer (everybody waltz)". A handsome taxi dancer guides me to the floor and we segue effortlessly into the 60-beats-per-minute Viennese waltz; he leads, I follow and we are whirling around the room to the gorgeous strains of Strauss. It is intoxicating. We dance into the early hours and stop off, as is the tradition, for a hangover-dampening wurstl at the Bitzinger sausage stand in Albertinaplatz.

Ice skating at Old Town Hall, Vienna
Ice skating at Old Town Hall, Vienna

Next day, after a lazy morning, it was off to the Belvedere Museum to see its incredible collection of art, and most notably, the jewel in its crown, Klimt's The Kiss. The palace itself is a Baroque delight; and originally built as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy.

Schiele, who died of Spanish flu at the age of 28, was heavily influenced by Klimt's work, but his style is very different. Schiele's paintings are erotic, graphic, stark, almost pornographic. Klimt's work is sensual and tender, but both painters are masters of their craft, and leave you moved, provoked.

The Kiss completely lives up the hype; in reality it is a revelation. It glows and pulsates with some sort of unknowable energy; it is divinely beautiful. The museum is relatively quiet in January, and so a good time to go; you can peruse the vast array of treasures at your leisure.

Next stop was Karlsplatz and Otto Wagner's Stadtbahn pavilion, originally a railway station, and now home to a permanent exhibition on the 'artist architect'. Wagner's aesthetic was in line with the notion of Gesamkunstwerk, the idea that everyday life should be infused with art. His work is to be found all over Vienna and includes Europe's first Modernist church, St Leopold am Steinhof.

Dinner that night was in the funky neighbourhood eaterie of Skopik & Lohn, a typical Viennese beisl (bistro). The restaurant scene and nightlife in the Austrian capital are thriving, and the fare is of a consistently high standard.

It is impossible to even scratch the surface of what Vienna has to offer in the short time I was there. The city vibrates with history, art, culture, sophistication, tradition and joie de vivre. It is a seamless blend of past and present, with magic at its heart. It is a city of dreams, of ideals, of beauty and of vision. Go - you'll have a ball. I certainly did!

Take Two: top attractions

Coffee houses

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Cafe museum Wien Turismums Christian Stemper

The city's coffee houses are quintessential Vienna, and justifiably world-renowned. They are cosy and comfortable, typically featuring red velvet seats and opulent chandeliers; Cafe Museum, which has a simpler style, is one of the most famous, and Klimt and Schiele were regulars.

Das Loft

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Das Loft Wien Turismums
 

There are two Viennas: the old city of art and music and the new hip Vienna. Das Loft is very much part of the latter. It's a stunning, achingly trendy restaurant and bar on the Sofitel's 18th floor. With cityscape views to die for and an incredible illuminated ceiling by multimedia artist Pipilotti Rist, it's a must-visit, if you can get past the velvet rope!

Getting there

* Gemma stayed at the Park Hyatt Vienna — where sumptuous rooms start from €309 per person per night

* Return flights from Dublin to Vienna airport start from as little as €80 return in January 2019

* For more in-depth information on the artistic and intellectual powerhouse that is Vienna, visit the Vienna Tourist Board’s website at www.vienna.info

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