It’s our last night in Vienna and we are strolling back though the streets to our hotel after a lovely evening in the city’s long-established Porgy & Bess jazz club. It’s January, the pavements have been frosty-white for the last few days and it’s now hats-down-over-the-ears freezing cold.
As we walk along, I notice a taxi driver step out of his parked cab for a quick cigarette. In my mind’s eye I can still see him stamping up and down on his feet to keep warm, the smoke from his cigarette seeming to bounce higher and higher into the cold night air as he pounded the pavement.
I remember that particular incident because it’s at that very moment, just when I’m watching the taxi driver, that we hear it – music, opera music if we aren’t mistaken and drifting full-on ‘forte’ in our direction.
But from where? There’s nothing else for it but to follow the sound of the soprano’s voice, and so across the road we go chasing the sound, before then turning right into a narrow street still in search of the singing. The music is getting even louder now and a minute or so later we find the source.
It’s a bar, a comfy looking bar it seems from just peering in through the big floor-to-ceiling window. It’s all old-fashioned lamps and sumptuous curtains and what look like lovely jewel-coloured cushions scattered around, giving the bar an inviting warmth. We head towards the door.
Inside, the music has changed and the place is now alive to the sound of ‘Musetta’s Waltz’ from Puccini’s La Bohème (think Cher and Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck) and the people inside are chatting and drinking wine. We hesitate in the doorway for a moment and are quickly beckoned in by a young man.
Before we know it glasses of wine are delivered to the little table where we are now sitting, Puccini has been replaced by Verdi, and a few of the couples are up dancing. Suddenly we realise we have stumbled into a private party. But one where we are made to feel so very welcome.
What a wonderful ending, indeed, to a terrific few days in what is surely one of the most majestic cities in Europe, and a fitting finale too for a visit to a city where music is everywhere.
Each time I visit, while it’s impossible not to admire the city’s collections of art, its wonderful coffee shops and the general beauty of Vienna’s streetscapes, it’s the music that always leaves its mark on me.
Right now, of course, they are in the midst of their winter ball season. Yes, Vienna still has such a ‘peak season’, with formal dancing taking place all over the city and with more than 400 balls over the couple of months after Christmas.
These culminate in the pièce de resistance, for which tickets are like hen’s teeth: the annual Vienna Opera Ball in mid to late February (depending on the Easter/Lent calendar), when seats in the opera house are dismantled to create a dance floor. It’s all floaty dresses, black tuxedos, and old-fashioned romantic splendour.
Even if dancing isn’t your thing, though, there are always plenty of other musical performances at all times of the year here so before you know it you’re entering into the swing of things.
This, after all, is the city that was home to Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, Mozart and Mahler, not to mention Johann Strauss of ‘Blue Danube’ fame.
Now, in all fairness, Vincenzo Bellini certainly can’t lay claim to any kind of Viennese heritage and yet it is his music that remains prominently in my mind when I think about the Austrian capital. Why? Because it is a performance of his La Sonnambula that first enticed me along to the city’s renowned opera house.
As a bit of an amateur but an opera aficionado nonetheless, I have sat in many opera houses around the world, from Paris and St Petersburg to Tallinn and Venice, but Vienna’s magnificent Staatsoper is in a league of its own.
When it first opened in 1869 Emperor Franz Joseph himself was seated in the audience. No doubt in a much grander box than the one I find myself in for the La Sonnambula performance but this is the first time I have ever sat in a box in any opera house and to say I am beside myself with excitement wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration.
It’s a wonderful experience, the music and the overall performance even further enhanced by the beautiful interior. It’s hard to believe it was virtually destroyed by bombing in World War II and then rebuilt, the auditorium itself totally recreated to match its original 19th century design.
Between musical delights in Vienna there’s so much else to see and do. On the morning after our night at the opera we beat a path along frost-covered pavements to the Belvedere, formerly a royal summer residence but now home to an art collection containing 18,600 works covering 900 years of art history.
I want to see the Gustav Klimt paintings and yes, his most famous work, ‘The Kiss’, is there in all its stunning gold-leaf and Art Nouveau glory.
One of the problems with Vienna, if ‘problems’ is the right word, is that there is so much to take in – from the Schönbrunn Palace and gardens to the Hofburg complex (which includes the world-famous Spanish Riding School with its performing Lipizzaner stallions).
Then there’s the Museumsquartier, which is all galleries (the Museum of Modern Art is here) and trendy cafes.
Talking of cafes, you can’t ‘do’ Vienna without experiencing its whole café society vibe and so we repair for a melange (a Viennese latte) to the coffee house in the Sacher Hotel – one of the most famous in the city and the one that gave its name to the Sachertorte cake.
With its old-world atmosphere and impeccable service, it also delivers a bill that is not at all reflective of its grandeur. No wonder it has been serving mouth-watering pastries for almost 150 years.
Leaving Vienna for home on a Sunday afternoon we have time to slip in one more musical performance and so off we go, this time to church.
We have booked well ahead (essential) for a seat in the gallery of the Imperial Chapel in the Hofburg Palace so that we can hear the Vienna Boys’ Choir do their stuff, as they do on a regular basis, at the weekly 9.15am mass.
What an unforgettable sound it is, those angelic voices rising to the gallery, cutting through the air like crystal and reverberating around the ancient interior of a chapel where no less than Mozart himself once gave his very own recitals.
It’s an experience that has stayed with me so that even now, some years on from my first magical morning in the Hofburg chapel, those young voices, like all the other wonderful musical resonances of Vienna, are with me still.