Vienna; SYMPHONY, SACHER TORTES
Vienna — The Hofburg Palace in Vienna has not had a royal occupant since 1918 when Emperor Karl I was forced to abdicate to make way for a new republic. Much of the palace -- which was built between the 13th and 18th centuries -- is now used for government offices, but the wing which held the royal apartments has been preserved. In it lingers the memory of a time when the royal family of Austria, the Hapsburgs, was one of the most powerful in the world. The expansive banquet table of the beloved Emperor Franz Joseph (who ruled from 1848 to 1916) has been maintained with meticulous care. His long table is still set for a formal dinner with elaborate silverware and serving trays. As you walk into the room, it's difficult to ignore the feeling that all of Vienna is waiting for Emperor Franz Joseph to return, lift up his fork, and get all Vienna dancing again.
Vienna moves to a current beat, but the strains of Haydn and Schubert, who both sang in the Vienna Boys' Choir, can ever be heard in the background. Vienna's contribution to the history of music has been awesome, and the city celebrates its illustrious composers at every turn.
For example, there are some 30 houses in Vienna which are referred to as ''Beethoven's House.'' Apparently it's not an exaggeration since a propensity for composing on his piano in the middle of the night and not paying his rent kept Beethoven hopping around the city. Similarly, Mozart had at least 10 addresses and Brahms, Schubert, and many others also moved around. I learned about these perambulating composers one day when my husband and I agreed to meet for dinner at the restaurant next to Beethoven's House. We each had a delightful dinner that night - though in different restaurants.
Vienna's musical dominance is more than a memory, though - the Vienna State Opera, or Staatsoper, is one of the best in the world. The 19th-century opera house -- a landmark of European civility and gentility -- is open from September to June. Prices, by American standards, are reasonable, though tickets are often difficult to get. There are five tiers of boxes that give the theater its distinctiveness, and while the costumes and jewels of the people in the boxes no longer rival those on the stage, everyone does dress well.
The opera house itself has been very much designed for social display: At intermissions, for example, nearly everyone heads for one of the two long galleries that flank the hall. There are no cartons of orange juice on sale here , but you can get chocolates, caviar, and smoked salmon. After enjoying these delicacies, the rule is to join in the promenade, up and down the galleries, that makes intermission something of a show in itself. Men wear dark suits and occasionally tuxedoes, women wear long skirts. The propensity, for some reason, is for the elegant to be dressed in black-and-white. (''They've been wearing black since the fall of the Empire,'' an Englishwoman dressed in red joked to me one night.)
The opera performs many of the works of Viennese composers -- Mozart is often heard -- though the Viennese have not always been generous to their own. The composer Gustav Mahler, for example, was conductor of the Opera and the Philharmonic Orchestra, but none of his symphonies ever premiered in Vienna.
Bringing some democracy to its music, Vienna has the Volksoper where tickets are less expensive and the taste runs more to light operas and operettas. (There is also less promenading.) In the summer, music moves outside -- there are concerts in parks, at the Vienna Woods, and in the courtyards of the palaces.
If Vienna is a city with a regal history, it is also a city that has succeeded in imbuing everything from coffeehouses to opera houses with the dignity of its royal and cultured past. Indeed, food in Vienna is a joy. The coffeehouses which are scattered throughout the city are places to rest, read the newspaper, meet a friend. A beverage often costs about $1.50, but for that you're really buying the atmosphere, the conversation, and the chance to sit, undisturbed, for hours.
The rich and airy schlag, or whipped cream, seems to accompany everything wonderful in Vienna, and it's a very different product from the mundane whipped topping that Americans know. At one cafe, I asked the waiter what it was that made the schlag so sublime. ''Nothing special,'' he said with a wink. ''That's the way the cream from Austrian cows tastes.''
At one modern coffeehouse, Hawelka, which is frequented by artists and intellectuals, the owner has been known to accept poems and paintings in exchange for a snack and atmosphere. The walls are covered with these unusual payments.
There are, obviously, more immediate pleasures to the coffeehouses than their sense of history and the knowledge that they were once the haunts of highest society. But if the coffeehouses are for sitting and dreaming, the konditoreien are for indulging in wonderful confections -- with or without schlag. If you have only a few hours to discover the flavor of Vienna, you can do no better than to sit in Demel, the ultimate konditorei. Here rich cakes, delicate pastries, and unusual lunchtime salads are displayed with elegance and served by waitresses in traditional black-aproned uniforms with white collars. There is something timeless about Demel: It is quiet and refined, it seems to have existed forever. As at most konditorei, there is no language barrier here because instead of perusing a menu, you walk up to the display of riches and point to the one that captures your fancy.
While it's difficult to find bad pastry in Vienna, another place to experience the truly sublime is at the Hotel Sacher, where the luscious sacher torte was first created. This treat is made of chocolate cake layered with apricot jam and covered with a thick, hardened, chocolate coating. Since I am not a great chocolate fan, I had thought to skip this dessert -- but one taste convinced me that whatever miracles Austrian cows create for schlag, Viennese pastry chefs perform tenfold with chocolate.
Eating places in Vienna are often convivial, and there is hearty, good food. While there is some elegant dining in the city, the locals tend to favor places with wooden tables, candles, and thick soups served in large crocks.
The gracious mixing of history and culture, of indulgence and refinement that are trademarks of Vienna make time spent there a pleasure. This is a city of a more genteel era, and niceties are not forgotten. At the Hotel Regina where we stayed, our room was enormous with separate dressing rooms and bath, heated towel racks, and puffy down quilts. The price of about $65 (this was one of the most expensive rooms in the hotel) included a breakfast buffet each morning where fresh rolls, Viennese breads, yogurt, fruits and jams were displayed. From our window, we could look across the street at the Votive Church, a gothic cathedral built in the 19th century by Emperor Franz Joseph in thanksgiving for having survived an assassination attempt. The other monumental church in the city is St. Stephen's which, like the Hofburg palace, was built over the centuries, beginning in the 1200s. The church is a dramatic mix of styles: Baroque altars, a Romanesque entrance, and the huge Gothic tower.
In the 19th century, Emperor Franz Joseph (who obviously had a hand in most of what is modern Vienna) had the city fortifications razed and replaced the walls that had encircled the city with imposing buildings. The resultant street, called the Ringstrasse, reveals Vienna's image of itself: the opera house is there, the national art museum, the university, and several outstanding government buildings. If there is commerce in Vienna, it takes a side path to culture, music, and art.
The art museum, an enormous box of a building from the outside, overwhelms you when you walk in with its multi-colored marble pillars and ceiling painting. Up the long staircase, there is a large sculpture by Antonio Canova of Theseus battling the centaur. The galleries on each side are imposing at first -- you enter them through thick wooden doors, but then find that there are several couches in the center of each one, for contemplating the works at ease. Here, 16 th-century art from Northern Europe is given eloquent play. There is a room filled with Breugel, the Dutch artist who discovered humor and meaning in common themes, and another room where Rubens' cherubs descend on you from all sides. Rembrandt, Durer, Raphael, and many of the Italian Renaissance painters are also well-represented.
The art museum faces the natural history museum across a large courtyard, and in the center is the statue of Maria Theresa -- the Empress who ruled the Austrian empire from 1740-1780. Among her other legacies, Maria Theresa produced 16 children. In the Hapsburg tradition of expanding the empire by marriage, her offspring became princes, princesses, and rulers of various countries. Vienna is not large, its population is now only about one-and-a-half million, but it often seems that Viennese descendants are connected to every great event in European history. For example, two of Maria Theresa's daughters became queens, including Marie Antoinette, who was eventually beheaded as queen of France.
It is much easier in Vienna to get information about the Hapsburg dynasty than to learn anything at all about more recent events. And there is good reason for that, since after World War I, Vienna sank in a moral chasm of blood and anti-Semitism. After the World War II, Vienna was occupied until 1955, and it has been struggling since then to regain its pride, stature, and identity. Happily, it has succeeded. Even in its darkest days, Vienna was a remarkable cultural center, and by calling on these past glories, the updated Vienna has become alluring once again.
The city reveals itself gradually. Walking through back streets, you discover the tiny courtyards and alleys that give it charm, and the magnificent buildings that became part of Imperial Vienna even as the Empire was beginning to dissolve. But Vienna now is flourishing -- old Europe at its finest, only ever so slightly humbled.