Caught up in a Vi­en­nese whirl

Gemma Ful­lam

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - ACES -

ACENTURY 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.

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

‘The waltz was once con­sid­ered very naughty in­deed’

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.

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

Part of the 6,000strong crowd danc­ing at a ball in the mag­nif­i­cent Hof­burg Palace, once an im­pe­rial res­i­dence. Photo: Wien Touris­mus

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