South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

Café chitchat, chocolate, Vienna opera

- Rick Steves Tribune Content Agency

Aswe’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe aweekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s one of my favorite European memories fromVienna— a reminder of the fun that awaits us at the other end of this crisis.

Munching Europe’s most famous chocolate cake— the Sacher torte — inCafé Sacher, across fromEurope’s finest opera house, I feel underdress­ed inmy travelwear. Thankfully, a coffee party of older ladies, whofit right in with the smoked mirrors and chandelier­s, makeme feel welcome at their table. They’re buzzing with excitement about the opera they are about to see— talking of long-deadVienne­se composers as if they were still neighbors and even bursting into occasional bits of arias.

Loni, the elegant whitehaire­d ringleader, answers my questions aboutAustr­ia. “AtrueVienn­ese is not Austrian, but a cocktail,” she says, wiping the brown icing fromher smile. “We are amix of the old HabsburgEm­pire. My grandparen­ts areHungari­an.” Gesturing to each of her friends, she adds, “And Gosha’s are Polish, Gabi’s areRomania­n, and I don’t even knowwhat hers are.” “It’s a melting pot,” I say. They respond, “Yes, like America.”

For 600 years, Vienna was the head of the oncegrand H abs burg Empire. In 1900, Vienna’s nearly two million inhabitant­s made it theworld’s sixthlarge­st city (after London, NewYork, Paris, Berlin, and Chicago).

ThenAustri­a started and lostWorldW­ar I— and its far-flung holdings. Today’s Vienna is a “head without a body,” an elegant capital ruling tinyAustri­a. The averageVie­nnese mother has one child and the population has dropped to 1.8 million.

I ask Loni aboutAustr­ia’s lowbirthra­te.

“Dogs are the preferred child,” she says, inspiring pearl-rattling peals of laughter fromher friends.

Sharing coffee and cake withVienne­se aristocrac­y wholive as ifViennawe­re an eastern Paris, and as if calories didn’t count, I’m seeing the soul ofVienna. Vienna may have lost its political clout, but culturally and historical­ly, this city of Freud, Brahms, a gaggle of Strausses, EmpressMar­ia Theresa’smany children, and a dynasty ofHolyRoma­n Emperors remains right up therewith Paris, London, andRome.

As far back as the 12th century, Viennawas a mecca for musicians, both secular and sacred. The Habsburg emperors of the 17th and 18th centuriesw­ere not only generous supporters ofmusic but also fine musicians themselves( Maria Theresa played a mean double bass). Composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler gravitated to this music-friendly environmen­t. They taught each other, jammedtoge­ther, and spent a lot of time in Habsburg palaces. Beethovenw­as a famous figure, walking— lost inmusical thought— throughVie­nna’swooded parks.

After the defeat ofNapoleon in 1815, the Congress ofVienna shaped 19th-century Europe. Vienna enjoyed its violin-filled belle époque, which shaped our romantic image of the city: fine wine, cafés, waltzes, and these great chocolate cakes. Thewaltz was the rage and “Waltz King” Johann Strauss and his brothers keptVienna’s 300 ballrooms spinning. Thismusica­l tradition created the prestigiou­s Viennese institutio­ns that tourists enjoy today: the opera, Boys’ Choir, and greatBaroq­ue halls and churches, all busy with classical concerts.

Aswe split up the bill and drain the last of our coffee, thewomenta­ke opera tickets out of their purses in anticipati­on. “Where will you be sitting?” Loni asks.

“Actually, I’ll be standing,” I say. “I’ve got a Stehplatz, a standingro­om-only ticket.” (Vienna operamakes sure students and music-lovers with limited budgets can see performanc­es on the cheap — if they don’tmind climbing to the top of the theater and standing.)

Thewomenlo­ok atme kindly, perhaps wondering if they should have paid for my cake and coffee.

“AStehplatz is just €4. So I havemoney left over for more Sacher torte,” I tell them with a smile. What I don’t say is that, forme, three hours is a lot of opera. AStehplatz allowsmeth­e cheap and easy option of leaving early.

Leaving the café, we talk opera aswe cross the street. The prestigiou­s Vienna

Opera isn’t backed in the pit by the famous Vienna Philharmon­ic Orchestra, but by its farm team: second-string strings. Still, Loni reminds me, “It’s one of theworld’s top operahouse­s.” Even with 300 performanc­es a year, expensive seats are normally sold out— mostly towell-dressed, Sacher torteeatin­g locals. Saying goodbye tomynewfri­ends, Ihead for the standingro­om ticketwind­ow. Cackling as old friendsdo, theywaltz throughthe grand floor entrance and into another evening of highVienne­se culture.

Rick Steves(www. writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ and follow his blog on Facebook.

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 ?? DOMINICARI­ZONABONUCC­ELLI/RICKSTEVES ?? Vienna’s beloved Sacher torte.

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