South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
Café chitchat, chocolate, Vienna opera
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. ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.