How grand to have been born a king or queen -- at least the happily-ever-after kind. Perhaps I've overdosed on historical novels, but this is one of my quirky daydreams. And in elegant Vienna, the most regal of Europe's capitals, it's wonderfully easy to imagine you hold claim to a rich and splendiferous throne.
London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Madrid may all have crowned monarchs in residence, but as cities they are solidly middle class. No ruler sits today on Vienna's once imperial throne, but the aura of empire is draped luxuriously across its ancient precincts like a sumptuous, ermine-trimmed robe. I've sensed the magic on every visit, and almost subconsciously I find myself dressing far more formally when I'm there -- even for a day of sightseeing. We pretending monarchs, I suppose, feel obligated to display a noble image.
Beneath the imposing walls of the Hofburg, the historic palace of the Hapsburg dynasty, you can indulge in pleasures worthy of royalty. The empire is gone but its cultural accomplishments remain. I've heard some of the world's finest music at the Opera House, a gleamingly regal hall; viewed magnificent art treasures at the National Gallery of Art, a vast imperial collection ranking with the very best of Europe; and sampled the elaborate chocolate creations at Demel's, surely the finest -- and most ornate -- pastry shop anywhere. Austrian beer is great, and so is the wine.
Oh, yes, I can do all this at home -- but not in the fairy-tale setting of Old Vienna, swept clean and polished as brightly as a Disney kingdom. For imperial atmosphere, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop down the city's narrow, picturesque streets, past the colorful facades of former palaces, where flowers spill from window boxes. Traffic is banned from many streets, adding to the city's quaint charm.
My aristocratic fantasy is realized, too, in the elegant decor of almost any public building: Sparkling chandeliers hang overhead at modest coffeehouses, and you sit at marble tables beside pillars trimmed in gold leaf. The Viennese themselves are equally decorative, as they throng the Grabenstrasse and Karntnerstrasse -- the city's most fashionable shopping streets -- in neatly tailored attire that would do nicely for an important court function.
I have found the Viennese unfailingly polite although often rather formal, which is entirely appropriate. A certain haughtiness is, after all, expected when you are moving in royal circles. I don't even mind the occasional snooty waiter or hotel clerk, many of whom can converse quite fluently in three or four languages -- an ability well beyond me.
But formal doesn't mean staid. Vienna's street scene is remarkably festive, and on any evening large window-shopping crowds gather around gypsy musicians, clowns and other street performers. On a visit earlier this year, I was delighted by a sidewalk organ grinder who was cranking out the favorite waltz tunes from Vienna's very musical heritage. He could have been left over from the days of the Hapsburgs.
Vienna, it must be said, is an expensive city, and the royal life can be costly if you are not careful. A few years back, my wife and I reserved seats by mail for two performances at the Opera House and sent a check for $150 to cover what we thought was the full price. When we showed up at the ticket counter, we discovered we had paid for only the first opera. The clerk told us we owed another $150 for the second opera the next night. But our money had bought us second-row seats in the orchestra, and when the usher escorted us down the aisle amid the hall's Old World splendor I felt positively kingly.
Still, it is possible to indulge in aristocratic dreams on a middle-class budget. On opera nights, for example, we dine outdoors on plates of bratwurst and sauerkraut sold for about $2.50 each from vending carts outside the Opera House entrance. And we sometimes have skipped lunch so we could splurge on a fancy cake and whipped cream-topped coffee at Demel's, where the check for this little snack can easily climb to $15 or $20. Public transportation is so good, you almost never need a taxi. It's not regal, but it's cheap.
Vienna is my favorite European city, though I am very fond of Venice too. The two appeal to me, as a visitor, because they have emerged from the past relatively unscathed. It is as if they were quick frozen in time a century or two ago, preserved for future generations. The present has intruded, but not really all that much. In Vienna, I have no trouble at all imagining I might bump into Mozart on a stroll through the streets.
On a short stay last February, I checked into the Hotel Konig von Ungarn, a small, charming hotel just behind St. Stephen's Cathedral in the old city. Appealingly traditional in style, it is located next-door to Figaro House, Mozart's residence from 1784 to 1787 while he was writing the opera "The Marriage of Figaro" and other pieces. Mozart's house is now a city museum, full of the musician's memorabilia. I picked the hotel because I liked the idea of Mozart, or at least his memory, as a neighbor.
The hotel, which is expensive, was the first of my indulgences, and I planned others in a rambling walking tour of imperial Vienna. My idea was not so much to pursue Hapsburg history as it was to sample the regal life, as exemplified by the Hapsburgs, as best I could on a restricted budget. Ever the Sybarites, we royal pretenders know that Vienna can be fun. In my quest, I managed to order -- inadvertently, I swear -- the most expensive meal in my life. But more about that in due course.
To put yourself in the proper mood, you should first tour the lavish imperial apartments in the Hofburg, a sprawling complex of monumental structures that was home to the Hapsburgs from the 13th century. The exterior walls, once a sullen, sooty gray, are being scrubbed to a gleaming creamlike color, which is much more inviting. I had toured the apartments twice before, so I decided on this trip I would take a rather offbeat look at Hapsburg home life. I visited the Imperial Furniture Depot, the huge warehouse where much of the leftover family furniture is stored. The furniture once decorated other Hapsburg palaces in the empire.
About a 20-minute walk southwest of the Hofburg at 88 Mariahilferstrasse, the depot was founded in the mid-1700s by Empress Maria Theresa, the mother of 16, as a way to keep a frugal accounting of her large family's often very expensive possessions. Everything not currently in use was to be registered, repaired and stored in the depot. Today the present depot, which was built at the turn of the century, is a little-visited but wonderfully fascinating museum. Its several floors, overflowing with thousands of objects, resemble a huge furniture showroom dealing only in exquisite antiques. Some are dispatched on loan to Austria's embassies around the world.
My wife and I were the only visitors for the afternoon's 60-minute escorted tour, so it was not hard for me to imagine myself a Hapsburg cousin picking out a few select pieces for a country estate. Many of the items have interesting histories. Our English-speaking guide pointed out a collection of eight chairs, the cushions of which had been embroidered by eight of Maria Theresa's daughters, each in a different design. One of the chairs, he said, was the work of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette of France. I was impressed by immense Bohemian crystal chandeliers.
Also within walking distance of the Hofburg is another royal palace -- the far more appealing Belvedere, the former summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Fronting broad, formal gardens, it is a baroque delight representing the pomp and splendor of the Austrian empire at the height of its power. From the balcony, you can see the city skyline and the green hillsides of the Vienna Woods beyond.
The palace and gardens are worthy artworks themselves, but Belvedere also houses an interesting collection of Austrian art, including many excellent paintings by Gustav Klimt, Vienna's famed impressionist. We own an inexpensive print of a Klimt garden scene, purchased on a prior stay in Vienna, so our visit to the Klimt gallery was something of a pilgrimage. My theory of museum going: When you are surrounded by the sort of abundance Vienna offers, stick to the works you know and love.
On our walk back toward the Hofburg, we stopped at the Secession building, an architectural gem built at the end of the 19th century to celebrate art nouveau in Vienna. As decorative as the Belvedere, though more restrained, it displays a famous frieze by Klimt covering three walls. The frieze was designed as a backdrop for a sculpture of Beethoven, once a resident of Vienna, and is said to present a visual interpretation of the final chorale of Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony."
The treasures of empire can be seen in the National Gallery of Art, located just across a broad plaza from the Hofburg. I went in search of the paintings of Pieter Brueghel. An innovator, the master Flemish artist captured the everyday life of 16th-century Europe. I counted a dozen of his works in the gallery, representing almost half of his total surviving output. My favorite is "The Hunters in Winter," a lively village panorama depicting a group of townsmen returning from a hunt.
One night we took in the opera, a performance of Gaetano Donizetti's "The Elixer of Love" starring Alfredo Kraus. It was a last-minute indulgence, and we accepted the only seats available, again at $75 each. But the price no longer buys seating at the front of the orchestra. We sat in the second of the tiers of boxes that are stacked grandly one above the other. But it was a box seat nevertheless, which is an enjoyable luxury even when the view is sometimes limited.
And then there was that expensive dinner I mentioned. My wife treated as a birthday present for me. We dined at the "Zu Den Drei Husaren" -- the Three Hussars -- one of Vienna's finest, which was only a five-minute walk from our hotel. She realized it would be pricey, but had no idea how much so until she got the check.
The restaurant is divided into several small rooms, each decorated with antique paintings. It has the elegance of an art gallery and the bustle of an opening reception for a new exhibition. A piano plays in the background.
The menu is a la carte, and I ordered a small salad of raddiccio and endive and an entree of veal medallions in wine sauce with snap peas, cherry tomatoes, crusty potato balls and spinach phyllo with pine nuts. Before they arrived, the waiter wheeled up an enormous cart of appetizers, and we each took a tiny serving of three. We thought the appetizers were free, but they alone totaled $60, as it turned out. My wife didn't know how rapidly the bill was climbing.
We chose a bottle of Austrian chardonnay and finished with a dessert of white praline mousse. It was ringed with heated slices of mango and topped with toasted coconut and raspberry puree. I thought it a grand conclusion to a royal meal, and all the more enjoyable because I wasn't paying. When the check came, my wife calculated schillings into dollars and came up with a total of $225. A trifle to the Hapsburgs, I would imagine. My wife thought otherwise.
Our family budget could tolerate no more of these regal extravagances. Although I was on a basic expense account, indulgences such as my birthday dinner and the opera as well as my wife's expenses came out of our own pockets. So I woke up to real life and spent the rest of my stay as a commoner might -- counting coins and spending them reluctantly.
In a bookstore, I picked up a brochure in English called "Walks Through Vienna," which describes several half-day rambles through interesting back streets of Old Vienna I might never have discovered on my own.
One such walk leads from the Rathaus (City Hall) past the Beethoven Memorial Rooms, where the composer lived from 1803 to 1808; around Hoher Markt, Vienna's oldest square; through the Jewish Quarter, where only one of Vienna's 94 synagogues survived destruction by the Nazis; and concludes near Griechen Beisl, a still-operating restaurant said to date back to the 15th century. Beethoven, who lived in the neighborhood, and Schubert reportedly dined there.
We, however, had already stopped for lunch at the Cafe Central, a former literary hangout that has recently reopened. (Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionist, reportedly favored it; a varied assortment of historical footsteps wanders Vienna's imperial streets.) Seated at a doorway table is a life-size wood sculpture of a mustachioed man who looks as if he might be Trotsky. A red wool scarf is wrapped around his neck.
Imperial in decor, the Cafe Central features crystal chandeliers, tall pillars, gold trim, marble tables and potted plants. It's a fancy place and always crowded, but the prices are reasonable and the food hearty and good. We ordered big bowls of Hungarian goulash soup, fat frankfurters topped with fresh horseradish, a basket of warm rolls, two tall glasses of beer and tea. The check came to about $30.
Another day, we ate lunch at Figlmuller's, a popular wine restaurant noted for its schnitzel, or so the guidebook said. We found it down a hidden passageway on the north side of St. Stephen's Cathedral, about two minutes from our hotel. It was packed, and so we asked if we could share a table with a tall, blond woman we assumed was Viennese. She was just finishing a dessert and motioned us to sit. When the waitress came, she carried no menu but asked simply, "Schnitzel?" We looked at each other, shrugged, and nodded "yes." The woman broke out into a wide grin.
Had we blundered? I wondered. A pitcher of wine arrived, and soon enough the schnitzel followed. We each were served with a large plate that literally was covered by the largest pieces of meat I have ever seen. Thin, tender and nicely breaded, the schnitzel lapped over all sides of the plate. I had to fold mine back so it wouldn't smear the table. We must have looked stunned, because our tablemate began to laugh. She was, it turned out, on business from Finland, and she had been as surprised by the meal as we were. Our check for this very filling lunch came to about $35.
On our last night in Vienna, neither of us was in any hurry to get back to the hotel. We didn't want our stay in Vienna to end. So we strolled the square outside the cathedral and turned down along Karntnerstrasse. Our path took us along lovely traffic-free promenades that epitomize for me all the positive aspects of urban life in which Vienna glories -- bright lights, inviting cafes, interesting shop windows, diverse architecture and evening crowds on the streets.
If I were king, Vienna is the kind of city I would want as my capital.
See related story, Page E3.
WAYS & MEANS
As a former imperial capital, Vienna is a practical gateway to the cities of its empire. Prague is about a six-hour trip by comfortable train, which operates daily, and you can get to Budapest in about five hours by hydrofoil on the Danube River. GETTING THERE: There are no nonstop flights from Washington to Vienna. You can make connections in New York for Vienna on Pan Am, TWA and several foreign carriers or fly from Washington on Pan Am and Lufthansa, connecting in Frankfort for Vienna.
Austrian Airlines offers nonstop service from New York to Vienna several times weekly. As of Oct. 1, the round-trip fare from Washington via New York is $750, based on a 30-day advance purchase and travel Monday through Thursday. Weekend travel is an additional $50. WHERE TO STAY: Accommodations range from moderately priced pensions ($40 and up for two) to luxury-class hotels at $225 or more a night. If possible, try to stay within the old city or as close to it as possible -- although this usually adds to the price. Much of what you will want to see and do can be reached on foot in the old city.
I stayed on this visit at the Hotel Konig von Ungarn, a small four-star hotel with Old World style and charm. A room for two, including a bountiful continental breakfast, was about $160 a night. It is located at 10 Schulerstrasse, a narrow cobblestone street behind St. Stephen's Cathedral. On a previous visit, I stayed at Pension Pertschy, a fine four-star pension at 5 Hapsburgergasse, just a few steps from the entrance to the Hofburg. A room for two begins at about $80 a night.
The Austrian Tourist Information Office in New York and tourist offices in Vienna distribute a brochure listing lodgings by category. It includes information on amenities and rates. A detailed locater map is included. WHERE TO EAT: I've never had a bad meal in Vienna. I've dined agreeably on spicy sausages sold from vending carts for $2.50 each and veal medallions in a wine sauce at the five-star Zu Den Drei Husaren, a superb gourmet restaurant, for $100 a person. Salut, a stylishly modern four-star restaurant close to the Opera House, features a fine French-oriented menu. A full dinner for two with wine is about $80.
To save money for an occasional splurge, try one of the comfortable old taverns, such as Gottweiger Stiftskeller on Spiegelgasse. Heavy beams line the ceiling, the walls are paneled, the windows etched, and everyone hangs their coats on hooks lining the walls. A lunch of salad, bratwurst with sauerkraut and beer for two comes to about $18.
Do not miss Demel's, a fancy pastry shop. It is a treat, although an expensive one. The whipped cream is served by the bowlful to be spooned into your coffee.
Cafes such as the stylish Cafe Central at the corner of Herrengasse and Stauchgasse serve moderately priced sandwiches and soups. A chain of restaurants called Wienerwald, found all over Vienna, offers roast chicken dinners for about $8 per person.
The Austrian Tourist Information Office and tourist offices in Vienna distribute a brochure listing restaurants of all types by category -- from five-star restaurant to tavern. INFORMATION: For more information, contact the Austrian Tourist Information Office, 500 Fifth Ave., 20th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10110, (212) 944-6880.