Since moving to Zürich, I have been told exactly three hundred and eighty seven times that I had to see Vienna. I love cafes. Vienna. I love music. Vienna. I love strolling through backstreets, photographing architecture, and lazing around parcs, where I can happily lounge on the grass for hours just reading a book. Again, Vienna, Vienna, Vienna. So, I went to Vienna, half expecting to find a replica of Zürich. Instead, I felt as if I dropped off the map and the calendar, all at once, into a realm all-too-familiar to this bibliophile.
Vienna is a fairy tale city. It’s a city that seems to have established its reputation centuries ago, during a time of Once Upon a Time, and you, as its welcomed visitor, exist within its world to carry on the tradition. Vienna, known as Wien in German, crosses many boundaries and defies cliché labels and stereotypes, even as it embraces them. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who was born in Salzburg and settled in Vienna at the age of 25, achieving much of his critical success while living there) is as ubiquitous in Vienna as clocks in Switzerland, yet his familiar face on nearly every street corner in the Innere Stadt is something I welcome, especially when it’s displayed on the foil wrapping of the iconic eponymous Kugeln praline filled with marzipan and chocolate ganache! Yes, Vienna is sweet to me in many ways, and it’s easy to get caught up in the grandeur and luxury, feeling as if I’ve stepped into another world, and yet, I find myself completely at home.
What follows is a Flash Fiction Fairy Tale, or FFFT™ about journey to a magical realm called Vienna. The True Story™ follows.
Vienna FFFT (based on a true story)
Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, a princess (who did not know she was truly a princess) went on a quest. Her journey led her to a magical land called Vienna. She found a ring, which led her to a golden palace, where she could stay and rest on a bed of clouds. The princess dined with a prince, who gave her good directions, as she set off to continue her journey. She soon befriended a songbird, who accompanied her, singing stories in her ear about everything she passed along the way. They entered an enchanted forest, where they found themselves surrounded by sugar plums and delicacies of the finest sort. Here, she met a fairy godmother, who gave her a key that would unlock hidden treasures. The princess, with her songbird on her shoulder, attended a ball, and musicians created the most exquisite music as entertainment. She danced through the night on streets that gleamed in moonlight, the percussive clatter of horse-drawn carriages echoing through the walkways and squares. The songbird directed her to a passageway that led her to an overlook, where she could survey the land in all its finery. The princess discovered a secret, which was the answer to her quest. She had fulfilled her journey’s purpose, and knew it would be time to go home. When she left the palace, she was flushed with joy, knowing that she could return anytime she wished, for she now had the key tucked safely away. She skipped toward home, golden apples filling her pockets.
What follows is The True Story™ of the Viennese paradoxes and highlights that help to make this mystical musical city a place of exquisite magic and delight, a TFT True Fairy Tale:
The princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess
I’m a dreamer at heart, in terms of my yearning for magic found anywhere and everywhere possible. I want to be uplifted; I want to be transformed by my experiences. I’m a poet; a writer; a teacher. I had reached the end of the academic year, and I was ready for some illumination and magic, in any way, shape or form. For the majority of the month of June, I had been a version of Cinderella, surrounded by my work of piles of students’ papers to mark, final grades and comments to enter, and a classroom to pack up for the summer and clean.
After the ordeals of June, Vienna found me. I travelled to Vienna just after school adjourned for summer holidays, because I wanted to escape the city and experience something entirely new. What ended up happening is rather strange and unpredictable: instead of discovering something external, I felt transformed internally, uplifted by my surroundings, experiences, and the indulgences that Vienna seems to willingly offer. It becomes easy to relax there, to unwind and let the luxury enfold me in its arms. Yes, I was as lucky as a princess, living in a dream for the four days in Vienna.
If all roads lead to Rome, all hearts lead to Vienna. I had never been to the city, and I had been imagining the details of what I would find there. Would people be waltzing down the streets? Would the buildings be covered in fondant icing? I somehow doubted this, yet knew intuitively that Vienna carried fantastical elements. It was a city of extravagant decadence, in my mind, and I was going to discover it, and perhaps return to Zürich with something more to share… this was the beginnings of a quest, shrouded in alluring mystery.
The Ring and the Golden Palace
One might think that The Ring is a reference to Wagner, and it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to relate the word to something of epic proportion. The Ring is a circuit of roads encircling the main part of the city, each with the suffix ring (e.g. Opernring, Schubertring, Stubenring, Burgring, etc.). Within these ring roads lies the first district in Vienna, the Innere Stadt, which I explored during this initial trip.
The Ring is also the name of a Viennese hotel that defies convention, as it can qualify as luxury without making one feel removed from the comforts of home. Instead of opulent surroundings that would blind someone with extravagance, The Ring’s light beckons, inviting visitors to bask in the glow and stay in the sunshine. The staff is beyond hospitable, taking cues from hotels like the W, which offers customer service with personality, wit and warmth. Likewise, from the moment I arrived, I felt welcomed by The Ring and catered to like royalty, yet I was also treated as an equal, even a friend. I know it’s a hotel’s business to make me feel at home, yet those at The Ring seem do it with such flair and fun that I don’t feel I’m an inconvenience. In other words, it’s easy to relax and enjoy each moment.
Time spent in the golden atmosphere of The Ring is an experience that naturally complements the personality and flavour of the city. The design dates back to the early 1900s, with a reconstructed interior that maintains some parts of the original decor, including a restoration of a cage elevator with beautiful wrought ironwork details. The lobby (which isn’t a typical lobby, actually– it looks more like a modern designer living room accented by Art Nouveau designs) is a hip, intimate place to relax before or after a day spent gallivanting around town. With wrap-around modern couches, muted tones, bright green apples, and water with cut limes, the entrance to The Ring served as refreshing respite before or after adventures.
What makes the hotel remarkable is one distinct detail: I felt as if I belonged there, and I felt like a celebrity (or, a princess) at the same time. It makes a difference to be greeted by name, and treated in a personal way. Life is certainly busy and hectic, and it’s the small moments of such intimacy and care that create connections. A flat-screen television on the wall displayed scrolling signatures of celebrities who have enjoyed the Ring’s splendours, intending to soon return. Scarlett Johansson, One Republic, and Queens of the Stone Age among them, the guests, each with a fond note of thanks, seem the very epitome of über-chic: relaxed and cool. I felt a certain hipness myself, as I ascended to my room in the glass elevator, which fit like a slipper.
A bed of clouds
I had asked for a room with a nice view, and my 6th floor suite, with vantage of a classic Baroque façade on the facing street, more than satisfied my request. With muted colours of green, beige, cream, and brown, the room exuded peace and harmony. Quiet, bright, and spacious, with high ceilings and plush carpeting with a certain patterned texture that felt a bit like a foot massage, the tranquil nature of the surroundings filtered into my subconscious, creating a carefree sort of mood that set the tone of the trip. Bliss.
There were three extra, unanticipated highlights, in my opinion: fine coffee, superb chocolate, and an incredible bed. Let’s start with the coffee, which is one of Vienna’s specialties, after all. I consider myself a coffee aficionado, and this was pure bliss, to have a Julius Meinl coffee machine, with assorted flavours from which to choose, en suite. Meinl was established in 1862 as the first company to sell roasted coffee (only green coffee beans were sold prior to the innovative idea), and ever since, they’ve continued their tradition of sophisticated indulgence in the finest flavoured coffee. Indulge I did– in morning espressos, afternoon melange, and evening decaffeinated varieties. It was a delight, only to be met by the chocolate truffles that I found on my pillow each night as part of the turn-down service. Truly decadent.
The bed itself was what one would wish for at every hotel: smooth, crisp cotton sheets that feel like cool silk against skin, plus the perfect amount of back support, with ample softness to relax into and drift away in bliss. Not too many pillows, but just enough to prop yourself up on while you’re sipping one of those Julius Meinl coffees!
Dining with the prince, who showed the way
When I awoke the first morning, I was primed to set out into the Innere Stadt, camera in hand. Luckily, I was able to first meet with Philippe, a true Prince, disguised as Guest Manager of the hotel. We met over a sumptuous breakfast of herb omelette and eggs benedict, with fruit, breads, hams and cheeses. Philippe told me stories of the hotel’s history, and its distinction as a top hotel in Vienna that makes a personal connection with guests.
Philippe has worked at luxury hotels and resorts, including ones in New York and Saint Tropez, and he knows what lies at the heart of a valuable experience. He told me about the café culture in Vienna, not-to-miss secret spots, noteworthy architecture, music highlights, and gardens worth taking a stroll through. As we chatted, I scribbled everything down in my travel notebook, and he kindly corrected spelling and made sure I was set to explore the city, step by step, without urgency. After all, a trip to Vienna seems to be more about the journey of discoveries, so why rush it?
Speaking of enjoying the leisure and discovery, it’s even better when accompanied by a live musical soundtrack. My good friend Elizabeth, a trained opera singer and conductor, travelled with me, serving as a mellifluous wellspring of inspiration and information along the way. Elizabeth studied in Vienna for two summers, and knows the city quite well. She sang the stories in my ear, so to speak, as we walked through the streets– and, she knew exactly where to go to find treasures hidden in the Innere Stadt, a.k.a. enchanted forest”.
Yes, the Innere Stadt is a labyrinth of flagstones and cobbled passage ways, each lined with gleaming storefronts and cafes, whose delicacies glitter like sugarplums themselves. There is much to admire about shopping in Vienna– between the high fashion, music, art, and books, it really does delight every sense. There is the world-famous Sacher-Torte, Punschkrapfen, and Mozart Kugeln, to name a few desserts that take delectable harmony to new heights. Yet, don’t forget the sweetness of… shoe shopping! Yes, Vienna also boasts excellent footwear, because one needs to be able to walk around in well-heeled style before and after savouring the café treats! Truly, it’s a happy open café atmosphere in the Innere Stadt, a place to see-and-be-seen, a place to float and flow through the streets, connecting with old friends and making new ones.
Along the way, with all of these meetings and greetings, you just might come across a kindred spirit, or Fairy godmother, as I did, in the form of a friend of a friend. Yes, I had been given the name of Frances, who lives in Vienna and teaches at the world-famous Music Conservatory. Not only was she warm and extending, but she took Elizabeth and I on an insider’s walking tour of the area, replete with several run-ins with internationally acclaimed musicians. We chatted with friends, toured backstreets with antique bookstores, and bypassed cafes serving Wiener Schnitzels larger than the plates themselves. All the while, Fran told us stories of Vienna, then and now. It was tremendous, to see the city through her eyes. She herself is a gifted pianist who came here thirty years ago to train as a musician, and she’s never left. With a spectacular career, a family, and multitudes of friends surrounding her, Fran seems to have the world on a string… and, what beautiful music it plays.
In a sense, the time with Fran coloured our day, giving us the key to discovering the city on our own terms, away from the guidebooks. See, Vienna is about the people, and the richness of the history, the music, the flavour, the life. Even the architecture of the buildings reflects the style of what came before, as influence on what is. It’s a beautiful symphony of interplay; a melody in which I had my own part to sing, in my reactions and my own reflection. I discovered that I don’t need to master Vienna in order to appreciate it… and, the more I learn about the true life of the city, the more I can see it and recognize it on its own terms.
Every story of a princess with a fairy godmother has to also have a ball, right? There is no symbolism here, no metaphor– the ball was an actual ball, a true Viennese Ball, like the balls in fairy tales, with floor length gowns and dances and all the pomp and circumstance of such an occasion. Horse-drawn carriages arrived at the Summer Ball of the Spanish Riding School, letting ladies and escorts enter the palace riding area from Michaelerplatz. The modern elite, dressed to the nines, with men in white tie, performed the Capriole, Levade, Courbette, and Quadrille, proving that spectacular festivities keep the tradition alive in Vienna. I simply loved seeing the ladies in gowns, gentlemen by their sides, filling the streets as they made their way to this Fête Impériale. Magic was definitely in the air.
After wandering through passageways in the Innere Stadt, I found the glass elevator on pedestrian Kartner Strasse, which led me to just one of many rooftop bars, with a spectacular view of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, as well as the huge ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, at the entrance of the Prater amusement park. I didn’t need to travel out to the Prater… I found ample amusement right there, in the heart of the city.
I suppose that was the answer that I found in Vienna; the answer to the quest: simply be in the heart. Be in my own heart. Bloom here and enjoy, making the most of the time. My experience in Vienna never involved rushing, which is amazing, for I’m notorious for trying to maximize each travel experience and see everything. In Vienna, it was easy to relax, enjoying the wonderful music along the way. I was lucky enough to see an opera performed in the opera house, as well as a live broadcast of Tosca right outside the following night. I walked through the outdoor food market, and visited the Secession art museum with its famous Klimt Beethoven Frieze and beautiful gold leaf dome. I paused at the reflecting pool across from Karlskirche, toasted with Almdudler at the student pub Einstein Café near the Rathaus, and finally found the Strauss statue, with swirling, waltzing angels, after picnicking in the Stadtpark. There were many highlights of the trip– so many that I couldn’t enumerate them. Certainly, my own series of not to miss gems will be different than another’s, and I’m no expert, yet I am enamoured with this city of fondant fun. It was a true Fairy Tale, sweet from start to finish, and I left the Ring Hotel with my share of apples for the ride home. I’m sure I’ll return to Vienna before long.
(Now that you’ve finished the true story, tell me, is it that different from the FFFT?)