Viennese Balls

Ever since the 19th-century Congress of Vienna—when pundits joked "The city dances, but it never gets anything done"—Viennese extravagance and gaiety have been world-famous. Fasching, the season of Carnival, was given over to court balls, opera balls, masked balls, chambermaids' and bakers' balls, and a hundred other gatherings, many held within the glittering interiors of Baroque theaters and palaces. Presiding over the dazzling evening gowns and gilt-encrusted uniforms, towering headdresses, flirtatious fans, "Wine, Women, and Song," Die Fledermaus, "Blue Danube," hand kissing, and gay abandon was the baton of the waltz emperor, Johann Strauss. White-gloved women and men in white tie would glide over marble floors to his heavenly melodies. They still do. Now, as in the days of Franz Josef, Vienna's old three-quarter-time rhythm strikes up anew each year at New Year's Eve and continues through Carnival, or Fasching.

During January and February as many as 40 balls may be held in a single evening. Many events are organized by a professional group, including the Kaiserball (Imperial Ball), Philharmonikerball (Ball of the Philharmonic Orchestra), Kaffeesiederball (Coffee Brewers' Ball), the Zuckerbaeckerball (Confectioners' Ball), or the Opernball (Opera Ball). The latter is the most famous—some say too famous. This event transforms the Vienna Opera House into the world's most beautiful ballroom (and transfixes all of Austria when shown live on national television). The invitation reads "Frack mit Dekorationen," which means that ball gowns and tails are usually required for most events (you can always get your tux from a rental agency) and women mustn't wear white (reserved for debutantes). But there's something for everyone these days, including the "Ball of Bad Taste" or "Wallflower Ball." The zaniest might be the Life Ball, sponsored by a charity raising funds for people with HIV. After your gala evening, finish off the morning with a Katerfrühstuck—hangover breakfast—of goulash soup.

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