After we were suited up appropriately according to dress code, we headed off to dinner at the Reichenberger Griechenbeisl. The first mention of this building was in 1350. The tower, still standing today, survives from the Middle Ages. The inn has endured attacks from the Turks, earthquakes, floods, and the plague. Since then, the Griechenbeisl has been the meeting place for many prominent scholars, artists, and politicians including Mark Twain, Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, and even Johnny Cash. We dined in the Mark Twain Room where the ceiling and walls are covered with the signatures of the famous. The food and service was excellent and dinner was a fabulous beginning to our magical evening.
We arrived at the palace just as the doors were officially opening. There was a long line of people outside, some being dropped off in horse-drawn carriages. The men were elegantly dressed in tailcoats and dinner jackets while the women dazzled in floor-length gowns, jewels, and fur stoles. The scenery was so surreal. With the carriages, palace, and lavish dress, it was easy to imagine we had been transported to a different century, awaiting the doors to open into the palace where we would all be greeted the Habsburgs.
Soon the doors opened and the line moved swiftly. The electricity buzzing through the crowd grew more intense as we arrived in the entry room. It was illuminated by a grand chandelier. Straight ahead was a stately staircase covered by red carpet. Different languages floated around us as we ascended into room after room, each one more splendid than the last.
We watched the opening ceremony, with the lovely debutantes and their escorts parading through the main ballroom followed by Austrian dignitaries. At one point we unintentionally found ourselves in the service quarters of the palace, looking for the toilets. We asked a lone trumpet player to direct us. When we came out, he was still sitting on a bench practicing his music. He asked where we were from and when we told him he said, "Wow! You've come such a long way! And I hope you can stay a few more days to enjoy our wonderful city." We replied that we were lucky to have a couple more days after the ball to explore Vienna. He wished us a good night and a wonderful time in his city and when we reached the elevator, we heard the first few notes of the Star-Spangled Banner trumpeted behind us!
We remained bewitched throughout the rest of the evening. We watched couples, both amateur and expert, waltzing around the many dance floors. Eventually we retired to one of the rooms to rest our feet for a while. The band playing in this room was interesting because they were called something like Flowers on the Wind or Petals Flowing -- basically a tribute band to the 1970's. They sounded great and I was surprised to hear "Runaway Trains" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a few other American rock songs. Couples took to the floor in full ball regalia and managed to waltz beautifully to the music.
Soon some debutantes arrived. The girls were beautiful and elegant, all dressed in snowy white gowns with white gloves to their elbows. Some danced with their handsome escorts while others mingled with the crowd. My favorite moment was when two of the girls broke away from their partners and clasped hands. They swung around in a circle, laughing and smiling at each other. Their demure gowns flaunted their purity and wholesomeness. In one second they went from chic women to little girls and I thought about how, too soon, moments like this would become rarer and rarer as they fully entered society and grew up to become perfectly-coiffed, flawlessly-dressed women on the arms of their husbands, laden with the responsibilities of being an adult. It was a spontaneous, carefree moment of innocence and happiness that I felt somehow lucky to have witnessed. Maybe I'm a little too sentimental but it really touched me.
The ball didn't end until four in the morning and we made a good show of staying out as long as possible. The party was still in full-swing as we departed. The rest of the attendees still looked flawless despite being on their feet for hours. I wondered how many of them would be attending 10 or 15 other balls (perhaps more!) throughout the rest of the season. What an exciting time to be Viennese!
I certainly never imagined myself attending a ball in Vienna. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that I feel very fortunate to have had. There are many times I wake up and ask myself, "Is this really my life?" For a girl from a one-horse town in north Florida it was a dream come true, and since I saw the Viennese waltz to Tom Petty (from Florida), I now know that you don't have to be Cinderella to get an invitation to the ball.