I dream of gliding across the herringbone floor of an imperial palace to an airy waltz where marble columns glimmer under shimmering chandeliers while my gown flutters about. My hand lightly resting in the white, calfskin glove of my escort whose jacket tails swish as we float like butterflies or little pieces of wrapping paper drifting on the wind to the serenade of a string orchestra.
The tradition of carnival balls has never left Vienna with ball season usually starting in November and continuing through early March. These are not Disney soirees for tourists, but truly a piece of cultural history that thrives in the city.
With over 400 balls, you can imagine it was a daunting task to choose which one we would attend. They differ in just about any way you can imagine: size, location, themes, dress, etc. Most of the balls are hosted by professional guilds. We wanted something that was traditional for our anniversary celebration and the Kaffeeseider Ball is absolutely timeless.
Hosted by the café (or coffeehouse) guild, the Kaffeeseider ball celebrated its 60th anniversary this year as we celebrated our very first. The ball starts around 7 pm and nearly lasts until sunrise officially ending at 5 am. Anyone can purchase a ticket to attend.
The Kaffeeseider ball is one of the many balls held in the Hofburg, the former Imperial Palace of the Habsburgs. It is a vision with grand marble staircases, gilded ceilings, walls of red damask or white kissed with gold, ornate mirrors, and more glittering crystal chandeliers than you can count.
Kaffeeseider Ball: Minimum formality is black-tie (white-tie optional). It means proper tuxedos for the gentlemen and full-length gowns for the ladies. The events require strict adherence to stated dress codes and those who do not follow suit risk being turned away at the door.
Along with a small crowd of attendees, we arrived at the stated start time. Upon scanning our tickets, we walked passed the table of decadent cakes that would be raffled at a later hour to the coat check. We met a couple from Florida who actually worked in the coffee business and were flown in by one of the sponsors for the event– perhaps the only other Americans in the place! After passing off our garments and stopping for prom-style pictures, we walked up the red carpet of the magnificent marble staircase, past countless roses and a dozen young men with trays of folding fans. I took a fan thinking that it was quite a silly item in February, but when in Rome…
Our first order of business was to find our apartment room. Along with tickets, we purchased two seats in one of the many rooms open to ball attendees. We had selected a small room at the end of a hall hoping for minimum foot traffic and a rather quiet setting should we need a break from music and dancing. We found our table perfectly located next to a window with a majestic view. With that off our minds, we took to touring the other rooms. There are giant halls glowing with uplighting complete with bands and dance floors mixed with quieter rooms containing small bars or perhaps just coffee service. We found lounges beyond twisting halls and after descending a quiet staircase, a few rooms full of debutant inhaling a bite to eat before their debut.
The night opened with a speech thanking the sponsors and commending the profession (if there was more, it was lost to my limited understanding of the German language) followed by two wonderful performances: A ballet and an opera singer. As many others did, we watched on a screen from our reserved room instead of struggle against the crowd for a peak into the main hall. Next, in came rows of young women in white escorted by young men in formal outfits. With the theme, the young ladies held small cappuccino cups in their hand and as they waltzed about occasionally the young men would “stir” the cup with a little spoon- it was an adorable touch! After a wonderful display of pageantry, the two dances ended and the dance floor flooded with guests.
What One Does at a Ball
We worked our way to the main hall and danced to a few performances across the floor starting in a waltz and ending in swing. The room was crowded and people’s elbows and knees seemed to come into contact without much notice but also with smiles and nods. I thought of boiling water and atoms bouncing about. After the brief jaunt across the floor, it became completely understandable why I was given a fan!
A moment to cool down and take in some refreshments: we ordered a light dinner at our table. A bottle of red wine and two appetizer-style plates: smoked salmon for me and an assortment of charcuterie for Dapper Husband. We were quite pleased with our wine as every alcohol-serving lounge and bar in the palace had prosecco and champagne (nothing red).
Half way through the night (or between midnight and 2 am), there is the quadrille. A dance that peaked in popularity in the late 1800s but is to much delight still performed today. By the end of the dance, Dapper Husband was convinced he could translate all the German, but without him to shout the commands to me I would be in quite a tizzy. So we sat out the dance and simply enjoyed the show.
With the night at its reasonable half way mark, we found the tables around us filling with more weary dancers and quickly made friends with a Swiss couple sitting near us. Fine food, wonderful wine, and good company: exactly all the ingredients for a memorable evening. At a point, I eagerly pulled Dapper Husband into the nearest dancing room- a large hall with many chandeliers– as a cover band performed “Stand By Me” (my favorite cliché romance song).
When we returned to our seats we noticed that across the room, a woman brought in one of the large cakes that were on display upon our entrance. She excitedly shared it with anyone who would take a piece. They were a jolly crowd, generous and kind. I felt a tinge of guilt for not knowing much German, but everyone seemed to find it charming that two Texans had appeared at their annual party.
Our companions disappeared to dance about and we headed to the Julius Meinl lounge for a bit of a caffeine booster. The lounge was adorable and spacious with white couches and tall bar tables around the perimeter.
With a jolt of energy from our drinks, we followed signs to a nearly secret roof area the Swiss couple had told us how to visit. There had been a fire some time ago and what was built in its place was a bit modern. To go with the vibe, the area had a DJ playing upbeat pop music. I was reminded of how weddings seem to progress. Everyone shows up in formalwear and the night starts out dignified but by the end, there might be a club party happening on the dance floor. It wasn’t our scene so we quietly departed back toward the main rooms. We passed through a medium sized room with a jazz band and decided to make it our last dance of the night.
After a few turns about the floor, we headed back toward the entrance and gathered our coats. It was about 3:30 in the morning and the party was winding down. The flowers were disappearing from the large cornucopias at the base of the staircase and I asked Dapper Husband if he’d pick me a rose.
We were handed gift bags (one for the ladies and a different one for the gentlemen) on our way out. After a short taxi ride back to our hotel area, the night concluded as a wonderful fairytale come to life.