Going Horse Crazy in Vienna

Country 24: Austria | This post is part of my 30×30 series. Read more here!

“What does Vienna smell like?”

The words hung in a crowded bar in the middle of the Tenderloin, thousands of miles from the city in question. My friend had just opined that Vienna smells worse than San Francisco—and I found it unfathomable that someone could find the stench of San Francisco in high summer (and in a drought no less) attractive; the mingled mixture of piss and day-old marijuana that hang stagnant just outside my front door often prompted a coughing fit on my way to work.

“Vienna? It smells like horses.”

I’d wanted to go to Vienna since I was eight years old and cracked open a library book by Marguerite Henry (with lustrous illustrations by Wesley Dennis). There were several pages on the Lipizzaners—the famous dressage horses. I loved their long and storied history, starting in the days of the Hapsburg Empire. I memorized their movements: levade, capriole, courbette, pasade. I knew their colorations, naming patterns, and dynasties.  “I didn’t know you were a horse girl,” a friend recently commented, and I protested, “Oh, I’m not.” And it was true. I barely rode. I had no regular stable access and I didn’t know anyone who owned a horse. But the sumptuous illustrations and the idea of the dancing horses fascinated me to the point of obsession—as did the idea of this glittering city across the world.

I came to Vienna in September, 2015 with a clear objective: to see the Spanish Riding School’s famous Lipizzaner ballet. Tickets can be expensive, and since I was on a budget, I opted for a seat perched high in the 2nd Gallerie (avail. as of 25€). Performances are held in the Winter Riding School, in the heart of Vienna. The audience enters the elegant pale gray room, light by crystal chandeliers (and occasionally, pale blue neon lights). The best seats are at court-level, beneath a massive portrait of Emperor Charles VI. If you’re lucky enough to snag a seat in the Royal Box, make sure you wear plainer clothes, with no mirrors, beads, or sequins that can catch the light and spook the horses. But the seats in the 2nd Gallerie weren’t too shabby either—there are two rows of leveled seating, and you get a perfect overhead view of the riding formations and choreographies as the horses dance through the ring.

The whole show was an exercise in dignity and restraint. The riders, dressed in deep brown jackets and black bicorne-hats, sat ram-rod straight and stirrup-less on the backs of their white horses. The end of the performance, the School Quadrille, which featured a 20-minute-long choreography to arching classical music, felt like magic. It was as if the entire audience was holding its breath. Like the riders, we too, sat with our backs straight, our necks craned to watch these huge creatures prance delicately across the packed-earth floor.

Once the show was finished, I walked out onto Mikealerplatz in the brilliant Viennese sunshine in a bit of a daze. Without a destination in mind, I wandered down the Reitshulgasse, pausing at the stable courtyard to watch the quiet horses munch hay and sidestep the fat stable cats. 

I took the long way through the city towards St. Stephan’s Cathedral, pausing outside of the modular Albertine museum to watch the carriages pass by. There are around 100 carriages operating in Vienna, though in the Hapsburg heyday there were closer to 1000.

The carriage tradition is called “fiaker”—which refers to both the two-horse cab itself and to the driver, who tended to be dressed in checked trousers, a velvet jacket and a dashing derby hat. I stopped often to chat with the drivers, snagging selfies with their teams—some of which were styled more ornately than I’ve ever been!

If you want to take a ride, there are six stands scattered through the city where a ride can be hailed:
  • Stephansplatz
  • Heldenplatz
  • Michaelerplatz
  • Petersplatz, next to the Burgtheater
  • and behind the Opera (near Albertina)

The trip contained other moments of beauty. Watching the light glance of the golden paint in Klimt’s “The Kiss”. Taking the first luscious bite of Sachertorte. Wandering the manicured gardens of the Schönbrunn Palace. Seeing the bullet holes in the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car. Sipping wine and watching “The Flying Dutchman” in the Viennese Opera House. Sitting outside the Austrian National Library, listening to the lazy strumming of a guitar as the sun went down.

But nothing could quite top that twenty-year-long dream, of standing outside of the Spanish Riding School’s hulking gates, stroking the velvety nose of a carriage gelding in a city that, yes, smelled like horses.