A night in the elegant Austrian capital will never be complete without attending one of its many celebrated balls which is known for its grand, imperial flair and harks back to the days of the Habsburg empire. As early as the start of the year, we planned out our 2016 European summer vacation centering around 24th of June 2016, the night of the Fête Impériale 2016, dubbed as the world’s most beautiful summer ball and one of the important events on the Viennese social calendar. The choice of the ball was not an accident, I have been a staunch admirer of the equine species, and despite having my back issues, have ridden in a few countries: Iceland, Denmark, Malta, and Mongolia. It was my interest in the Lipizzaner horses that brought us to Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, which not by coincidence, is also the home of the Fête Impériale.
Arriving at the glittering ball from the red carpet in Michaelerplatz on a warm summer’s night was a sight to behold. We immediately hied off to the Winter Riding Hall where the grand opening of the Fête Impériale 2016 took place at around quarter to 10pm. The riders entered the hall followed by the debutante’s committee and then a stirring, heartfelt performance by Daniela Fally of the Vienna State Opera, and the ballet dancers of Opera Graz. Afterwards dancers in uniform gowns and white ties entered the hall and performed waltzes which reminded me a little bit of the fairy tale balls of my childhood set to the classical music my father used to play when I was growing up, it was truly impressive and truly magical.
Steeped in history and tradition, the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule) is a centre of ‘High School of Classical Horsemanship’ and it’s Winter Riding School, touted (and we agreed) as the world’s most beautiful riding hall, was not only used for horsemanship but as a backdrop for many of Maria Theresia’s court festivities like the ‘Ladies Carrousels’ as well as many masquerade balls making the Winter Riding School the oldest still-existing ballroom in Vienna. Normally, balls take place during the carnival season in Austria, but the summer ball tradition, held in high regard by empress Maria Theresia, has been recently revived by the Fête Impériale.
Under the patronage of Dr. Heinz Fischer, the Federal President of the Republic of Austria, the Federal State of Styria and the Austrian Commission for UNESCO, this year’s Fête Impériale had an estimated 2,500 guests from all over the world including royals like Princess Benedikte of Denmark.
Aside from the performances in the Winter Riding Hall, there was much fanfare and music in the adjacent Stallburg, right next to the stables. Earlier that day, we had the privilege to visit and meet the beautiful Lipizzaners. The Lippizaners were bred by the House of Habsburg from Arab, Barb, Spanish and Neapolitan stock in the 16th century but its breed dates back all the way to AD 800 making it one of the oldest breed of horses in Europe. Today associated with nations of Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia known as the "airs above the ground." The horses at the Spanish Riding School are trained using traditional methods that date back hundreds of years, based on the principles of classical dressage. The school is the only institution in the world which, for more than 450 years, has practiced and continues to cultivate classical equitation in the Renaissance tradition of the Haute Ecole - which makes it to the list of UNESCO’s of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Apart from the school in the capital, Piber, a West Styrian village, with its lush fields and alpine pastures, has also been home to the famous Lipizzaners, and the only stud in the country to breed Lipizzaner stallions. These same horses will later demonstrate their skills in Vienna. During summer breaks, the stallions head down to the Heldenberg in Lower Austria where they spend their holiday while being gently trained and carefully exercised. Top international riders, up and coming stars of the Spanish Riding School as well as dressage coaches attend special courses and seminars in Heldenberg as well at this time.
On top of the Fête Impériale, the school also has a host of events throughout the year from concerts, tributes, as well as the regular morning practice which are a delight for everyone.
All in all, the spectacular summer night at the Spanish Riding School, and the majestic history behind it made for one very unforgettable evening in Vienna, one that we will remember for many years to come. For more information about the Spanish Riding School, please visit their website.
DAVE RYAN A. BUARON, OWNER AND CO-FOUNDER THE NEXT ESCAPE: TRAVEL, ARTS, SPORTS AND LIFESTYLE