Exactly one year ago today – the day that I started to write this post – I went to the IAEA Staff Association ball in the stunning Hofburg Palace, in the centre of Vienna. This has probably been one of the highlights of last year as it was truly an extraordinary experience.
The Ball Season in Vienna
The history of Viennese balls goes all the way back to the 18th century, when Emperor Joseph II decided to organise balls for ordinary people. In fact, wearing masks and elaborate costumes used to be a privilege that only the nobility had, and this decision by the Emperor allowed to make dancing events more popular.
Even now, this tradition goes on during the Ball Season in Vienna that starts in November, but truly reaches its peak in January and February, when hundreds and hundreds of balls are organised throughout the city.
Of course, all of them do not have the same grandeur as the Vienna Opera Ball, but many of them are still organised in historical and beautiful buildings. Nowadays, some of the most famous and prestigious ones are organised by professional groups like pharmacists or even coffee house owners!
The IAEA Staff Association Ball
Last year, I was an intern at the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which headquarters are in Vienna so, obviously, when I learnt that they hosted a ball each year at the Hofburg palace, I had to get myself some tickets!
For those of you who don’t know, the Hofburg palace used to be the residence of Austrian dynasty rulers, and it was there that the Habsburgs – Sisi’s family – lived for centuries. It is now the residence and workplace of Austria’s president. A fancy place then, as you can imagine.
As a consequence, the dress code was super fancy: ball gowns for the ladies, black ties for the gentlemen. The other option, as this was also a highly international event, was “traditional costumes”.
I went to the ball with my step-sister who had never been to Vienna, so on her first day we decided to visit the city a bit, while preparing mentally for the atmosphere of the night.
The run-up to the ball: a day of pampering and “princessing around”
The ball took place on a Saturday night, so the whole day before that was dedicated to a true “royal” immersion, to get into the mood of going to a fancy ball like fancy people. Just like the “ordinary people” used to do in the 18th century!
The day started with a not-so-royal but still highly interesting visit to the Natural History Museum in Vienna. My sister being an archaeologist, she was dying to see the Venus of Willendorf that is displayed in the museum. It did not disappoint, and the Museum in itself is really beautiful.
Then, this was followed by a second visit, this time to the Sisi Museum, inside the Hofburg palace. We passed in front of the entrance we would go through that night, and rejoiced in seeing all the elaborate dresses and personal stuff that were owned by Sisi. Two main conclusions emerged from that visit: the size and layout of the museum are really not thought through and adapted to the amount of visitors, and the problems that young women used to have back in the days are pretty much the same as the ones they have now – in rich countries that is.
One couldn’t end a Sisi-themed day without trying the empress’s favourite cake: the Sacher torte. For that, we went to the Hotel Sacher that serves the original recipe – and amazing hot chocolate!
Finally, we finished our walking around with a visit to the hairdresser to have wonderful hairdos for the night. It was the first time that I went to the hairdresser’s just to have my hair styled, and I really felt fancy ahaha.
When we came home, we had a true “pamper session” that involved nail polish and lots of make-up. Then, we put on our dresses, and off we went to the Hofburg palace.
So, how was the ball?
Incredible. I even think that this adjective doesn’t quite fit how magnificent and extraordinary everything was. Entering the palace, you came up a large marble staircase, lined with a fancy red carpet – which proved to be an excellent photo spot later!
The evening opened with many young men and ladies demonstrating a perfect waltz, following which the dance floor was free for everyone to go and waltz around! This was set in the biggest room of the palace and an orchestra played different kinds of “traditional” ball music, from classic waltz to “quadrille”!
But obviously not everyone wants to dance the waltz, so they set up many different rooms where live musicians played very different genres, so that everyone could dance to the music they liked: there was a “salsa” room, one for rock music, swing, and also Irish dancing! Of course, this is not very traditional, but by doing that they ensured that everyone had fun and enjoyed the evening.
On top of the fun I had dancing around, trying different rooms and chatting with my friends, I really enjoyed admiring all the other dresses and traditional costumes: from princess-like dresses, to Austrian tracht and colourful kimonos, no one was wearing even remotely the same thing, and even though only a minority of people were wearing traditional costumes, it really showed the huge diversity of people attending the ball.
The night ended very early on Sunday morning, and the whole event left us daydreaming for the following days and weeks about waltz, balls and fancy parties.
I feel so incredibly lucky to have had the chance to experience such an amazing thing, and it is things like that that truly leave life-long memories. I had the opportunity to go back there this year but I was too busy here in Belgium, so I hope this opportunity will present itself another year, and hopefully I can bring new people there to share this experience!
Have you ever been to Vienna? And to a ball? Is it something that you would like to experience?
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– The Ars Electronica Festival in Linz