The iron-on appliqué of Mozart’s head, hair powdered and pulled back into a ponytail, started peeling off the tote bag before we hit the airport on our return flight from Vienna.
My daughter Elizabeth, a classical musician, bought the bag on our pilgrimage to Mozart’s favorite city in celebration of the 250th anniversary of his birth. We chose the Austrian capital for our annual mother-daughter trip for many reasons, including the uniqueness of the opportunity. It is unlikely I’ll make it to his 300th celebration.
Mozart’s Vienna didn’t quite live up to my daughter’s expectations. The composer’s apartment—one of many in which he lived—functions as a small museum. Inside, long lines of visitors shuffle between the exhibits, which are about as exciting as a visit to the DMV. In the basement of the remodeled building, the gift shop’s bins and shelves overflowed with “Mozartiana”—umbrellas, candy and the ubiquitous tote bag, all boasting the composer’s kisser. It was a lot like Disney World, only without the mouse ears and sidekick named Goofy.
The composer and one-time child protégé’s ghost haunts the orderly city streets. Cheap T-shirts stamped with Mozart’s image stretch across the stomachs of legions of visitors rummaging through the shops. Countless signs bear his likeness. And young men, garbed in musty velvet costumes, mill around tourist attractions, selling tickets to performances of his work. Still, this was Mozart’s favorite city. I understood his affection. But while Vienna paraded Mozart, it was the city’s dogs who captured my heart.
The Viennese adore their pets and take them everywhere as naturally as mothers carry their children. Although banned from some places, the animals maintain an astonishing, yet delightful, presence. So, while Elizabeth doggedly tracked Mozart, I watched dogs.
On our first night in Vienna, we dined at a Thai restaurant around the corner from our hotel, where an enormous dog the color of fresh-grated ginger snoozed in front of the door. As we mounted the outside steps, the animal’s owner said something to him. The dog rose and stretched as gracefully as a ballet dancer at the barre, then sauntered to the other side of the table and dropped bonelessly back to the floor. Leaning against his owner’s legs, he resumed his nap. We were impressed. No dog we’ve owned has ever been as gracious.
We did meet one unhappy little dog whose lack of gracious behavior must have landed him in the doggie equivalent of time-out. This fellow, accompanied by his owners, occupied a corner of one of the city’s spotless, efficient underground trains. The dog looked like he’d stuck his head in a birdcage. Intrigued, Elizabeth inquired about him. The couple told us that a propensity for chomping the occasional stray digit provided impetus for the odd contraption. The dog looked grumpy. His humans did not.
Our hotel was tucked into a tranquil corner not far from Stephansplatz. Most afternoons, the hotel manager’s spare little golden mutt strained against her tether at her post near the front desk, soliciting caresses from guests. I told the desk clerk about the odd cage-like muzzle on the out-of-sorts dog on the train, and she explained darkly that biting dogs are not tolerated in Vienna. I did not ask their fate.
Dogs must sense Vienna suffers no nonsense, for the ones we saw behaved flawlessly. They are allowed in most stores in the Stephansdom Quarter near the hotel. In fact, Stephansplatz—the square at St. Stephen’s, a Gothic cathedral at the heart of the city—is a dog-watcher’s nirvana. Dogs lead their owners in circles around the church and through the web of touristy stores and open-air restaurants that ring it. One Terrier-mix, keeping pace with his owner, even carried his own leash.
A pastry shop on the corner served frothed melange—a cappuccino-type of coffee—by the gallon. The glass cases faced the street and beckoned passersby with their yards of flaky pastries—some named after Mozart—and fragrant dark chocolate and apricot Sacher torts. Inside, in a room that smelled of cinnamon and coffee, a small spotted dog begged back-scratches from the restaurant’s patrons as Mozart played in the background.
Have the Viennese always been dog people? That, I do not know, but I suspect so. Mozart had at least one dog during his lifetime, although he is more famous for owning a sparrow. It is said he gave the dog, Bimpes, the nickname “Bimperl.” I have no idea what “Bimperl” means, if anything, but I heard that a chocolate company immortalized the dog with a statue somewhere in Vienna. I asked around, but no one seemed to know anything about it.
Vienna itself is very clean, even with all the dogs. Of course, the tidy Viennese have lessened the chances of stepping in dog droppings by sprinkling little parks around the city. The parks are equipped with “waste disposal” stations.
During our last afternoon in Vienna, we passed a little dog park near the Neue Burg, a cluster of small specialty museums. Inside the mini-park, a dog the approximate size of a European car frolicked among the clipped bushes, trying to make friends with another dog with the dimensions of a bread box. In front of the museum, city residents with the day off took advantage of the mild weather and allowed their animals to slip their leashes. The dogs engaged in polite play on the manicured green lawn.
Inside the Neue Burg, marble stairways arched to the floor above. In a series of rooms filled with large glass cases sat classic violins and violas, along with ancient drums, early flutes and other mysterious musical oddities. Called the Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumente, it also houses pianos once owned by Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven. In one corner stood a small keyboard for public use. Visitors, forbidden to touch other exhibits, were invited to bang out a tune here. A young boy of perhaps nine or so, his hands flying over the keyboard in—what else—a Mozart composition, concentrated on impressing Elizabeth, who giggled, and, against the rules, took his picture.
Vienna’s skies had turned gray while we strolled among the drums and stringed instruments. The first drops of rain fell as we left the museum, and umbrellas popped open like mushrooms as people scurried to shelter. The wet weather reminded me of something I’d heard—that it had rained when Mozart was buried in a communal grave following his death on December 5, 1791. According to legend, the deluge kept the composer’s friends and family away from the burial. But, the story says, his faithful dog stayed beside him until the last shovel-full of earth fell on his grave.
The keepers of Mozart’s Viennese connection don’t encourage speculation about his mysterious death. They counter romantic rumors that he was murdered with logical explanations of 18th-century mortality. They say although a spendthrift and a gambler, he died in debt, but not as a pauper, and shared graves were traditional at the time. They also claim that, if indeed it did rain the day he was buried, even a heavy downpour would not have kept away his wife and close friends, of which he had many. The part about Mozart’s dog staying to the very end, though, I am sure is true.
That’s just the way dogs are.
The rain tapered off as we returned to our hotel. We passed through the glistening streets around the gaunt old cathedral in Stephansdom, and looked for a jewelry store to complete our shopping before the next day’s departure. A woman inside one of the shops caught my eye. We stepped inside.
She tapped the top of the display case with one rose-enameled fingernail. The clerk behind the counter nodded, unlocked the case and pulled a sparkling watch from the velvet interior. She placed it on a swath of soft, rich fabric draped on the countertop and said something in rapid German.
The customer studied the watch while balancing a wiggling bundle of fur in her arms. Sighing, she kissed the top of the dog’s fluffy head and placed him on the floor. He strained on his leash, tail beating like the heart of a small bird.
“May I?” I asked in English, as I bent to pat the little dog.
The watch forgotten, she smiled, scooped the animal up and held him for us to appreciate. “Schatzie’s such a good dog,” she said, in excellent English. “He loves to give kisses, my little Schatzie.”
I leaned forward and Schatzie gave me kisses while the lady beamed. The sales clerk raised one eyebrow while the customer and I exchanged pleasantries. With a final pat on the puppy’s head, we left the store as twilight deepened, our purchases stashed in the Mozart tote bag that swung from Elizabeth’s arm.
As we walked back to the hotel, Elizabeth shifted closer to my side to allow a man and his dog to pass. The dog, large, brown and nondescript, brushed by, its tail moving back and forth in great, slow sweeps. Elizabeth laughed as it thumped her. Holding my arm, her body molded to mine, we walked with the same rhythm, our heels hitting the cobblestones in unison.
And the dog, his shaggy tail a metronome for the ageless heartbeat of Mozart’s city, pattered ahead until the crowds closed behind him.