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.