Saturday, March 24, 2012

24 Hours in DC

I am tagging along on a business trip with my husband before we go off on a mini vacation and only have 24 hours. I do love DC. When I visit New York I feel I should be working to make a billion dollars, or to be the head of a huge conglomerate, or perhaps to be a famous opera singer at the Met. When I’m in DC I would be very happy to get a cup of coffee for someone who works at the White House or the West Wing.

We are at the Hay Adams Hotel.  What a perfect location just on the other side of Lafayette Square from the White House.  So I of course wander through Lafayette Square a bit and absorb some of the power vibes emanating from the White House.   I also love the feeling of knowing there are secret service agents about (probably the older bearded Noah-looking character with ragged shorts and an open old shirt sitting on the park bench staring at me is a perfectly disguised agent or is just another deranged homeless person, but I prefer the undercover agent theory).   There are lots of coming and goings at the White House this afternoon and sure enough, soon they close Lafayette Square and we all must leave.   I find out later that tonight is the state dinner for Great Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha.  There will be 300 + guests in attendance including the British actors Huge Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern of that fabulous British import "Downton Abbey",  billionaire Warren Buffet, and the handsome George Clooney, who gets to sit by Michelle Obama.  Alas, I have not been invited.  I am feeling a bit left out.

But I can pretend I am there as I listen to President Obama’s toast, peruse the agenda and the menu,  and see photos at least of what the ladies are wearing.  I especially love the dress worn by Mrs. Obama’s dress designer - Georgina Chapman.
View from the Hay Adams
The Hays Adams is a small intimate European style hotel.  (Think small lobby, small rooms and small bathrooms.)  Take care to at least book more than a superior room if you stay here.  The price of the rooms is directly correlated to the view - across Lafayette Square to the White House, across 16th Street overlooking St. Joseph’s church, or an interior view looking into an adjoining office building (our view…).  But the rooms are well appointed, service is excellent, and one feels just a bit more connected to the power center of the world.  The top floor of the hotel has a large space for private events but also has an amazing view of the city and especially of the White House – you can clearly see the sniper agents patrolling the roof.  If you stay here make sure to take in this view.

For dinner I haven’t done any research so I take the concierge up on his suggestion for the Taberna Del Alabardero.   The main reason I don’t like to eat by myself is that I can’t sample too much of the cuisine.  (When I am with my husband, dinner is mine and my husband’s is too…).   So I must suffice with a lovely sea bream with creamy mushrooms and a very nice side salad.  It is excellent.  For wine, I start with a glass of Cava – the name for Spanish sparkling wines, and then I have a glass of Becquer 2009 from Rioja - a very nice crisp delicate white from Spain – perfect with the fish.    To have more variety I could have opted for the tapas menu but have avoided any kind of tapas since a major case of food poisoning in Barcelona last year.

Tomorrow – the Martin Luther King Memorial and a few museum stops.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Vienna and the OperaBall 2012

I am a bit apprehensive as this, the 2012 Vienna Opera Ball,  is probably the most formal occasion to which I will ever go.  But after accumulating the required ball gown, jewelry, and formal wrap (thank you good friends!) there is nothing left to think about but enjoying Vienna and the build-up to the event.

Our hotel is the elegant Grand Hotel Vienna on the Ringstrasse in the inner city.   The Ringstrasse is a grand boulevard built in 1857 by Emperor Franz Josef on the site of the ancient wall around Vienna. Today the Ringstrasse encircles the heart of old Vienna.

We are only a block or so from the Wiener Staatsoper – Vienna State Opera House – and so we notice the day before the event the comings and goings as the Opera House is transformed for this annual Austrian society happening which takes place every year on the Thursday preceding Ash Wednesday.  Overnight the Opera House is turned into a large ballroom and a new floor, level with the stage, is built.  The many anterooms are turned into casinos, discos, and oyster, coffee and champagne bars. 

We fortunately have a few free hours to explore a bit of central Vienna.  The Grand Hotel is a perfect location, especially in this cold weather, from which to explore the city center.  We wander through the famous Pedestrian shopping area, the Karntnerstrasse, passing by the Café Sacher where the famous sachertorte has its roots.  Then we duck into Stephansdom  (St. Stephens’s cathedral),  then head over to the Imperial Palace, the location of the private apartments of the Hapsburg royalty and also now the site of the famous Spanish riding school and the beautiful Lipizzaner stallions.  But this is just a tiny taste of this lovely city.

Vienna was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the capital of the former Austrian Empire.  The University of Vienna was founded here in 1365. This is the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg.   This is the home to the Vienna Boy’s Choir.     This city is a cultural Mecca and I am already thinking we don’t have enough time and we must come back with more time to explore! 

Speaking of taste – it has been a few hours since we last had a meal.  We are having lunch with friends of my husband’s who have flown in from Warsaw. (Yes I suppose Warsaw is just right up the road a bit.)   Figlmüller is a restaurant famous for its pork (as opposed to the more famous veal) schnitzel.  I am amazed that they can pound and flatten one pork loin so that it is the size of a one-foot diameter gigantic pancake, overhanging by several inches the large plate.  Traditionally served with a great potato salad and lemon wedges, this is a delicious dish, but we should have shared one portion.

But back to our mission: It is now the day of the ball and we try to sleep late, as this will be a very long evening.   The ladies start getting ready in the afternoon with hair and makeup appointments. Then on to dinner at the very elegant Le Ciel on the top floor of our hotel, then at 8:30 pm the one block walk to the Opera House.

My husband looks extremely elegant and handsome in the required Tail Coat (white vest and white bow tie, black coat with tails.   At the Opera entrance and inside there are TV cameras and photographers waiting to catch a glimpse of celebrities or perhaps also of the loveliest gowns.   The evening officially starts at 10:00 pm with the Austrian National Anthem and the Anthem of Europe (Ode to Joy by Beethoven).  There is the presentation of the debutantes (“the Young Ladies Dance Committee”), then performances by the Vienna State Ballet Company and the Vienna Opera orchestra.  Another treat is the performance by the opera singer Angela Gheorghiu who sings Carmen and I Could Have Danced All Night – very apropos. Finally the opening waltz is announced and everyone is invited to waltz to the strains of Johann Strauss’ On the Beautiful Blue Danube, OP 314

I hear 3500 people are in attendance tonight (and I don’t think this includes the servers and wait staff and security).  My husband and I do a requisite dance and then avoid the main floor but continue to watch the proceedings with our party from our box.  After a bit we do explore the many different entertainments and activities available throughout this very large opera house.  This is one big party where people obviously go to see and be seen.  

At 3:00 am our host rounds us all up and we are off, still in our opera ball finery, to a local café to have the requisite after opera digestif - a Gulaschsoppa and a beer.   Goulash soup is a beef and potato soup which is quite tasty (it is our “go to” snack or lunch choice in Germany and Austria) although at 4:00 am in the morning it seems as if we should be having tea and toast or alka seltzer.