2 min

Alpine thrills

OPEN WALTZ. Vienna's gay social scene climaxes each January at the Regenbogen Ball, or Rainbow Ball. Credit: (Richard Burnett)

Homos have long played a prominent role in the history of Austria, especially in the capital city of Vienna. It was here that Prince Eugene Of Savoy (1663-1736) stopped the Turkish advance into Europe and pushed the Ottomans back to the Balkans. It was also here that gay architect couple Eduard van der Null and August Sicard von Sicardsburg built Vienna’s famed State Opera House in 1868.

But it’s only in the last decade that queer life has really exploded, anchored in wintertime by Austria’s famed Gay Ski Week and the annual Rainbow Ball in Vienna.

In January I attended the all-out Gay Ski Week in the swank Alpine resort town of Bad Gastein, where I felt as glamorous as Diana Rigg being chased through the Alps by James Bond in my favourite 007 movie, Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Bad Gastein’s Gay Ski Week attracts roughly 150 avid skiers annually, a third of them women. But this year, with snow melting across Europe, many cancelled. My ski instructor Ziggy told me, “I’ve only seen it like this five times in the last 40 years.”

When I wasn’t skiing, my new friends and I kept ourselves very busy drinking up a storm at the hotel bar. My favourite shot was Obstler, an apple and pear liquour, but since I could never pronounce its name properly I told the cute bartenders, “I’ll have another Oops please.” I am now known throughout Austria as Oopsie.

On my way to Vienna for the Rainbow Ball, I spent a couple of days in Salzburg, where Mozart is a virtual one-man industry. There I took The Sound Of Music bus tour (the Julie Andrews musical was filmed in and around Salzburg), as every good queen must do at some point in their lives.

But it was Vienna I really wanted to see. I hadn’t been there in 20 years and the historic city centre — much of it built in the second half of the 19th century under Emperor Franz Joseph I, notably the State Opera House which to this day presents a different opera every single night of the week — hasn’t changed a bit.

What has changed is the refreshing youthful vitality of old Vienna, particularly in boroughs District Seven (home to the best shopping and restaurants) and District Six (home to much of the gay scene). Vienna’s gay social scene climaxes each January at the Regenbogen Ball, or Rainbow Ball, one of more than 100 balls in Vienna’s three-month ball season.

The 10th-annual black-tie Rainbow Ball was held in an elegant period ballroom in the historic Parkhotel Schönbrunn, built in 1907 as the guesthouse of Emperor Franz Joseph I. The conductor, with his all-female orchestra poised to play behind him, opened the ball with the words, “Open waltz.”

Then 300 same-sex couples began waltzing to The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss. I was so taken by the spectacle I couldn’t help but marvel over how the Rainbow Ball is a perfect symbol of the new Vienna — an exciting blend of old and new, gay and straight.