Vienna really is a magical place, an imperial city stuffed with reminders of glory days gone by. The Hofburg palace by itself takes three days to tour if you want to see it all, but if you have time for only one little part of that sprawling and magnificent tribute to the Hapsburg dynasty, make it the Spanish Riding School.
You may have seen a touring show of "dancing white stallions" in your hometown, but most of these are not connected with the actual Spanish Riding School. The Lipizzaner stallions of Vienna are in a class by themselves. Whether or not you have the faintest clue what dressage or classical horsemanship is all about, a performance in the gilded, baroque riding school takes your breath away. The pas de deuxÃ¢Â€Â”two horses mirroring each other's movementsÃ¢Â€Â”is incredible enough, but you really have to wonder if the riders are glued to the saddle when they perform the "airs above the ground," a series of spectacular leapsÃ¢Â€Â”without stirrups!
The Winter Riding School is worth seeing even when the horses are not present. Built as a riding school but used variously as a ballroom, stock exchange, and meeting place for crowned heads of Europe, its crystal chandeliers now illuminate the serious business of preserving an ancient breed and a style of horsemanship that stretches back to the 16th century. Like the rest of the palace, the Hapsburgs did not skimp on the decorations. The place is as beautiful as the horses.
At the end of a formal Spanish Riding School performance, the riders line up and slowly, ceremoniously, extend their hats to the portrait of Charles VI, who built the school. Doffing the hats is an honor extended to few, but an American general was one of them. Thanks to General George S. Patton, the schoolÃ¢Â€Â”and its irreplaceable horsesÃ¢Â€Â”survived World War II. An avid horseman himself, Patton risked his career to extend the protection of his Third Army to the school and the precious breeding stock the Nazis had sent to Czechoslovakia for safekeeping. Threatened by the advance of a hungry Soviet Army, the horses were brought back to Austria by Patton's "Operation Cowboy," immortalized in a Disney movie entitled "Miracle of the White Stallions."
The white horses of Vienna, of the Spanish Riding School, unlike the gilded furniture and lifeless paintings left behind by emperors, are a living legacy of the Baroque, but also a tribute to the things that can bring even rivals together to preserve something worth preserving.