Like a decadent dreamscape, Vienna is heavenly at any time of the year. With its spectacular architecture, lush canopies of green enveloping the streets and an imposing sense of grandeur, the city provides a sensory feast, slightly off the beaten European tourist track.
And one night of the year, Vienna is the only place for a gay traveller to be.
I arrived on the day of the Life Ball, one of the world’s major AIDS fundraising events, where tickets are in high demand among a who’s who of partygoers.
Life Ball proceedings start in front of the town hall. Promenading their way in elaborate costumes along the red carpet runway in front of a crowd of 50,000 locals, Vienna’s most beautiful people can be seen as well as its not-so-beautiful-but-still-absolutely-fabulous. The rich and famous mingle along the catwalk with the over-the-top glamorous ones.
When the pre-ball shows begin, some of Europe’s finest entertainers share the stage with some very famous people: this year’s international guest speaker was Sharon Stone; Catherine Deneuve looked regal and resplendent; Anastasia belted out a tune with 12 of the hottest near-naked firemen I have ever seen on stage; and Naomi Campbell led a sensational catwalk show of Diesel fashion.
At 11pm the public show was over, and 4,000 lucky people clutched wristbands allowing them entry into the surreal world of Life Ball.
Like a scene from Fellini, incredible architecture set the stage for costumed, bejewelled and painted bodies flowing up and down grand marble staircases. Hallways and ballrooms transformed into magical temples of hedonistic delight. Smiles were everywhere.
Life Ball caters for almost every taste, from leather to ballroom, from Heaven nightclub to a grand chandeliered Wella hair salon. Music options include salsa, disco and radio, and among the champagne bars, cake stands and Jacuzzi rooms nothing has been overlooked.
By midnight everyone was my friend, and the ball raged on everywhere I looked. Behind every sandstone column or huge mahogany door, magic moments hid. At Life Ball, everyone is a catwalk star. One moment I was talking to the European mistress of a billionaire; the next a philosophy student showed off his body painting.
By 3am the party slowed a little, as the older crowd got ready for sleep. For many the creation of their costumes had begun 36 hours earlier. The hardcore crowd carried on until 6am, when the music died down, new friendships were cemented and the party animals moved on to the recovery or to breakfast in the traditional Viennese way.
My hotel, Le Meridien, was located in a grand old building almost directly opposite the Vienna opera house.
Le Meridien recently underwent a complete makeover, with the main focus on modern art and intelligent lighting (green in the morning to make you look gorgeous even with a hangover, through to red in the evening when the bar becomes the hottest spot in Vienna to be seen drinking at).
A discreet secret at Le Meridien is its gay and gay-friendly staff who can tell you exactly where to go to find whatever sort of time you are hoping to have in Vienna. Let the hotel know you are a gay or lesbian traveller when making reservations and they can even arrange for one of their gay staff members to meet you on arrival and look after all your check-in needs.
Austrian Air flies nine times a week from Sydney to Vienna and it’s the only European carrier to fly into Australia. They are about to launch their new-look business class which will include a lie-flat sleeper seat and its various convenient functions.
With the 100 percent flat sleeping position and an integrated massage function, as well as the extra large LCD monitor, you will arrive totally relaxed at your destination.
Andrew Bullen travelled with assistance from Austrian Air and Le Meridien.