Many years ago, before I had been to Vienna and wasn't even 100% sure where it was, someone who had just been there for the first time told me it was "sort of eastern." As in eastern culture.

Unless, in a word association game, your first response to "eastern" is New York or Boston, the word fits the town pretty well.

It is this exotic influence that makes Vienna unique among western European cities. None other offers its mix of Hungarian, Yugoslavian, Rumanian and Bohemian with just a touch of "Near East" tossed into the recipe.

Almost everyone has heard about the coffee beans the Turks left behind after their siege of Vienna in 1683 and how that has resulted in the still famous Viennese coffee house tradition. And, of course, in many of the city's thousands of old buildings one sees the architectural imprint of the east: here an onion dome and there a façade that could as well be in Constantinople.

But the strongest influence comes from farther west of the Bosporus. In his book, The Viennese, Paul Hofmann says that before World War I at least 20% of the population were Moravians, Bohemians and Slovaks and that "all cooks, maids, tailors, building superintendents, musicians, cabinetmakers, and subalterns in government departments seemed to be Czech."

Remember, too, that this city was once the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so the residue of Hungary and Bohemia is everywhere. Especially in the music. As in gypsy music.

Apparently, the nomadic race known as gypsies originated in India and migrated westward into central Europe. Some, like the ancestors of the currently popular musical group known as the Gypsy Kings, wound up in Spain while others went to Eastern Europe, concentrating in Rumania and Hungary. In the late 19th century their melodies and dances which typically begin with innocence and delicacy and end in a furious climax became part of the broader music culture. Franz Liszt was one of the first to incorporate this exhilarating folk music in his Hungarian Rhapsodies. My own favorite piece of gypsy music is George Enescos Rumanian Rhapsody No. 1. (Listen to it some night with the lights out.)

I'm no music scholar or even a musician, so take this for what it's worth, but it seems to me Zigeunermusik (gypsy music) underlies much of what is considered Viennese music. Not the great classics; one doesn't identify what Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert produced here as being specifically related to the city but the music that is Vienna: operettas like Johann Strauss's Der Fledermaus and his Die Zigeunerbaron (Gypsy Baron), Franz Lehár's Merry Widow and Emmerich Kalman's Gräfin Mariza.

The works of these three composers always constitute a substantial portion of the annual repertoire of Vienna's Volksoper, perhaps the most "old Vienna" of the city's many music venues. Two of the three, Lehár and Kalman, were Hungarian and in my mind Hungarian music equals gypsy music. From this trio come many of the evergreen melodies one still hears daily throughout the city. Tunes like Dein is mein ganzes Herz (You are my hearts delight) by Lehár, Kalman's Grüss mir mein Wien (Greet for me my Vienna) and his weepy Komm Zigny (Come, Gypsy), and Strauss's Rosen aus dem Süden (Roses from the South), are deeply imbedded in the Viennese culture. (If you want to hear this stuff I recommend a couple of CDs: Vienna, City of My Dreams, featuring Placido Domingo, CDC 7473982 by EMI and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Sings Operetta, CDC 7472842, also on EMI.)

On our earliest trips to Vienna we found several restaurants which hired small gypsy bands to entertain patrons. The best music was at Café Budva where three lively players never failed to keep us enthralled until closing time. A clever, funny pianist anchored the group while a grandfatherly accordionist and a fiery fiddler worked the room for tips.

One evening we watched them rake in several hundred schillings when a table of Russians, teary-eyed and deep in their cups, uncrumpled 50 schilling note after 50 schilling note in requesting a series of heart-rending tunes. It made one recollect Gary Cooper's private gypsy band in the movie Love in the Afternoon.

About now you're expecting me to tell you where to hear good gypsy music in Vienna. My apologies. If such places exist I don't know of them. I think they are gone. In Vienna earlier this year we looked, we asked, but found nothing. Locals just shrugged. A woman who conducts walking tours all over the city said she knew of no place to hear real gypsy music. Oh, there are one or two places where a few bored musicians go through the motions. But they play without passion, the music has no life and the breaks between "sets" are longer than the "sets."

We'll keep looking but right now for gypsy music that moves your heart and your feet try Budapest.

Even if there aren't any good gypsy bands left in Vienna, it's an almost invisible blemish on a city that bursts with great music, good restaurants and fascinating things to see and do.

Here are a few suggestions to help you take advantage of this city's great music:

* Go to the opera. Obvious but essential unless music is of absolutely no interest. The best in the world is here. In the fall, winter and spring, the Staatsoper and Volksoper perform almost every night. The State Opera is glitzier and costs more (up to $250 per ticket) but beware, it's easy for the non-opera aficionado to get in over his head. Take Wagner, for example. The music is often glorious and inspiring but there are times during his three to five-hour operas when there are two people on stage singing at each other for 30 minutes at a stretch. No movement, no dancing, no English translation.

The less serious music fan should try an evening at the Volksoper which offers its own unique reminders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The house is more intimate, the prices lower (best seats about $77) and the melodies more familiar. The music, the voices and the production, however, are top class. I lean toward the Viennese standards such as Der Graf von Luxemburg (The Countess of Luxembourg), Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles), Wiener Blut (Vienna Blood) or the splendid Die Fledermaus (The Bat).

* Take the tram to the Zentralfriedhof (main cemetery, Simmeringer Hauptstrasse, section 32A) and visit the graves of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss and other famous composers. Mozart is not here. Buried in an unmarked common grave, the whereabouts of his remains are unknown. There is an empty tomb in his honor at St. Marks cemetery (3rd dist., Leberstrasse 6-8).

* Visit sites where the some of the world's greatest music was written. Beethoven had many Vienna residences and memorial rooms are located in: Pasqualati House, 1st dist., Mölker Bastei 8, tel. 637 06 65; House of the Heiligenstadt Testament (a letter of despair over his deafness, written in 1802), 19th dist., Probusgasse 6, in the village of Heiligenstadt, tel. 37 54 08; and House of the Eroica (Third Symphony), 19th dist., Döblinger Hauptstrasse 92, tel. 369 14 24.
1. Johann Strauss. The "Waltz Kings" former residence is in the second district at Praterstrasse 54, tel. 24 01 21.
2. Mozart wrote his opera The Marriage of Figaro in an apartment behind St. Stephens Cathedral now called Figarohaus at Domgasse 5, in the first district.
3. Schubert has two important Vienna addresses: his birthplace at Nussdorfer Strasse 54 (9th dist.), tel. 34 59 924, and his last residence at Kettenbrückengasse 6 (4th dist.), tel. 573 90 72.

* Tap your feet to Schrammelmusik at one of the many Heurigen in Vienna's suburban wine villages. These taverns, traditionally marked by a pine bough over the front door, have the right to sell new wine made on the premises and also offer light buffet meals. Often there is a musical group consisting of at least a violin and an accordion. Try the villages of Grinzing (many tourists), Sievering, Neustift, Heiligenstadt, Nussdorf, Grossjedlersdorf, Mauer, Oberlaa and Ottakring. The least expensive a quarter-liter (Viertel) of wine for as little as 25 AS ($2.35) are in Stammersdorf and Strebersdorf. Look for the pine boughs and don't drive, ride the tram.

Great Web Sites

* Swiss Rail now has a great searchable database of Swiss train schedules. Type in your departure city, arrival city and date of travel and in a few seconds a schedule appears on the screen.

* Schedules plus prices are also available on Rail Europe's Website. Not all cities are included but it is still a very handy planning tool.

* The German Rail Website also has a searchable database which provides timetables.

* Microsoft's new travel website is Expedia (http://www.expedia.com/). Among several excellent features is a database of 25,000 hotels. About 75 are listed for Vienna, including most of those reviewed in this month's lead story. For example, the Pension Altstadt Vienna. In addition to the usual information is a link to the Altstadt's own website which offers color photos of the hotel plus information about special packages. Clicking back to the Altstadt page in Expedia's hotel database, I was able to request and receive, almost instantly, room availability on specific dates, including prices. I could have booked on-line.

* Another link led to a map of the city with the Pension Altstadt clearly marked on it. Very useful.

* Another Expedia feature I now use is its Fare Tracker which provides regular air fare updates on as many as three air routes. I chose San Francisco to Frankfurt, San Francisco to Zürich and San Francisco to Vienna. Now, every few days I get an e-mail with the lowest fares from San Francisco to each city, which airlines offer them, plus a summary of fare restrictions. Fare Tracker is free.

November 1996