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The music was soft at first. It floated on the warm summer breeze that stirred the trees in the park where I had gone for a stroll. Above a stormy orchestral accompaniment, a powerful woman's voice sang out passionately and with piercing clarity.

For a first night in Vienna, this was heaven to a music lover who had come to see the city that is more closely identified with great music than any other city in the world. Just wander the streets at random, I thought to myself in a rush of excitement, and you will find great music performed by great artists. I had to follow that voice to its source.The trail led to the park in front of Vienna's neo-Gothic City Hall, where the main event seemed to be an international food fair - Indian curry, Thai satay, American hamburgers, all washed down with many cups of a local beer. And the music? A giant screen had been set up and a taped performance of Verdi's "Requiem" was being shown for those who had had their fill of tacos and stir-fried rice.

Ah, well. Sometimes the stuff that dreams are made of turns out to be so much schlagobers, the frothy, sweet whipped cream that towers over Viennese desserts. In the summertime, the opera and the Musikverein, where the Vienna Philharmonic performs, are dark. Live music seems to consist of Mozart's cloying "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" played by musicians in powdered periwigs and knee breeches or Strauss waltzes performed at an outdoor dance pavilion. The city that brims with talented musicians and interesting concerts these days is Prague.

Make no mistake, I come to praise Vienna, not to bury it. It is a city of many charms, great beauty and even mysterious power. It has, however, the quality of an illusion, of almost being a giant theme park that happens to have real people living there. Compared with the genial messiness of Prague, it is practically operating-room clean. Compared with the nervous energy of Berlin, it is drowsy. For what, after all, is Vienna now? In starkest terms, it is a city of middling size - about 1.5 million people - that is the capital of a small European country. It is Oslo with more sunshine, Lisbon without the Atlantic.

So, what's so great about Vienna? The truth is that many things are great about the city. It is full of the well-preserved glories of its past, from the palaces and castles and museums that the Hapsburgs left behind to the places where great composers such as Mozart and Beethoven lived and performed.

It also has a wealth of smaller attractions that will appeal to more specialized interests; Sigmund Freud's residence at Burggasse 19, where psychoanalysis was born, comes to mind.

One of the advantages of Vienna over a city such as, say, Berlin, is that the majority of the sites a visitor is likely to want to see is within fairly comfortable walking distance. History lies at the heart of the matter here, as with so much in Vienna. For centuries, the city was tightly girdled by its walls and fortifications, and, because of its eastern location, it needed those defenses longer than other cities in Western Europe.

In 1857, the city pulled down the fortifications and in their place laid out the Ringstrasse, a broad, circular boulevard lined with grand - or grandiose, depending on one's taste - public buildings. Yet the heart of the city is still inside the Ring. The area is called the Erster Bezirk, or First District; it is a statement of the district's importance as much as it is a postal code.

The city's long stay on the world stage ended in 1918, when the last Hapsburg emperor, Karl I, abdicated and the Republic of Austria was proclaimed. Most of the Hapsburg empire was broken up into small countries, leaving Vienna as the capital of Austria only. Twenty years later, Hitler annexed Austria, a move that was not unwelcome, to judge by the delirious crowds that greeted him upon his return to the city that had spurned his artistic ambitions as a young man.

Inside the First District, the natural starting point for a tour of Vienna is the Stephansdom, or St. Stephen's Cathedral, whose soaring Gothic steeple has dominated the city since the 15th century. It rises 448 feet, every foot of which is loaded with stone ornamentation organized on an underlying mathematical order based on triangles, rectangles and octagons. The steeple is justly cited as one of the masterworks of Central European Gothic.

Near the altar is a massive red marble tomb, containing the earthly remains of Frederick III, whose reclining figure is depicted almost in the round on top of the tomb. Frederick is by no means the only Viennese to be buried at the Stephansdom. A stairway in the north transept leads down to the crypt, where generations of devout or status-conscious burgers were laid to rest - for a while. The crypts proved so popular that periodically somebody who had drawn the short straw would have to enter the crypt's burial chambers, break up the skeletal remains and toss the bones into back chambers, where they can still be seen.

The centerpiece of the crypt is the Duke's Chamber, where 15 Hapsburgs from the Middle Ages are buried. Lining the sides of the chamber is an odd assortment of copper urns and pots, which hold the organs of later Hapsburgs. These later Hapsburg emperors rest in pieces: their bodies lie in the imperial vault in the Capuchin Church, which is open to the public. Their organs went to the Stephansdom, and their hearts to the Augustine Church in Augustinerstrasse, also open to the public.

After such a descent to the underworld, an ascension seems in order. For those in search of exercise and a fine view of the city, the climb to the top of the Stephansdom steeple is worth the attack of claustrophobia that is guaranteed while struggling up the narrow, circular stone stairs - all 343 of them.

So much for the sacred. The return to street level plunges one into the secular. The Stephansdom is at the intersection of Vienna's choicest shopping streets, Graben and the Kaerntnerstrasse, both of which have been converted into pedestrian walkways. They are worth a stroll, especially in the evening after dinner when the inevitable street theater comes to life: street performers and simple people-watching are the chief entertainments.

The Kaertnerstrasse leads to the Ring, but on the way, it passes two of Vienna's grandest hotels, the Bristol and the Sacher, where the famous chocolate torte originated. A retail shop on the street sells Sachertorte in every size and shape.

Across from the Sacher is another kind of confection, the Staatsoper, or State Opera, an architectural wedding cake, especially inside, where opulent ornament abounds. The neo-Renaissance marble staircase in the main foyer is particularly impressive and becomes more so when a guide mentions that most of the building was devastated by bombing in 1945.

Of Vienna's principal sites apart from the Stephansdom, the most important is the Hofburg, the complex of more than a dozen interconnected buildings that took 600 years to evolve. If you've spent one day visiting the cathedral and then following the Kaertnerstrasse, the Hofburg makes a good destination for the second day. Or, you can go straight from the Stephansdom to the Hofburg.

From the Stephansdom, walk along Graben until you reach Kohlmarkt, another elegant shopping street. It may be necessary to stop at Demel's, one of the best confectioner's shops in the city, for a slice of Sachertorte - mit schlag (whipped cream), naturlich - or some other fascinatingly tempting dessert. Demel's is said to follow the original Sacher recipe more closely than the Sacher Hotel, in that the layer of jam is directly underneath the icing instead of buried in the middle of the cake. Such things are serious matters to the Viennese: the matter once went to court, and a judge decreed that, recipes notwithstanding, the Sacher, not Demel's, may call its torte the original.

Demel's version, which has the consistency of moist flourless chocolate cake, is a high example of what mankind has learned to do with sugar, whipped cream and the cocoa bean. A delicate slice and a small cup of coffee will cost about $11.50 with tip.

Thus fortified, plunge into the labyrinth of the Hofburg.

Until 1918, the Hofburg was the principal residence of the Hapsburgs; now, many of the Austrian government's offices are located there. But the complex also has many museums and exhibitions for the public, including two that are intimately associated with Vienna: the Spanish Riding School, with its snow-white Lippizaner stallions, and the Vienna Boys Choir, which sings at the Sunday morning mass in the Hofburg Chapel. Tickets for either must be obtained months in advance, although first-come, first-served tickets to morning rehearsals at the riding school are available, if standing in a long line and taking a chance on getting in are acceptable vacation activities. Also note: the Lippizaners do not perform in January, February, July or August.

It is a hopeless task to pick the best among the Hofburg's many other offerings. There are, for instance, tours of the imperial apartments used by Emperor Franz Josef, complete with the iron cot where he slept. The displays of the Hapsburgs' enormous treasury include the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, of which the chief glory is the crown itself, which dates from 962 and the coronation of Otto the Great. And a bibliophile will find paradise in the state library, a Baroque masterpiece where the bookshelves cover two-story walls.

A couple of practical points are in order concerning a visit to the Hofburg. First, read up on the complex's attractions in advance and be ruthless in picking only those that appeal strongly because it would be easy - but unfair to the rest of the city - to spend one's entire visit to Vienna at the Hofburg. Also, the various museums are open at different times and on different days, so plan ahead. Spontaneity has its place on vacation, but the Hapsburgs were not spontaneous people. Neither is their former domicile.

To take a break from sight-seeing or to take refuge during a sudden shower, head for one of Vienna's countless coffeehouses, one of its finest contributions to civilization. One can sip a cup of coffee all afternoon, read a newspaper, write postcards or simply stare into space. But ordering a cup of coffee is something of an art in Vienna. For strong black coffee with a little milk, ask for a "kleiner brauner" (for a small cup) or "grosser brauner" (for a large one). Viennese coffee is stout stuff, so for coffee with even more milk, order a "melange."

Like any popular tourist destination, Vienna can seem packed with more tourists than residents during the busy seasons, which are the summer and around New Year's. Quiet moments alone at some obscure spot can be hard-won but well worth it. They repay the time spent scouring the indexes of travel guides to find them.

Two bored security guards were the only people at the Beethoven memorial rooms when I visited the apartment house where the composer lived, off and on, between 1804 and 1814. The building is on a side street - the Moelker Bastei - in a quiet neighborhood. As a museum, the two-room apartment on the fourth floor is modest: there is a lock of Beethoven's hair, some personal items, such as his salt-and-pepper cellar, early editions of some of his music, and a few fine paintings and busts.

The true appeal of the place, as with so much of Vienna, is not what is there now but what happened there in the past. Beethoven composed some of his greatest works - the Fifth Symphony; his only opera, Fidelio; his Violin Concerto - while he lived in this building, if not these very rooms. To be alone in this shrine, to have peace and calm and a chance for quiet meditation, seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was a moment of rapture.

That is the power that the past can exert on us. That, ultimately, is the power of Vienna.