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Taking a Mozart's-eye view of Vienna

If you covet a cruise on the Danube, this fact may come as a shock: Strauss' well-known waltz notwithstanding, the fabled waterway is not (and never was) blue.

For the record, it's an opaque olive-green. But try squeezing that into 3/4 time! Anyway, it isn't the river's color that matters but where the river roams _ from its source in the Black Forest in Germany to its terminus in the Black Sea. Wending east from Germany, the Danube meanders through Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. Perhaps chief among the cities through which it passes is Vienna, a cornerstone of composers, a city of music.

Vienna usually makes its way onto most travelers' wish lists, whether for its street-corner bratwurst stalls and ubiquitous coffeehouses or Sacher torte and classical music.

Last year my husband and I visited Vienna for the first time, during a week-long Danube cruise board the 207-passenger riverboat Mozart. Even with almost 24 hours, we knew it wasn't possible to see all that Vienna offers. So we mapped out what would make a Vienna visit most meaningful to us.

We decided it was mostly Mozart. As in Wolfgang Amadeus. (The eponymous name of our elegant vessel was a fitting grace note.) We set our sights on sites that had marked the composer's life there. Meandering through Vienna with mostly Mozart in mind confirmed that it's the small things that count.

I had heard much about the city from my Viennese friend, Angelika, who had lived for a time in Florida. Over endless cups of her fabulous coffee (Viennese are positively chauvinistic about their coffee), Angelika shared her sometimes cynical insights.

"Viennese are typically negative," she said. "Just listen to the major themes of our songs _ wine, mother and death."

Indeed, my husband and I are avid fans of Mozart's Requiem, the solemn dirge that Mozart wrote while he lived in Vienna. Ironically, it was his final composition.

As do all riverboats that visit the city, the Mozart docked on the Danube close by the subway, providing easy access to a quick train ride into downtown Vienna. We got off at the stop nearest St. Stefan's, the imposing cathedral that marks the center of the old city. St. Stefan's is to the Viennese what the Eiffel Tower is to Parisians, Angelika told me."The logo of Vienna, so to speak."(Locals affectionately call it the Steffl.) The soaring edifice, where Mozart married Constanze Weber on Aug. 4, 1782, was as good a place as any for us to start.

Hardly a spot in Vienna lacks some footprint of Mozart. He arrived there in 1781 from Salzburg, was appointed concertmaster to the archbishop and became the toast of the town for a decade. He composed more than 600 works. Then shortly after 1 a.m. on Dec. 5, 1791, Mozart, who was ill and bedridden, turned his face to the wall and died. He was 35.

Nowadays, Vienna's streets seem the incarnation of his reincarnation. Everywhere in summer, bewigged and satiny-costumed Mozart look-alikes hawk tickets to classical concerts, as ubiquitous in Vienna as multiplex cinemas are in suburbia. (Angelika suggested a less-expensive alternative: outdoor concerts at Rathausplatz, or City Hall Place, are broadcast on huge video screens.)

At King's Park near the Ring (the road that circles Vienna), we gazed up at a twice-as-big-as-life-size statue of Mozart. In front of it was a garden of golden flowers that formed the shape of a gigantic musical treble clef. In one corner, a dozen Viennese grade-school children were learning the story of Mozart.

With more time, we might have visited Mozart's pauper's grave outside the city. Which brings up one snag on our cruise: From a port stop in Bratislava, Slovakia, the Mozart coasted for nine hours to Vienna _ a mere 30 miles away! Had we taken the railroad and met the Mozart in Vienna, we would have gained eight hours in the city of music.

If Mozart appeals to you but your cruise doesn't offer a lot of time in Vienna, Angelika suggests this Vienna sampler: Head for Cafe Mozart around the corner from the Hotel Sacher, home of the torte, opposite the Opera.

"That I would say is the best solution. You are sitting in a coffeehouse _ very Viennese; you have something Mozart _ the name _ and you can stretch your blistered tourist feet, have some decent coffee and pastry . . . and read your papers while the waiters ignore you." After all, she said, "That's the Viennese way."

Danube River cruises are offered by many cruise lines, including Peter Deilmann/Europamerica Cruises, (800) 348-8287; KD River Cruises, (800 346-6525); Eurocruises, (800) 688-3876; Abercrombie & Kent, (800) 323-7308); Swan Hellenic, (888 664-6378); and Intrav, (800) 456-8100).