Late in Austria
Bratislava and Vienna are so close to each other it’s possible to live in one and commute to the other. It’s ironic really but a strange twist of fate ensured that one of the cities would become the capital of an enormous European empire while other became a regional backwater. Budapest was long the capital of Hungary, but in 1526 the Ottoman Turks captured the city and the Kings of Hungary were forced to flee. They set up their new capital in Bratislava and set about decorating with suitably imperial buildings. One branch of the family had married into a local German dynasty called the Hapsburgs, a family that had distinguished itself by its ability to marry into any family that looked to be going places. The Hapsburgs came from Vienna, then a small but important city on the western edge of the Hungarian realm. As soon as a Hapsburg son inherited the throne they moved the capital to Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian empire was born.
Vienna is largely the product of the mid nineteenth century, only St Stephensdom cathedral dates back to the 15th century. Like Paris, Vienna was completely made over with impressive public buildings, large shady parks and wide imperial boulevards. The inner city looks marvellous - just as it was supposed to - but the rebuild was largely a front to disguise an inner weakness. As far as empires go, Austro-Hungary was always pretty shaky, composed as it was of a kaleidoscope of Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Bosnians, Italians, Turks and Croats all of whom never particularly liked each other. In fact, the term “sick old man of Europe” was originally applied to Austro-Hungary before it was used to describe the Ottoman empire. The only thing that held empire together was devotion to the Hapsburg family. As soon as they had been swept away at the end of the First World War the empire fractured into the many countries of central Europe we know today. However, devotion to the family is still strong. 90 years after the last Hapsburg sat on the throne there are still people bringing flowers to the family tomb just beside the Hofburg Palace. The original church that sat on the site is long gone and a smaller, modern chapel has replaced it. Down several flights of modern marble stairs, that would not be out of place in a hospital mortuary, you suddenly find yourself in a long arcaded crypt surrounded by rows and rows of enormous lead caskets. It’s a little creepy. Most striking is the size of the crypt. After walking down a very long row of extravagant and extraordinary 17th and 18th century tombs, one turns a corner and finds another equally long row of tombs for the side branches of the family. Like a Mafioso family, you never really left no matter who you married or where you lived. There were a couple of exceptions though. Franz Ferdinand, who’s assassination sparked the First World War has only a wall plaque to note his place in history and the last Hapsburg, Charles, who was forced to abdicate in 1919 has not been allowed to return, even in death.
But we didn’t spend all day looking at dead people. Why would we, when there are so many more interesting live people around? Lonely Planet may have said Bratislava has the most beautiful women in Europe and very possibly they were right, but clearly they were all commuting to Vienna. The women in Vienna were stunning. The men were handsome. Everybody looked well dressed and gave off a distinct air of prosperity. The sun was shining and all was right with the world.
As strange as it might sound, I was also pleased to be back in the ‘Deutsche sprachen weld.’ I felt both a little rude and stupid in Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics as I didn’t even know a single word of their respective languages. At least I had a smattering of memorised German that made me sound less like a philistine (but probably more like a moron). I could for example order food; “Ich muchta einen schnitzel and einen wurst mit srei beer, bitte” which translates into something like “Goodbye, I am Tuesday rabbit railway station with a large sausage your mother, thank you.” No sooner do I start speaking in German than people stop me and ask me to speak in English please. How handy is that?
German language isn’t renowned for its humour but there are some words that do give us a laugh, such as:
1. Anything that ends in ‘fahrt’ - e.g. , einfahrt (entrance), ausfahrt (exit), gute fahrt (have a good journey). A good fahrt joke never gets old (well, Shelly doesn’t actually agree but what does she know!).
2. The German word for art is ‘kunst’ and I couldn’t agree more.
Vienna is the home of the wiener schnitzel and of course we had to have one. The one Shelly ordered was the size of a dinner plate and absolutely delicious. I had a huge bratwurst because I’ve always wanted a big sausage. It came wrapped in bacon. Now, wrapping a pork sausage in bacons does sound a little bit excessive I know but you need to understand that pork is so important the cuisine of central Europe that it comes with every meal. Even the beef is made of pork. Shell, who normally isn’t a fan of sausages has even succumbed to an occasional curry-wurst in a pinch (a sausage with curry sauce sold at take away stands all across central Europe). But it wasn’t all pork, we made sure we kept up our fruit and vege intake with regular servings of apple strudel
Salzburg was our next destination but we decided to take a detour via the Danube river valley. One of the first places we saw was castle Durnstein. Now a ruin, its main claim to fame was that Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned there for two years from 1192. Richard’s reputation is nowadays wrapped in chivalrous myth. In reality he was a vicious bastard. In 1190, while on crusade in Syria, he had quarrelled with and insulted Duke Leopold of Austria who had become the defacto leader of the German crusaders after the death of their emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. In act of public humiliation Richard had Leopold’s heraldic banners torn down and thrown into the moat at Acre (now in Israel). It was shocking behaviour at a time when personal honour mattered so much and Leopold immediately packed up his troops and left the crusade. Ironically, Richard was shipwrecked off Corfu on his way home and had to travel overland. Although disguising himself as a simple knight templar, he couldn’t help but proclaim his presence everywhere he went by his arrogance and he was soon arrested and presented to Leopold. Leopold of course was little inclined to respect his prisoner and had him packed off to remote Durstein while negotiations for his ransom were initiated. He was eventually released after the payment of three years worth of England’s’ taxes. This was the period of the Robin Hood folk tales when good king Richard was away and the realm of England was mismanaged by bad prince John. Perhaps if Richard had ever lived in England his reputation might be somewhat different.
A long way to go for Melk
A little way past the ruins of Durstien was the abbey of Melk. It’s an obscure place today but Melk was famous in the middle ages. It was the setting of the book and film “The Name of The Rose” although the 12th century monastery is long gone. The drive there seemed interminable, with lots of narrow weaving roads, prompting me to make the smart arsed comment above (at least twenty or thirty times). Fortunately there was not too much traffic. We were quite unprepared when we stumbled upon the town. At first there was nothing to see - just another small riverside town like all the others - then, as we turned towards the market square I caught a glimpse through the corner of my eye. The Melk abbey sits atop a spire of rock that juts out over the old town. Coming from Vienna, it’s invisible as the rock face is hidden by trees. Only as you turn south do you get to see it. And it is astonishing. The abbey was completely rebuilt in baroque style in the 17th century and is painted bright yellow. It looks like a golden ship looming over the town. Inside, it rivals St Peters in the Vatican. Astonishing.
Salzburg - Doe, a deer; a female deer
The drive to Melk was exhausting. It was very hot - 32 degrees C - bright sun, and the driving was intense. All I wanted to do was stop somewhere and rest. But we decided to press on and drive straight through to Salzburg and stay a couple of nights. We arrived towards 8pm and our initial views of the city were stunning. Salzburg straddles a river, with the old town on the northern bank. High over the city is a large fortress that dominates the skyline. Mozart was born here and, as you’ve no doubt guessed, “The Sound of Music” is set here. We were hopeful of quickly finding accommodation and setting out to get some sunset shots, but the city planners were conspiring against us. Firstly, the age old problem of one way streets, secondly, the street names are written in atmospheric gothic typeface and are only about 3 inches long. To put it bluntly, they are unreadable from the road. Thanks city of Salzburg!! And thirdly, the first hostel was full, the second was …. Gone, and the third….err, consult problems one and two. By luck we found accommodation in an old monastery in the centre of town. As a default accommodation it was pretty spectacular.
Our first night was a write off. We wandered around briefly and had our cheapest meal to date - two slices of pizza that we got for free from a pizza shop that was about to close. Cheers!!!
Next day we did the “Sound of Music Tour” It sounds corny and it was. I wanted to wear the Austrian military cap I’d bought in Vienna but Shelly wouldn’t let me. Possibly a good thing as most of the people on the tour seemed pretty serious about it. It was interesting though and we got to see the city and surrounding countryside.
After we did some sight seeing in the afternoon we finished up the night at the Augustiner Brewery. This is a brewery in an Augustine monastery. The monks have been making beer here for 600 years and their operation today has barely changed. There is only one type of beer. You buy a mug (6 euro for 1.5 litres!!!) and give it to the man who fills it up and you’re done. Around the edge of the garden are food vendors selling - you guessed it - enormous sausages (plus bbq chicken, pork ribs, whole bbq trout, etc). You sit where you can. It was packed. It was great.
The next morning we were moving a little slower than normal but we had the perfect antidote. Taking a spin by the Salzburg airport we visited Hanger Seven, the home of Shelly’s favourite inventor - Dietrich
Makeshifts - the owner of Red Bull. Hanger Seven is where he displays his obsession with speed - formula one racers, motorcycles, jet fighters, vintage aircraft. Man, the guy has everything! The Austrians have some interesting recipes for Red Bull, including Red Bull and white wine.