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Window on Austria

If you think Austria is all about  eating.... you are (almost) right!

Many popular foods begin with S: schnitzel, sacher torte, sausages - now there are even snails....

... BUT, as the sign says, there are no kangaroos here. That seems to be this year's tourism joke in the country once called the 'Eastern Realm', and it appears everywhere: on postcards, magnets and bags like this.

With Austria's proud royal heritage, it is amazing how often everyone from politicians to newsreaders, or simply mail-sorters, overlook the missing 'al' and confuse the land of 'roos with the country that gave the world strudel. 

Gordon and I love to travel, and we imagine that we do our homework first, but there are always still things that surprise us. Like the language. Don't go to Google-translate and expect to find Austrian as an option. What the locals speak here is a form of High German. All I had in my head was a very battered vocab of good old high-school German, but somehow words returned from apparently nowhere. 

Even after our 20-something hour trip from Sydney to Vienna, via Dubai, without rehearsal I managed to blurt out 'guten Abend' (good evening) to the immigration officer. He was impressed (I think) but not half as much as I was!

I was getting a good feeling about our second trip to Austria's capital - and even more so when we finally collapsed into the soft bed in our hotel, Grand Ferdinand, where we were to spend three nights.

That's our breakfast menu, above, with as you can see, the English translation, along with a tiny selection from the huge buffet. Little wire baskets were provided to carry our choices back to the table. Trust me, that was only a fraction of our consumption. The breads were particularly good - dark, moist, and many dense with grains and seeds, and it didn't hurt, either, that the dining room's eighth-floor location gave us high views of the multitude of rooftops and spires and domes of this ancient and lovely city.

In case we had woken with a headache, there was also on a table the makings for a Bloody Mary, and something called 'eggs-in-a-glass' - doubtless useful for hangovers, but possibly not for those like us with time-zone confusion!

Even the hotel's location on Schubertring reminded us that this country has been home to many composers, artists, writers and other creative people. We came across street names, statues and plaques of Beethoven, Haydn, Strauss and Mozart, and of course the Vienna State Opera House in the heart of the old city is the epicentre of musical culture.

On our first trip to Vienna we had explored that central area with its elegant and immense public buildings, their over-dressed marble exteriors glistening brilliantly in sunshine. We wavered at times between amazement and awe and aesthetic overload. (Read more about that visit HERE). How could one city establish such a dense and rich cultural foundation?

This trip, however, we had brought a different shopping list of places we wanted to see - and, strangely, most of them involved food! Our new friend-for-a-day, Alexa, joined us  to guide us to experience what is happening in Vienna's cafe scene.

Mention Vienna, and most people immediately think of cafes. The city has a long and illustrious history coffee culture. It is said that the first coffee-house opened in 1685. Today the emphasis has moved from these being places for dissent and collaboration and artistic chit-chat, to a focus on the origin of the beans, and the efficiency of new methods for achieving the perfect result.

Read about the history of cafes worldwide....

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As in cities all over the world, new cafes are springing up in Vienna all the time, especially in areas where office workers or commuters gather. Of course fine coffee is still the drawcard, but so are salads and light meals like this at the Park location of (Hidden Kitchen), matching its name with an unassuming facade that we could have missed - and which we were so glad we hadn't. Near the massive Stadtpark to the east of the city, it's an ideal location for joggers and cyclists to drop in to for hearty hot dishes and refreshing salads such as this radish and spinach one, above.

Of course there are breakfast croissants, too. Alexa was keen to remind us that croissants are not - and never were - French. Created in celebration of the Hapsburgs’ defeat of the Ottoman empire at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the crescent shape was intentional - a sly dig at the Turks, as it is the emblem on the Ottoman flag. It is thought these wonderful pastries reached Paris the appropriate way: via a Viennese baker in the mid 19th-century.

Across the park, canalside, we encountered one of the flagships of Vienna's new cuisine, Steirereck im Stadtpark, named #10 on the 2017 list of The World's 50 Best RestaurantsThis is a place to watch, and definitely make a booking for next time we visit. Unfortunately, early that morning it was not yet open, but doubtless it was booked solid, anyway.

Downstairs, its casual diner Meierei im Stadtpark was unassumingly relaxed, with most people on the busy outdoor terrace overlooking the water. In keeping with its brand, the decor is spare and understated. As the milk bottles dotted around the tables suggest, there is a strong dairy and regional produce base. Inside, the displays of fine cheeses sourced from throughout Austria and adjoining countries was enough to make me yearn to spend the rest of the day there, just inhaling.

There was more to see, though. Alexa led us on to Heunisch und Erben a trendy winebar on Landstrasse Hauptstrasse, on the eastern edge of the city centre, which serves small yet beautiful dishes to accompany an enormous selection of wines and liquors.

WATCH THIS VIDEO to see more... (Warning: may induce hunger or itchy feet)

 

Moving right along as there was so much to see and taste, a quick dip into a deli selling organic biodynamic artisan breads. 

And with options like these available, who wouldn't want a simple bread and cheese sandwich?

Finally, the result we had been craving. In Supersense, we found a partial cure for our time-dislocation. We also learned that Flat White, our favourite Australian style has not quite made it to Vienna yet. However, we were advised that a Grosser Brauner (a double shot of coffee - or mocha, as they described it - topped with cream) was a good alternative. They were right, and we ordered this for the rest of our time in Austria. Of course the ideal accompaniments were slices of Austrian tortes, which made us feel undeniably as if we had finally arrived.

Supersense is much more than just a pretty coffee place. It has a wacky and clever side to it as we discovered when we explored the adjoining rooms. A giant polaroid camera, collections of photographic gear....

....hand-operated printing presses where people can create their own cards and posters, and the arrestingly named Smell Lab.

'Go to the Sausage Box for lunch,' Alexa had instructed before she left us. 'You'll find in near Prater.'

And we did, Prater being the city's funfare, a Luna Park look-alike complete with wheel, ice cream stands, and a park, with students and families relaxing and generally having a good time.

And this was our lunch, a local staple, and tasty too.

We could choose which sort of sausage, although we had been advised the cheese one was best. It was excellent, rich with cheese, and perfectly cooked on the spot. Eating this paired with a slice of fresh rye bread, some sauce and mustard, plus a beer in the small adjoining courtyard, we began to feel like true Viennese diners.

 

Vienna has an excellent public transport system, and we used it several times - on trams, like this, or subway trains - to speedily move around the city. The 72-hour Vienna ticket is ideal for those, like us, in town for a short visit. At around 25 euros it covers unlimited use in the city area and, after tapping it once at your first entry, it is then activated and need not be offered again unless asked for by an inspector.

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Taking it slowly

What we were not quite so prepared for was our next stop a little way out of the city where Andreas Gugumuck is reviving an ancient favourite of Austrian diners. It is said that Vienna (not Paris) was considered Europe's capital of snail-eating in the Middle Ages. What's more, as Catholic followers were forbidden the eating of meat during Lent, and because snails were not considered meat, they could consume as many of them as they pleased.

Andreas is a man with a wry sense of humour and acknowledges that his snail farm is the perhaps the slowest of all Slow Food. It's a green enterprise, too, so he of course purposely painted his farm shed that colour.

Andreas Gugumuck is intensely serious about his business, having won many awards over the years and being very well respected in the local food community, as well as further afield.

This building, topped by a 400-year-old Turkish cannonball, serves not only as an office and tasting rooms downstairs, but serves six-course snail-dish menus every Friday night in the bistro upstairs.

Snails are private individuals, so we weren't really expecting to see a garden full of them, but this was still a surprise. Gugumuck says that he raises about 300,000 snails (or 1.5 tonnes) annually for local sales and export, and this is where they hide and grow - under slabs of timber in a field adjacent to his premises.

Not only does he bottle and sell whole snails, but he has cleverly worked out a way to harvest their eggs for snail caviar, as well as their livers (said to have a delicious nutty flavour), selling each to restaurants and niche markets.

Of course we would try some snails, we said politely, crossing fingers behind our backs. Minutes later, Andreas brought us this sizzling buttery, garlicky dish to feast on. So we did - and you can see it happening on the video.

They were tasty...in a snaily sort of way. Seriously, their sauce masked much of the flavour, leaving us with chewy morsels that were not unpleasant. Paired with a lovely local wine the colour of honey, they began to grow on us. A little. Slowly....

Of course the grounds of the 'snailerie' were decorated with snail-related objects and these tiny succulents seem very happy with the arrangement.

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To market, to market

Next day we were off to the famous century-old Naschmarkt for a culinary tour under the guidance of market tour operator Erika Novak.

She introduced us to Therese (above) from across the border in Hungary, who spends half the week baking her delicious filled pastry rolls, then brings them four times a week to sell at the market.

This is Vienna's most popular market, and it is huge, with scores of stalls stretching over a kilometre, and offering almost anything a home cook could need. Not only are there local goods such as asparagus and strawberries in season, but we found every sort of bread, hams, sausages (truffle salami, anyone?), seafood, regional fruit and vegetables, as well as exotic spices and herbs, chilli sauces, Middle Eastern ingredients and tropical fruits.

See more on the video (above)...

There are even the dishes you might want to serve your meal in. 

We paused for a while at this stall of a well-respected local maker of seed oils and flavoured vinegars. Gegenbauer specialises in infusing vinegar with fruit or other flavours. Here we have elderberry, lemongrass and sour cherry. The company also makes oils extracted from raspberry, blackcurrant or apple seeds. Imagine dressing a special salad with these.

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Back to the city

If in doubt, begin with chocolate. But not just any chocolate. Hotel Sacher, around the corner from the Opera House, was under renovation when we visited in April, but the sign said it would be ready for action later in 2017.

This is the hotel where the famously decadent chocolate-rich sacher torte was created.

Sensibly, despite the work-in-progress on the hotel, the adjoining cafe had remained open for business, but we decided against joining the long queue of people snaking out onto the pavement. I imagine almost all of them would order a slice of torte. And many would be photographing it and sending the images out on social media within minutes.

What makes this Viennese dessert so special? Perhaps it's the flavour, maybe the mystique. The recipe is secret, but there have been vigorous public battles over who owns it. Read more here...

Every city needs some green spaces, and Vienna has many. The Stadtpark is one of them to the east, between the centre and the river Danube. Here we found one of Austria's golden sons, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, fiddling away to his audience of flowers. Born in Salzburg, he lived much of his life in Vienna, and was a gifted violinist as well as composer.

The statue is world-famous, a great photo-op site, but many who pose in front of it today, do not realise that it was only gilded in the 20th century. Before that it was dark bronze.

The Stadtpark is the ideal link between the city centre and the third district, worth strolling through or sitting in for a while to soak up the atmosphere.

In contrast to the straight course of the Danube river and a second channel called the New Danube, the Donaukanal (Danube canal) winds along the edge of the city. As with bridges throughout the world, lovers have chosen to decorate the railings with symbols of their affection.

St Stephen's Cathedral has to be one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Seriously damaged in WWII, but now fully restored, its heart-of-the-action location makes it more accessible, although subject to city pollution too. This time, the old place was having a good scrub to return the grimy limestone walls to their original golden colour. 

As we stood in the square in awe, trying to imagine how 14th-century builders could have possibly negotiated such a high and steep building and the miracle of constructing something of such ethereal beauty without a computer or modern technology and tools, we learned that you can't please everyone.

Behind us, in outdoor restaurant seating, someone was not impressed. "I can't stand that roof," he groaned. "Those tiles - they don't go. They are all wrong!"

However it is impossible to stay away from food for long in Vienna, and not far away we visited a place we had enjoyed on our previous visit. Demel is something of an institution on Kohlmarkt near the Hofburg Palace, originally purveyor of chocolates and pastries to that royal court.

This time we were too late to watch the apfel strudel maker at work...

...but we could still sample his workmanship.

The service here is a little like you find in parts of Italy. After queuing to be allocated a table (yes, it is mostly that busy!) then you must line up at the front door cashier, tell them what you want and pay for it, then take your receipt back to your table. Your waitress will take it from there. Oh, and leave a tip. Ten percent is acceptable throughout most of Europe.

It is impossible in Vienna to escape baroque marble statues and facades. These fellows look a little chilly in the cool early-spring weather.

We felt even more sorry for the horses, stamping and steaming as they waited for passengers. It may seem romantic to see Vienna this way, but spare a thought for these animals before you do.

As we headed back to our hotel on the final day, we bumped into an old friend. Goethe's works were extensive, his wise words are often quoted, but not many know that his poetry was set to music by almost every major Austrian and German composer. 

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Here is my favourite quote of his:

“Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.” Goethe.

Another bag, another motto, absolutely true!

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With some time to spare, we dropped in on some other parts of Austria in our travels:

Graz, southern Austria

This unusual building is Graz's Kunsthaus, or Graz Art Museum, built as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2003. 

Because of its strange contours, the Kunsthaus has received many nicknames - 'nozzles' being just one of them.

The pumpkin-coloured scooter reminds us that Styria, the region around Graz, its capital, is well known for pumpkin seed oil. This dark and delicious nutty flavoured oil adds a new dimension to dishes. Read more about it here...

As luck would have it, the weather turned nasty just when we arrived in Graz, so we took refuge in the lovely Franciscan Church near the city centre.

When we finally ventured outside again, through the mist we could just see a strange 'island' in the river Mur. No surprise, then to later realise that it is called the 'island of Mur' a surreal floating platform containing a cafe and playground, and connected to either bank by bridges. Read more...

As in other parts of Austria, the emphasis on regional food is well-represented in Graz.

And so too are those padlocks. While they are a touching reminder of the joys of being in love, they do damage structures to which they are attached.

Here's an idea: when a couple breaks up, they should be required to return and remove their padlocks!

++++

 

Linz, upper Austria

Heading north towards Prague, in Czechi, we make a stop at Linz on the Danube, midway between Salzburg and Vienna.

Founded by the Romans, this elegant city, capital of upper Austria, has many grand buildings...

....and has made a particular contribution to dessert lists with its famous Linzertorte.

Try this recipe....

The Danube is a busy river thoroughfare, with many cruise lines visiting the cities along its navigable length. However, despite the famous piece of music, at least on the day we visited, the Danube was definitely not blue.

++++

 

Semriach, Upper Austria

Thirty minutes north of Graz, we booked a room in a home called Privatzimmer Haus Gschweitl in the tiny village of Semriach.

 This was the view from our balcony, and like so many other villages in Austria, tucked in among foothills of mountain ranges there was an Alpine feel...

 

....and gave us a glimpse of how tranquil and relaxing a holiday here could be.

Unfortunately we had to keep moving onward to Prague, but before we did, after breakfast at the town cafe we explored the main street, the church yard and...

...wondered over this centrally located decorated pole with a sign (in German) that said there would be some sort of celebration in a week's time. That's was almost enough incentive to stay on.

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And now, a fun one to finish...

Just inside the border between Austria and eastern Czechi is the small village of Herrnbaumgarten. To mix things up even more, there is a place in the town where the name on the pink wall says it all: the crazy village.

Here you will find Nonseum, its name a clue to the fact it is, quite simply, a nonsense museum. 

Two large buildings hold an amazing number of cleverly constructed and in some cases beautifully made inventions, that have no real practical use. They are joke inventions and although many have English translations on the titles, in some cases they cannot even be explained. 'Untranslatable pun' is all you will see, and unless you can read German, and understand German humour and culture, they may make no sense.

By the way, the glasses, above, are to keep small flying insects out of your eyes. This may begin to help you get the idea of these clever but basically useless inventions.

Here is a cast to wear while skiing - so that if you break a leg you are already covered.

This is tagged as an 'efficient chair' to discourage fast food customers from sitting too long.....

...and this helps you to twirl your pasta more easily.

Here's the ideal solution for boring presentations.....

...while this perforated plate and cutlery should help with your weight control issues.

The museum is open Thursday to Sunday and your ticket allows you to also visit the adjoining old shop and kitchen museum, and enjoy a free glass of local wine in the sunny courtyard. More details...

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So that's it, our visit to Austria is over.

We started with a slogan, so let's finish with another.

This startling fellow appeared many times as we travelled the highways of Austria. Does it seem like inappropriate advice? Not really. It translates as the Austrian equivalent of bon voyage! Or more exactly, 'good rides'.

Whatever the translation, we did have a lot of fun repeating it as we travelled!

 


Text & Photos: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled independently to Vienna on Emirates Airlines. They were accommodated and guided in Vienna by Vienna Tourist Board but all opinions and comments remain their own. 

The remainder of their trip in Austria was independent.

Stay tuned in future weeks for more from our epic European trip, as well as some Australian stories.

 
 

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