Located to the south-east of Germany, the beautiful country of Austria nestles between the Italian alps, the Dinaric alps of erstwhile Yugoslavia, and the plains of Hungary . This largely mountainous country was ruled by the House of Habsburg from 1521 to the start of the first world war in 1918. Unlike other empires, the Austrian, and subsequently Austro-Hungarian empire, flaunted its wealth not in gold and jewels, but in culture, art, music, and the finer things of life. That legacy continues to this day,
The elegance of the palaces of Vienna – Schonbrunn, Hofsburg & Belvedere, among others – bear witness to the fine taste and good living of the austrians under the Habsburgs. I was particularly taken up with the ‘ millions room ‘ of the Schonbrunn palace (picture attached). Within the gilded rosewood frames are 260 original miniature paintings from India , depicting the various aspects of life there during the height of the Mughal empire . Each painting today costs a fortune – if it can be acquired.
Schonbrunn palace : the Millions room
Though located far from the great muslim empires of the Saracens and the Ottomans, Austria willy-nilly was drawn into their history over the centuries. It was at the Austrian castle of Durnstein on the Danube river that king Richard the Lion heart of England was imprisoned by the Austrian king Leopold Babenberg, while returning from the third crusade against the Saracens in 1193 A.D. Austria , and more particularly Vienna, marked the high water mark of the Ottoman turk advance into Europe. Twice attacked by Suleiman the magnificent in 1529 and 1536, and twice successful in its defence, Vienna has the distinction of saving western Europe from the ottoman juggernaut.
However, the soul of Austria is still Music. Austria was the birthplace of the great composer of waltzes and quadrilles – Johann Strauss, of his son Johann Strauss II — the great composer of polkas and waltzes, and of Wolfgang Mozart—the great composer of symphonies, operas and concertos. The great composers Beethoven & Brahms enriched Vienna with their trios, sonatas, symphonies and lullabies. Further enrichment came from composers Mahler, Haydn and Gluck. In recent years, the Austrian alps have been the setting for the famous film whose name is given in the masthead of this blog.
In the National gallery of Vienna are displayed the paintings of some of the world’s greatest painters –Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, Velazquez, Gainsborough and many others.
However, Austria has much more to offer than palaces, art and music, as I discovered to my delight. The alpine ski slopes of the Austrian tyrol, just south of Innsbruck, were twice host to the winter Olympic games. I did make it to the top of the ramp of the Olympic ski-jump , 250 metres above the city of Innnsbruck, and marvelled at the courage of anybody attempting this jump.
Innsbruck ski slopes
Innsbruck forms part of the border between Austria and Italy . It was on this border that the oldest known inhabitant of the region was found in 1991, preserved in ice. Oetzi, as this man was subsequently named, was a hunter-gatherer of the copper age and trod this region around 3200 B.C. His person and his belongings gave the world a glimpse of what early life was like in today’s highly developed country.
Oetzi (courtesy : South tyrol museum of archeology )
The lush grasses of the Austrian Tyrol – foothills of the Alps – feed the Fleckvieh and Holstein milk cattle whose abundance of milk explains the wide variety of chocolates found in all shapes, sizes, and variants on the store shelves of Austria. The most well-known of these is the Mozart kugel – a chocolate coated marzipan.
Austrian cattle : Fleckvieh breed
Horses also make Austria proud. The performances of Lippizaner ‘dancing’ horses of the Spanish court riding school in Vienna , are a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting this cultural hot-spot. These beautiful and intelligent white horses were all but wiped out during the second world war as Europe was systematically destroyed. Today they are bred near the city of Graz in southern Austria. ( pic of lippizaners). A ‘will see’ for anyone walking the streets of any Austrian city, are the pedigreed pet dogs being proudly paraded by their owners. Austrians are great dog lovers.
The Austrians are also great lovers of fine liquors and spirits. The vineyards of Austria date back to Roman times. Today, they come out with their stocks of new wine – heuriger — every spring in a delightful custom called ‘ heurigen ‘. A pine branch hung outside a vine-grower’s garden or courtyard informs all and sundry that the new wine is being served – usually in open air surroundings — to the accompaniment of cold meats, cheese, music and much merriment.
For those desirous of something more robust , Austria is well positioned to offer the famous apricot brandy of Hungary – Barack, and the equally famous blue plum brandy of Yugoslavia – slivovitz. For gourmets, Austria offers the choicest specialities of the surrounding countries – Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Serbia , in addition to its very own wienerschnitzel , the meal completed with coffee –available in twenty shades or more.
As a nation , Austria appears to be one country of Europe to have had a charmed life . After its long stint under the Habsburgs , Austria was involved in the start of both the great wars of the 20th century. In 1914, the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria triggered the first world war. In 1938, Adolf Hitler annexed Austria as a prelude to the start of the second world war a year later.
Yet through it all, Austria has survived as an undivided country – to give the world the finest things of life.
( From the mountains of Austria to the blue holes of the Bahamas and the Americas , the reader will be taken in my next blog . Stay posted. )