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Saturday, 31 August 2019

Austria: A Land of Scenic Beauty and Historic, Medieval Towns

Written by Roger Marks
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My first trip to Europe forty years ago started with a group tour to Vienna and then on to other countries in Europe. I fell in love with the totally intact old city and vowed one day to return to explore Vienna in more depth and see the rest of the country. This year my wife and I finally did that. While Austria is a relatively small country by size (around the size of the State of Maine), it is definitely one of the crowning jewels of the many spectacular countries throughout Europe. It has so many distinctive regions with charming towns and villages perched along its rivers or nestled in lush green valleys within the Alps.


I spent several months planning the three week trip, which included calculating travel distances by car particularly in the mountainous region, identifying several unique sites off the beaten track as well as those on the tourist trail and booking hotels and tickets to performances. We visited in May where we only encountered rain for an hour or so on a few scattered days and were able to avoid the summer crowds and easily secure restaurant reservations at the last minute.


We spent our first three days in Vienna and stayed at the Park Hyatt, formerly a 100-year-old-plus building that was once the headquarters of the Austrian Hungarian Monarchy Bank. It is a luxury hotel opened in 2014, very centrally located within the old town with the hotel situated on Vienna’s oldest square—Am Hof—with charming old buildings surrounding the square and within easy walking distance to our favorite Viennese pastry shop, Demel (although we managed to sample pastries at many fine shops in Vienna and throughout the country), dating back to 1786. It was here that Emperor Franz Joseph I would write love-letters about the large variety of treats. Among our favorites was the apple strudel piled high with whipped cream, Sacher torte (a classic desert of chocolate cake layered with apricot preserves) and hot chocolate with more whipped cream. Needless to say, I recommend deferring this trip until one is not on any diet as the cafes are simply too tempting and too delectable to pass up!


As my wife is a clinical psychologist, a must-stop was the Freud Museum which served as his residence between 1891 to 1938, before he escaped Austria to London after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. The museum contained five rooms of memorabilia including the waiting room with its authentic furniture. We also walked around the University founded in 1365 and considered the oldest university in the German speaking world. Our hotel recommended the Ofenloch for traditional Austrian food set in a historical setting, and founded in 1704. The food was good but even better was the charming atmosphere.


The next day we visited the Schonbrunn Palace (the Hapsburg summer residence), easily accessible by train. Of the 1,441 rooms, 40 are open to the public. Two rooms in particular are famous—the Hall of Mirrors where six year old Mozart performed for Empress Maria Theresa in 1762 and the Grand Gallery where, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna danced at night after carving up Napoleon’s collapsed empire. We also walked the gardens surrounding the palace.

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We visited many parts of the central old city including the Rathaus (City Hall), built in 1872, and the Burgtheater (the National Theater built in 1874 in Italian Renaissance style with an opulent interior). Perhaps what we enjoyed most about Vienna was walking the streets and old plazas and viewing the architecture. Kurrentgasse is a beautiful street lined with 18th century houses. Michaelerplatz in front of the Hofburg Palace is one of Vienna’s most historical squares and now the site of an excavation revealing Roman layers of the past. We visited St. Stephan’s Cathedral where Mozart was married in 1782 and where his funeral took place in 1791. We took the elevator inside the Cathedral to the bell tower and this provided spectacular views of the city. We visited nearby Peterskirche, considered the best example of church Baroque in Vienna, built around 1702. We had dinner at the Goulash Museum, which I recommend skipping. We saw a lot of street advertising for this restaurant and that should have been a red flag as the higher quality and more popular restaurants don’t need to advertise.

 

On our third day in Vienna, we attended a 9:15am Mass in the chapel at the Hofburg and listened to the Vienna Boys Choir. On this particular day the music performed at the Mass was from Haydn. The Choir has existed since 1498 and today consists of about 100 boys between the ages of 10 and 14. During the Mass, the choir is hidden from view but can be seen after the Mass is over for a brief appearance. After the two hour Mass, we immediately attended a performance at the Spanish Riding School located in another part of the Hofburg. For the last 300 years the Lipizzaner horses have been performing to the sound of baroque music in a ballroom that is a crystal-chandeliered stable. The horses are descendants of a Spanish breed which is a cross between Spanish, Arabian and Berber horses. Tickets for both the Mass and the Riding School were purchased on-line two months in advance of the trip.

 

Following these performances, we took a tour of the Hofburg Palace to view the Imperial Apartments (consisting of eighteen luxurious state rooms) and the Sisi Museum (consisting of 5 rooms displaying many of the treasured possessions and jewels of Empress Elisabeth), the Silberkammer (displaying the silver collection and tableware), and the Schatzkammer, which was the Imperial Treasury with an elegant display of royal crowns and relics. Afterwards we went to Mozarthaus which is the only still-existing abode in Vienna where Mozart lived. The Museum did not have much to show and could easily be skipped.


We also visited the Judenplatz Museum, dedicated to Austrian Jews who died in WWII. Simon Wiesenthal (a former Vienna resident) helped turn the remains of a 13th century synagogue into a museum and the archaeological ruins of the synagogue were quite interesting to view. Other areas worth strolling around included Himmelpfortgasse, a maze of tiny streets from the 1800s, Schonlaterngasse containing streets lined with beautiful baroque townhouses, and a walk (passing through many plazas and across the Danube Canal) to view the exterior of the Hundertwasserhaus (built between 1983 and 1985). The building itself, containing 53 apartments, is a crayon box of colors, irregular floors and windows with trees growing out of them. It is one of Vienna’s most visited buildings. We had a wonderful dinner at a popular café facing one side of the Park Hyatt where we had veal goulash with sour cream and spätzle and then desert at the Central Café, which is particularly famous for its Sacher torte.

 

Vienna is a classically beautiful city with perfectly preserved Romantic and Baroque architecture. The city is filled with palaces, museums, churches, statues, elaborate stone fountains and charming squares. It also has many parks and therefore a lot of greenery. In fact 50% of Vienna is parkland or gardens. It is spotlessly clean and the old city is easy to navigate and walk around. We were in awe of the detailed stone carvings on so many of the buildings. The old architecture is generally uniform throughout the city. While the Danube River does not flow through the old city, it is within easy walking distance.

 

Early the next morning we picked up a rental car at Hertz for the next two weeks. Thanks to GPS and Google maps on my iPhone, we managed to navigate the mountain roads and turnoffs very efficiently throughout the trip. Our first stop was to Kreuzenstein Castle, a 19th century architectural fantasy castle with storybook turrets and towers, sitting atop a hillside. It was built in 1879 and contains a stained-glass chapel, library, a large collection of armor, a banquet hall and a room devoted to hunting trophies. The Three Musketeers was shot at this castle in 1993.

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We then visited three charming villages along the Danube: Krems, Durnstein and Melk. In Austria, the Danube is lined with authentic villages, gently rolling hills and lush vineyards and in the spring the riverbanks explode with blooming apricot trees. There are wine taverns or wine-tasting rooms everywhere. Austria does not export its wine because it does not produce it in large enough quantities so it is primarily used for internal consumption.

 

Krems was particularly unique for its murals from medieval times still preserved on some of the buildings. Durnstein is a village with narrow streets lined with 16th century residences. Its church stands out with its tall steeple and wonderful views across the river. The village is essentially a one street town that can be walked in 15 minutes but was a standout in terms of a scenic, quaint, medieval village. In Melk, we stayed at the Rathauskeller with a room facing the famous abbey for which the town is so well known. Since 1669, the hotel (consisting of seven rooms) was run as an inn with a guest tavern.

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The next morning we walked a few of the oldest streets to view the antique houses and then we climbed up a hill to the Melk Abbey, dating back to 1683 – although it has burned down several times and then been restored. Benedictine monks have continually been living and working in the Abbey. We did a tour with an English-speaking guide since the church is the only room that can be visited without a guide. The building one sees today was completed in 1736. We visited the library with a superb ceiling fresco, the Marble Hall, the Imperial Rooms and the church and balcony for views of the Danube.

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Next was Shallaburg Castle, only 10 minutes away, with its famous two-story arcaded courtyard. The castle dates back to 1242 when it was built as a fortress. Today the courtyard of the castle is used for theater performances and concerts. We then drove about an hour to St. Florian Abbey where we took a guided tour. The Augustinian Monastery was built in 1686 and our tour included the library, grand staircase, thirteen opulent salons, the tomb and the crypt with the coffin of the composer Anton Bruckner together with hundreds of skulls of earlier monks who lived there. We then visited the Abbey church on our own which is famous for the Bruckner organ. The cemetery where monks are now buried was also a point of fascination. Unlike the Melk Abbey, one was allowed to take pictures of the various rooms without flash and there were very few tourists since it is off the beaten path. Consequently, there was peacefulness in strolling the grounds. Both Abbeys are well worth visiting as they were very different in architecture and overall feel—one perched on a hill by the Danube and the other located in bucolic countryside.

 

We then drove on to Salzburg where we stayed at the Sheraton Grand for three nights, a great location next to the Mirabell Gardens. We upgraded to a deluxe room facing the gardens. We purchased Salzburg cards from the hotel which allowed free entry to most of the key attractions. The cards were well worth the relatively low cost. Salzburg is a charming, compact medieval city with a major tributary of the Danube River cutting through the city with picture-postcard views of the old town from one of the bridges crossing the river. The city is filled with churches, castles, cobblestone streets and squares. We had dinner at Blaue Gans, a fusion restaurant in a 500 year old building with vaulted brick ceilings and windows looking out onto the bustling commercial street. The dining room has a glass floor which reveals an old cellar, site of the oldest inn in Salzburg, mentioned in documents from the 15th century.


 

The next morning we did a mountain hike, driving thirty minutes out to Untersberg. We then took a cable car up the mountain to a station at 5,500 feet with breathtaking views of many white-capped mountains in the distance. We did an hour-plus hike each way to a cross built on a higher hill. Some of the trail was steep and all of it was very rocky. Fortunately it was not particularly cold and in fact the weather was quite mild at this altitude even though we hiked along patches of snow and ice. In the Sound of Music, the Untersberg is the mountain that Captain von Trapp and Maria climbed as they escaped the Nazis. In the film they were supposed to be fleeing to Switzerland but in reality the climb up the Untersberg would have brought them almost to the door step of Hitler’s retreat at the Eagle’s Nest above Berchtesgarden, Germany.

 

We then visited the Hellbrunn, a beautiful palace with many fountains and gardens. This was the prince-archbishop’s pleasure palace built around 1613. The castle has some fascinating rooms including an octagonal music room and magnificent banquet hall. We did two different forty minutes tours of the palace—the first being the tour of the trick fountains. In the formal gardens, the archbishop added exotic and humorous fountains spurting water from strange places at unexpected times. For example, the tour guide induced some younger, unsuspecting high school students on the tour to sit on the stone seats surrounding a stone dining room table. There is a water conduit spraying water into the seats when a mechanism is activated. Everyone, including the students, got quite a laugh when the water was turned on and they immediately jumped from their seats but not in time to avoid getting wet. Another hidden water spray came out of the antlers of a deer’s head attached to one of the small buildings on the grounds and again, several people in our tour group got soaked as we walked past this building. The trick fountains function exactly the way they did 400 years ago. We also did a separate tour of the palace itself.



We then drove to the nearby Frohnburg Palace which was used as exterior shots of the Trapp villa in The Sound of Music. It is not open to the public and today it is a dormitory and concert venue for Salzburg University. We had dinner at Herzl Tavern, a restaurant in the style of a country inn from the 15th century. We had delicious beef stroganoff and roast pork.

 

We spent a full day touring Salzburg itself starting with a walk through the Mirabell gardens (another site where Julie Andrews and her seven charges showed off their singing ability in The Sound of Music. Mirabell Palace itself was built in 1606 and Marble Hall is open to the public and is used today for civil wedding ceremonies. We then visited Mozart’s Residence. In 1773, his family moved into this spacious eight-room apartment on the first floor. Mozart lived in this house until 1780 and his sister lived there until she married in 1784 and their father lived here until his death in 1787. Among the special attractions are Mozart’s original fortepiano and a well-known family portrait.

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It is definitely worth taking the Monchsberg Elevator which carries one up through solid rock to the Museum of Modern Art. There are spectacular vistas of Salzburg from the platform in front of the museum and it is here where Maria and the children in The Sound of Music put the words to the song “Do-re-mi”. There are numerous sites to visit in the old city. The Alter Market is a square lined with 17th century middle-class houses. The Royal pharmacy, built in 1760, is still operating today and across from the pharmacy is a famous café, Café Tomaselli. The Cathedral dates from the 17th century and the crypt is where the archbishops from 1600 on are buried. Mozart’s parents were married here and he was christened here and served as an organist from 1779 to 1781. The Cathedral is world renowned for its 4,000-pipe organ. We then took a self-guided tour of the Residenz, a palace built in 1600, and the seat of the Salzburg prince-bishops. The most sumptuous church in Salzburg is Stiftkirche St. Peter. Nearby is St. Peter’s Cemetery, the oldest Christian graveyard in Austria dating back to 1627. From the cemetery, we climbed stairs to view the catacombs that are cut in the rock, originating from 215AD. Only priests and monks were buried here up to the year 1454.

 

The Fortress Hohensalzburg, founded in 1077, is the largest preserved medieval fortress in Central Europe. From the Fortress one has a sweeping view of Salzburg and the surrounding mountains, but here are a limited number of rooms that one can visit. We took the funicular up to the fortress and then walked to the nearby Nonnberg Convent, founded around 712AD. Nonnberg Abbey is featured in movies depicting the life of Maria Augusta Kutschera, later Maria Augusta von Trapp, whose life was the basis for the Broadway musical and film The Sound of Music. The church is the only part of the convent accessible to the public.

 

In the evening we attended a concert and dinner near St. Peter’s Church. St. Peter Stifskulinarium is a restaurant within the walls of St. Peter’s Abbey and is considered the oldest restaurant in Europe and perhaps the oldest existing restaurant in the world. Mozart in fact dined here. The concert is located in a baroque hall which is part of St. Peter’s Monastery. Two singers (who are professors from the local university) sang operas from Mozart between courses and were dressed in period costumes as were the five instrumentalists. While the set menu for dinner was average, the performance itself was very well done. We had purchased tickets to the performance on-line three months in advance of the trip.


The next day we drove through the Lake District of Austria, first stopping at St. Gilgen. This charming village with its painted houses is located on the shores of Lake Wolfgang and was used as the backdrop for a number of outdoor scenes in The Sound of Music. In front of the town hall, we saw a couple of families preparing for a christening ceremony dressed in traditional clothing. The men and boys were in lederhosen (knee-length trousers made of leather) and the women and girls wore colorful skirts down to their ankles. We saw many waitresses at various restaurants where we dined also wearing the traditional outfits. We then drove to St. Wolfgang and took the Schafberg Cog Railway, a steam train operating since 1893, to the 5,800 foot summit. At the summit were magnificent 360 degree views of snow-capped mountains that surrounded the many lakes in all directions. After the train excursion, we walked around the charming town oozing with traditional Austrian architecture, and visited the Pilgrimage Church built in the 1400s.

 

We then drove to Hallstatt, perhaps the most scenic village in all of Austria, where we overnighted. Hallstatt is considered by many as the most beautiful village in Europe—so beautiful that there is an exact replica of the town in Southern China. The town is on a lake encapsulated by mountains and is believed to be the oldest community in Austria dating back more than 7,000 years. More than 1,000 graves of prehistoric man have been found here. No cars are permitted in the village so we had to park in a lot outside the village from where a bus transports tourists (and luggage) to their respective hotels. We had one of our best meals of the trip at an outstanding traditional upscale restaurant, Seewirt Zauner, located in the main square with colorful houses and boutique stores surrounding the square. We had a local fish from the lake (reinanke) which is a mild white fish.

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We stayed at The Heritage Hotel, requesting a room on a high floor from where we had great views of Hallstatt from our terrace. It has operated as a hotel since the 1800s but for a long time in previous centuries it was the leading hospitality establishment in the town. The following day we explored the town on foot and took an elevator up to a skywalk looming high above it. From there, one can walk to the salt mines for a tour, which we skipped due to lack of time. We visited the two main churches in the central part of town, one of which was built in 1320. Because there was little space to bury the dead over the centuries, a custom developed there of digging up the bodies after 12 or 15 years, piling the bones in the sun and painting the skulls, with the names, dates and often the cause of death marked on the skull. The myriad of bones and skulls are now on view in the “Beinhaus” (bone house). There are 1,200 skulls. There was also a very colorful cemetery as part of the church grounds.

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In the afternoon we left Hallstatt and drove to the Hohenwerfen Castle, dating back to 1077. We took a tram up to the hill-top fortress hewn out of the rock on which it stands. It harbors Austria’s first museum of falconry and has special shows with rigorously trained falcons. We then drove on to our hotel destination, Grand Hotel Zell am See where we had a deluxe suite with the top floor serving as a living room with fireplace and terrace and a lower level bedroom. The hotel was very opulent with superb service. We had a picture postcard view outside our terrace of the lake below and white-capped mountains surrounding much of the lake against a backdrop of blue sky. We sat on the terrace and enjoyed the view as there was no site in the town that could be as mesmerizing as this view. The dinner buffet, which was part of the hotel package, was excellent as was the lavish breakfast buffet with many food stations.

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The next day we did the Grossglockner drive, a famous 30-mile drive where one views the highest mountain in Austria which stands at 11,500 feet. We made many stops along the road to take pictures of the mountains which were almost eye-level as we ascended higher and higher up to 7,500 feet with sharp hair pin turns throughout the drive. The surface of the road was excellent. We stopped in the village of Heiligenblut just after leaving this drive to visit a church built in 1271 and took pictures of its steeple with a gorgeous mountain backdrop. We were fortunate that the weather cooperated and clouds didn’t move in to cover the mountain peaks. The drive itself was three hours. Continuing on the road before heading north to our next stop, we reached the town of Lienz (one hour from the Italian border) where we had magnificent views of the Dolomite Mountains with their jagged edge peaks.

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We drove on to the famous ski town of Kitzbuhel where we took two cable cars to reach a lovely garden (6,500 feet) where we saw hundreds of varieties of Alpine flowers. From the garden there were also magnificent views of the white capped Alps in the distance. After descending through the garden and then a walk down a gentle slope, we reached another cable car station that ultimately returned us to the entrance. Despite our altitude, the weather was quite mild and we were able to hike around the garden with just a light jacket on. The garden winds up and down the mountainside and contains an enormous range of plant species. We then walked into town to view two major churches built in the fourteenth century. Kitzbuhel is a quintessential Alpine village with a colorful old town with cobbled streets. There are many ski lifts and trails up the mountains surrounding the town.

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After our visit to Kitzbuhel, we drove on to Innsbruck, a one & a half hour drive. We stayed at the Golden Adler Hotel with its foundation dating back to 1390. Royalty and celebrities from all over the world have stayed at this hotel. Unfortunately the cable car up one of the nearby mountains to a panoramic view was out of service during the two days we were in Innsbruck. We visited the Cathedral built in 1717, the City Tower which had magnificent views of the city and surrounding mountains and the Imperial Palace built in the 1400s. Innsbruck is a compact city and it only took us a few hours to see the major sites of the city.

 

We then drove about a twenty minutes to the town of Hall. Soon after 1300, Hall became the center of western Austrian commerce and salt mining. There are cobbled streets throughout the old town. We visited several old churches there. Since it was a Monday, many museums are closed and so a few of the key sites in Hall, such as the 500-year-old mint and the Mint Tower (with panoramic views of Hall and the Alps) and the Hasegg Castle (a royal residence in the 1400s) were closed. But it was still interesting to walk the cobbled streets throughout the old town and view the exteriors of various old buildings.


Through our hotel, we booked an evening of traditional mountain folk music, dance and singing from the Tryol region (the eastern Alps located in western Austria) arranged by the Gundolf family for more than 50 years. The hotel arranged for transport to and from the auditorium about a 15 minute drive outside of Innsbruck. All of the performers were in their traditional local costumes. There were acts of yodeling, numerous folkdances, singing, and music using the alpine horns one associates with the mountain dwellers of the Alps.

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The next day we drove from Innsbruck to Mittenwald, Germany, one of the most colorful villages in Bavaria just a 45 minute drive from Innsbruck. The town is famous for its architecturally traditional painted houses with scenes from history or folklore. Some of the houses date back 250 years. We also visited the Geigenbaumusem (violin museum) as this area is famous for making violins for over 300 years as the location is ideal for good quality wood.

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From Mittenwald we drove back into Austria to Reutte to walk the largest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. It is 1,322 feet and spans between a fort and a castle built in 1296 with its fortified walls and towers still intact. The suspension bridge is 376 feet high and can carry up to 500 people at one time. There are metal grids on both sides of the bridge that are almost shoulder length so we felt very secure walking the entire span of the bridge. One can also see the highway below through the metal grid design but fortunately it wasn’t disorienting. The bridge swayed more in the middle as it was more exposed to breezes. There were some great views of white-capped peaks in the distance. From Reutte, we drove to Bregenz, a city nestled in the far northwest corner of the country. We had had one of our best dinners of the trip at Salzgeber Gastronomiebetriebs, a boutique 18th century inn and restaurant. Specifically we had carrot-ginger soup, Wiener schnitzel (lightly fried veal cutlet) served with cranberry sauce, chicken breast with coconut curry, and apple strudel with whipped cream. To walk off our dinner, we strolled along the Bregenz Promenade on Lake Constance, just a couple of blocks from the restaurant. We then walked back to our hotel, Hotel Germania, which we booked because of its central location and two-minute walk to the cable car.

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The next day we took the famous cable car to the top of a small mountain (about 3,100 feet) with views of Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany. There were very good views of the mountains and Lake Constance. We then drove the 66 mile “cheese road” that begins on the outskirts of Bregenz and is known for its beautiful scenery and over 70 alpine cheese farms with traditional farm house architecture. Almost every village on this road has its own cheese house making its own cheese. We stopped in Lingenau, one of the more scenic villages, to visit a modern cheese cellar where several hundreds of mounds of cheese are left to mature on racks piled to the ceiling in a room not open to the public for sanitation reasons but can be viewed through the glass window. There are 60 varieties of Vorarlberg cheese made in this region that are sold throughout Europe.

 

We then drove to the charming medieval village of Feldkirch, about a half-hour south of Bregenz, where we spent much of the afternoon exploring. This is the most westerly town in Austria on the border with Liechtenstein. The town dates back to the 1200s and is very well preserved including the city wall which was rebuilt around 1500. We visited the Schattenburg Castle built 800 years ago as a fortress and then a residence, poorhouse and prison. Today it houses a museum and is the best-preserved castle in the region. There are great views of the old town from the castle. We also visit City Hall, St. Nikolaus Church built in 1478, the bell tower and the Palais Lichtenstein which was a residence for the Prince of Lichtenstein around 1700 and today serves as the tourist office and library.

 

After returning to Bregenz, we did a two hour walk around the old town, passing many architecturally interesting mansions leading up to the entrance to the Old City. We visited the tower built around 1600, the old city hall, a Baroque townhouse built in 1720, a church with 14th century frescoes, the Lake Chapel topped with an onion dome, and across the river, the Parish Church of St. Gallus, a 14th century Gothic structure notable for its late Baroque and Rococo interior decoration.

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The next day we had a nine hour drive from Bregenz to Graz, a major town located on the opposite side of Austria, with a detour to visit the Hochosterwitz Castle. The drive should have been closer to seven hours but for road construction that added on an additional two hours. The castle is built high on a limestone rock almost 2,200 feet above sea level. We took the glass elevator to the castle which is considered one of Austria’s most impressive medieval castles. It was a refuge for the local population during the Turkish invasion in the 11th and 12th century. This is one of the few castles that was never conquered. It contains a museum composed of three rooms where one can view the armory and paintings. Part of the castle and courtyard are now occupied by a restaurant. What today’s tourist sees is a sparse castle which is particularly impressive from a distance with its fairytale architecture perched high on a rock dominating the surrounding area. One of the more interesting aspects of it are the 14 different gates that one passes through if climbing the stone path from the entrance to the top or hiking from the top back down.

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In Graz, we stayed at the Hotel Wiesler, a boutique hotel built in 1909 with most of the rooms redesigned between 2011 and 2015. We booked a Junior Suite and our room had spectacular views of the old town, the river flowing through it, and the fortress on a hill above it. Celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithful, and Arab oil sheiks and Austria’s President have stayed at this hotel.

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Among the sites in the old town were the Clock Tower dating back to the 13th century, the Schlossberg (remnants of a fortress perched on a hill with great views), the Palais Herberstein (a 17th century former city residence of the ruling princes now housing the Cultural History Collection) and the Main Square dating back to 1164 with its City Hall, Gothic & Renaissance houses, a church and stores. We passed by the Palais Khenburg, the birthplace in 1863 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, leading to the outbreak of WWI.

 

We then drove to the Eggenberg Palace, built in 1625. There are 500 17th century ceiling paintings in the Palace. The Palace is surrounded by a large park full of flowers and peacocks. Back in the old town we walked many of the streets and squares filled with old buildings and churches until we found our way to another clock tower. A small life-size wooden couple dressed in traditional costumes pirouette three times a day to different melodies. The musical box was erected in 1905 by the owner of the house.

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Just thirty minutes from Graz are the rolling hills of the wine region. From Graz we drove to the nearby village of Rust, a very picturesque small town in the heart of the wine country and less than ten miles from the border with Hungary. The village dates back to the 1400s. We visited the town square with pastel color buildings, several churches but most notably were the stork nests and hatchlings on the roofs of many of the buildings.

 

From Rust, we drove to Vienna, an hour and a half drive away. When we returned our rental car to the Hertz office in Vienna, we were charged 50 Euros for one-eighth of a tank as we forgot to fill the car one last time We subsequently learned that some of the Hertz offices overseas are company-owned while others, like Austria's, are licensees. A licensee appears to have more flexibility in setting their own guidelines and procedures that are often to the detriment of the customer. After complaining to the Hertz US office, ultimately the amount was reduced to 20 Euros.

 

May was a perfect time to visit Austria as the summer tourists within Europe and other parts of the globe had not yet descended on the country. The weather was generally sunny and unusually warm. It rained periodically but only for an hour or so in mid-afternoon. I would rank Austria as perhaps the cleanest country I have ever seen as we never saw any garbage or trash on the streets of the larger cities or on the country roads. Our days were very full given the diversity of sites and the unique regions of the country including a few larger cities with old towns such as Vienna, Salzburg and Graz, quaint medieval villages, scenic countryside and vineyards along the Danube, the lake region in the central part of the country and the Alps in the western region. Austria seems to encapsulate in one small country the best of what many of the European countries collectively have to offer. After our trip, I now can highly recommend considering Austria as a trip of its own, easily spending two to three weeks visiting the distinct regions and countless sites throughout the country.

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©Roger Marks

Roger Marks is a photojournalist with an insatiable appetite to explore remote corners of the world. He has published travel articles in numerous magazines and newspapers. He has visited remote tribes throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands and Latin America. He also enjoys remote landscapes including the towering sand dunes of the Arabian Peninsula, the magnificent landscape and wildlife of Greenland and Antarctica and the rainforests of Surinam and the Congo. He and his wife also enjoy marine life having done diving or snorkeling excursions across the globe. He never tires of Europe always discovering off-the-beaten-path sites.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 02 October 2019