Keeping it in the room: health, happiness and living in Berlin
‘You’re going where? Why?’ asked lots of people when we told them we were on our way to Burgenland. Lying on Austria’s eastern border with Hungary and Slovakia, and only a short drive from Slovenia, Burgenland is one of Austria’s smallest administrative regions.
The region’s capital, Eisenstadt, brings to mind a small market town in England, offering little to do during the day outside its cute pedestrianised town centre. At night, however, the western end of the high street regularly comes to life, as the Esterházy Palace commemorates the place the composer Haydn spent most of his life, with regular Haydn concerts. The Haydn Festival – which in 2014 is between 4 and 14 September – is at its centre.
The region is also well known among Austrians for its wine production, something which we were very keen to sample. The House of Esterházy at one point owned much of the region, which began as Hungary, but war and political manoeuvrings mean is now Austria; this means that one of the region’s most well known wineries is the Esterházy range.
We were offered a tour of the Esterházy winery, with a helpful lady showing us first how the wines are made and bottled: they obtain grapes from growers across the region, which they press, barrel and bottle, before sending them out for sale.
The grapes are first pressed – luckily, modern technology means they no longer need to ask the cellar boys to stomp on them to squash them – and then fed to massive tanks. There they ferment for a few days, before being barrelled and stored until they’re ready. A clever but slightly scary-looking bottling machine then bottles the wine, corks or screws the lids on and then labels each one, at a rate of up to 10,000 per hour. Altogether, the winery produces 500,000 bottles per year, with prices ranging from just €6 (£5) for a light, fruity white, up to €45 (£37.50) for a full bodied red. We’re not wine experts, so we thought it would be rude to refuse when we were offered more than the usual five different wines to taste – in fact, we probably tried about 10 or 15 from the range of 30, which includes some startlingly powerful schnapps. We chose, however, to avoid the sauvignon blanc, which our guide pointed out smelled a bit like a cat litter tray.
We also got to visit the Haus am Kellerplatz, a wine shop with a unique way of letting you sample from 64 different bottles from around the region. They are all kept in refrigerated glass-fronted cabinets, and when you go into the shop, you buy a smart card with €10 (£8.30) credit on it. An LCD panel above each bottle tells you how much a small, medium or large sample costs – from about €0.50 (42p) for a small glass of appropriately fruity Queer Pink. Elsewhere in the shop, up to 350 wines are available to buy.
The dispenser system looks great and makes for an interesting but somewhat impersonal experience. There is no information given about each wine, and you have to scrutinise each bottle to even see if it’s red or white. The super shiny cabinets look great – and they should, at a cost of €90,000 to install – but because of the reflections off the glass, we had trouble seeing much beyond the label. Normally, you could at least turn the bottle around to read what it says on the label, but unless you find it on the shelf elsewhere in the shop that’s not possible here.
Burgenland is home to Austria’s largest lake. It also happens to be Europe’s second largest, never going deeper than 1.7m. At 120 square miles, Lake Neusiedle is mostly covered by reed beds, which provide the perfect habitat for many species of bird and results in it being a World Heritage Site. National park ranger Arno Cimadom took a group of us out on canoes, pointing out birds as we went.
In fact, after our initial reservations that we’d all end up in the water, it was a wonderful way to spend a morning. Few birds were visible, but we could easily hear many different species. Half way along the mile-long cutting from the boat house to the lake, a raised platform offers a great view of the whole expanse of the lake, with Cimadom pointing out the different bird calls and pointing at photos or drawings of them in a book.
A keen birdwatcher by hobby, he particularly impressed with his ability to mimic bird calls when we could only describe them (we asked about one bird which sounded something like an electrical power generator starting up, and sounded for a minute or more without stopping). Although his website is only in German, his English was perfect, and he’s happy to take groups on a two hour trip at €22 per adult (minimum €90, so bring your friends or make some new ones!).
Although a wonderful way to spend the day, it was a shame that only the person in the canoe with him got to share his knowledge while going along – his obvious enthusiasm for his job was infectious.
Given the relatively flat terrain, the area is also perfect for cycling, with long routes clearly marked out with signs. Especially in the picture postcard town of Rust, we saw many groups of riders at varying degrees of fitness – some looked like they could do with a little more cycling and little less stopping off at pubs for a refreshing beer!
Austria is well known for its schnitzel, and while we didn’t have any traditional breadcrumbed slabs of meat with sauerkraut, we had plenty of Maibock veal in different guises. Maybe we got lucky with our restaurant choices, but much of the food was simply incredible, and many of the restaurants beautiful.
In the small town of Rust, right on the edge of Lake Neusiedle, the relatively small but very comfortable inner courtyard of Wirtshaus im Hofgassl comfortably accommodated us and a number of families, and a large tabby cat that was quite happy to sleep through the commotion of lunch service, complete with crying babies and barking dogs.
The restaurant even won our accolade for best dessert of our trip: a frozen Advocat parfait with mango pieces and a nougatknödel – a small light, fluffy cake with sweet gooey nougat centre. If you like Nutella, you’d love this.
We also enjoyed meals at:
When we first got to Eistenstadt, where our hotel was located, the first thing we did was look on a map to see where we were – and a few minutes’ walk away was the Jewish museum. This small museum is attached to the old synagogue in what was the Jewish quarter, just outside the old town walls.
The persecuted Jewish people had been given shelter by Prince Paul Esterházy, and given ‘protected status’. As early as 1675, 12 houses were given specifically for the Jewish people. However, this apparent charity came at a price, for they all had to pay protection tolls – later known as tolerance tax. In exchange, they got freedom of movement, of worship – and even allowed their own legal authority.
In 1840, some 900 Jews lived in the town; and by 1938, almost 1,000 were living in Eisenstadt and its surrounding area before being deported and murdered in the Nazis’ ethnic cleansing. Today just two Jewish families live in Eisenstadt, and 12 in the region. It is this dark history which made us wonder why the Jewish museum was so disappointing. Most of its small rooms are dedicated to teaching people about Jewish festivals: this is Rosh Hashana, this is a traditional school classroom, this is what happens when Jewish people get married … and then we had a final small room talking about the recent history.
According to a fascinating blog post by Peter Ede from the beginning of this year, the Austrian people are not always entirely honest about their past, for many were enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi party. It seems no coincidence that the people of Eisenstadt were among the first to be deported, in 1938, following Kristallnacht, when the synagogue was destroyed by anti-Semites with the support of the authorities.
And just as some Austrians arguably brush over their past, we wondered why the Jewish museum did the same thing with what happened to the Jewish people in the town. We wanted a history of what the people there did and why they lived there. Almost a thousand Jewish people lived in the town – the population is now 12,000, so they would have made up a very large proportion of the inhabitants.
There is mention that they were persecuted well before the time of the Nazis, but how? We are left guessing, and that’s a great shame. At one end of Jerusalem Street is a post, with a length of chain dangling from it. No explanation was offered at the museum, and there is none beside it, although it obviously had some historically important purpose. Later, it was explained that this was a chain to form an eruv, an area which symbolically extends the private domain of a Jewish household, so that activities which would normally be forbidden in public on the Sabbath – carrying prayer books, or pushing a child’s pushchair, for example – are allowed.
No visit to Burgenland would be complete without going to a Haydn concert in the stunning concert hall which forms part of the Esterházy Palace. The acoustics are apparently perfect for his type of music – when Hadyn was composing there, he demanded that his employer rip up the marble flooring and replace it with wood to improve the sound quality.
Unusually for a concert hall, the space has windows along one side, which in summer makes for a truly pleasant experience: the sky outside darkens as the music proceeds, giving you more of a sense of time and place than most venues; and during the interval, you can go out on the balcony and look across the park as the dusk sky lights everything in magical golden reds and oranges.
Despite being just an hour’s drive from Vienna (our taxi driver said it was half an hour so long as she went along the back roads – it was the longest half hour we’ve ever experienced outside of London’s rush hour!), Burgenland is a mystery to many. To Austrians, it’s a place to stock up on cheap wine (taxes are lower, and because there’s no middle man, wines are priced less anyway). But it’s so much more than that. If you like active sports like sailing and surfing, cycling or running, then this is a great place to go. If you like classical music and have a passion for Haydn, then this is a great place to go. And if you like wine, then this a great place to go. But if you want a great gay scene, then it’s definitely not the best place to go – the nearest gay on our favourite dating app was 20 miles away! Then again, it’s sometimes nice to leave the poppers and lube at home.
Comments are closed.