Ah, Austria. We could wax artistic about Vienna’s museums, poke fun at the people in period outfits selling classical music concert tickets, tell stories about Euro 2008, or tempt you with impressions of Viennese coffee houses and flaky apple strudel.
But what fun would that be? You can read about that in the New York Times Travel Section, Conde Naste Traveler or any other travel magazine.
Instead we’ll share how, with the help of an Austrian friend and an unplanned turn of events, we discovered the real Austria in the country’s Weinviertel (Wine Quarter) about an hour outside of Vienna.
A Bucolic Weekend in the Countryside
“We’ll go to my parents’ house in Pulkau and experience the real Austria. After breakfast, we’ll take a walk in the countryside. My mother will make us beef roulade for lunch. Maybe we can rent bikes. Tonight, we have a choir group barbecue,” our friend Christian briefed us on a rough itinerary of our weekend from the driver’s seat. The bucolic weekend plans were aplenty and the good-omen sun shone brightly as we parted the rolling hills outside of Vienna.
We arrived in Pulkau to an iconic Austrian breakfast (coffee, fresh bread, meats and cheeses) overlooking Christian’s parents’ backyard pond. The backdrop was stunning and quintessentially Austrian: pastel villages tucked in rolling green hills, all punctuated by a requisite church (Pulkau was special, it featured two churches).
Christian suggested a quick stop at a friend’s place before setting out for a stroll in the forest.
“How do you know Christian?” Kurt asked as we walked up the driveway to his farmhouse and mechanic’s workshop.
“Oh, we met while trekking in Burma,” we responded as everyone gathered at the picnic table. Kurt, middle-aged with thinning blond hair, sympathetic eyes and a weathered face, nodded as if that were the most natural answer in the world.
Although he had spent most of his life in this tiny Austrian village, Kurt was not untraveled. Over a beer, we learned about his road trip through Europe to Libya in the 1970s and his frustration in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when a cute bartender couldn’t comprehend that Austria was in fact a different country from Australia.
The Detour Begins
Unknowingly pointing to an apricot tree, Dan asked, “What kind of tree is that?” An innocent enough question, the answer to which arrived in the form of a bottle of apricot schnapps.
After a few remarkably smooth shots, Kurt disappeared with the bottle and we breathed a sigh of relief.
Our relief was short-lived, however. Kurt had other plans and returned with a bottle of cherry schnapps.
“You know, the Austrians are somewhere between Germans and Italians. It’s ideal, really…like a little bit of anarchy,” Christian mused.
Frankly, anarchy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Austria, one of the world’s cleanest and best-organized countries. Reflecting on this incongruity under the socially lubricating glow of a few shots of schnapps, we found the idea positively hilarious and somehow right on.
Then the plum schnapps (also known as slivovitz or slivovice) arrived.
Then came the grappa.
Yes, this felt vaguely like anarchy.
“So, Kurt, what about mushroom picking? Is it possible now?” Christian poked around.
“There are no mushrooms in the forest right now. The moon is not right.” Kurt offered matter-of-factly as he looked overhead.
Our afternoon in the Austrian countryside – originally replete with activities such as cycling, hiking and mushroom picking – was boiling down to a perfect, if a bit schnapps-laden, day around the picnic table. This experience further underscored the concept that somewhere along the way to making it to the scheduled events in our lives, we actually live life.
A Winemaker and The Thief
It was 4:00 in the afternoon and we were now unofficially three hours late for our lunch of Christian’s mother’s beef roulade.
“Let’s go down into the wine cellar. It’s authentic, like 300 years old,” Christian explained, as if we needed convincing.
We ducked our heads and followed Kurt into his subterranean hideout as he lead the way with a torch and a barrel thief (a glass contraption vaguely resembling an eye-dropper that is used to siphon wine directly from the barrel).
We gathered around Kurt as he climbed atop one of the wooden barrels. As he drew breaths through the thief, it filled magically with a rolling, golden liquid: wine from last year’s harvest. Kurt tapped the wine from the thief into our glasses and gave us a tour of his cellar. The air temperature was 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees F), perfect for storing wine all year-round, but a tad frosty for two recent arrivals fresh from the steam of summer in southern China.
In the dim light, Kurt pointed to a black mossy stone hanging on the wall towards the back of the room. We couldn’t read the inscription beneath the date, but the numbers were legible: 1784. This wine cellar had been in Kurt’s family for over 230 years.
The cellar was also about as old as the United States of America! Our amazement was met with a shoulder shrug and another splash of wine. For Austrians, this depth of history was typical. Wine was nothing new here; it was in their blood.
Though Italy and France draw the bulk of international attention for European wines, Austrian wines can be delightful. Although relatively light, whites like Gruner Veltliner suit the environment and serve as a tart, refreshing accompaniment to things like warm summer days and heavy Austrian meals like wursts (sausages) and schnitzel.
As we lightened the wine barrels, philosophy came easy and time seemed to stand still. Then, in mid-conversation, Kurt fell over backwards. He landed perfectly nestled between two barrels, his wine glass held high above his head. Although he hadn’t spilled a drop, this was perhaps an indication that it was time to exit the cellar.
The Wine Bends
As we emerged from the cellar, we were bathed in fresh, warm air. We didn’t realize that we were setting ourselves up for the “wine bends.” Think of this newly classified disorder – an affliction of amateur wine cave divers like us – as the reverse of altitude sickness. When you emerge too quickly from the damp, dark coolness of a wine cellar into the heat and sunshine of a summer day, all the blood – and the alcohol within it – seems to race to your head at once.
Kurt disappeared, but Christian assured us this was Kurt’s usual reaction to the “the bends.”
Christian decided we should visit Kurt’s cousin, Farmer Sepp, next door to buy some eggs – and of course to taste more wine. “Sepp’s wine is probably better than Kurt’s,” Christian offered, as if our wine degustation faculties somehow remained finely tuned.
After a glass of wine with Farmer Sepp (we could in fact tell it was of higher quality), it was 6:00 P.M. and time to return home.
We arrived at Christian’s house with our haul from Farmer Sepp’s – ten farm-fresh eggs and six bottles of wine. The ratio seemed just about right for the territory. We apologized profusely to Christian’s mother. She had prepared a wonderful homemade meal five hours ago and was disappointed that we’d be tasting her culinary specialty after a spin in the microwave.
As we took our seats at the garden table overlooking the postcard-perfect church towers and sloping fields of the village below, we noticed there were only two of us at the table, not three. We looked around and saw a body sprawled out under the birch trees in the garden: Christian. Lily, the family’s Jack Russell terrier, licked his feet in a futile effort to wake him.
The Main Event
We eventually made it to the choir barbecue, perhaps a little worse for wear from our afternoon adventure.
After another round of grazing – sausages, salads, dark breads, and berry crumbles – at the choir picnic, Christian and Kurt the choir master (not to be confused with the Kurt above of wine-making and mechanic fame), took us to St. Michael’s, the Romanesque church next door. Thanks to Kurt’s master set of keys, we enjoyed a private evening tour of the 12th century church and its 13th century ossuary.
Christian grabbed a hymnbook in front of the altar and began singing. Kurt joined him seamlessly, mid-phrase. They treated us to a brief private concert. The acoustics of the 900-year-old structure were epic and the chill from the stones added to the mystery of the moment and placed the finishing touches on the charm of the weekend.