Austria! In the Waldviertel

4 May

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After our lovely week in rather nippy London, we flew into Vienna, rented a car from Sixt (we have used them before in Europe, and liked their rates and service), and then drove to Wolfgang and Nora’s Vienna apartment in Nussdorf. Having no cell phone, and no GPS, and only a bit of a map and the Google Map instructions I had written down ahead of time, we got somewhat lost, but made it eventually by remembering our bus routes from our last Viennese stay. We were very happy to see both of the Petritsches–as well as son Nicola, deep into the final stages of study for his rigorous Matura exams. Our plan was to follow them in our car out to their country place in Gars am Kamp in the Waldviertel–the forested region of Lower Austria.  And so we embarked, keeping their gray Skoda in our sights ahead of us–or so we thought.  (And remember, we have no cell phone, and limited maps, and no coins for a phone booth, if we could find one).

We followed the gray Skoda until the man who was driving it turned into his driveway in the outer suburb of Floridsdorf.  We had been following the wrong car the whole time! So what to do, with no way to contact the Petritsches, and only a vague memory of how to get to their Gars house?  I got out of the car and found a nice man on the street who told us how to get back on the right freeway, and with our map, we drove into the Waldviertel, and eventually made it to the proper town. We thought we would be able to find Nora’s house by radar, remembering the way to turn from our last visit there. We almost made it, but missed one essential turn. We went back to a nearby service station, and told the attendant our story. He knew the name Petritsch, and  obligingly phoned Nora on his phone–there is no such thing as a phone booth anymore, apparently.  Nora was in her car on the way to Gars; it turns out that when they saw us going the wrong way–which was nearly at the beginning of our trip–they decided to go back to their apartment!  It wasn’t until this moment that we realized how silly we were not to have had one of the Petritsches with us in our car. In any case, we DID get into the Gars house at last, and Nora did arrive (this time without Wolfgang), we got into our cozy apartment at the top of her newly renovated house, and then went for a great dinner at a  local Gasthof filled with Gemütlichkeit.  Adventures all around….I don’t know why our friends put up with us!

But they do greet us so warmly, and we are forever grateful. This is the apartment as it now appears after Nora’s fantastically well-considered renovations. Wolfgang and Nora used to have this as their apartment in Gars, while the downstairs was rather forlorn, but now they have completely transformed downstairs into beautiful living quarters.

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Nora and her sister Heidi, in the new apartment in Gars

This was Nora’s childhood home, so she is having a field day transforming it into a little country gem. This means, of course–construction! At least this time it was only work in the garden, putting up stone walls and pathways, so the noise was minimal. Once again, our God of Construction Projects continues his pursuit of us on our travels.

While the weather was less than ideal, we had a splendid time, visiting fantastic structures and experiencing old-fashioned village life.  Gars is surprisingly diverse, and has served as a cultural hub in the Waldviertel for a thousand years. When the Babenbergers ruled this region in the 11th century, Gars was even the capital of Austria. Consequently, the ruins of old fortresses, as well as a 14th century church, loom romantically over the town. Quite astutely, the Austrians have cashed in on this location, presenting operas and other musical performances here in the summer months; “Kulturtourismus” is the salvation of these European historical sites. The 13th-century tower has even been restored, with historical displays on each floor and a magnificent view over the Kamp Valley from the top.

We headed out to visit the castles of the surrounding area, having really no idea what to expect. Our first stop was Schloss Rosenburg, which I only knew was a Renaissance-era structure; I didn’t even know if it was open to the public.  In a great stroke of luck, we arrived just as the main event of the castle complex began: an exhibition of falconry!  Rosenburg is a UNESCO-recognized center for falconry, offering workshops and training for would-be falconers. Every day the staff put on a show of their skills for visitors. I was over the moon!  Even though it was freezing–it actually started to snow as the show went on!–we were so enchanted to see these marvelous creatures perform that we stayed on as long as we could.

The castle is worth a look, too. The current configuration dates to the 17th century, and the complex has been owned by the same family, Hoyos-Sprinzenstein, since that time. The current Count has taken advantage of the location, with includes the only fully intact tournament grounds in the country. Along with the falconry events, the castle hosts historical reenactments in period costumes, and rents out the spaces for historic films and TV shows.  You can also book the excellent restaurant and its rooms in the castle for weddings.

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The coat of arms of the Hoyos-Sprinzenstein family above a door at Schloss Rosenburg, Austria.

Our next stop was the renowned Stift Altenburg, the great Baroque monastery famed for its magnificent library. Alas, the entire complex would not be open to the public until May 1–this was April 28!–but we were able to get into the church, with its fascinating murals by Paul Troger (1698-1762), Austria’s greatest illusionistic ceiling painter.  These paintings were on themes of “Good triumphing over Evil”, and included arcane narrative Biblical stories that seem to have had some political meaning among the 18th-century abbots who commissioned the works. The stucco work and the marbling are also splendid. We must come back to see the Library, which rivals Melk and Admont in its grandeur. The Abbey also has a boys’ choir and school; the boys were in residence, and we were able to hear them practicing in the rehearsal rooms.

The Abbey gained special notice in recent times when the abbot, in 1938, refused to fly the Nazi flag over the grounds. He was arrested, the Benedictine order was disbanded and Nazi storm troopers occupied the buildings. As soon as the war ended, the order was reinstated, and the abbey returned to the church. The grounds now include Gardens of Peace, representing the world’s 5 great religions.  These, too, were not yet open for viewing, and as it was still so cold would not have had many plants yet in any case. I was able at least to light a candle, in a small side chapel of the church, for my old friend Leslie Gliessman Holt, who died a few months ago of cancer. She had studied in Vienna, and I’m sure visited Altenburg at one time. Rest in Peace, Leslie.

In the next few days, it did get warmer, and our last day culminated in a delightful event: the raising of the May Pole by the volunteer fire brigade in the village of Zitternberg. Such a lovely experience, to participate in such a traditional event, something that has taken place in European villages for thousands of years!  Most of the village was there, and the fire brigade raised a bit of money through the sale of sausages and new wine. The raising itself took a good hour and a half–it’s quite complicated to do, and of course, one had to have a few wine breaks while carrying out such manual labor! It was truly impressive to see these firemen continuing to do this raising the old-fashioned way.

And so, dear reader, as you can no doubt tell: I am happy when I’m in Austria!  The landscape, the architecture, the culture, the aesthetic–all this feels comfortable to me, it feeds my soul. On one level, I find this all rather odd, since another part of me is so Californian that just the thought of cold weather makes me shiver. I have never skied, and never wanted to, and I still have terrifying memories of being bone-chillingly numb with cold in that “Hundert Jahr Winter” of 1969-70, trudging from the tram stop in Sievering through vineyards in my little miniskirt and tights. But Vienna was my revelatory moment as a young woman, and the culture has permeated into my heart. When we make our lists of “where to live?” criteria, Austria will no doubt get top marks for culture, if not for YEAR-ROUND weather.  Wir werden Oesterreich wiedersehen!

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