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Austria’s cities filled with history

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By Debbie Stone

This is the second in a two-part series on Austria. Part one appeared in the Oct. 11 edition of Diversion and can now be found at lamonitor.com.

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To catch a glimpse of the for a glimpse of the oldest stained glass window in Vienna, circa 1370, as well as of the sarcophagus of St. Vitalis, a martyr from the Roman catacombs head to St. Rupert’s Church. Visitors will also want to check out the murals alongside the Danube Canal. Many make political statements regarding a variety of issues. It’s street art at its most colorful and fully sanctioned by the powers that be.
At the Palais Coburg, originally a palace, now a posh hotel, you can see part of the medieval Old City wall incorporated into the design of the building. Stop in for a drink at the bar, or better yet, head to the upstairs pocket garden to enjoy a libation. This little-known gem makes a perfect hide-away from the hustle-bustle of city life.
There are many unique shops in Vienna, but one of the more unusual is Supersense, where the goal is to provide experiences that tap into each of your senses. Located in what was once a Venetian Palazzo, this store is a treasure trove of vintage products and analog equipment, including the largest instant Polaroid camera and a 200 year-old printing machine that’s still in operation. There’s also a recording studio, where you can cut your own records using a Voice-O-Graph machine in an old, refurbished elevator cabin. For those who want to exercise their olfactory sense, they can check out the Smell Lab, to purchase their own personal Smell Memory Kit to evoke special moments in their life.
Another special store is Blühendes Konfekt, where owner Michael Diewald has turned his passion into a profession. An avid hiker, Diewald has collected and sampled all of Austria’s wild herbs and edible flowers over the years. He then turns them into delicate pieces of confectionary art, with combinations like black current and sweet clover, rose and bergamot, orange flowers and quince, and lilac and strawberry. They’re not only aesthetically beautiful, but delicious.
Though Vienna is certainly a showcase for many of Austria’s wonders, there are a number of other cities that spotlight different regional specialties, especially when it comes to food. Among them is Graz, Austria’s “Capital of Delight.” Located in the southern part of the country, about 95 miles from Vienna, in an area known as Styria, Graz has long had a reputation for its robust culinary scene.
Gastronomical pleasures are everywhere, from food festivals and guided food tours to cooking demos and special events like the Long Table of Graz. Held once a year in August, this unique culinary experience takes place in the historic center of the city, where long tables are set up as a giant open-air restaurant. Guests, of which number 700, enjoy a multi-course dinner paired with specific wines, which has been planned by noted chefs and master sommeliers.
With its mild climate, fruit, veggies and vineyards thrive, and farmers markets abound in Graz. For an introduction to the products of this region, stroll through Kaiser-Josef Market, where a colorful bounty of scarlet runner beans, apples, farmer’s bread, smoked sausages, homemade cakes, tomatoes and more is on display.
In the autumn, pumpkins dominate along with bottles of pumpkin seed oil. Known as “green gold,” Styrian pumpkin seed oil is world famous. It’s so special that it was declared a protected product by the EU-Commission, with a strict set of guidelines and criteria to assure authenticity. The best way to learn about this acclaimed oil is to participate in a tasting session at Gasthaus Stainzerbauer, a local restaurant that has a tradition of fine food in Graz. Visitors can learn about the history, cultivation, processing, nutrients and usage of the oil via a memorable sensory experience.
I became an instant convert upon sampling this magical substance, with its dark green color, rich roast aroma, nutty kernel taste and light, fresh sensation. Dinner at the restaurant followed with plenty of pumpkin-related dishes, including a heavenly pumpkin soup, curd cheese with pumpkin seed oil, pumpkin seed oil ice cream and even pumpkin tiramisu. As you travel through this region in fall, you’ll quickly become aware of how pumpkin, in all shapes and forms, makes its way into everything.
Visitors might also notice that many restaurants have fried chicken on their menus. Styrian fried chicken is in a class of its own, made with bread crumbs and typically served on a bed of greens with potatoes and scarlet runner beans. And of course, it’s marinated in pumpkin seed oil! Landhauskeller is reputed to be one of the best places in Graz for this dish. Diners enjoy their meals in cozy style amid 16th century pillars in an old government building.
Styria has a reputation as the Tuscany of Austria. More grape varieties are cultivated here than in any other winegrowing area in Europe. The region produces characteristically light, dry wines, with the fruity taste of ripe grapes. The most popular is Welschriesling. With its fine, full-bodied touch, it’s a wine for any occasion. Beer lovers don’t despair, as Graz is home to several breweries and brewpubs. Styrian beer is reputed to be the best in Austria, with Reininghaus and Puntigamer at the top of the list. And visitors who think they need to drink one of those ginormous steins, rest assured, they can order just a “pfiff” or a “whistle,” which is a small glass, ideal for midday consumption.
Graz boasts an Old Town that counts as one of the most well-preserved city centers in Central Europe. Nowhere else can sightseers find outstanding architecture of all styles in such a concentrated area, from the Middle Ages through the 21st century. This UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site on the banks of the Mur River is a treasure trove of palaces, romantic inner courtyards, elaborate frescoed facades, stately churches and charming squares. It’s also a mecca of museums showcasing art, archaeology, science and military history. Taking center stage, though, is the Kunsthaus Graz, an architectural icon that serves as an exhibition center for contemporary art. The unusual biomorphous structure is known locally as the “Friendly Alien,” thanks to its unusual shape and the one thousand plus acrylic glass elements that form its skin.
The town’s traditional landmark is the medieval Clock Tower, which is located atop the Schlossberg hill, the highest point in the city. You can reach Schlossberg on foot up a series of 300 stairs, via the funicular, or by taking a ride in a glass elevator that ascends inside the mountain. Atop, you are greeted with a dramatic panorama of the surrounding mountains and red-tile roofscape of the city below. Take time to walk along the network of footpaths around this lovely spot and when you feel the need for sustenance, head to the Schlossberg Restaurant, where the food and views are divine.
Salzburgerland is another culinary hotspot in Austria. This region, known as “top chef country,” has nine self-guided culinary paths or tours for food aficionados. Each pathway has a different theme and is suited for those with a specific food interest like “gourmets,” “fish fans,” “meat eaters,” “organic connoisseurs,” and “cheese freaks.” Information and maps are provided indicating designated farms and restaurants geared toward the area of focus. On the “gourmet” route, for example, you’ll stop at Wirtshaus Döllerer, an award-winning restaurant and hotel of the same name, located in the delightful town of Golling. Dining here is akin to having high culture on a plate and in a glass. Chef Döllerer has a reputation for using regional products and melding tradition with innovation in dishes like blackened leeks, salt-baked fennel, venison fillet tips in cranberry pepper sauce, and pumpkin ginger soup.
For the cheese lovers, Fürstenhof Dairy and Cheese Factory is a must-see. It’s an organically-run operation that welcomes visitors interested in learning about the cheese making process. The tour begins with a stop in the barn to meet the resident Jersey cows and eventually finishes in the shop, where tourists can sample some of the 30-plus delicious raw-milk cheeses made on site such as double malt, blue mold and Camembert with pepper. Those looking for a hands-on opportunity can become a cheese maker for the day.
Within Salzburgerland is the world renowned city of Salzburg, often referred to as the “Baroque jewel on the edge of the Alps.” The name Salzburg means salt-town. For thousands of years, the people around this area have been mining salt and for most of that time, this “white gold” has been incredibly valuable, as it was the only means of preserving food without refrigeration. Consequently, the city accumulated wealth, power and fame, which helped make it a place of extraordinary beauty and fine culture.
Salzburg’s historic Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site characterized by an ensemble of medieval town houses, baroque sacred buildings, splendid palaces and sprawling squares. It boasts impressive museums, galleries, concert halls and theatres, while offering a whopping 4,000 cultural events each year. Home to the internationally acclaimed Salzburg Festival, it’s also a magnet for musicians and music lovers. The city’s celebrated son is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born and raised here. His birthplace is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. It is one of the most photographed buildings, as well as one of the most highly frequented museums in the world.
Tourists also flock to Salzburg because of its connection to the 1965 film, “The Sound of Music,” which was shot on location in the city and its environs. Ironically, the movie was not popular in Austria and most Austrians didn’t see it until years after it was released in the U.S. They were unaware of its popularity until people began coming to Salzburg specifically to visit the film locations. Locals felt the story had been “Hollywoodized” and lacked authenticity, as it had a number of historical inaccuracies. Today, however, Salzburg has fully embraced its “Sound of Music” fame, offering tours, productions of the show and plenty of trinkets to satisfy the throngs of rabid fans.
When it comes to culinary highlights, Salzburg shines with award-winning restaurants and chefs. Opt to take a food tasting adventure with guide Astrid Zehentmayer of Salzburg For You. During your tour, you’ll stroll through traditional food markets and family-owned shops to sample different homemade local products like Monastery Bread, Liver Cheese and Mozartkugel. The bread, which is made only at Alteste Bakery, is mostly rye and baked in a log fired oven. Contrary to its name, Liver Cheese is neither a cheese nor is it made of liver. It’s actually comprised of ground pork, bacon and corned beef, which is then baked as a loaf in a bread pan. Mozartkugel is a special confection that was created by Salzburg master confectioner, Paul Fürst, in 1890 in honor of the famed composer. These sweets are in the shape of small balls that are filled with green pistachio marzipan and surrounded by a layer of nougat, then dipped into dark melted chocolate. Although there are many places in the city that sell Mozartkugel, only the four Fürst shop locations in town can claim to have the Original Salzburg Mozartkugel, which is still made today according to the old recipe and method.
Another specialty of Salzburg is Eachtlingsuppe or pretzel soup, which can be made with beer and cheese, and then topped with pretzel pieces. Pretzels themselves are ubiquitous in all of the markets in town and are most noticeable by their humongous size. One is definitely sufficient for several people! And while on the subject of bigger-than-life foods, the Salzburger Nockerin is in a class of its own. It ranks as one of the most popular desserts and has evolved from a recipe that dates back to the 1800s. The dish is basically a soufflé consisting of three large golden-brown “mounds,” sprinkled with powdered sugar and served on a silver platter. The mounds represent the three hillsides surrounding Salzburg. One order easily serves three.
For a meal with a dynamite view of the city, eat at M32 atop Mönchsberg Mountain near the Museum of Modern Art. And if you want to pull out all the stops, don your best dirndl or lederhosen and take a ride to nearby Lake Fuschl where diners eat in style at Schloss Fuschl Resort & Spa, a legendary fairy tale chateau built in the 15th century by Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg. Visitors feel like a queen or king for the evening, as they sup amid this royal setting.
For those who like to explore some of the city’s off-the-beaten-path sights, there are plenty. For the quirky and unique, check out the 3rd Man Museum, which is dedicated to the film noir classic of the same name. The movie, which was shot in Vienna in 1948, stars Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. Exhibits illustrate the film’s international success, as well as daily life in post-war Vienna.