Burgenland: An A-Lizt Austrian experience
Forget those ‘Sound of Music’ images of towering peaks and flower-filled alpine meadows. There’s a very different Austria waiting to be discovered in delightful Burgenland.
Tucked away in the country’s tranquil southeast corner, hard by the Hungarian and Slovakian borders, this region is billiard-table flat. Sounds boring? Well, think again!
This land of marshes and wetlands is a nature-lover’s paradise, with rare plants and a profusion of migratory birdlife.
It’s dotted with exquisite little flower-bedecked villages, many of the chimneystacks crowned with giant stork nests.
The sound of music to be heard in these parts comes from all those birds and the tinkle of bicycle spokes and chains as hordes of happy cyclists explore the enticing web of dedicated cycle paths – some 2,500 km of them.
It also comes from the glorious musical heritage left by native sons Joseph Haydn and Franz Lizt.
With the tag ‘Born To Be A Superstar’, the ambitious ‘Liztomania 2011’ is a year-long programme of celebratory events, including no fewer than eight dedicated exhibitions – running through till November 11 – showcasing Lizt’s colourful life and career and comparing the 19th Century piano virtuoso and composer to Elvis, Michael Jackson and the Beatles.
Top-class concerts are staged in the pretty little village of Raiding at a purpose-built music centre adjacent to Lizt’s birthplace, which is now a fascinating museum.
A visit to the Burgenland Provincial Museum in Eisenstadt is a music-lover’s must, currently presenting a Lizt exhibition that besides likening the Austrian genius to the rock stars of today and includes rare posters featuring the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as well a collection of musical instruments and memorabilia of the showman who Heinrich Heine lauded thus in 1842: “How tumultuous was the applause that greeted him!
Bouquets were thrown at his feet! It was a grand sight to see how calmly he, in his triumph, let the bouquets of flowers rain upon him and then finally, gracefully smiling, placed a red camellia, which he had plucked from one of the bouquets in his buttonhole. Thus I thought, thus I explained LIztomania to myself”.
It was Haydn, a resident for more than 40 years, who turned this then modest provincial town into a world-famous music mecca.
Here the magnificent Haydnsaal of the vast Esterházy Palace, where many Haydn and Lizt works were first performed, remains one of the world’s premier concert halls – famed for its magnificent decoration and superb acoustics.
The exhibition currently running in Eisenstadt’s Haydn House draws comparison between the kappelmesiter careers of Lizt and Haydn, in Weimar and Eisenstadt respectively.
Overlooking Lake Neusiedl, an ancient Roman stone quarry provides the stunning 200,000 capacity setting for the operas staged each year during Europe’s third largest open-air festival.
If nature is a stronger lure for you than music, head for the 320 sq km of water and reeds that is Europe’s most westerly steppe lake – the Neusiedler See National Park, home to red and roe deer, wild boar and horses, as well as herons, spoonbills, egrets and many thousands of marsh songbirds. Its has been a recognised UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1977.
A bike makes a great medium for exploring it all and though a stiff wind was whipping across the lake, bringing with it some heavy summer showers, my own ride was 15 km of sheer delight, brief respite from the elements being found in a welcoming trackside café – and boy did that Austrian coffee taste good! It was accompanied by a cream-laden pastry – a local speciality.
If you ever want to wind a Frenchman up, reveal to him the truth that his beloved croissants were not a French invention but originated from Austria where, at the end of the Turkish siege of Vienna, the local pastry chefs baked the symbolically crescent-shaped delicacies in celebration. It was the Austrian-born Marie-Antoinette who then took them to France.
Austria has other links with France, an important one being wine production.
Mild climate, outstanding soils and finely honed vine-growing skills have turned Burgenland into a perfect place for the new culture of wine, creating an exciting symbiosis of tradition and modernity.
Fully geared to receive visitors, Weingut Umathum ( umathum.at), in Frauenkirchen, makes a good starting point for an understanding of the region’s enticing wine offering.
In the gorgeous little town of Rust – famed fro its profusion dense, silky of storks – I was introduced, at Wengut Feiler-Artinger (+43 (0)2685 237), to the delights of Ruster Ausbruch, one of the world’s great sweet wines – renowned for its dense, silky and creamy structure.
The region’s mix of German, Croatian and Hungarian-speaking ethnic groups has created a kaleidoscopic and inviting local cuisine in what is dubbed ‘The Sunny Side of Austria, Besides those wonderful pastries, there are rich stews, a wealth of game and lovely fruit soups.
If you’re feeling guilty after all the good living, Burgenland has an abundance of thermal spas. The baths at Lutzmannsburg offer programmes specifically geared to toddlers, tots and older children.
A year-round mild climate, nice wine, good food, unspoilt countryside, spa pampering, music and lots of fresh air – what more could you want?
Why should I visit Burgenland?
If you are a music lover, hanker after a relaxed ambience, good food and wonderful wines, head for Burgenland.
Roger St. Pierre travelled to Burgenland by flying low-cost from London Stansted to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, which is just a short drive from Burgenland. As both Austria and Slovakia are EU members, there are no border formalities between the two countries.
Roger stayed deep in the countryside at the thoroughly modern St. Martins Spa and lake (+45 (0)2172, stmartins.at) sited atop a thermal spring and sitting beside its own placid lake, the Seewinkel.
For further information, go to burgenlnd.com.