By Denise Mattia
Beyond Baroque in the home of Mozart
Rather than try to experience the architectural grandeur, traditions, and cuisine of Austria in under a week, I decided on areas that would give me an overview of the country. I didn’t expect to discover what my friends referred to as “gemutlichkeit”-enjoying a good life.
Like most Viennese, I chose to walk or take a tram to get around the city. My first excursion was an introduction to Baroque architecture and a fascinating look at the history of pre- and post-WWII Vienna as well. “The Third Man” tour retraces the same routes on the cobblestone streets that Orson Wells took as Harry Lime in the 1949 noir film, and includes a descent into the sewer where the final scene was filmed. Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, owner and curator of The Third Man Museum, later shared with me his passion for collecting memorabilia about the film and of the period during a tour of his private collection.
[slideshow id=23]On my way to Vienna’s Museum Quarter the next day, I stopped and joined a crowd at the “Ice Dream,” the largest outdoor ice rink in Europe, located at the City Hall Square. I curled my hands around a cup of hot cocoa and watched skaters pirouette before continuing my tour, emerging at dusk from the Egon Schiele exhibition at the modern Leopold Museum. I followed the glow from the floodlit monuments, churches, and palaces back to the Sacher Hotel, changed clothes and left for the Rudolfina Redoute, a masked ball for debutantes at the Hofburg Palace. I felt comfortable in this foreign city, and it occurred to me I was beginning to grasp the concept of gemutlichkeit.
Vienna’s balls, “dances in 3/4 time,” take place between November and February and benefit various charities. Under the disguise of a feathered and bejeweled mask, I mingled with “coming out” ladies of all ages whose privilege it is to choose dance partners until midnight, when masks are removed and identities revealed. I didn’t linger until then or until the last chords were played at 5 a.m. I had an early morning train to catch to visit the vineyards in Lower Austria.
The Krems and Wachau valleys account for more than 60 percent of the countryâ€™s wine production, 80 percent of which is white. With the impressive Modern Art Museum and Caricature Museum, spas and wine-tasting tours, the areas are anything but dull, even in winter. Joachim Berger, manager of the renowned Winzer Krems Sandgrube 13 vineyard, showed me the winemaking process from vine to table. The next vineyard I visited, at the Loisium Winery in Wachau, is part of the stunningly modern hotel and spa built by New York architect Stephen Holl. Regional wines accompanied an exceptional dinner of local greens, fish, and meats in the hotel’s fireplace-lit dining room. This day had to be gemutlich.
I was back in the Baroque period the next morning in Salzburg, where palaces crowd the skyline and where Mozart was born. In the old part of town, handmade umbrellas have been the specialty of the Kirchtag family since the 19th century. Nearby, filigreed signs are still tooled by hand. Iron worker Christian Wieber stopped his work to talk and share a shot of schnapps, declaring, “Now you are a Salzberger.” (Surely a welcome like this wasgemutlichkeit.) At Stranz & Scio, one of several dozen places Mozart and Hayden frequented, I ordered a sumptuous chocolate Mozartkugel and a decadently delicious chocolate Venusbrustchen (Venus breast), a sweet that brings a giggle or a blush to each sampler. The naughty nibbles were Mrs. Mozart’s favorite in the play and film “Amadeus.”
Rather than choose the “Sound of Music” tour the following day, I took the tram at the edge of town to the mountaintop where scenes in the film were shot. (The Museum of Modern Art is now located there.) I’m told these hills come alive in spring during the Mozart Festival. I scurried from the chill winter wind into the Salzberg Museum below to view the sobering paintings of the 20th century artist Hermann Rastorfer and ventured outside again to wander around the crypts of 16th century prince-archbishops entombed in St. Peter’s Cemetery, wishing I could see more of this country.
One feels welcome in Austria, and not just because of the culinary delights, the art, the architecture, or the fact that everyone speaks English. The Austrians enjoy living a good life and you know by their genuine friendliness that they wish the same for you. Enjoying a good life: gemutlichkeit.
See also Ventana Monthly
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.