I am riding down an ancient byway in the medieval jewel of a town known as Krems in the Wachau Valley of Austria, and life just doesn’t get much better than this. Occasionally, a view of the Danube River flirts with me through gaps in the buildings lining the narrow cobblestone streets. We are heading for a wine tasting. Or two. Or three…LOL
There are 12 of us taking the tour from Vienna Explorers. Everyone is from the US originally, though there is a couple who now live in Singapore, three best friends from San Francisco, a Wachovia mortgage broker and his wife from Phoenix, myself and, incredibly, some kids who are taking college courses from US Universities there.
I say incredibly because this isn’t a cheap trip, but it seems like most of the American “students” I meet over here are from Ivy League schools; one, in fact, from my Alma Mater, Vanderbilt. All I can say is, I know I couldn’t afford it when I was in school. Am I jealous? No, not at all. I’m glad they’re getting the opportunity, but I don’t think they’re taking advantage of it. When I ask them if they have learned how to speak German, none of them have. It seems like to me you can learn anything else pretty much right in the USA that is in a college curriculum.
But of course life isn’t learned from a university course. They don’t teach you how to appreciate fine wine, for example!
I started out this morning from the Hotel Stephanie, which I have to say is a five star place, complete with the red carpet, and their breakfast is quite special. The spread probably covers 1,000 square feet of a good-sized ballroom that is decorated with chandeliers and portraits of dead emperors like Leopold and Franz.
The offerings include a multitude of fresh pastries, cold cuts and cheeses, eggs, bacon, veal sausage, cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, two different kinds of juice, and, served at your table, some of the best coffee I’ve ever drunk, served with discreet courtesy by uniformed waiters. No, not quite at Panamanian or Ecuadorian levels, but a mighty fine brew. Oh, and of course, champagne, along with a selection of English-language newspapers. It’s good to be the king!
My tour operator is Vienna Explorers, and let me just say right away that they are superlative. I can walk to their office on the edge of the Old City easily from the hotel. From there, we are taking a train for an hour to get well out into wine country.
The time goes by fast. I am sitting across from Ester, a pretty tour guide from Hungary, and we have a long time to talk as the scenery rolls by: yellow fields of ripening rapeseed on the flatland with every conceivable hillside slope covered in vineyard. In between, small neat farm villages dot the landscape, always with an old church at the center of town. Occasionally we pass by a small stable or riding pen, or even a monastery on top of a distant blue hill. Oak trees cover the rest. It’s a pretty scene that’s akin to an artist’s rendering of bucolic life in Germania, circa 1810 or so. Except for the cars. And the train.
Ester is an interesting person. She’s a petite girl who looks 20 with her cute Pageboy haircut but, I learn later, is older. She speaks 3 languages and is working on a fourth, and her family still lives in Budapest, though she lived in Colorado at one point in her life. She opines early on and without solicitation from me that she is proud of her Hungarian heritage and misses the culture a lot.
That’s when she tells me about Austrian politics. Her view is that the crisis in southern Europe is deeply resented by rank and file Austrian people in general. How deeply? When I ask her if they want to leave the EU, she unhesitatingly tells me yes. I am a little surprised by this, since most Germans don’t feel the same way and they too are underwriting the bad checks being written by the likes of the PIIGS countries. Apparently the Austrians feel more strongly.
She also tells me that she isn’t fond of multiculturalism because it represents a threat to her own culture. She goes on to say that her boyfriend is a Hungarian who is a “typical Eastern European, strong and a real man”. When I tell her that I agree about her views on the threat to western culture she offers more, but the point is this: in my experience, people like her will be ignored by the politicians-until they can’t be ignored any longer. There’s a storm brewing deep under the placid façade of Austrian politics, and it is a needed upheaval, in my opinion. The idea that diversity represents progress is a disease introduced into the West by people with an agenda. That agenda is to rule the world by making it One World. The USA is at the forefront of this obscenity to my great dismay. You will have to pick a side soon. Choose carefully.
You may think I am making too much about one woman’s opinion. I disagree. I have heard similar stories from other Austrians on different trips. Believe it or not, they are actually proud of who they are and don’t think that their culture can be improved by foreigners. Like I said, they’ll be heard from. Soon. In my experience, what you hear one day from the grassroots is what becomes national news eventually.
We don’t agree on everything, though. She believes that the Swiss are still holding out money that belonged to the Jews during WWII. My idea is that the Jews have extorted about as much as they can from just about anyone they could from that conflict and it’s time to get over it. If you can’t make a legitimate claim in 70 years, quit whining.
But I digress.
We arrive in the picturesque town of Krems at about 10:30 and grab our bikes. They have almost comically big balloon-like tires, but we later learn to appreciate them because they ease the pain of cobblestone streets. Everyone also loves the way they shift gears. Completely seamless.
We get going, Ester in front, using bicycle lanes but not helmets. In Austria they have no law, and when people can make a choice they choose…freedom. So with the wind in our hair, we proceed on bike paths down (more or less) the Danube.
Ester stops along the route in the middle of a vineyard to help explain the process of winemaking. She’s very good at this, as I can attest, being somewhat of an expert myself on the subject.
Once inside our first winery, she excels in telling us how to taste wine and gives even me a few pointers I didn’t know. Good stuff.
We taste four wines. I have to admit I’m a little disappointed in them, but not really surprised. German and Austrian wines come from (mostly) Riesling and Muscat grapes and are generally aged in stainless steel barrels for less than a year. They are fresh and crisp and are great on a hot summer day if you want to complement an apple and cheese sideboard, but they aren’t great drinking wines…at least to me. They’re light to medium bodied varietals without much complexity and zero oakiness. Having said that, everyone’s tastes are different, and even I enjoy them for what they are. They are easy drinkers. Just don’t expect too much.
Anyway, we finish up and Ester takes us to another vineyard that lies in the very shadow of the ruins of Durnstein Castle, where Richard the Lionhearted once wrote poetry while held captive there by Leopold V, Duke of Austria. We taste a few vinos and race up the hill to the keep because we know it will provide a spectacular view over the Wachau Valley.
It does. There is a great bend in the Danube River that you can see from this vantage point, and you can see not only all of the riverboat traffic it carries but also a panoramic view of several cities that lie along the water route. We take a lot of pictures there, but we can see that the rain is rolling in from a valley across the river and will soon be upon us. We race down to the hill through gaps in the long abandoned wall fortifications and just reach the bottom with the rain.
It isn’t a torrent like Florida but comes down cold and steady until we reach our final winery, which is built into the steep side of a hill. It’s amazing to me that these people can produce so many grapes from very small plots on such steep land. It is a testament to their hardiness of character and their love of the vino, I suppose. Some of the plots I see clinging to the hillside cannot produce more than a few hundred pounds of grapes, and they cannot be easy to bring to market. Imagine hauling a sack full of them on your shoulders down the side of a mountain. These tiny vineyards are the main reasons that Austrian wine production is still in the blood of the local community and it has not become just another big business, and it is part of the reason that the local people can still cling to their own roots without the need to change. Jefferson knew that a republic was not possible without an agricultural society. He’s still right.
We have lunch in yet another little jewel of a small medieval town. I have a turkey salad because I am on meat overload since I got to Austria. It seems the only vegetables they like are potatoes, and I need something healthy for a change. It’s good, and goes down well with a nice dry white table wine.
By the way, 70% of Austria’s wine production is of the white variety, and most of it is dry. We do try some sweet wines, but most of those went away over a decade ago because of changing tastes and some weather issues (sweet wines generally are harvested later in the year).
We ride from the last winery down to the riverbank to catch a ferry. We line our bikes up next to a Mercedes and a Volkswagen on the small craft and make our way across.
When we land, there is a very nice bike trail through tiny hamlets and apricot groves and out to another landing where we have a fantastic view of Krems from across the river. We are rewarded with a rare moment with no rain, and then hurry across a bridge back into town so we can grab some cake before catching the train back. I have the Sacher chocolate/apricot cake. It is tinged with some kind of liqueor, Nice and moist.
We make it to the train platform on time. The ride home is pretty mundane, and everyone’s tired. We’ve been drinking and riding for 10 hours, and it’s after 7 when we get back. Too late, unfortunately, for me to catch the Wagner masterpiece Das Reingold at the opera house.
But not too late to eat. For the first time, I don’t use Trip Advisor to choose a meal. Big mistake. I’m in the mood for something simple and fast and that reminds me of home. I pick a place on a side street called Bermuda Haus. It’s decorated nicely enough in kind of a rip off of a TGI Fridays, and it’s full of people. I order ribs and wine at the bar. It takes them maybe 20 minutes to bring out a huge plate of 3 racks of ribs. I mean it’s piled high. A whole lot of food. Trouble is, I’ve never had worse barbecue anywhere. Dry as a bone, and tough as nails. If you want great ribs, go to the American South, is the message.
Tomorrow is a more or less free day. I’ll sleep in a little.