Austria—Harmonious, Rich, Aristocratic

We like Austria which we’ve visited twice. But language is a problem although certain German words seem to have obvious equivalents in English.

Food was sometimes a problem for us as well. Austria is a meat-eating country. It tends to serve everything in large portions. And that flower-shaped mound of whipped cream seems to top everything you could stuff your mouth with: hot drinks, cakes and ice cream, and, many times, soups as well. It does make things taste better and many Austrian cakes need it. The famed sachertorte, for instance, is otherwise too dry for our taste even at the Café Sacher in Vienna where we tried it. Originator of this chocolate cake, the café presumably makes its best incarnation. Our considered opinion is French pastries trounce the Austrian varieties hands down, notwithstanding the Austrian reputation for luscious pastries.

Classical music is where Austria bests probably everybody else. This is, after all, the terroir that produced Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and that composer the tourist industry pushes on you—no doubt because of the river (Danube) he made famous. And, for us, a visit to Vienna is incomplete without going to an opera at the Staatsoper. Luckily for us, on two of the three nights when we were last there, the season was not quite over yet. But unfortunately, the Viennese love going to the opera: tickets for most performances were sold out a month in advance.

We did get tickets for Richard Strauss’s Capriccio but our choice was limited to tickets we either could not afford (nearly $200 apiece) or those for affordable seats where your view is obstructed or you had to stand through the whole performance. We went for the affordable and obstructed.

About all I can say about Capriccio is that it taught me something about myself (a good thing). I found I prefer lustier productions. Although I liked the overture and the intermezzo, this relatively modern philosophical foray into which is superior—poetry or music—proved too cerebral for my tastes. Couched as a rivalry between two lovers, it was like a very talky play with few characters and minimal staging. No perishing here of consumptive or unfaithful lovers on opulent divans.

We skipped the royal castle of Schonbrun which we did see a few years ago. And we had barely enough time in the two museums we visited in Vienna. The Kunsthistorisches is unique for, perhaps, having the largest collection of Peter Brueghel, a distinction not difficult to come by as his legacy of paintings is quite small (about 28) and this museum has half of them.

Another top museum, the Albertina. is unique for combining an exhibit of royal Habsburg rooms with its collection of modern paintings (mostly expressionist), and a large library of graphic arts and photographs.

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Vienna is an orderly sophisticated city and Austria, unlike its one time ally in the Austro-Hungarian empire, has a well-oiled tourism industry. It has perfected the selling of its charms via its most famous personalities from the past. And yet, possibly sure that tourists would come anyway, Austrian merchants and tour industry types were a lot more formal and curt (an Austrian trait?). Sometimes to the point of seeming ungracious.

It was in a shopping section of Salzburg, Austria (Mozart’s birthplace), when a bicyclist almost ran us down while we leisurely browsed in the jewelry and trinket boutiques at the Schmuck Passage. Annoyed, she scowled at us and walked away with these parting words in English: “There are those of us who have to live and work here.” Lucky for her.

Of course it’s just as easy to imagine that too many tourists can test the patience of locals. For a country that attracts more than its share of tourists, Austria is small. Its population is less than the size of many big cities (less than the Paris metropolitan area, for instance).

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