Austria 1996

Bad Ischl

The town was not far off the main highway, down an exit ramp and across the Ischl river. Carefully scrutinizing the signs along the way (many European towns have directions to hotels and restaurants), we found our way to the Hotel Schenner. Oh, oh, it looked like we were heading into another pedestrian zone! Fortunately this hotel was only a block away and there werenít that many strollers here.

Checking in, we got the hotelís fax number – we still didnít have our wine itinerary – and had an invigorating climb to the second floor (third, the way we number them – Europeans believe that the first floor is the one above the ground floor). We also saw a sign to the pool! It turned out to be on the roof and was quite nice, or would have been if the weeks of rain hadnít filled it to overflowing. Evidently it hadnít had much use lately; the wind had peeled back the carpeting and several potted trees were upended. That also meant that no one was taking advantage of the adjacent nude sun terrace.

The height provided a panoramic view over the roofs of the town to the mountains in the distance. We also saw a large nearby spa establishment, featuring brine-sulfur mud baths, a reminder that the "Salz" in many nearby place names means salt. In previous centuries the salt mines provided a vast source of wealth to the area.

This time the Weinmarketing Service had no problem connecting with our hotel. We found we had two Sunday appointments in Vienna, one at 10 a.m., the other at 4 p.m. Mondayís were in the most picturesque part of the Danube some fifty miles west of Vienna, as was the first appointment on Tuesday. However, the afternoon appointment was in the Burgenland, southeast of Vienna – nearly in Hungary. Wednesday concluded with two more appointments in that area. From what we had read, it looked like this was a good representation of the best wine regions, lacking only Styria, which is located in the most southern area of Austria. So now we could relax a little.

Oh, there was the minor matter that we didnít really know where any of the vintners were located, but the only ones that concerned me were the two in Vienna. I assumed we could fairly easily track down those in small towns, particularly since we know a reasonable amount of German. (We were later to find out that winemakers werenít necessarily conveniently located.)

So we took a walk around town. As a fashionable spa, Bad Ischl includes a chic shopping street and the oldest pastry shop in Austria, the Konditorie-Cafe Zauner, which is said to rival the best of Vienna. We drooled over (not literally) the scores of confections which looked like perfect porcelain works of art on display. Unfortunately we never managed to synchronize the times when our appetites would allow us to consume such calorific delights with when we would be able to find a table.

We compared Vienna maps available in two bookstores and purchased one in which we could at least locate the street names of the first two vintners. We also walked by the "Trinkhalle," which literally means what it sounds like. However, the tourist brochures translate it as "Pump Room," where in times past the fashionable ate and drank; and partook of the curative powers of the mineral waters. A central entrance foyer provided access to two wings with floor-to-ceiling windows, both front and back.

An art exhibit in one wing displayed a fairly amateurish display of found objects. In the other wing, a smattering of people were distributed among rows of comfortable chairs, reading a variety of newspapers available to all on a table in the foyer. It looked like a strangely organized reading room, until musicians started filing in and tuning up on a stage at the end of the room, in front of a wall mural of a park scene. Soon we were being serenaded by a twenty-piece orchestra. It reminded me of European movies of the 1960ís (8-1/2, Last Year in Marienbad) in which concerts were a part of the spa life. I never thought that someday Iíd be part of that scene! (Well, not quite a Marcello Mastroianni.)

We decided to eat dinner at a historic restaurant previously frequented by Franz Lehar, when he lived next door, across the Traun River south of the town. The central section of the restaurant was said to date from 1540. Unfortunately it wonít make it to the end of this century – it seems destined to be replaced by housing units. The other recommended restaurants were out of town, so we tried the one in our hotel. The results reminded me once again why we rely so much on guidebooks – everything was deep-fried.

Or maybe we are too concerned about seeming like ugly Americans – the next afternoon we were enjoying a beer from their outdoor fountain (from a choice of six, each with its own distinctive handle) when a French couple complained about their fried fish and it was replaced by one cooked "nature" (broiled). That incident made me realize that although the language was German we were in Austria – a German restaurant would never have acquiesced. [Betty Lou thinks Iím being too harsh. Perhaps, but I was thinking of the time we tried to order some french fries in addition to a standard lunch platter – they came with some of the dishes so we knew they were available – and were told they werenít on the menu.]

We nearly missed the 5 oíclock glockenspiel performance. Bad Ischlís modest instrument consisted of a dozen bells mounted on a pole beneath the replica of a giant pocket watch. Although not much larger than handbells, their proximity provided a unexpectedly clear and resonant sound. I was surprised to find the five-minute concert as enjoyable in its own way as the one weíd heard in Salzburg.

The next day we walked across a bridge over the raging Ischl – it was once again raining – to visit the Kaiserpark, the grounds that include the summer palace built by Franz Josef, Austriaís last emperor. The buildingís main structure and three wings form the shape of an E, in honor of his wife Elizabeth. However it isnít an ostentatious monument that a man of such power could have constructed. And by the time the Kaiservilla was constructed, Elizabeth slept in her own wing and he lived as one of his officers would: his small bedroom had an iron frame bed to which he would be brought a washbasin of cold water when he arose at 4:30 AM.

Their royal marriage has modern parallels. Unlike Franz, who had been prepared from an early age to rule, Elizabeth had no training for royal duties and responsibilities. The fact that she was only sixteen when Franz chose her instead of the intended older sister may have something to do with her early lack of interest in matters of state, but she never did fit that role and did not appreciate the long hours he spent at work. Royal divorces being unacceptable, she became one of the yacht-setters of her day, with extended sojourns in Biarritz, Madeira, Corfu, the Riviera, and the German spas. Franz was concerned about the danger of her travels, and indeed her death was by the knife of an Italian anarchist during a trip to Switzerland(!)

We saw that Franz Josefís one indulgence was hunting. Hundreds of mounted heads of small, horned mountain goats – chamois – adorned the hallways and several trophy rooms. In one of these stood the entire stuffed body of his 4,000th chamois, as well as his favorite dog, and, as souvenirs of a visit to the Russian emperor, a bear and an eagle.

A display case included a copy of the ultimatum to Serbia he signed in 1914 that led to World War I. I guess as a result of what we hear of American involvement in "The War To End All Wars" and the resulting reparations against Germany that contributed to Hitlerís rise, I had thought of World War I as primarily a conflict against Germany. Turkey, Bulgaria, and Austria were the other Central Powers, but Austria suffered the largest loss of territory. The empire commanded by Franz Josef had included Hungary, parts of Italy, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, and Yugoslavia. At least he didnít live to suffer the ignominy of being left with only the least desirable westernmost part. He died in 1916 at the age of 86.

Elizabeth was interested in the new art of photography, and a photo museum now occupies what used to be her teahouse. Although small, it is built of marble. It looks like they originated the honeymoon trip photo album, with shots of them in Paris, Venice, and other European cities. With the state of photography in those days, one probably needed to be a czar, or at least a millionaire, to be able to transport the necessary equipment and the staff to operate it, develop the film, and make the prints. A dozen huge nature and studio cameras, with lenses as large as 8" in diameter, are on display, as well as examples of their work. A separate room is devoted to an exhibit of Leica cameras.

The original Leica was invented by a maker of motion picture cameras, and, although his camera used the same size film used for motion pictures, virtually everything else about the compact camera was his unique invention. Included among the Leicas on exhibit was what is probably the first spy camera, used during the First World War. A charred but still identifiable camera was owned by a crewman of the Hindenburg, who managed to jump and scramble to safety as the burning zeppelin descended. The next day he returned and found his camera among the wreckage.

After the previous eveningís disappointing meal, we made sure to make reservations at the highly regarded Villa Schratt. The villa was originally a gift from Franz Josef to Madame Schratt, an actress. Their relationship was evidently only platonic; in fact Elizabeth, evidently feeling guilty about her long absences, approved of the friendship. (The historians arenít coy about depicting relationships – they do write of a mistress of long-standing.)

We thought it was a considerable distance from Bad Ischl, and due to its renown, would be booked early. Wrong on both counts – just a few miles out of town, only two other tables were occupied as we enjoyed the best meal of our trip. Since we had made early reservations, it seemed we had the best table, although my seat was a little unusual. It would be particularly appreciated during the winter – my backrest was a ceramic stove! Noting the comprehensiveness of the wine list, we discussed our itinerary with the owner, who was impressed by all but one of the choices. Our later experiences bore out her assessment of the quality of the wines, although we had a fascinating time at even the vineyard with the least distinguished wines.

(To be continued – perhaps.)

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