By Paul Shoul
Gliding along on an electric-powered bicycle somewhere on the road to the historic bridge of Andau between Austria and Hungary, I realized that I was having way more fun than I thought I would on this trip.
I had a vision implanted years ago on my young cinematic mind from the movie ‘The Sound of Music’ that Austria consisted only of one snow-capped mountain, one meadow, and an endless cast of Julie Andrews lookalikes.
In Burgenland, it was flat and warm. Farmland and vineyards stretched out on either side. I was in the Seewinkel region on the “road to freedom.”
It was speckled with wood-carved sculptures in tribute to the thousands of refugees who crossed the border from Hungary when the Red Army began to suppress the revolution there in 1956, and the people of Burgenland opened their collective arms to the refugees.
It was a perfect day, the ride was beautiful and effortless after a tasting of local wines. My eclectic group of fellow travelers and I had rented the bikes after a stop at Scheiblhofer vineyards.
Edgy and highly designed, it is just one example of the many new architectural wonders of the Austrian winery boom. In the 1980s the “antifreeze scandal” decimated the wine industry.
Maybe because of that, winemakers in Burgenland today are hyper-vigilant about growing naturally and there is strong growth of biodynamic vineyards.
We tried a bottle of Jois. It was deep, full-bodied, almost savory Blaufankisch. Seventy-five percent of all Austrian wines are drunk in the country. Who knew? Burgenland was unexpected.
Known as the sunny side of Austria (more than 300 days of sunshine a year), Burgenland is the easternmost province of the country. There is a deep musical and artistic history, and incredibly picturesque small towns.
It is also home to vast grass plains in with grazing longhorn cattle that reminded me of middle America. Lake Neusiedl, with its tall reed-belted shores, feels almost tropical. There is abundant farming of produce here, and of course a fantastic wine and farm-to-table food culture
Austrians are orderly, and Burgenland is well trimmed; everything is in its place. I wish I could find one to come organize my house. They do seem to have some of their priorities straight: Obligatory seatbelts, and helmets, no bathing suits required in saunas… My overall impression was that Burgenland was relaxed.
Sights and sounds – what to see and do
Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt is a glorious baroque palace with all the trimmings of royalty. Vast gardens and the must-see Haydnsaal concert hall, one of the greatest in the world.
The edgy reality-bending multimedia show Haydn Explosive now on exhibit is a cool juxtaposition to the princely surroundings
Franz Liszt, the uber-cool piano virtuoso rock star of the 19th century, was born in the cute little village of Raiding. There is a museum, a new concert hall, and a sculpture park along the river in tribute to him that even has a display of his many female admirers. The Mick Jagger of his time.
Stop in at Kochhunst a small traditional cafe across from the Liszt Museum. Try the cheese pastry, (Topfen golatschen) or the Nut crescent rolls (Nusskipferl). You will thank me
Lake Neusiedl and the Neusiedler See-Seewinkel National Park
The national park covers a vast area of different natural habitats. The lakeshore is a prime spot for bird watching. The Lake Neusie cultural landscape is a UNESCO world heritage site noted for the natural habitat, the surrounding historic villages, and as a meeting place of different cultures for eight thousand years.
I took a ferry across the lake to the historic town of Rust known as stork village because it has the largest colony of storks in Austria. They perch in chimney nests throughout the city.
This is a classic Austrian town with a boatload of historic charm and a plethora of great restaurants and winemakers. I ate at two restaurants that represented what I loved about Austrian cuisine.
At restaurant Wirtshaus im Hofgassl, located in the center of Rust, Town Hall Square No. 10, Chef Michael Pilz transforms traditional Austrian fare into lighter beautifully sculpted combinations all based on regional natural products.
The garden dining area is delightful. I started with organic beef carpaccio and tried the local roast loin of venison with juniper creamy cabbage and Palffy dumplings. Cooked low and slow at 125 degrees, the venison was the tenderest I have ever had.
Gabriel, a Traditional Wine Bar
For dinner, I ate at Gabriel, a heurigen, (traditional wine bar). These taverns are run by winemakers who sell only their own wine and offer cold dishes. The restaurant is more than 400 years old, owned by the same family and the oldest in Rust. The charming setting, with owner Alfred Gabriel playing the piano in the background, was the perfect accompaniment to the hearty family-style meal. It felt like the birthplace of all delis.
You order at the counter and pay by the pound. Our table was covered by platters of fresh bread, cold cuts, smoked eel and cheese plates. There was a mustard spread, as you would expect, but the plate of liver paté and lard spreads spiked with crunchy salt took each sandwich to a whole other level of heart-stopping nirvana.
A Noah’s ark of tomatoes
The abundant sunny days and mild Pannonian climate of Burgenland is ideal for growing tomatoes. Eric Stekovics is a man on a mission and has created the world’s largest collection, A Noah’s ark of tomatoes, with more than 3,200 varieties.
He grows more than 58,000 plants on part of his 300 acres, and he is also one of the largest growers of chili plants. His minimal technique and impressive yields have earned him global praise.
He is visited by more than 30,000 tomato pilgrims a year. We took a walk with him through a field of his plants. Erik does not water or spike his plants; he lets them run free on the ground and mulches heavily.
When he lifted the hay covering the plants there was a maze of endless perfect tomatoes. Each variety he picked out and sliced open for us to try having a unique quality clearly distinguishable from the others. He said, “Like grapes, the plants need to work to thrive.”
He spoke of them as if talking about a lover. “If I overfeed her, I will kill her, but I am OK with a plant getting older. When her hair becomes grey, I know that soon I will have to let her go.”
Eat and drink… repeat
Austrian cuisine is strongly influenced by Germany, Hungary, and the Czech republic. Combine this base of strong flavors with a modern global influence toward lighter, healthier fare, and it has taken their food to new heights. Chefs emphasize locally sourced products. They have been doing farm-to-table long before it became a new movement.
All over Burgenland, I tried some amazing restaurants. Here are a few of my other favorites; Nyikospark was my first dining experience in Burgenland and left a lasting impression.
We started with a glass of Sturm, a cloudy sweet refreshing early draw from the barrel. A real treat. The crispy-skinned pike with a light buttery foam and tomato polenta was superb.
The dessert was a simple, perfect flaky pastry sandwiching a mound of the best cream filling on the planet. Gut Purbach has a devoted following for good reason.
Chef Max Stiegl is a master. Even Anthony Bourdain made the trip to the little city of Purbach to check out his locally sourced creations. It is housed in a charming old jail that is also a small hotel.I started with a marinated pike-perch with herbs, mushrooms, and mustard sauce.
Then crackling dumplings with tomato ginger cabbage, a Pannonian fish soup with lentils and bacon, and finally, roasted duck with root vegetable puree. I finished this off with another mountainous over-the-top pastry and a glass of Heidi Shrock sweet wine. Wow, what a great meal.
Mole West is a destination in and of itself. Right on the shores of Lake Neusiedl, wide steps lead down from the open-faced restaurant to glowing deck chairs lining the dock.
It is a beautiful spot and they highlight local cuisine; the fish served was caught yards away from your table. They also make a mean pork Wienerschnitzel, moist on the inside, dry and crispy on the breaded crust served with a wedge of lemon. Really good.
The dominant varieties of red grapes in Burgenland are the rich and full-bodied Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch. The commitment to organics and biodynamics is growing, and the region is producing fabulous award-winning wines. Here are a few of my favorites. Visits can be arranged with all of them for a tasting.
7312 Horitschon AHans Igler Estate
7163 AndauWhere to staySt. Martins Therme Lodge
Im Seewinkel 1 · A-7132 FrauenkirchenMore than just a hotel this is a full-service spa. The rooms are spacious and the restaurant is first class. The expansive breakfast buffet will challenge your willpower to leave room for the rest of the dayHerberge an der Nikolauszeche
Bodenzeile 7A cool little place with bed loft rooms and a small kitchen. very comfortable. How to get there: Austrian AirlinesAustria Tourism
This story was written with assistance from Austrian Tourism.