Austria

Photography by Emma Krasov

When I told my friend that I wouldn’t be able to join her in Hawai’i because I couldn’t miss a culinary trip to Austria on the same dates we were planning, she smirked and said, “What culinary – sausage?”

Oh, if only she knew…

I want this story that I’ll unfold here like a picnic tablecloth for her and for you, to be an eye-opening testimonial to the true character of Austrian cuisine – bold and beautiful, yet modest and dignified – exquisitely artful, and filled with joy of life.

Arriving via always cordial Austrian Airlines on a warm September day, I checked into Altstadt Vienna in the city center, and immediately felt at home. The hotel was located in a repurposed apartment building from 1902, very similar to the one I used to live in in the Old Country… Guest rooms with high ceilings, double doors, and windows open to the fresh autumnal air, smiley polite service, and the contemporary art collection scattered throughout tiled hallways and wrought iron staircases – everything was welcoming, neat, and unmistakably European. Beautifully served breakfast with assorted fresh breads, cold cuts and made to order eggs (pouched in champagne sauce on my first morning!) in addition to homemade coffee cakes and high-quality teas set the mood for an exciting culinary exploration ahead.

Our group gathered and met with Bianca Gusenbauer of First Vienna Food Tour company by the Viennese most famous landmark, the Secession Building – a masterpiece of Art Nouveau nicknamed “The Golden Cabbage” by the sharp-tongued Viennese.

We’ve immediately learned a few things from our guide – that it’s mandatory to look in each other’s eyes while saying “Prost!” (yes, we started the tour with some Austrian sparkling); that on the map Austria looks like Wiener Schnitzel, its most famous dish, and that charcuterie is considered a good dinner in Austria while hot hearty meals are reserved for lunch.

On our walk through the Naschmarkt, the most important produce market in Vienna, we noshed on a variety of Austrian foodstuffs, from a golden-fried lake trout at Umar restaurant and cave-aged cheeses at Käsehütte to “blue poppy” Zotter chocolate and cloudy semi-fermented Sturm wine, only available for a couple weeks in season.

We concluded our exciting learning experience with Bianca at Café Sperl, in existence since 1880, where Imre Kálmán, Franz Lehár and a host of other composers, artists, writers, and high government officials indulged in the same atmosphere of marble tables, red velvet banquettes, and matt light fixtures as well as coffee and sweets we were enjoying on our tour – Mélange and Einspänner, Sachertorte, Apfelstrudel, Mohnzelten, and other purely Austrian delights.

Viennese culinary surprises continued to unfold in front of us. Tian, a Michelin-star vegetarian restaurant, led by Chef Paul Ivić, presented a five-course completely meatless tasting menu that sparkled with bright colors and imaginative ingredient combinations putting together pumpkin with apple and cardamom, celeriac with egg and edamame, and zucchini with mushrooms and capers to the most delightful effect. A desert course consisted of peach ice cream with dates and rose petal sauce.

Edible flowers made their appearance in a unique confectioner’s shop, Blühendes Konfekt, created by Michael Diewald. The “Blooming Confections” enthusiast picks most of his ingredients in his own garden and in the forests that surround the city. He dries petals, leaves, and whole inflorescences, and encases them in glittering sugar, creating one-of-a-kind fairy-tale stuffing and toppings for his pralines, marmalades and pastilles.

Thoroughly enchanted by Viennese cuisine, we headed south for Graz, the capital of Styria – one of Austria’s nine administrative regions, known for its forests and vineyards, mountainous lakes and apple orchards.

The most famous foodstuff in Styria is nicknamed “Austrian black gold,” but in reality its complex color palette differs from shades of emerald green to reddish-purple, colliding on the edges of a dense reflective black liquid. This is pumpkin seed oil, Kernöl, fragrant and delicious, rich and nutty, easily transforming any ordinary soup, salad, and even ice cream into a heavenly treat.

Our group was admitted to a special event – Styrian Pumpkin Seed Oil Tasting in a private room of Gasthaus Stainzerbauer – a restaurant in existence since the 19th century, located in one of the oldest houses of the inner city near Graz Cathedral.

A licensed nutritionist with a degree in science, Theresia Fastian, engaged us in a lively presentation on historical facts and cultivation of the pumpkin, traditional processing of oil, nutrients and tips on usage, and finally sensory experience and tasting. For comparison, we were offered five samples of pumpkin seed oil from different origins, and after her short lecture were able to easily identify the winners of real Styrian product annual competition vs. cheap knock-offs readily available on the world market, but not worth using for food.

For the occasion, the restaurant prepared a special menu of pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed oil, meat roast with red wine sauce, and everyone’s favorite vanilla ice cream with pumpkin seed oil and seeds.

After a good night sleep at the historic Wiesler Hotel (since 1909) overlooking Schlossberg – the castle hill in the heart of the city with an ancient fortress and the world-famous Uhrturm (a clock tower and a symbol of Graz) we embarked on a walking tour of the city and marveled at the tempestuous river Mur at the high level, with an artificial island Murinsel in the middle of it. The mussel-shaped swimming platform that lights alien-blue in the dark was designed by an American architect, Vito Acconci in 2003, when Graz was appointed the European Capital of Culture. The same year and for the same occasion an art museum, Kunsthaus Graz, was built, looking like a space ship from a faraway galaxy, and locally known as “Friendly Alien.”

After a visit to the colorful Graz produce and flower market, overflowing with seasonal bounty of apples, mushrooms, pumpkins, asters, and dahlias, we sat down for lunch at a posh Restaurant Carl by Philipp Haiges near the Opera House.  A delicate filet of trout (Austria’s favorite fish) with roasted red beets and herbed sour cream was a great example of the elegant seasonal cuisine widely consumed in the country in midday.

We tried several other local favorites. At the Delikatessen Frankowitsch, a deli institution from 1932, where city dwellers are queuing up around the block for the picturesque open-face sandwiches, we had Campari cocktails at the pop-up Campari bar.

At Bar Albert on the pedestrian-friendly Herrengasse, we sampled the famous Styrian Vulcano ham, aged for six months and marinated in herbs, and aged sheep cheese from the volcanic region in the vicinity of Graz.

At Landhauskeller, inside the oldest Renaissance building in Styria, we indulged in the traditional Styrian fried chicken, and in Schlossberg Restaurant high above the city, near the iconic clock tower – in more pumpkin soup with Kernöl and house-made dumplings with seasonal mushrooms, stewed tomatoes, and mountainous cheese.

In search of more Austrian culinary discoveries our group also visited Salzburg and SalzburgerLand – one of the most beautiful places in the world – with green pastures and blue lakes, framed by snowy peaks of the majestic Alps, where farm-to-table cuisine is an inherent part of the lifestyle, and not a passing fad.

Our first stop in the area was at Wirtshaus Döllerer in a small village of Golling. Dirndl-clad waitresses promptly put on the table bottles of Stiegl beer from the oldest brewery in Austria, in operation since 1492, and slate boards with freshly baked bread, butter, volcano ham, and a Kernöl dip studded with dark-green pumpkin seeds.

Chef Andreas Döllerer, a winner of multiple awards, and a cookbook author of “Cuisine Alpine,” puts on the table authentic Austrian dishes from his native region, like seasonal young venison in red wine and mushroom gravy, and Bluntau Valley char with local vegetables and horseradish.

After a hearty lunch, we headed to Fürstenhof dairy in Kuchl, where a healthy herd of Jersey cows provides enough milk for a fully operational cheese factory and almost daily cheese-making classes that attract tourists and locals alike. At an impromptu cheese tasting we familiarized ourselves with a variety of Alpine cheeses – from mild and creamy to sharp and fragrant.

Upon reaching our beautiful Hotel Gmachl, the oldest family-run business in Austria, located in the town of Elixhausen, we had just enough time to swim a few laps in an infinity pool in the hotel spa with glass walls, overlooking the village and the Alps above it, before sitting down to a well-prepared and beautifully served dinner of beef consommé with semolina dumpling, meatball, and strudel, and other Austrian specialties.

Next day, Friday, on our visit to Salzburg, we appeared right in the middle of a festive weekend celebration dedicated to St. Rupert, the patron saint of the Austrian state of Salzburg. The entire city center turned into an old-fashioned fairgrounds with pretzel- and sausage stands, carousels, and a lively crowd dressed in dirndls and lederhosen.

On a food tour of Salzburg with our guide, Astrid Zehentmayer from Salzburg for You company, we visited Rigler’s oil, vinegar, and spice shop, and sampled some of its distinct blends; stopped by the oldest bakery in Salzburg that dates back to the 12th century – Stiftsbäckerei St. Peter on Kapitelplatz, and tried bland, flour-and-water bread, prepared by the same ancient recipe; and indulged in a real original Mozartkugel a.k.a. Mozart ball, produced by Fürst in 1890. The company shop on Brodgasse is still selling the same fine chocolates with marzipan center, wrapped in silver and blue foil with the genius composer’s silhouette.

A delicious break at the oldest continuously operating coffee house in Austria, Cafe Tomaselli, yielded lavish coffee drinks and pastries, delivered to our table on a heavy tray by a graceful waitress in black dress and white apron.

Lunch on an outside terrace of M32 on a hill by the Museum of Modern Art, with spectacular views of Salzburg, presented yet another version of pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed oil, giving us a great opportunity to compare different preparations of this popular seasonal dish, and pick the favorites. 

Finally, we made one more excursion in SalzburgLand – a visit to Schloss Fuschl – an upscale hotel on the shores of a pristine lake, where we had our farewell dinner at the hotel restaurant Jagdhof serving goulash, spätzle, and a cake, that according to the hotel manager, far exceeds even the most famous cake in Austria – the glorious Sachertorte! If you don’t believe it you can travel to Austria and check it for yourself. Additional information at: www.austria.info, www.vienna.info, www.graztourismus.at/en, www.salzburg.info, www.salzburgerland.com.

 

 

Photography by Emma Krasov

AmaStella was the name of a brand new AmaWaterways ship I happily boarded for a 7-night river cruise from Budapest to Vilshofen a few weeks ago. With “Stella” (star) in its name and a rich, saturated with historical and cultural treasures of Europe itinerary, offered on the Melodies of the Danube cruise, I knew I was up for a treat. It was my birthday after all, and throughout the entire journey I was treated like a birthday girl I was! And so were all the other passengers on the ship…

We made fast friends, enjoyed shore excursions and lavish meals in onboard restaurants together, and were laughing often and toasting each other around our dinner table. At night, we were counting our lucky stars from a sun deck while our ship smoothly and almost imperceptibly was making its way along the mighty Danube.

AmaStella built 2016

Built in 2016 in Netherlands, the snow-white elegant AmaStella, with its advanced river vessel design, clean modern décor, twin balconies in most of its 79 staterooms, and only adult passengers on board for the late April trip, looked positively heavenly to me, whose one and only cruise experience before AmaWaterways has been chalked off as two – the first one and the last one! That time, years ago, I embarked on a gigantic ocean cruise that proved to be overcrowded, impersonal, and hardly relaxing. I remember staying in long lines to get off the ocean liner and back on it for every shore excursion. I still shudder at the memories of the liner’s swimming pools day and night filled with cavorting children; of the captain’s dance party attended by properly dressed couples as well as by young parents in their pajamas who came out with baby strollers and milk bottles to partake in the festivities; of the 24/7 eateries with abundant but tasteless food, and the overall feeling of vast and unfriendly place like a county fair on a cold rainy day… I didn’t think I’d be tempted to go on a cruise ever again.

Budapest Heroes Square

A chance encounter with an enthusiastic advocate of AmaWaterways first piqued my curiosity, then exited me with a possibility to travel in luxury on an all-adults cruise, seeing the most enticing sites of several countries and never dragging my bags from one hotel to another, and finally made me fall in love with the company’s truly wonderful ways!

Champagne on AmaStella

Dessert on AmaStella

Launched in 2002 by the former Viking River Cruise President, Rudi Schreiner, high-level travel executive Kristin Karst, and Brendan Worldwide Vacations founder and owner Jimmy Murphy, AmaWaterways with its substantial fleet of upscale vessels, several levels of walking tours onshore for more and less athletic participants, guided bicycle touring, and award-winning culinary program is rightfully considered the best in providing river cruises, and is touted as “the best value for the quality” by the River Boat Ratings and Evaluations independent site. “One gets the sense that management is constantly thinking up ways to appeal to a younger and more sophisticated clientele,” notes riverboatratings.com.

Lifesaver on AmaStella

Warm, helpful, attentive, personable, smiling – those are just the first-come-to-mind adjectives to describe the service on all levels of dealings with AmaWaterways. As always, before my trip I was roaming multiple air travel sites in search of a shortest, most affordable, most comfortably timed flight. Eventually, an AmaWaterways agent recommended a perfect flight that arrived in Budapest in time for my transfer to the river port, and it was all smooth sailing from then on.

Welcome to the cruise

Reception on AmaStella

Captain on AmaStella

The arriving passengers were greeted by the AmaStella team with a champagne reception and individual chaperons to take us all to our respective staterooms. The cruise manager introduced the crew, and the captain briefly described safety features before everyone was invited to a beautifully served welcome dinner.

Budapest Parliament at night

After sunset, the ship sailed past Budapest’s gothic Parliament building – the largest in Europe – on a special Illuminations Cruise along the city’s glittering riverfront.

At the Budapest market

Budapest SynagogueMatthias Church in Budapest

Next morning, on a Budapest guided walking tour, my new friends and I marveled at the bounty of the Great Market Hall overflowing with flowers, foods, arts and crafts, and many-many kinds of paprika. We explored the iconic sites of Buda and Pest that merged into one glorious city in 1873 on both banks of the Danube – from the vast Heroes’ Square and Hungarian State Opera to the historical Great Synagogue and colorful St. Matthias Church. Some of us climbed the 160-feet Castle Hill in Buda, others took a bus ride, but a great and unforgettable time was had by all!

Street art in Bratislava

In Bratislava, after a guided excursion to the Old Town Hall, St. Martin’s Cathedral, and the historic Main Square, we were singing in the rain and photographing each other hugging street art sculptures. I picked a bronze Napoleonic soldier, leaning on a street bench, who according to the urban legend woke up one morning too drunk to follow his regiment.

Detail of Imperial Palace in Vienna

Ankeruhr clock in Vienna

St. Stephen Cathedral in Vienna

Then it was a fascinating tour of Vienna with a knowledgeable and artistic guide who entertained as much as she educated us on the history of the former ostentatious capital of the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire. I picked a Special Interest tour titled Hidden Vienna and offered on the cruise itinerary as an alternative to the regular walking tour. Back alleys and secret spaces in existence since the Middle Ages took us to the Anker Uhr clock, Mozarthaus, and the underground catacombs of the St. Stephan’s Cathedral with mummified remains of the royals and bishops, and morbid rooms constructed from the bones of black plague victims.

That night, the majority of AmaStella passengers were enjoying a concert of Mozart and Strauss music onshore, but I was listening to Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” at the famed Vienna State Opera. While I was on a city tour, our cruise manager booked it for me, even though it was a last minute request and a full house – and this is a great example of the ways AmaWaterways treats its guests. I still don’t know how he managed to secure an orchestra seat for me in one of the most popular theaters on the planet on the day of the performance!

Durnstein

At sunrise, approaching our next stop at Weissenkirchen, I stepped out to my balcony at the precise moment when we were passing by the porcelain-blue baroque Stiftskirche, a cloister tower in Durnstein, considered the most beautiful of its kind in Austria. A Durnstein excursion followed, with local specialty apricot liquor tasting, and a tour of the spectacular Benedictine Abbey in Melk with a floor to ceiling gilded church – one of Europe’s largest monasteries and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Grein castle

The afternoon walking tour to the Castle Greinburg in Grein presented us with an opportunity to see Austria’s oldest residential castle with an extensive collection of historical artefacts, and the mysterious Sala Terena – a 1625 cavernous room decorated in its entirety with myriads of pebbles. A local dance ensemble performed folk dances for us in the castle chapel.

More excellent entertainment followed after dinner, with an onboard visit of the virtuoso trio of female musicians, La Strada, who performed an array of “melodies of the Danube” originating from all the countries located along the river banks.

1st of May in Linz

In Linz, where we appeared on May 1, the national holiday, besides the fascinating walking tour with a highly-skilled guide, we were witnessing a Labor Day/May Day parade of the local trade unions, with abundant red flags and pro-labor slogans.

Cesky Krumlov

Gardens in Cesky Krumlov

Among a variety of enticing onshore excursions departing from Linz on buses, bicycles, and on foot, I picked a half-day trip to the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov in Czech Republic, nestled in the hills over the Austrian-Czech border. After a guided tour of its imposing, wonderfully preserved castle grounds, we were given some free time which I spent at the baroque gardens with emerald green lawns and patterned flower beds of flaming-red tulips.

St. Stephen Cathedral in Passau, Germany

Arriving in Passau, Germany, we visited the most opulent St. Stephan’s Cathedral with baroque and rococo architectural elements, and mind-boggling mural work.

Octoberfest in Vilshofen

Finally, in Vilshofen, a charming Bavarian town, and the last stop of our cruise, a private Octoberfest was presented to the AmaStella passengers in a large white tent spread out right on the dock. Live music and folk dancing were emceed by the local “beer queen,” and everyone had a chance to indulge in endless amounts of fine Bavarian brew. As if on cue, two white swans appeared by our ship, and lingered nearby, obviously attracted to the boisterous gathering.

Happy Birthday on AmaStella

That night, my new friends and I were dining at the Chef’s table in a special small restaurant onboard, feasting on a 10-course tasting menu that ended with a sweet surprise – my birthday cake, made of chocolate, nuts, and berries.

Next morning, we were saying goodbye to our wonderful hosts, to the beautiful and lucky AmaStella, and to each other. This weeklong adventure changed my opinion of cruises in general, but in particular I’m talking about the wonderful AmaWaterways – the stellar cruise company, sky-high above the rest.

More information at: www.amawaterways.com.