Cultural and Theme Routes
Admittedly, the Styrian wine roads have long ceased to be an insider’s tip. But there is a good reason for this. The charm of southern Styria, combined with the region’s outstanding wines and the hearty local fare, is something that truly must be seen and especially tasted. No less pleasurable is a trip along the wine roads of Burgenland, where - in contrast to their Styrian counterparts - the red wines are predominant.
Anyone who prefers to bask in the atmosphere of past centuries should consider one of the many theme routes devoted to Austria’s colourful history. Along the Styrian Castle Route, for example, one finds eighteen castles and palaces from various periods, strung together like pearls on a necklace. The reason for this great density of castles in a relatively small area is simple. The south-eastern section of Austria once lay at the edge of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and these intimidating structures thus served as a bulwark against enemies from the east. And they accomplished this well: most of these castles and palaces never fell into enemy hands. One of these fortresses that resisted the invaders is the 850-year-old Riegersburg, which looms up from the edge of a 482-metre-high, steeply sloped volcanic cone like something right out of a fairy tale. Today an elevator takes visitors up to what was once known as the “strongest fortress in the Christian world”, and the castle gates are open to everyone. As is the case with so many of Austria’s castles and palaces, at the Riegersburg the past is brought to life through vivid and imaginative dramatizations. The witch’s exhibition with old instruments of torture, for example, is sure to send shivers down the spines of not only the youngest visitors. There are also historical re-enactments on Walpurgis Night, at the end of April, and on summer full-moon nights, events in which witches and sorcerers have centre stage.
The Habsburgs’ nearly 600-year domination of Europe had less to do with magic than with political skill. Today one can retrace the imperial family’s footsteps on the “Route of Emperors and Kings”. This old “royal road” from Frankfurt am Main to Budapest leads through the former heartland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and along the Danube, passing the Baroque palaces, monasteries and splendid residences of what were once mighty cultural and dynastic capitals. Travellers on this route make some surprising discoveries along the way. Only very few people know, for instance, that the Habsburgs had no fewer than sixteen magnificent imperial rooms installed at the Augustinian Monastery of St. Florian, ensuring that the imperial family had a comfortable place to lay their heads during their journeys. And although Austria’s oldest city, Enns, is not nearly as well known as the imposing Benedictine Abbey at Melk, visitors are invariably enchanted by the medieval charm of its historic centre. One travels even further back in time on the Transromanica, which follows the ancient Roman trade route from Germany via Austria to Portugal, or on the Via Claudia Augusta, the first real road to cross the Alps. It is fascinating to find out all the things people hauled across the mountains even back then, such as oil from Spain, Cretan wine, fresh oysters, and spices from Asia. By the way, some hosts and hostesses along the Via Claudia Augusta even offer their present-day guests the opportunity to sample “Roman cuisine”.
But not only Austria’s rulers have left their mark on this country. Many Austrian theme routes are devoted to the traditional arts and crafts of the local people. Thus on the Wood Road, in the thickly-wooded Murau area of Styria, one learns about the significance of regional wood as a building and manufacturing material and as an energy supplier, as well as its use in the making of musical instruments and in the visual arts. Vorarlberg’s Bregenzerwald Cheese Road links Alpine dairies, farms, restaurants and cheese shops, telling the story of the centuries-old tradition of cheese-making. Whether one is interested in arts and crafts, the country’s history, its culinary delights, or all of these things, it is a good idea to allow plenty of time when exploring Austria’s theme routes. After all, sometimes an entire world can lie between A and B.