(COURIER: The excursion takes about 4 hours, and the following commentary presents the towns in this sequence (which may be altered): Modling, Hinterbruehl, Heiligenkreuz, Mayerling, Baden, Gumpoldskirchen, then back to Vienna.)
Leaving Vienna On reaching the suburb of Perchtoldsdorf, you'll spot the first vine-covered slopes (to your right). This is the beginning of the Vienna Woods, and more wine villages lie ahead.
Geography The Vienna Woods is not a "park" but a geographical name, given to a large and rambling series of hills and mountains, densely wooded. The woods cover well over 100 square miles. They form the eastern tip of the great Alpine chain that stretches from France to Switzerland, Northern Italy, and Austria. The name "Vienna Woods" refers to this narrow, horn-shaped eastern tip of the Alps, which descends to flat land at the gates of Vienna. This flat land is part of the Pannonian Plain, which extends eastward through Hungary. (Pannonia was the old Roman name for Hungary.)
Wine making The mild climate make vine growing flourish, as we'll see when we get to the wine villages. Viennese love to come out to the woods on weekends, especially when the new vintages are ready for tasting, and such wine tasting, which takes place in little taverns called "Heurigen," is a Viennese ritual much beloved by the people. The wine is still young and fruity, not aged and mellow. But experienced veterans can tell what the taste will be like after the wine has aged, so this gives them a kind of sneak-preview.
Middle class playground The Vienna Woods are rich in memories of the Austrian Empire and the middle-class pleasures of the 19th century. Viennese musicians, like Johann Strauss, were inspired by the idyllic scenes of the woods. Strauss' Tales of the Vienna Woods shows the impression the woods had on him and his generation. Today, its wine villages, abbeys, forest shrines, and pilgrimage sites draw visitors from all countries. Native Viennese too like to come here for Sunday picnics, hikes, and outdoor games. The woods remain a symbol of the Viennese way of life, summed up in the word Gemutlichkeit.
Modling is a wine village founded back in the 10th century: Romanesque and Gothic buildings give it a historical air.
Heiligenkreuz (Holy Cross) is known for a famous abbey founded by Duke Leopold III in 1135 for Cistercian monks. The abbey church has been the object of many a pilgrimage.
Features of the church The window-glass paintings date from 1300 (illustrating perfectly medieval Viennese craftsmanship). The alter paintings were done by two geniuses: Rottmayr and Altomonte. The cloister — where monks said their hours, meditated, or prepared for processions — is in a Romanesque-Gothic transitional style (1220), with 300 small, red marble columns. This cloistered courtyard had to be rebuilt after the disastrous invasion of the Turks, which destroyed the original.
Mayerling Traveling from Heiligenkreuz to Mayerling, we pass through the dreamy Helental (St. Helen's Valley).
Mayerling will forever be associated with the tragic events of 1889, when Archduke Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, committed suicide. The reason was because he had fallen in love with a commoner girl of 17, much to the distress of his family. They put pressure on him to break off the liaison. Instead of doing so, he and the girl decided to kill themselves, and their bodies were found in the town. There is still some mystery as to how and why the double suicide took place, and it is a continuing topic for popular debate in Austria, somewhat like President Kennedy's death, with new exposes appearing periodically.
The road to Baden continues to follow the Helental, now ribboned with the River Schwechat — a scenic part of the Woods.
Baden A popular health spa. Its baths are fed by sulfuric waters, attracting the ailing and fashionable from all over Europe. ("Baden" means "bath" in German.) First there was a Roman settlement called, not surprisingly, Aquae ("Waters"). Much later, the aristocracy from many countries descended on the town: the Russian Czar Peter the Great (1698), the Austrian Emperors, and Victorian gentleman from England. Mozart himself enjoyed the waters, composing his Ave Verum here. Beethoven spent 15 summers in Baden, composing part of his Ninth Symphony in the town. Johann Strauss composed waltzes, marches, and operettas in Baden.
The Kurpark in Baden is where outdoor concerts are held, and it's the loveliest spot in the town. The baths themselves are built right over 15 springs, which pour out 1,700,000 gallons of sulfuric water a day. The water is body temperature, and is supposed to be good for rheumatic diseases and partially disabled people. Some of them sink down in large mud pits. Others drink the water, which is supposed to help the liver and kidneys (hangover treatment?).
Baden was chosen by the (Vodka-drinking) Russians in 1945 as their headquarters for all of Austria. They stayed for 10 years, until pulling out of Austria in 1955. Under Russian occupation, the town's hotels, schools, theaters, and thermal baths were utilized as administrative buildings and dormitories. When the Russians left, the buildings were in a delapidated condition: fixtures like electric switches, bulbs, and door handles had all been stripped off and taken away. Years later, after spending millions of dollars on repairs, the Austrians reopened the buildings, and they are now used by more genteel company.
(You might stop in Baden for coffee at the Kurhaus, where people can try the Sachertorte and other delicious pastries.)
Gumpoldskirchen is the most famous of the wine villages, situated in the midst of lush, grape growing country. Vintner's houses line the main street, many with large wooden gates leading into vine-covered courtyards.
The Heuriger (the wine of the most recent vintage) is drunk in these establishments, with much anticipation. The wine is served by the owners on simple, wooden tables, while an accordionist plays merry melodies.
Gumpoldskirchen has a beautifully arcaded Renaissance Town Hall. The market fountain is made out of an old Roman sarcaophagus. The castle was built by the German Order of Knights, who still own some of the best vineyards in the area.
The most famous Austrian wine, Gumpoldskirchner, comes, of course, from the vineyards around the town.
(COURIER: On returning to Vienna, verbally recreate the spirit of "good times" which brought 19th-century Viennese out to the Woods in their black carriages, Sunday-best outfits, and handlebar moustaches.)
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