2014 was a stellar vintage in Austria. Not for its grapes, which struggled with too much rain and too little shine, but for one of its newest residents; me. Beginning in May, I took advantage of some professional connections to travel to Austria’s largest province, Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), where I set up shop in the village of Langenlois as a winemaker’s apprentice.
Working in the wine industry is what’s helped me pay my way through college, so with some unexpected time on my hands I decided to go all in and see where the stuff comes from.
Initially, I stayed in Vienna with a friend who was there on Erasmus exchange at Uni Wien (the University of Vienna). He was kind enough not only to show me around the city and help me get my bearings, but also to introduce me to some of his friends and colleagues. I owe him a substantial debt of gratitude because without his introduction to the city, my experience would have been something entirely different.
While I enjoyed the work in Langenlois’ vineyards and cellars, the real beauty of Austria for anyone with an interest in travelling is its strategic location at the heart of Europe. Vienna, only an hour away by train, is itself never more than a few hours from some of the most attractive destinations in Europe. I, being very fond of travelling myself, was perfectly placed for a summer of adventuring.
Interesting place, is Austria. Situated right on the cusp of where west once became east, the country has had a unique history since the fall of the once illustrious Habsburg empire. Modern Austria is a beacon of compromise, out of necessity, having been divided between the four powers in the years followed the Second World War; though not to the extent its neighbour Germany was.
Relative peace and a prosperous position not quite straddling the iron curtain allowed for Vienna to be rebuilt with little expense spared. The city is particularly beautiful and offers a wealth of interesting experiences for those willing to jump at what’s on offer. I managed to catch a showing of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the last in his four-part Ring Cycle for the low price of just €4.
While my loose change got me in the door of the Wiener Staatsoper, it didn’t quite bag me a seat; something reserved for those with deeper pockets, meaning I was standing in the gallery for the opera’s five-hour duration. Cheap seats will set you back somewhere between €30 and €50, while a spot in which to see and be seen can spiral into the hundreds, depending on the production.
Vienna also offers very good food options when you consider that it has arisen from a Germanic background. The Germans are not well known for their cuisine, sticking instead to being champion producers of wine, beer, and spirits. Thankfully Austrians have a more refined palette, something you can put to the test in both restaurants and cafés. Particular favourites of mine were the Heuriger, which lie a little way out of the city proper and offer locally produced wine, and in many cases food for sale from the cellar door. One of the more unique restaurants to visit is the Wiener Deewan, a pay what you like spot which offers up excellent Pakistani fare.
For socialising, best bets include Stadtbrauerei Schwarzenberg where you should try the honey ale, the collectively run Gasobar if you want to get a taste of Viennese student culture, or Fledermaus for a late one.
Outside the capital, there’s also much to see. For sheer natural beauty, you can’t beat Salzburg. While in the summer, Linz offers up a host of festivals, many of them free to attend, to keep both locals and visitors entertained. The wine producing region of Kamptal, where I was based, also offers stunning natural scenery with miles and miles of vineyard making for some very picturesque scenes.
Nearby, in Gallneukirchen, the annual Klangfestival is a big draw for seekers of experimental music. Taking place over an August weekend on a working farm, the experience encompasses light, sound and a little of the other three senses too.
Particularly stunning are the terraced vineyards of the Wachau appellation (wine producing area) which overlook the Danube. The landscape here is comparable to similar terraces along the Rhine, but on a much smaller scale. A drive through the valley’s many villages is recommended, but to get the most mileage; take a boat. A number of tour operators offer leisurely trips beginning at Krems an der Donau upon which you can sample the fruits of the land.
In addition to wine, Lower Austria is a major producer of apricots, something which has been incorporated into many dishes. Roast chicken breast on a bed of fresh local vegetables served in an apricot marinade may not sound conventionally tasty, but pair it with a glass of Austria’s signature grape Grüner Veltliner, whose vines you can see on the terraces above you, and you’re in for a genuine treat.
I managed to visit Hungary twice during my stay on the continent. The trip is about four hours by train which leaves from Vienna’s Meidling railway station. Rail travel in Austria is expensive, which meant that my first journey out of the country set me back about €40 each way. Thankfully a helpful local demonstrated to me what a fool I am and introduced me to the Vorteilscard discount programme offered by Austrian state railway operator ÖBB.
The card offers substantial discounts both on internal travel and on journeys beginning within Austria which end outside its borders. This brought my fares down by half as I was also able to take advantage of student tickets and get some great deals. The second trip to Budapest Keleti was a lot more reasonable.
My two visits to the Magyar capital were spaced a week apart, with the first seeing me visit a group of friends who were at the time running the Explorer Belt between Slovakia and Hungary. This took me out as far as Eger, a scenic town in the centre of Hungary’s own wine producing landscape. An exceptionally cheap Airbnb meant that I was able to bunk in with the event crew for very little money and see what the challenge is like from the other side.
Rural Hungary has a lot to offer to anyone willing to explore it, though some areas remain in a state of striking poverty and seeing prostitutes at roadsides far from the nearest town wasn’t an uncommon sight.
My second visit was a little more eventful as it afforded me the opportunity to stay in Budapest, the Hungarian capital. While I was there I spent a night in the Maverick City Lodge, which is located in Budapest’s old Jewish quarter. Very reasonably priced, and within walking distance of a number of the city’s top bars, including ruin bar Szimpla Kert, which needs to be seen to be believed. My stay coincided with that of a group of Germans visiting from Karlsruhe who were also celebrating their countries incredible success in the world cup. Austria not participating, I’d been following the games with my co-workers; all of whom were German supporters for the duration of the tournament.
Naturally, this was only going to go one way, so I’ll spare the details and simply say that there’s not a bad bar on Kazinczy u.
I have to be honest, I didn’t have a good experience in the Republic, primarily because I had no intention setting foot there when I began my journey to Berlin. Having never had the experience, I opted to take one of Deutsche Bahn’s overnight trains from the Austrian capital to its German counterpart. The plan seems solid, hop on board, jump into bed and wake up in a new city in the morning.
Of course plans never quite materialise the way we hope, and mid-way through the trip I was thrown off the train due to a ticketing issue. To avoid this, I highly recommend getting a printed ticket to verify your fare and not relying on the electronic copy, as I learned very quickly. Arriving unexpectedly at Pardubice, a town famous exclusively for producing explosives, I was left recalculating my route with no map, no network connection, and no internet access.
At this point in the journey, I was in too deep as there was no way for me to return to Vienna, which meant that my sole option was to continue on. This entailed taking the first commuter train to Prague, navigating the Czech capital with little assistance during the commuter rush, and shelling out for a second ticket on the first train out of the city.
I’ve heard very good things about Prague from everyone who’s visited having intended to go there. Unfortunately, I don’t share in their enthusiasm.
The Berlin Wall, one of the city’s many defining features, came down beginning in 1989. The above photo then, isn’t mine. It is however, the reason for my visit to the German capital. My trip was preceded many years before by my parents, who took a camera with them. While I didn’t exactly need a reason to go to Berlin, this presented the perfect opportunity as my arrival coincided with the celebration of 25 years since the beginning of the end of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (East Germany).
What this meant, even more so as a result of my losing a day to Czech ticket inspectors, was that I had to make a rapid fire tour around the city in order to hit as many of the photo sites as possible. This was made all the more difficult by the fact that I hadn’t quite managed to narrow down exactly where some of the photos were taken and because the locations were spread between Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 40km north of the city and the now fashionable Kreuzberg district in its south.
Despite the runaround, I very much enjoyed my first trip to Berlin. Staying at the Generator out in Prenzlauer Berg should have made my life more difficult in comparison to billeting in the relatively pricier Mitte district, but the city’s transport network proved absolutely incredible, even in the face of major engineering works closing a section of the trunk line. A public transport system like Berlin’s is unimaginable to us here in Dublin, such is the degree to which it just works and works well.
There’s so much to see and do in the city that a one lifetime would only afford you time to scratch the surface. That’s the impression I offered to a few friends living there, all of whom by and large agreed and then all bar one mentioned that they really must get out and see more. Possibilities for history and nightclub buffs are endless, for fans of politicking there’s the Bundestag and all its attached organs of state and for fans of art and culture, the city is enough to provoke heart palpitations.
As for the objective of my visit, the photos, I managed to track down about 90% of the locations I had intended to visit. Realistically I was never going to manage all of them, not solely because some of the locations were simply unidentifiable. I’m hoping to publish the photos on my own site soon, but for the moment, check out the above photo’s modern day equivalent below. Aside from the not managing to get to see everything I wanted to see, I’d like to come back to check out what life is like for the locals.
Those I know living here are mostly recent additions to the city, having moved here both from Ireland and elsewhere in Germany. The best way to find your feet somewhere is to rely on local knowledge, or failing that to pick up a good guidebook like the Lonely Planet one I relied on to find my way around while I was there. So hopefully, sometime soon, I can head back to get a bit of insider info on Berlin.
Words and photography by Seán O’Reilly