Austria for us marked a distinct turn back to Western Europe. The transition was almost imperceptible. Something about the pace of living and the style subtly reminded me of life in the States. The head-down-move-forward attitude of the people and lukewarm civility reminded me a little bit of home. The German speaking Austria is much smaller and more mountainous than Germany, but shares much of its culture while still maintaining its own identity. We split our time between Vienna and Salzburg with a daytrip to Hallstatt.
At a population of just over eight million, a large part of its identity is wrapped up in its Alpine landscapes and capital city, Vienna. The country reached its greatest prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries as an independent power. In the mid 1800’s the country combined with Hungary to form Austria-Hungary. This new country became a major player in Europe and over the years gravitated culturally and politically towards the Prussian Empire (now Germany). This alliance likely built on a common language and culture was solidified in the First World War with their joining sides with the German Empire. By the end of the war, the Habsburg Dynasty (Austria-Hungary) had collapsed and the next few decades saw Austria attempt a unity with Germany. This attempt at unification was prohibited by the treaty of Versailles and the allied powers. At the onset of the Second World War, Germany annexed Austria and they fought together under the Nazi flag until the end of the war. It was separated from Germany by the Allied powers and in 1955 declared itself an independent and permanently neutral republic. Austria is considered one of the wealthiest countries in the world on a per capita basis and maintains a very high standard of living.
Vienna is a living symbol of the intellectual and artistic achievements of central Europe. Former homes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Sigmund Freud, Vienna exudes the stately elegance of a former empire. It seemed like the city had an identity unto itself spanning a history longer than the nation it occupied. It is immediately apparent when Vienna rose to its greatest prominence and I think is the best example of what European cities must have looked like in the 1700’s. This era of Europe was dominated by great monarchies, yet the major powers had advanced enough to put forward a modern city that shared power and prestige well beyond the monarch.
Vienna currently has just under three million residents - a third of the country’s population. It solidly occupies the role of the cultural, economic, and political capital of Austria. I was struck with the homogeneity of the Baroque style in the city center. While a very beautiful city - the colors, streetscapes, and variety of architecture in the city center felt very muted to me. It felt almost too clean and orderly to capture the imagination. For me, Vienna lacked the artsy grunge and character of so many places I have visited. That being said, the scale of the architecture was impressive, and I have no doubt that at its height Vienna was a formidable representation of the Austrian empire.
We spent our day in the city exploring the major sites and walking the city center where imposing statues and monuments lined the streets. The scale and craftsmanship were impressive to take in and it inspired us to visit the museum of art in the Belvedere Palaces. We saw a large art collection there which included Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” known all around the world. The palace offered expansive views of the city. Flanked by huge gardens on either side, the Belvedere Palaces are massive in scale, striking given its central city location. The palaces themselves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered some of the most stunning examples of Baroque architecture in existence. While not nearly enough time to fully appreciate Vienna, we had an enjoyable day eating, drinking, and taking in the sites.
The following day we made our way to Salzburg, a beautiful Alpine city and the fourth largest in Austria. This city is also internationally renowned for its Baroque architecture and is nestled in a scenic valley bisected by the Salsach River. This small city of about 150,000 has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 and holds a large university student population. Salzburg is also known as the setting for the filming of The Sound of Music.
Salzburg has a quaint charm and calm energy. It embodies the vision I have always had of a small German city during Christmas. Unmistakable Bavarian style, and small shops and restaurants line the streets with the snow-capped Alps towering into the sky. Although it was the middle of the summer, the town looked built for the winter and it was easy to imagine how beautiful the city might look in the snow.
Our Airbnb was built in the 15th century and is likely the oldest building I have ever slept in. The thought that this building was erected before North America was even discovered by Europe was striking. As an American, it is hard to fully grasp how far back European history goes and how truly young the United States is. Buildings in Phoenix are constructed and knocked down in under 100 years and this building has stood the test of six hundred years. Even more striking was the fact that the building was not unique in Salzburg and looked as old as any other on the street. It is likely that the same buildings on that street have all stood in pretty much the same arrangement for hundreds of years. It made me wonder how many people walked the stairs of the building over the years. How many life stories, tragedies, and triumphs have occurred here. How many walls have been moved, and floors replaced to guard against the erosion of time. Though an inanimate object, a building of that age has an organic quality to it. We spent our day in the city walking the streets and strolling along the river banks and across the bridges. I couldn’t help but think about how little the cityscape has changed over the centuries and that the view from my apartment window has been shared by so many from so many eras. Amid this unchanging view over the centuries, we have seen the passing of empires, forms of government, modes of transportation, and technologies. It really speaks to how special Salzburg is – frozen in time.
Our second day in town we woke up early and boarded a long bus ride to the village of Halstatt. Halstatt is a small village of just under a thousand. This quaint village is famous for its picturesque beauty. Tourists from all over the world come here every day to see this town which can trace back its origins thousands of years. Evidence of human settlements have been discovered here dating back to prehistoric times and it is said to contain some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts. Halstatt is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever laid my eyes on. It sits at the base of towering tree covered mountains along a small shimmering lake. Cottages run down the steep hills and along the lake, a large cathedral punctuates the small shoreline. Swans swim just off the shore and on a still day, you can make out reflections of the village in the water. A small waterfall cascades from the top of the town down a small river that feeds into the lake below. In the old town, Austrian style cottages are lined with vines and flowers sit on every window sill. It feels like time has stood still here for two hundred years. We spent a few hours walking the town and taking photos and finished our stay with a long lunch. The time on the road was about six hours and I would have traveled twice as long knowing now how beautiful the village is.
Austria brings to my mind visual beauty and a long history. This beauty can be found in the natural landscapes of the Alps and Austrian countryside, and by the Baroque architecture in the cities and towns. It’s a small country with a lot to offer and a classic example of how a small country can be influenced and shaped by its neighbors over the years. Shifting from an independent state to a smaller part of a larger nation and back again, Austria has combined German influence with its own unique identity. The landscapes of Halstatt, river views in Salzburg, and Baroque palaces in Vienna will always fondly occupy my memory. // Jeff