Where is Austria?
Before I get into details, the first question has to be, where is it? Austria is a landlocked country in central Europe, bordered by multiple countries on all sides – Germany and the Czech Republic to the north, Hungary and Slovakia to the east, and Slovenia and Italy to the south. It really is as about as central geographically in the EU and Europe as a whole as you can get. It is a very mountainous country, with the Alps being the main dominant feature of the landscape, and less than 25% of the country is made up of lowlands. The majority of the population speak Bavarian German.
A Brief History of Austria
Austria is one of those countries where it is nigh on impossible to summarize its history in the space of a paragraph or two, but I’m going to try. Deep breath… Austria has been populated since ancient times. There were various Celtic tribes in the area, but then the Romans came and took over, building an important army camp, Carnuntum. After the Roman Empire fell, various peoples invaded including the Slavs, the Bavarians and the Avars. Then in 788, Charlemagne conquered and the area became part of the Holy Roman Empire. From the 13th century until World War I, Austria and many surrounding areas came to be ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty. As they accumulated more and more territory, the Austro-Hungarian Empire became more and more difficult to rule, with various different nationalist groups springing up. One thing led to another and World War I broke out.
After Austro-Hungary found itself on the losing side of the war, it was split up. Things didn’t get a whole lot better though, for not long after it was struggling to maintain its independence in the lead up to the Second World War, but was ultimately taken over by the Nazis. After World War II, Austria was divided into zones amongst the victorious allies, but after years of talks it won its independence in 1955. It then declared its “permanent neutrality”. It is now governed most of the time by a coalition, and there are interest group “chambers” which are usually consulted on new legislation, meaning that there is a widespread consensus for most legislation. And that, ladies and gentleman, is a very rough and ready history of Austria.
Austria – People and Places
Austria has a population of around 8.6 million people, so quite small compared to the likes of Germany, France, the UK and Poland. It is however one of the wealthier countries in Europe, with a GDP per capita of approximately $46,000, putting it in the top 20 countries in the world. In Austria, the weather depends largely on the altitude. Summers, particularly in the lowland regions can be very warm, when temperatures can exceed 30 degrees Celsius. In winter, temperatures often drop below freezing, and the temperature drops 5 degrees for every 300 metres of altitude so best get you hat, scarf and mitts on. Snow is a regular feature in Austria, with snow cover lasting in the lowland valleys from late December through to March, at 1800 metres it lasts from November to May, and high up the snow lasts all year round. With all that snow, it will hardly come as a surprise to learn that tourism, particularly skiing, is one of Austria’s biggest industries.
Austria is not a country with lots of large cities – it only has five cities with a population of more than 100,000 and only Vienna with a population of more than a million. It may only have one major city, but Vienna is a city par excellence, one of the grand old cities of Europe. It is a place of palaces and coffee houses, home of Mozart, Beethoven and Freud. If you are visiting Vienna, you will probably want to visit Schonbrunn Palace, a World Heritage Site and Vienna’s most popular tourist attraction. As well as the palace itself, there’s plenty more to do on the site, including a children’s museum, beautiful landscaped gardens, and a zoo which is the oldest working zoo in the world (it was established in the 1750s by Emperor Franz Stephan). You might also want to visit a coffee shop as Vienna is famous for them. UNESCO lists Viennese Coffee Houses as an intangible cultural asset, and describes them as “a place where time and space are consumed, but only coffee is found on the bill”. It is quite common and expected to linger for hours reading the plentiful supply of newspapers. Sounds like heaven to me!
Cities you may have heard of other than Vienna are Salzburg and Innsbruck. Salzburg is famous for being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music. Innsbruck is renowned for being a ski-ing and other winter sports centre, with the Winter Olympics having been held here on more than one occasion.
A Closer Look at… Kapfenburg
Now it is all very well finding out what the major cities and tourist attractions are like, but that doesn’t answer the question of what it’s really like to live there. For that I decided to pick a smaller town at random. For Austria, I have picked Kapfenberg, a small city with a population of about 22,000, located in the Styria region. Why Kapfenberg? I’m not sure really, other than the fact that it sounds rather like one or two beers I like. Anyway, first, how to get there? I’ve picked a place that’s fairly accessible, an hour and a half’s drive from Vienna, or about 3 hours by train. So theoretically, you could commute to Vienna from Kapfenberg, but more likely you would work locally, perhaps for Bohler, the steel manufacturer which is Kapfenberg’s main employer.
I wanted to have a prowl around on Google Street View, something I’ve done for other, but discovered that Google Street View isn’t available in Austria. Why not? Well Austrians apparently didn’t take too kindly to the invasion of privacy -as they saw it – of Street View, so banned it. After a year or so, they lifted the ban but Google has said it doesn’t plan sending Street View cars back again anytime soon (once snubbed, twice shy?). Anyway, I’ll have to try a different tack, in this case Trip Advisor. Apparently Kapfenberg doesn’t actually have any things to do – according to Wikipedia, the highlight of this town’s existence was in 1970 when the European Team Chess Championships took place here, and the main attraction is the Town Hall. Luckily however there are quite a few places to eat, with ‘Restaurant Zum Kaiser Franz Joseph’ being the best. There is a giant marble effect bust of the eponymous emperor over the doorway, and the owner dresses up as the Emperor, with the rest of the staff in similar themed clothing. There’s also lots of Hapsburg memorabilia and décor adding to the ambience while you dine.
So what about Austrian Food? Well in the Franz Joseph restaurant, customers have raved about the Tafelspitz which is boiled veal or beef in broth, served with a mixture of minced apples and horseradish. Tafelspitz, literally meaning tip (of meat) for the table, is also popular in neighbouring Bavaria. The national dish of Austria however is Weiner Schnitzel which is meat, usually veal or pork, which is bashed with a mallet until thin and then coated in breadcrumbs. It is then traditionally served with cucumber salad and potatoes and is really delicious. Well it is when my mother in law makes it anyway. For pudding, apple strudel would be a good choice or the Viennese speciality Sachertorte, a delectable cake with two layers of soft chocolate cake, separated by apricot jam, coated with chocolate icing and served with whipped cream. If you are going to try it – and who wouldn’t want to – the best day is 5th December as it is National Sachertorte Day!