. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Concerts and Country Walks in Austria

Have you heard the one about the Russian service industry minister being introduced to the Austrian naval minister at a reception? "I didn't know you had a navy," the amused Russian remarked. "I didn't know you had a service industry," the Austrian retorted.


Even if Austria does not, in fact, have a navy, it has beaches galore, as my wife and I recently discovered during a trip that combined sightseeing in Vienna with hiking and swimming in Carinthia, the southern Austrian region bordering on Slovenia and Italy. There you will find beautiful lakes with crystal-clear, drinkable water -- and some ships sailing under the Austrian flag.


How did we end up in Austria? After leafing through countless advertising brochures at the Travel Shop at GUM, I had not found a place where we could enjoy a city, spend time in the water and still get away from the crowds. Then the travel agent suggested a package tour to Austria -- and we accepted.


Our first impression on arrival in Vienna was that there are almost as many dogs in the city as there are people. The Viennese in the arrivals hall all seemed to have a dachshund, poodle or Afghan in tow. Later we saw dogs riding in special sidecars attached to their owners' bicycles, dogs wearing baseball caps with holes for the ears, dogs walking into restaurants, dogs riding the U-bahn (the Viennese version of the subway).


With so many canine creatures around, it was impressive that the city streets seem so clean you could eat off the pavement. Vienna is a city where people drop garbage into bins and wait for green lights to cross the street even if it means staring across a deserted strasse for close to five minutes. Trees in the central park have neat little plaques nailed to their trunks certifying that the tree is an oak or a poplar. Even the few homeless people on the city streets seem to wash their clothes every day.


Vienna's cleanliness and bourgeois complacency may seem like a shock to people used to Moscow's muddy streets and moody crowds. Accordingly, prices in the famed First District, the city's shopping and cultural center, will amaze even the seasoned Muscovite used to being charged top dollar at restaurants and "new Russian" boutiques. Expect to pay between $400 and $700 if you want to take home some lederhosen, the local knee-length leather pants.


Stunned by the prices, the visitor can turn to Vienna's vast cultural scene, which is usually more affordable and sometimes even free. This is a city where classical music is actually hip, and Rathausplatz, the city hall square, is especially lively in the evenings. A vast movie screen is stretched across the wall of city hall, and at 8:30 p.m. movies of operas, ballets and classical recitals are shown to the huge audiences that gather on the square.


Some of the movies are fantastic: My wife and I saw one that showed Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Shostakovich with the Vienna Philharmonic, a startling insight into the great conductor's energetic technique. The open-air movies are surrounded by international food stalls, with cuisines ranging from Filippino to Croatian, and draft beer and local wine are readily available.


Another way to enjoy the city's cultural offerings without going broke is to head to the Sch?nbrunn palace, where classical music recitals are held in the evening. Don't bother buying tickets: The windows of the first-floor concert hall are open and music lovers can simply stand outside and listen. It's much more romantic -- and comfortable -- than sitting inside on a beautiful evening.


Other outdoor entertainment options are performances of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and "The Magic Flute" at the Roman ruins on the grounds of the Sch?nbrunn imperial palace in the 13th district. Tickets start at $55, but the hilarious Broadway-style renditions of these classics are worth every cent. Shows continue well into September.


To get an insight into the life of one of the city's most famous musical resident, Ludwig van Beethoven, it's worth visiting the numerous houses where the composer lived. There are even two houses, one in Vienna and one in the town of Baden, not far from the city, where locals claim the Ninth Symphony was written. The truth is Beethoven rarely had the money to pay his rent and his piano playing annoyed the neighbors, so he lingered longest in the Baden house, where the fitter who lived downstairs clanged metal tools all day and couldn't care less about the racket from the top floor.


Other Vienna highlights are the paintings of the turn-of-the-century Austrian expressionists, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, as well as their younger follower, Oskar Kokoschka. Klimt's gorgeous depictions of fabrics and radiant nudes, and Schiele's stark draftsmanship and contorted bodies are a treat even for those who usually avoid museums. Some of Klimt's and Schiele's most representative work is in the Belvedere palace not far from the Southern train station.


I also recommend spending a whole day at Sch?nbrunn, the Habsburgs' summer residence, which is surrounded by a vast park. Among the stranger sights is a lane in which hundreds of identical plywood silhouettes are lined up like an army. They are supposed to depict the people who shaped Austria's 1,000-year history: dukes, politicians and cultural figures. Adjacent to the park is the Tiergarten zoo, the oldest in Europe and the scene of one of the darker moments of European history. During World War II, there was a famine in Vienna and locals ate many of the animals.


If you want to escape the city, you can explore the scenery of nearby Wienerwald, which Austrians say is the biggest forest in Central Europe. My wife and I, however, wanted to hike and swim, so we picked up our rental car and drove 350 kilometers to the town of Maria W?rth in Carinthia. The trip took just over three hours and was a cinch thanks to excellent signs along the way.


Maria W?rth is a small, sleepy town on the W?rthersee, the largest of all the Carinthian lakes. The town boasts an old church, several modest hotels with geraniums on their windowsills and a quiet collection of tourists -- mostly Germans, mostly middle-aged and elderly and very sweet-tempered. The preferred activities are sitting beside the lake or sipping beer in outdoor cafes.


But a trip to Maria W?rth would not be complete without hikes in the forest. There are paths that can be negotiated both on foot and on horseback, but we decided to climb the steep hillsides in virgin territory dotted with mushrooms, wild raspberries and blackberries ripe for the picking. Once you stray from the paths, there is no human presence whatsoever.


Though nights are considerably cooler than days on the W?rthersee, swimming is good around the clock and the water is pristine. Trout and Prussian carp splash in the shallow water close to the shore, so the fishing is also excellent, although the bigger fish tend to cluster in places where it is verboten, or forbidden.


If the calm of Maria W?rth starts to be a bit much, just 10 kilometers away lies Velden, billed as Austria's most exclusive resort, with night discos, expensive boutiques and a casino. We went and found a surprisingly easygoing atmosphere. Another destination within easy driving is Klagenfurt, the pretty capital of Carinthia, which has a park with scale models of the world's most famous buildings, a must-see for kids. The White House is just a few steps from St. Basil's and the Taj Mahal, and miniature toy trains chug around the park as ships sail on tiny canals and cars and trucks run on a toy autobahn.


If you want to shop, Klagenfurt is a better bet than Vienna and another option is Villach, another nearby city. Outdoor restaurants here are plentiful, but don't expect fish from the lake. The fare in most places is Teutonic: huge steaks and schnitzels, goulash and enormous, filling desserts (apfelstrudel, or layered apple pie, and all sorts of ice cream and whipped cream are specialties). Even in the cheaper cities, it's hard to have a meal for two for less than about $50.


For further jaunts, Salzburg, with its exciting music scene, is an easy drive on the autobahn, as are Munich, Prague, Budapest, Udine in North Italy and Ljubliana in Slovenia. But we were mostly happy to stay put and soak up Austria's prime assets -- fresh air, clean water and unspoiled nature.





Getting There, Getting Around


You can fly from Moscow to Austria on Aeroflot for about $380 roundtrip and on Austrian Airlines for between $515 and $625 roundtrip, depending on the length of your stay. Our trip, however, was organized as part of a package through the Megapolus tour operator (200-4532) and we paid $1,450 each for a two-week trip to Carinthia, with our flight and all our hotels already paid for, plus three days in Vienna.


In Vienna we stayed at the quiet but conveniently located Parkhotel Sch?nbrunn (telephone 8-10-43-1-878-04), which costs about $150 a night if you are not part of a package. A cheaper option would be the small budget hotel, Auer, which is near the center and has rooms starting at about $30 (telephone 8-10-43-1-432-11). It is recommended by the Lonely Planet city guide to Vienna.


Getting around the city by U-bahn is easy and fast. Streetcar and bus routes are rather confusing and taxis are rather expensive: just getting into one costs $3 and a 15-minute ride will cost over $10.


In Maria W?rth, we stayed at the Ebner hotel, a homey little family establishment with its own strip of beach. You can contact the Ebner through Megapolus.


Before we went to Carinthia, we did some extra research by checking out their presence on the World Wide Web: http://austria-infoat/k/index.html is the address for the official site of the Carinthian State Tourist Office, but more information can be had simply by running a Yahoo search for the keyword Carinthia.


We rented a car to drive from Vienna to Carinthia and recommend not picking up the car until you are ready to leave Vienna since city parking is difficult. Major rental companies all have offices both at the Schwechat international airport and in Vienna proper. A medium-sized sedan will cost $70 a day, though a minuscule Fiat Cinquecento rents for under $50 a day.