Monday, January 30, 2012

Om Nom Nom — Austrian Food!

Food is essential to any traveler. While you can improvise a bed on a train platform (although we do recommend checking into a hotel as it’s generally nicer, safer and warmer) and you can walk anywhere if necessary, without food, holidays are not much fun. And we like our holidays to be fun.

Most people will be familiar with a few Austrian dishes, such as apple strudel and weiner schnitzels. However, like a lot of central European dishes, there’s an awful lot more that often gets overlooked. When eating, we prefer to head to a small local place that is more likely to serve good local food at reasonable prices.

Austrians typically have a continental-style breakfast with bread rolls, cold meats, cheeses, and jams. Tea, coffee or juice may be served. We found it is good to have a nice big breakfast that sets us up for the day, particularly when walking. Lunch is typically a snack with the main meal later in the day.

A lot of emphasis is placed on meat in Austria, which can be in stews, soups, and, of course, sausages. The weiner schnitzel is meat, usually veal, fried in breadcrumbs. It’s often served with potatoes. These might be mashed, boiled, or in the form of a salad (Erdapfelsalat). This is Austrian food at its most basic, but it is easy to replicate and try at home.

One of my favorites is Gulasch, a thick beef stew with onions, paprika and potatoes. It’s very warming and is great after a cold day. Basic but filling fare. You’ll often see it served with dumplings or bread rolls (Semmel). Similar to this is Tafelspitz—beef boiled in broth. Considered to be one of Austria’s national dishes, it is boiled with whatever root vegetables are available. A horseradish-and-apple sauce is served alongside it.

When you have a chance, try Beuschel, a ragout made with beef offal. This tender but filling dish usually has a spicy flavor. If you’re reaching for your dictionary or phrasebook trying to work out what Fledermaus is, don’t worry—it’s not actually a bat. It’s a specific cut of pork that looks a little like a spread-eagled bat, although a butterfly would be similar too.

In rural areas, game meats play a big part in any Austrian’s meals. Venison, boar, hare, pheasant, duck and partridge are all familiar sights. These will usually be served with seasonal vegetables, such as Styrian pumpkins, runner beans, and potatoes.

There are a wide variety of local, regional, and national sausages available in Austria. Whether this is the Käsekrainer, a boiled sausage that contains small pieces of cheese, the Frankfurter (or Wiener after the Austrian name for Vienna—Wien), or the Bratwurst, each sausage has its own distinct flavor, so we sample as many as we can when we are travelling through Austria.

Wherever you are, though, there will be a dozen local dishes that will delight you. It may be from a pension’s kitchen, a bar, a Würstelstand (sausage stand), or the restaurant opposite your hotel, Austria’s selection of foods delighted us, and they will delight you.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Zimmers and Hotels: What is the Difference?

Throughout this site, you’ll see that we’ve talked about zimmers, hotels, pensions, and apartments. It’s a good idea to be familiar with the differences between these different types of accommodation.

A hotel is a very common sight. Whether it’s a multistory complex in Vienna or a smaller multistory complex resort in the Austrian Alps, hotels offer an fairly impersonal but clean place to stay.

Depending on where you are and what time of year it is, hotels can cost anything from €30 to hundreds of Euros per night. Typically, hotels in ski resorts in the height of the winter and spring skiing season will cost between €500 to €2000 for five days, based on two sharing. A family of four generally won’t get a discount, as children over the age of five will generally require separate rooms, so this can make staying in a hotel very expensive.

If you have a large group, a chalet may be a better alternative. Prices for chalets can start from €600 for a four-person chalet, rising to €1,200 for a 10-person chalet. Prices during the ski season may be significantly higher depending on availability, though. These are often self-catering, so be prepared to cook.

We’ve found staying in a town a little distance away from the main ski slopes is a cheaper way to enjoy Austria’s skiing routes. Often, cross-country skiing can be a fun diversion, and the prices make it worth it. There are also usually busses that drive around picking people up, so you’ll have a short ride before you get to the slopes. That’s not a problem, because you’re paying so much less for the same amount of fun!

Zimmers are a lot more personal than a hotel and are often a free room in a house. The house might have several rooms that the owners rent out, but it’s usually an informal family-run business. Prices range widely, but you can get zimmers from €20 to €100 per room. This makes it a very cost-effective option when sleeping two people. However, zimmers are best in the summer, particularly when you’re looking for somewhere different to stay in a small town or village. For a family of four, a hotel may be a more reliable choice, but if you’re a seasoned traveler traveling with a partner, like I am, you will find zimmers offer that extra personal touch to Austria—and often a bigger breakfast.

Urban hotels, on the other hand, particularly in areas such as Salzburg and Vienna, offer good cheap rooms for the night, often with a reasonable breakfast, no matter what season it is. Just be aware of local festivities that may push up the price.

The personal nature of zimmers is their greatest strength, and we’ve often found out about little hidden gems of Austria through chatting with our hosts, something you don’t often get the chance to do in a hotel. We love Austrian zimmers, and with a little planning and booking, so will you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Driving Me Crazy: Austrian Driving

We’ve found Austria is one of the safer places to drive when on holiday, particularly compared to Greece or Poland. Austrian drivers tend to be law abiding, and the police aim to catch those who flout the law. However, there are a few things you need to know before driving, even if it’s just from the airport to your hotel.

Only drivers aged 18 and above can drive in Austria, and you will need a full driving license along with photographic identification. In addition, if you are driving your own vehicle, you may need proof of ownership and proof of insurance.

Drinking and driving is strictly forbidden in Austria with an alcohol blood level of just 0.5 mg/ml required for a fine or a ban. That’s a half glass of wine or a very small bottle of beer. If you are drinking, don’t drive.

If you are using the motorways or S-roads in Austria, you need to have a vignette (sticker) displayed on your windscreen. These can be bought from border crossings or from the Austrian automobile clubs. Many petrol stations close to the border also sell them. In addition, you must carry a first-aid kit, a warning triangle, and a high-visibility jacket.

If you are driving a right-hand drive car, you need to have headlight converters. These are simple stickers that prevent your headlights from dazzling others. Unlike several countries in the EU, though, it is not compulsory to have your headlights on at all times. Seatbelts, when fitted, are compulsory, and there are on-the-spot fines for those not wearing them.

Between November 1 and April 15, you must carry snow chains and you must also use winter tires when driving in poor conditions, defined as mud, snow, ice, or slush.

The speed limits in Austria are enforced reasonably strictly, and they are 130 km/h for motorways, 100 km/h for main roads, and 50 km/h for towns and built-up areas (80 mph, 60 mph, and 30 mph).

One of the more bizarre pieces of legislation to come out of Vienna concerns congestion on single-lane and multilane roads. If there is congestion, all vehicles must form an emergency corridor for emergency vehicles. Follow the traffic in front for guidance in this case and don’t attempt to use the new clear stretch of road!

Now, Austria is a safe place to drive thanks to its adequate policing of road safety laws. Whether you are driving, cycling, or walking, you can be sure you’ll reach your pension in one piece.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Strolling in Styria

During the spring months, it is well worth travelling around in Styria, which is in the southeast of the country. I love the rural parts of Styria, and there are some great hikes to be had in that part of Austria. In the north of Styria, we hiked amongst the southern Alps, where there are fantastic views. Our zimmer was located halfway up a hill, so we had a few days of fantastic hill walks. We also ended up trekking between Semmeringbahn and Mürzzuschlag, which followed the local railway.

In the center of Styria, in a place called Knittelfeld, is Seckau Abbey, which looks like something out of a fantasy novel. The mountainous backdrop and the ornate interior are both absolutely gorgeous, so it’s a sight well worth adding to any sightseeing trip in Austria. In nearby Tremmelburg are two huge wooden towers, and it’s a great route to hike. From the top of the towers, you can see for miles around—great if you want some stunning photos of Austria.

In southern Styria and Burgenland is a chain of ancient volcanoes that form the basis of Austria’s wine industry. We chatted to the owners and staff of the local pensions and hotels to find out about local paths, and we walked among the vineyards. After a few days of trekking in this area, it is nice to unwind, so we checked out one of Styria’s seven spas. It’s great to have a little relaxation time, and the volcanic water makes even the achiest of muscles relax. Topping off the day sometimes involved one of Styria’s wines at a Buschenschanken—around 70 percent of wine production is with white grapes, so there are some great white wines in Austria.

One of our favorite walks was in the south of Styria: a seven-day walk from Leibnitz, through Gamlitz, Leutschach, Kitzeck, and back to Leibnitz. The trip offered several stays in different hotels and exploration of the areas around the towns and villages. Walking up to 12 miles a day was relatively easy, and the scenery was amazing. If you plan on doing a route like this, make sure you know where you’re going to go and when. Plan for bad weather; we were lucky and had sun all the way through our trip, but we had a backup plan if the heavens decided to open. Admittedly it was as simple as taking a bus to the next place if necessary.

The hiking trails in Styria vary widely in difficulty. Part of it depends on the steepness of the climb, and part of it depends on how well the trail has been maintained. Styria’s lowlands, in the south of the state, generally have much easier trails than in the north of the state, as the Alps tend to be rather steep. We ended up being very tired at the end of each day in northern Styria, which meant we slept very soundly. In southern Styria, we tended to go out a bit more after walking as the trails were easier, and the wine was quite good. This meant we saw more of the towns where our hotels and zimmers were based, and they were very pretty.

Walking in Styria rewards you with amazing scenery, good food, and lots of little hidden gems that you would miss on a simple guided tour of the cities.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Visiting the Austrian Alps

The Alps are one of the main tourist attractions in the country. Not only is the area a great place to look for charming Austrian zimmers but it also has a huge amount to offer if you want to visit there.
The Alps take up most of the western part of Austria – interestingly, 62% of the entire country is filled by the Eastern Alps. Other sections of the Alps are also found in Austria, including the Northern and Southern Limestone Alps, and the Central Eastern Alps.
That region of the country is colder than much of the rest of Austria: with the exception of a few areas with the Alpine regions, the Alps typically experience a long winter – which is surely one of the reasons they are so popular for people going on a skiing holiday.
Despite the fact that skiing is probably what the Austrian Alps are best known for, they are also full of attractions in the summer, too. One great option is to stay in an Austrian zimmer and explore the Alps on foot: they’re great for walking holidays. If you are a serious hiker then you’re sure to love the Hohe Tauern National Park, which has some demanding routes – but great views to make it all worth it. The Vorarlberg is a good alternative if you want some lovely sights but don’t want the walking to be too challenging.
Overall, there is much more to Austria than just the Alps – but the Alps certainly make a great place to start and there’s so much to do in the region that they’re sure to keep you going back time and time again.