Things to see and do - Austria
Austria Leisure tips
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The country today
The country today
Austria has a population of 8.3 million people, about a fourth of whom live in Vienna and its suburbs. Only four other cities have more than 100 000 inhabitants: Graz, Linz, Salzburg, and Innsbruck. Austria has a population density of 98 people per sq km—one of the lowest in Europe (France: 114sq km/295sq mi, Germany: 230sq km/596sq mi). Almost 98% of Austrians speak German as their first language, and there are six recognized ethnic minorities: Slovenians, Croatians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, and Romany-Sinti gypsies. Around 74% of the population is Roman Catholic; only 4.7% are Protestant, only slightly more than Muslims at 4.2%.
Austria has been a member of the European Union (EU) since January 1995. It has been implementing the Schengen Agreement since 1998 and joined the European Monetary Union in 1999. The Euro has been circulating as the official currency since January 2002. In 2007, Austria’s gross domestic product (GDP) was P245 billion.
Agriculture and forestry
Although vast areas of mountainous land in Austria are not suitable for cultivation, agriculture is an important sector of the Austrian economy, providing for almost 100% of national food requirements. About 189 000 people, or around 5% of the country’s workforce, are employed in agriculture and forestry. In 2003, there were still 190 400 farm and forestry businesses, although the majority—115 000—were smaller than 20ha/49.4 acres. Only 7 400 were larger than 100ha/247 acres.
Forests represent one of Austria’s richest natural resources. Consisting mostly of coniferous trees, they cover about 47% of the country’s total surface area—a statistic surpassed within Europe only by Sweden and Finland. In 2006, 19.1 million cu m/674 cu ft of timber were felled. Agriculture and forestry represent less than 3% of gross domestic product. Agriculture and forestry represent about 2% of Austria’s gross domestic product.
Natural resources and industry
The break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919 cut Austria off from its traditional markets and some of its raw material sources. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that in the 19C Austrian industry had been focused purely on meeting the needs of its own huge empire instead of gearing up to compete in international markets.
These days, however, Austria is one of the wealthiest countries in the EU (measured by gross domestic product) and ranks as a highly developed industrial power with a significant services industry sector.
As a mountainous country laced by numerous rivers, Austria is a major producer of hydroelectric power. Most of its domestic energy requirements are met by the output from some 1 300 power stations. Those along the Danube alone generate a quarter of the state electricity production.
Oil is a natural resource that has been developed since 1937. It still plays a role in the Austrian economy, with production holding more or less steady at just below 1 million tons per year. Most oil fields cluster northeast of Vienna, in the Vienna Basin, which accounts for 95% of the country’s oil production. The single largest field is in Matzen. The remaining 5% come from fields in Upper Austria, near Salzburg.
The oil is refined at Schwechat near Vienna, which has a capacity of just below ten million tons. In addition to domestic oil, it also processes Imported crude oil. This travels to Schwechat via the Adria-Wien-Pipeline (AWP), which runs from Trieste/Italy to Vienna and is a branch off the huge Transalpine Ölleitung (TAL; Trieste to Ingolstadt/Germany).
Natural gas from Austria’s oilfields is highly prized by the country’s industrial concerns. Production hovers around 2 billion cu m/70 billion cu ft annually. To meet national demand, though, an additional 6 billion cu m/212 billion cu ft has to be imported each year, mainly from Russia.
Mining and heavy industry
Austria is a country with a long tradition in mining and heavy industry. In the Tirol especially, gold, silver and copper were mined intensively up to the 17C. Salt mining and the mining of non-ferrous minerals are still carried out today. In fact, Austria is among the world’s most important producers of magnesite, a mineral used in fireproofing blast furnaces and smelting ovens and also in construction work.
Of key importance to heavy industry in Austria is production in the metallurgical basin in Styria, home of the well-known Erzberg (Iron Mountain). The biggest opencast mine in Europe, it ships about 6 000 tons of iron ore daily to the blast furnaces of Donawitz, which produce steel sections, and to those of Linz, which produce sheet metal.
Salt mining is now only of minor importance. Nonetheless, since prehistoric times the precious mineral has played such a part in the civilization of the eastern Alps that it’s hard to overlook the various enterprises still operating in the Salzburg area. Moreover, the salt waters of numerous spa resorts such as Bad Aussee, Bad Ischl and Hall in Tirol continue to be prized in the treatment of a variety of illnesses. Place names often include the prefix Salz or Hall—synonymous terms meaning salt or salt works. Touring a salt mine is a memorable experience. Tour guides are often former miners who stick faithfully to their traditional vocabulary—the greeting “Glück auf!” (Hope you come up again!) is still heard. Many also wear their dress uniform and regale you with tales about the underground world.
Except in the natural springs (Solequellen) of Bad Reichenhall/Germany, the mineral deposits in the Salzburg region consist of a mixture, called Haselgebirge, of salt, clay and gypsum. The miners begin by making a pit in the bed, which they flood and keep supplied regularly with fresh water. This water dissolves the rock on the spot and so, being saturated with salt (27%), sinks to the bottom of the basin, from which it can be pumped, while impurities are left behind. Modern methods of extraction involve the drilling of boreholes and the dissolving of the deposit by the injection of hot water. The brine (Sole) is brought to the surface and pumped into the vats of the salt factories (Sudhütten), for the production of domestic or industrial salt.
The first pipelines
By the 17C much of the forest around the salt mines had been burnt up as fuel in the furnaces. This, coupled with the remoteness of many of the mines, led to attempts by the authorities to relocate the centers of salt production closer to the markets. This involved the construction of impressive lengths of pipeline made of timber, lead or cast iron, to bring the brine down from the mountains to the lowlands. The longest of these Soleleitungen ran 79km/49mi from Bad Reichenhall to Rosenheim in Bavaria and was in use from 1810 to 1958.
Pumping stations (Brunnhäuser) kept up a constant flow of brine, over hill and dale. To prevent too sudden a drop, the aqueducts included long mountainside sections, as in the water-conduits (bisses) of the Swiss Valais. The footpaths (Soleleitungswege) paralleling them made splendid corniche routes. The mine road from Hallstatt to Bad Ischl, for instance, dramatically clings to the mountainside above the lake of Hallstatt.
When the salt had been refined, it was shipped by river—on the Inn below Hall in Tirol and the Lower Traun—or in carts. Many salt roads (Salzstraßen) in Austria, one of the best known being the Ellbögener Straße, recall memories of this traffic, so fruitful for the country’s economy and the public treasury.
Other major economic activities
Austria’s most important and internationally competitive industry sectors are the machine building and steel industries, chemicals and textiles and engine and automobile parts manufacture, most of it for export. Austria also has international standing in the production of electronic components such as microchips and integrated circuits (it produces components for Airbus and high-speed trains). In general, Austrian industry is strongly export-oriented. About two-thirds of its foreign trade is conducted with fellow European Union countries. The most important customer is Germany, which accounts for fully one-third of exports.
Food production, especially the luxury food sector, contributes about 3.5% of GDP and principally caters to domestic consumption. The largest proportion of gross domestic product, around 68%, is generated by the services industry.
Austria is a tourist destination par excellence, offering magnificent scenery, major historical monuments, a wide range of leisure opportunities year-round, and an outstanding tourist infrastructure. Tourism is extremely important to the Austrian economy both in terms of job creation and as a source of revenue. In 2007, it generated about P24 billion, contributing 10% to the GDP. The number of foreign visitors was 31.12 million, the majority of whom were German and Dutch. Traditionally, the Tirol attracts most visitors from home and abroad, followed by Salzburg and Carinthia.
Traditions and Customs
Austria is a country steeped in tradition. Old customs are kept very much alive, particularly in rural communities. A deeply rooted religious faith has left its mark on town and countryside alike.
Roofed crosses (Wiesenkreuze), set up at the roadside or in the middle of a field, are thus very much a feature of Austria’s rural landscape and particularly prevalent in the Tirol. A common sight in Carinthia is a post (Bildstock) with a little roof protecting a faceted pole decorated with paintings of Biblical scenes. Crucifixes are commonly displayed inside Austrian homes, in a part of the house called the Herrgottswinkel (God’s corner). These are especially prevalent in the Tirol where you’ll find them in virtually every house, including guesthouses and inns.
Religious figures are also a common subject for the paintings to be found on many an Austrian façade (Lüftlmalerei): St. Florian features particularly prominently in these in his role as protector against fire. Another popular figure is St. George, the dragon slayer. You may also come across churches containing an enormous painting of St. Christopher (e.g. in Imst). These arose in response to the popular belief that looking at the image of this saint would protect the viewer from a violent death for another day. The figure of St. John of Nepomuk is often to be found adorning bridges and fountains, of which he is the patron saint (having been martyred by being thrown off a bridge in Prague).
A custom for all seasons
The year begins with processions of masked “Perchten” accompanying St. Nicholas through the villages during the “bitter nights” leading up to Epiphany on January 6. The costumed figures representing good and evil spirits can be beautiful or ugly—the latter are usually clad with shaggy fur and wearing scary horned masks—and are supposed to banish the cold and dark of winter and bring fertility and blessings for the coming year. The feast of the Epiphany itself brings Christmas celebrations to a close by commemorating the journey of the Three Kings guided by the Star of Bethlehem. Festivities involve children’s carol singing and processions (Sternsingen and Dreikönigsritte). In some places, locals parade around sporting giant head-dresses decorated with bells (Glöcklerläufe).
Carnival time, or Fasching (Fasnacht in western Austria), is ushered in as early as January in Vienna with the start of the ball season. Elsewhere, Fasching is celebrated with traditional carnival parades, to which a colorful note is added by the masks handed down from generation to generation. Some of the most famous of these parades include those in the Tirol, at Imst (Imster Schemen) and Telfs (Schleicherlaufen); the Bad Aussee carnival with its original and colorful Trommelweiber and Flinserln; and the Fetzenfasching in Ebensee.
Palm Sunday is marked by the blessing of the “palm branches”—generally willow catkins or box. This is closely followed by May Day celebrations (May 1), complete with maypole (Maibaum), climbing competitions (Maibaumkraxeln) and dancing. The feast of Corpus Christi sees more processions, which vary according to the particular traditions of the region: Carrying 8–10m/25–30ft wooden poles wound around with garlands of fresh flowers (Prangstangen) in Bischofshofen and Zederhaus (June 24); laying down a carpet of flowers (Blumenteppich) in Deutschlandsberg; processions on horseback, as in Brixental in Tirol, or on water, as in Traunkirchen and Hallstatt. In August, Murau and Krakaudorf (Styria) are the scene of Samsonumzüge: parades involving a giant 5m/16ft figure of Samson carried by one man—this show of strength was believed in the 17C and 18C to protect the religious procession. In August and September many communities celebrate the consecration of their local church (Kirtag) with a fair. Fall is the time for the Harvest Festival (Erntedankfest) season. This is also when the livestock is brought down from the mountain pastures to its winter quarters.
The feast of St. Hubert is celebrated on November 3 (church services, parades on horseback, etc.), while St. Leonard (patron saint of livestock) is honored on November 6. A few days later, the feast of St. Martin, with torchlit processions, brightens up a dark winter night. The periods of Advent and Christmas make December full of events, from the feast of St. Nicholas (December 6), with the Nikolospiel parade in Bad Mitterndorf, through to the Nativity scenes displayed in public sites and inside people’s homes (e.g. Thaur in the Tirol).
Although traditional local costumes are rarely worn as a daily outfit any more, they occasionally make an appearance at religious and local festivals.
The velvet corsages of the women of Bad Ischl, the embroidered silk blouses of those from the Wachau, the colorful, ribbon-laced bodices of the Montafon, the finely pleated costumes of the Bregenzerwald and the lace aprons of the Burgenland are all evidence of a rich tradition of local folklore. Men wear leather or Loden wool breeches (tight at the knee) or shorts (which are less restrictive for the brisk movements of Tirolean dancing), wide braces with a decorated chest panel, and short, collarless jackets. The shape of the hat indicates the region its wearer comes from.
The traditional dirndl (pleated skirt, pastel colored apron, full white blouse with short puffed sleeves and a buttoned or laced bodice) and the Steirer Anzug (“Alpine dinner jacket,” consisting of grey or brown Loden breeches embroidered in green, white socks and a long, flared coat with green embroidery and gilt buttons) are not that common a sight these days. However, they are the original inspiration behind the so-called “traditional Austrian look,” which combines modern styles with traditional decorative features and natural materials such as linen, cotton, felt and heavy, water-resistant sheep’s wool (Loden).
Fences woven from laths were once the most common style delimiting fields in the Salzburg, Tennengau and Pinzgau regions, but they are increasingly rare. Still, it is not unusual to see farmers piling hay at harvest time onto special drying racks made of metal wire or wooden stakes, to keep it off the damp ground while it is drying.
In the Carinthian Alps, grains are grown on the sunny slopes up to a height of 1 500m/4 500ft, but the harvest often has to be gathered early to avoid frost. The sheaves are spread out on wooden dryers with horizontal struts, sometimes covered, so the grain is able to ripen.
In Styria, Carinthia and the Danubian countryside the most interesting examples of urban development usually sprouted around the main road. When a town was first developed, the old road was widened to form a sort of esplanade, known as the Anger. When all the land on each side of the Anger was built over, the resulting form was known as a Strassenplatz (street-square). These street-squares, shaped like spindles or regular oblong rectangles, form the heart of the town, approached by the once fortified gateways. The square, which is often called Hauptplatz, is usually dotted with fountains and columns, such as the Pestsäule (Plague Column) set up to commemorate the end of a plague.
Food and Drink
Austrian cooking draws from the culinary traditions of the different peoples that once formed the old Empire: German, Italian, Hungarian, Serb and Czech.
Soup is served first, followed by the main dish, almost always consisting of meat, fried in breadcrumbs or boiled, accompanied by salad and stewed fruit (such as bilberries: Preiselbeeren).
Dumplings (Knödel) made of liver or flour may be served instead of vegetables. Middle Eastern influences can be detected in the liberal use of spices in many Austrian dishes.
The most famous dish (Wiener Schnitzel) is thin fillet of veal, dusted with egg and breadcrumbs and fried in butter; it’s often served with potato salad. Goulash is a highly-flavored stew of Hungarian origin, spiced with red pepper or paprika and garnished with tomatoes, onions and potatoes. In Graz and Styria, duck or chicken, fried in egg and breadcrumbs, is delicious. Game of all kinds is widely available in season.
Austrians are famous for the variety of their desserts. The most famous cake, the Sachertorte, invented by Prince Metternich’s chef, has a subtle and delicate flavor. It is a large, rich chocolate cake covered with chocolate icing above a thin layer of apricot jam; the original recipe remains a secret (but everyone offers a version of it). Other favorites include a jam tart (Linzertorte), consisting of pastry made with almonds, filled with apricot or raspberry jam and covered with a pastry lattice; a turnover (Strudel) filled with apples, cherries or cream cheese and currants; plum or apricot fritters; and a sweet soufflé (Salzburger Nockerl).
Vineyards cover about 48 500ha/120 000 acres in Lower Austria, in the Weinviertel, on the slopes near Vienna, and in the Burgenland and Styria. White wine (81%) is much more popular than red. Annual production is of the order of 2.8 million hectoliters/62 million gallons, of which more than a third is exported.
Well-known Austrian white vintages include Grüner Veltliner, Müller-Thurgau and Welschriesling. Most vintages yield pleasant table wines which are often light and slightly sparkling. New wine, made that year, is drunk in the typical wine taverns called Heurige or Buschenschenken. The district of Wachau in the Danube Valley produces wines with a delicate bouquet (Spitz, Dürnstein, Weissenkirchen, Krems, Langenlois). Grinzing, the most famous of Vienna’s suburban wine villages, makes a pleasant sparkling wine.
The red wines, especially the Blauer Portugieser and the Blaufränkischer, are of high quality. In Lower Austria, the best-known wines are those from Bad Vöslau, south of Vienna, from Retz (the Retz wine is known as Spezi—not to be confused with the popular cola- and orange-mix drink of the same name!), from Haugsdorf and from Matzen, in the Weinviertel. In the Burgenland the wines of Pöttelsdorf, Oggau and particularly Rust, and in Styria those of Leibnitz, have a great reputation.
Austria is divided into four official wine regions: The Weinland Österreich (Lower Austria and the Burgenland); Steirerland (Styria); Vienna; and Bergland (Upper Austria, Salzburg, Carinthia, Tirol, Vorarlberg). Weinland Österreich alone accounts for 91.8% of total production while the Bergland, by contrast, only contributes a tiny 0.04%.
The regions are further subdivided into 19 wine-growing areas, of which the Weinviertel, the Neusiedlersee and the Neusiedlersee-Hügelland are the most important, accounting for 32%, 17% and 8% of output, respectively.
The best way to get acquainted with Austrian wine is by exploring the country’s wine routes. The most famous of these is the Lower Austria Wine Route, an 830km/518mi-long ribbon meandering through the wonderful countryside of the Carnuntum, Weinviertel, Wachau, Thermenregion, Donauland, Kamptal, Traisental and Kremstal growing areas. Styria has eight wine routes, including the delightful Schilcher Trail, Sausal Trail and South Styrian Route.