An Austrian Adventure: Travels through Burgenland
Burgenland is not the Austria you have in mind. Maria von Trapp will not be traipsing over a mountain range. Nor will you find a gaggle of twentysomethings dressed in lederhosen while devouring Sachertorte.
Instead, you may find yourself as I did, standing in the middle of a 36-acre field with Erich Stekovics, "the Emperor of Tomatoes," while he spins tales of the precocious Bianca or the Fuzzy Cherokee with its pink exterior and olive green flesh. I stumbled through the vines with Stekovics for more than two hours, at one point looking down to discover that I was covered in juice and seeds, as if I’d had an altercation with a pitching machine filled with tomatoes rather than baseballs.
It’s messy, this tomato thing. But it illustrates the Burgenland people’s deep connection to the terroir and natural beauty of the region. I was on an eastern Austrian adventure, and if staying hydrated in the scorching sun by devouring handfuls of juicy heirloom tomatoes was any indication, this was going to be quite a trip.
Burgenland is Austria’s easternmost state, bordering Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia. Its 280,000 inhabitants enjoy 300 days of sunshine a year, which makes for great agriculture, including a wine industry that is thriving partly because of early support from the European Union, which matched funds for viticulture development.
Dotted along the flat countryside you’ll find accommodations ranging from cottages to vineyard estates. Austria also has a rich cultural tradition in music and crafts, all of which can be explored in the small towns and villages that dot the countryside.
My first stop was St. Martins Spa & Lodge at Lake Neusiedl. Opened in 2009, the property respectfully showcases the area, which comprises a protected wildlife region that is home to 320 species, including birds, water buffalo and wild horses. St. Martins rises seamlessly out of the horizon.
"The combination of a spa, a lodge and this very specific kind of nature cannot be imitated," CEO Klaus M. Hofmann says. "The foundations for such a refuge are unique. Nature plays the leading role - in the area and in the St. Martins Spa & Lodge itself."
St. Martins’ centerpiece is its thermal baths, which for centuries have offered healing and relaxation. The 109-degree mineral water is pumped from 2,800 feet below the surface, while the outdoor pool uses natural lake water. Signature spa treatments draw from their surroundings, including salt, grapes, sparkling wine and pomace. After soaking and swimming in the various pools, I felt invigorated and ready to explore the nearby national park.
The Neusiedler See National Park is a collaborative conservation project more than 80 years in the making. The first wetlands were put under protection in 1926, and further laws and agreements have been implemented. The park now belongs to nearly 1,200 property owners, primarily local part-time farmers who have agreed to discontinue working a portion of their land in exchange for an annual indemnity.
Educational and recreational opportunities abound, from walking and biking paths to observation points and stables. I ventured out with a small group, accompanied by a park ranger and plenty of high-powered telescopes and binoculars. We planted ourselves in a gazebo overlooking one of the reed patches and waited. For what, I wasn’t sure. There were plenty of ducks, and I may have seen a purple heron ... or was that a spoonbill?
I looked back and saw not one of the famous white donkeys or Hungarian gray cattle that I had read about in the brochure, but one of our own - propped up against a bale of hay for an afternoon nap. She had wandered off after receiving what she perceived to be an inadequate answer to "What are we doing here?" The answer was nothing. And everything. It was a picture-perfect afternoon for a city dweller like myself, more accustomed to crowded sidewalks than wispy footpaths.