There is an old joke here that the best thing about Austria is that it is close to Italy. The fact that much of northern Italy used to be Austrian is besides the point. No more so than South Tyrol. The slice of – still – German speaking Italy that became part of the country after the First World War. There was, for a time, a nationalist movement to rejoin with the motherland but ask any Austrian today whether ethnically German South Tyrol should be acceded back to Austria and they will look at you as if you are deranged. Although this might be hard to discern from the usual look they give you.
In any case, one of the best things about Vienna, apart from the commitment to social provision, free kindergartens and gay traffic lights, is that it is within easy reach of Rust (pronounced “Roost”). Rust is a small town on Lake Neusiedl in the federal state Burgenland about 70 kilometres from central Vienna. It is famous for its exceptional wine, it’s status as a “free city” and coachloads of German tourists in search of locations from the Austrian television production, Der Winzer König, which was unfortunately filmed here.
According to its official website, Rust, with its 1924 inhabitants, is the “smallest administrative district in Austria”. In other words, it is a “chartered town” which as far as I can tell means it got some special status during the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy allowing it to take care of its own business free from the interfering mits of the emperor.
The town – or city – is not entirely unique for northern Burgenland around the Neusiedlersee in the sense that it is close to Vienna, renowned for its grapes and a haven for cyclists in dubiously chosen lycra. There is Mörbisch, famous for its lakeside summer open-air concerts, Oggau, Breitenbrunn, Jois, Neusiedl itself, Gols and Podersdorf and Illmitz over in the national park of Seewinkel (which is also local slang for what the water does to your willy when the lake is too cold for swimming). But Rust has the most to offer the occasional tourist with its sprinkling of superb restaurants, a couple of world renowned winemakers and an excellent base in which to mess about in a boat if sails, knots and swabbing gets your sea-legs jigging.
At this point in our eulogoy, I should, of course, declare my historical contraband. You see Rust holds a special place in the soft voice of my ageing heart as it was my first Austrian holiday after moving to the number one city. We ventured forth from the old Südtirolerplaz via Eisenstadt (home of Haydn) on the eponymous Postbus. A glamourous entrance that I have rarely matched in any trip before or since. And from that time we have been – more or less – occasional visitors, although less so than the noisy returning summer storks that crowd the rooftops come sundown, inspiring the town with endless varieties of tourist keepsake (some even tasteful).
However, all these years later, I can still appreciate its many charms. More so these days when I am often compelled at the weekend to escape the coruscating proximity of my less than lithe neighbours (them again), their four-legged pestilence and the intermittent, often desperate cries of: “Come ‘ere, you little bastard!” But equally I am drawn to the shores of the lake when Vienna is in the throes of a treacherous heat. And as I no longer visit the infernal Freidbad in the city after last year’s minor ruckus over the propriety of sun-loungers, where better than the “seaside”? And Rust being nearly perfect even has a beach (sort of).
To reach Rust from Vienna you take the Triesterstrasse out of town and head for the Autobahn (A2), passing the retail carbuncle of Shopping City on route to the Eisenstadt turn off. You will know you are heading in the right direction because when you first hit the motorway you will see a large sign sporting the rather inexplicable “NACH KÄRTNEN” (to Carinthia), a presumptive intrusion implying that just by being on this stretch of road, your destination could ONLY be Austria’s southern most province 300 kilometres away.
As you enter Burgenland you will notice one important change: the state of the roads. The reason for this is EU money. Unlike the Greeks who frittered away their 300 billion Euro restructuring and investment funds on a corrupt elite and creating civil servants, Burgenland, traditionally the poor man of Austria and the butt of their jokes, took a more long-term view. They invested in agriculture, wine, tourism and wind turbines (and the transport infrastructure to back it up). And now the roads are smoother than a Jura whisky and, this being Burgenland, mostly empty.
Leaving the motorway we head through the sleeping towns of Trausdorf and St. Margarethen, full of Heurige, wine merchants and roadside stands selling strawberries, cherries and apricots (and the obligatory bottles of schnapps). Ten minutes later we are in Rust itself and crossing a rush filled lagoon on a narrow strip of tarmac (immaculate) which brings us to the lakeside Freibad and the two marinas.
Entrance for two adults and two children is a respectable fourteen Euro. For this money we get to lay our towels in the grass under a tree, use of the two open-air pools and a chance to swim in the murky waters of lake Neusiedl. The facilities are not modern but not run-down. Neither posh nor naff. Without pretension but a certain amount of modesty. In short, it is that elusive mix somewhere between charming and inexpensive. And there is also a pool for the toddlers, a small playground, beach volleyball and a mini-golf course badly in need of investment, a coat of paint and some players.Comfortingly, there are no sun-loungers. Well, there are but you have to pay two Euros to rent one with a deposit of twenty. Which is eminently rational given my experiences with the covetous, oily fingers of the average Vienna pool goer. Of course, when the sun is beating with more ferocity than a Daesh finger on social media, shade is a premium. This means your cheerful confidence will soon evaporate as you witness the socio-politics of strategic shade acquisition from your fellow Austrian or Hungarian bather. Put it this way, if anyone sat that close to me on a British beach, I would I call social services.
But with the reeking conventions of life clouding your enjoyment of the outdoors, it is time to think about lunch. The Freibad has a “buffet” but we decide to head opposite to the marina restaurant – Katamaran. The place is jam-packed but we bag a table under a sun umbrella which I proceed to put up although know deep down there must be a reason why no one else has done so.
“It won’t work. It’s broken,” says a fellow patron.
“Okay,” I reply. (In flawless German.)
“Aber Sie können versuchen es am Gelander festzumachen,” (You can try to fix it to the railing) he continues.
And rightly so. There it is, flapping in the wind, a piece of thin rope ready for my nimble fingers. So I grab the chance to show off my nautical expertise and tie a knot which I am sure I had beaten into me at sea scouts. Satisfied with my handiwork and scrutinized from an expectant throng, I sit down with the kind of smug look on my face usually reserved for people who own yachts. Four seconds later, with the first gust of wind, the umbrella inverts itself bathing the table with piercing sunshine. We weigh anchor and move to another table under a huge “sun-sail” reassuring the flustered waiter that we promise not to overstay our welcome on the reserved table. He believes us.
We eat remarkably good food and pretend we are part of the east-Austrian jet-set. Sadly, through lack of chestnut coloured skin, deck shoes and an air of superiority governed by a sense of privilege earned since birth, we are unlikely challengers. So we pay up, take our leave and go in search a jolly looking man and an electrical boat.
Ten minutes later, with me at the helm trying to crush a mutiny amongst the crew (my children) as to who should skipper our vessel, we are at full sail and out into the lake. We pootle around the inner shores and have a peek at the lakeside houses built on wooden poles driven into the mud. The houses are only reachable by boat and I imagine myself sitting outside on the veranda of one as the sun sets. Sipping a beer, inhaling the silence and absence of motor traffic and the execrable Hund. A perfect way to conquer my soul, I muse, until my wife points out that the nightly mosquitoes would devour me.
My dreams shattered, we head back to terra firma steering a clear path through swimmers, ferry boats and kamikaze geese. Pleasingly, the kids seem incredibly proficient at driving a small motor boat although I am not sure going round in circles and lurching sharply from left to right like a drunk eel is in the skipper’s handbook. Safely back in harbour, we are piped off and return to our place under the tree only to find three more families have squeezed in between our towels and set up a camp with the usual Austrian elaboration.
Fortunately, six hours is my limit in the outdoors and with a now crowded pool behind us, we pack up our things and head home. Parking for the day is an incredible three Euro (in Vienna you pay that for one hour on average, a little bit less on the street, more in a multi-storey), re-cross the lagoon, passing a rather irate goose, and then pull up outside Gabriel in the high street.
Gabriel is probably the most famous and picturesque Heurige in Rust. This means it is very popular with a certain shiny looking German tourist dressed in white, and a reservation is essential. But we are not here to eat, make merry and grin inanely at other guests as another afternoon’s drinking takes its toll. We are destined for the wine cellar and what can only be described as a take out. Some red, some white, some grape juice for the children and a small case of the best tasting Frizzante ever consumed sober.
Buying directly from the winemaker might be considered bourgeois in some cultures (I am thinking of a certain culture back in Britain). But here in Austria it is no less weird than if you tell people you are going skiing or eating pig fat on “black bread”. Quite often you get wine which will never reach any shop let alone supermarket and given the competition between locals and the booming stature of Austrian wine, you know it will be top quality. In a sense you are acquiring something truly special and by buying a case (a bottle can vary in price from five – eight Euros) you can also pretend you are starting a wine collection. Although you secretly know you will finish it all before you add to it again.
Once, several years ago, we were in Rust and we sought out the famous wine maker Ernst Triebaumer. Normally when you buy wine you just turn up at the home / shop / cellar of the producer. Perhaps ring a little bell to announce you arrival, taste some wines (trying to look like you have any idea what you are doing) and then buy the most expensive so not to look to cheap. However, Ernst Triebaumer was “by appointment only” a status almost certainly earned by his international successes on the wine scene and his desire to avoid pasty Brits. For some reason we managed to overlook this and innocently rang his doorbell. While we waited, we had a look round his courtyard at his beautiful flowers and many plants and after what seemed like an inordinate age, even for the countryside, a man appeared looking slightly irritated.
“Grüß Gott,” Herr Triebaumer said, in a tone that suggested his daily siesta had been disturbed by a pale-faced Englander.
“We would like to buy some wine,” we whimpered.
“Yes. We drove all the way from Vienna. Especially.”
Fortunately, we were with my young son and mother-in-law (from Burgenland although grew up in Vienna) and she turned on the charm. And through a combination of good fortune, the right accent and the direction of the wind, Ernst took rather a shine to this couple and their family from the capital of intrusion and we were shown into his cellar, adjacent to the house and reachable by some stone steps.
From the surface you would never believe that such a caven could be so extensive and imposing (yes, yes, we have heard all the jokes about Fritzl). But it was in every sense quite exceptional. To stand in a dimly lit underground room sampling wine from then man that had nurtured and crafted some of the best red wines in Austria. The barrels were so big they reminded me of the stone boulder that chased Indiana Jones in the opening scene Raiders of the Lost Ark. And bottles everywhere. Like a catacomb of glass vessels. Cool, silent and in every sense intoxicating.
We tried several wines, cheap, middling and expensive. We were asked which we preferred. A little bit awed and conscious of the choice of Indy when selecting the holy chalice in The Last Crusade, we both professed a penitent partiality to the middle priced one. Ernst smiled. We had chosen wisely, it seemed.
Back in the present, we load up and tootle back to the mothership of Wien. But not before a quick stop for strawberries, freshly picked from the “Wiesen” (a mythical place in Burgenland). Pulling away we narrowly miss a perfect couple from Baden in their open-top, vintage Jaguar E-Type. The word I choose is unprintable. Which is just as well. The kids are fast asleep.
© RJ Barratt 2015