Eastern Connections – Burgenland: The Unknown Austria

While visiting Schloss Esterhazy (Esterhazy Palace) in Eisenstadt, Austria I spoke with an intelligent and energetic tour guide by the name of Pia. I asked her about tourism in this, the easternmost province of Austria known as Burgenland. The smile fell from her face as she gave a sigh of resignation. She said that the state authorities were working on getting more tourists to the area, but Vienna and the mountainous regions of the country dominated Austrian tourism. Anyone who has ever spent a fair amount of time in the splendid historic center of Vienna or in the Austrian Alps knows why these places are so popular. They have all the elements of popular travel: overwhelming charm, rich culture and spectacular natural beauty second to none.  How could the Burgenland, with its rolling hills and fertile fields, massive wind farms and tiny towns compete with the rest of Austria in the tourist trade?

Burgenland - eastern Austria

Burgenland – eastern Austria (Credit: Dave Knelsz)

A Land Apart – German West Hungary
The Burgenland is not going to be the first, second or third choice for very many tourists, but it certainly has much to recommend it. There is an understated, pastoral beauty to the countryside. A quaint refinement pervades the small towns scattered across the land. Vineyards that produce renowned wines cover many of the hillsides. A unique history much different from the rest of Austria adds an element of diversity. Burgenland is not a place for superficial tourism. There is no window shopping tourist attractions, no sparkling cities filled with haute couture fashion or world famous attractions. Instead it is for those who seek an acquired taste and subtle beauty. Burgenland is the remotest and least visited place in Austria, it also the least populated and smallest state. It is a land that borders more nations (Hungary, Slovenia & Slovakia) than fellow Austrian states (Styria & Lower Austria). A slender piece of territory much longer than wider, it stretches over 150 kilometers from north to south, but in some places is little more than 10 kilometers from east to west. There is nowhere else like it in Austria, a place where one can get left alone. In short, the Burgenland is a region apart from the rest of Austria. This separateness is informed by deep historical connections with its eastern neighbor Hungary.

The state known today as the Burgenland did not acquire that name or its current borders until the early 1920’s, when it became a constituent part of the newly formed Republic of Austria. Though Germans were the largest ethnic group for centuries on end, the region was actually part of Hungary for much of this time. It was usually referred to by the name Deutsch-Westungarn which means German West Hungary. Starting in the mid-11th century, the region was part of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. For the next several centuries it was the western border zone of the Kingdom. The Habsburgs first gained control of this land in the mid-14th century, but two hundred years later handed it back to the Hungarians. During this time, the Hungarian population (Magyars) mainly consisted of border guards protecting the Kingdom’s western flank. Waves of German settlement did little to wrest it from control of the dominant Hungarian aristocracy. The local nobility was led by the powerful House of Esterhazy, one of Europe’s most powerful noble families.

Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria

Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria (Credit: Zairon)

Between Austrians, Hungarians & Croatians –  Voting, Fighting & Peacemaking
The Esterhazy’s were strongly pro-Catholic. To their great advantage they were closely allied with the Habsburgs. Because of this, they were able to acquire massive landholdings throughout the region. The ruling influence in the region up through the early 20th century was Hungarian in ethnicity, making it atypical from the rest of Austria. It was never part of the Holy Roman Empire and when the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was created in 1867, it fell under the Hungarian ruled part of the monarchy know as Transleithania (east of the River Leitha). Interestingly enough, though Hungarians made up the ruling class, they were not the second largest ethnic group (behind Germans) in the region. They were outnumbered by Croatians who moved into the area during the mid-16th century after western Slavonia (part of present day eastern Croatia) was overrun by the Ottoman Turks. The most noticeable aspect of the Croatian presence left in Burgenland today are bilingual signs noting both the German and Croatian names of the villages.

Burgenland was handed to Austria in the chaotic years that followed the end of World War One. This was one of the more quixotic decisions of the Paris Peace Conference. Austria was the only nation that had been on the losing side in the war to gain territory afterwards. Burgenland was not given up without a fight by the Hungarians. Though they were outnumbered by ethnic Germans eight to one, a small, but fanatical band of Hungarian militiamen attempted an armed insurrection. Their efforts went for naught. Hungarian diplomats rather than armed men did a bit better. By agreeing to disband the militia, they were able to get a plebiscite vote held. Citizens of the city of Sopron, which had been the capital of the region and its only major city, voted in 1921 on whether they wanted to be part of Austria or Hungary.  Though at the time half the inhabitants were ethnically German, two-thirds voted in favor of staying in Hungary, thus Sopron (German: Odenburg) would not become part of Austria. A new capital for the new province of Burgenland had to be selected. Eisenstadt soon became the economic, political and cultural hub for the region as it still is today.

Haydnsaal at Schloss Esterhazy

Haydnsaal at Schloss Esterhazy

Schloss Esterhazy & The Haydnsaal – Burgenland’s Magnificence
Eisenstadt, is a reflection of Burgenland, neat and clean, with a bit of splendor represented most prominently by the Baroque luxury of the radiant Schloss Esterhazy glowing in the heart of the city. It was at the palace’s Haydnsaal concert hall that the famed composer Joseph Haydn performed some of his most famous works. It was also at the palace where he composed hundreds of musical pieces under the patronage of the Esterhazy’s. The palace acted as a preferred residence, especially in the winter, for the family. Today it is one of Burgenland’s most visited tourist attractions, but by no means the only one. The state of Burgenland offers up a largely forgotten Austria, likely to go unseen by most tourists. Perhaps that is the most compelling reason to visit.

 

A Family’s Home As Its Castle – Forchtenstein & The House Of Esterhazy In Burgenland

It is not hard to locate Forchtenstein Castle. All you have to do is travel to the tidy village of Mattersburg in the Austrian state of Burgenland. I found myself driving through the village, weaving my way through its cleanly swept, serpentine streets. Suddenly I looked up and amid the forested mountains, there was the castle soaring atop one of the foothills. It was set against a deep blue sky rising above the Rosaliengebirge Mountains. The stout, tiered defensive walls surrounding the castle were noticeable from several kilometers away, as were a couple of its towers shooting skyward. Forchtenstein was already impressive from a distance. I had read prior to my visit that the Ottoman Turks had never been able to take Forchtenstein. It was easy to see why.

Forchtenstein Castle

Forchtenstein Castle (Credit: Roman Klementschitz)

A Fortress & A Repository – The Duality Of Forchenstein
Forchtenstein Castle stands 867 feet (264 meters) above Mattersburg and the Wulkatel valley. Overcoming such a stout defensive position was beyond the military prowess of the Turks. Driving up from Mattersburg to the castle showed me why. The climb requires a car to go into the lowest gears to get up the steep, winding grade. It is hard to imagine how a medieval army could scale such heights with their weaponry and equipment intact. There would have been no paved road for use by the Ottoman forces, only a rough track filled with impediments and booby trapped by the Austrians. And if the Turks had taken Forchtenstein what would they have really gained, but a smoldering, dilapidated ruin that would have to be rebuilt and refortified. It never came to that. The cost of conquest was greater than any benefit. This was going through my head as I pulled into the parking lot just outside the castle walls.

Walking across the drawbridge and through the main castle gate I was immediately impressed by the size, scale and structural integrity of the castle. It was fairly obvious that Forchtenstein’s impregnable position had kept it safe from conquest since the first fortress was constructed on the site in the mid-15th century. Formidable and ominous were the two words that came immediately to mind. Here was a hilltop castle par excellence.  As I was soon to find out the last three hundred years at Forchtenstein had nothing to do with war and everything to do with one family. The House of Esterhazy dominated the castle’s history. In the process it also became a repository for preservation of the Esterhazy legacy. I witnessed this for myself while touring some – but certainly not all – of the castle’s impressive chambers.

Esterhazy Coat Of Arms from medieval times

Esterhazy Coat Of Arms from medieval times

A House For Esterhazy – The Family Wealth
The first owners of Castle Forchtenstein were the Counts of Mattersdorf, a name that sounds a bit frivolous, unlike the location they selected as home for a 50 meter high keep and an adjoining great tower, parts of which are still extant at the castle today. The Counts soon turned to calling themselves by the much more intimidating title, the Lords of Forchtenstein. Despite their seemingly invincible home, this line of Lords could not escape mortality, eventually dying out. Forchtenstein then fell into the hands of the Habsburgs who leased it out for a century and a half before Emperor Ferdinand II gave the partly ruined castle, along with the title of count, to Nikolaus Esterhazy in 1622. Soon thereafter, Esterhazy brought in Italian stonemasons to build up its defenses. Nikolaus’ son Paul continued the building process and began adding Baroque elements to its interior.

Following Paul’s death in the late 17th century and with the Ottoman Turks banished from the region forever, the castle became a princely residence used to store the many treasures acquired by the western line of the House of Esterhazy. To say that the family was wealthy would be an understatement. During several periods the Esterhazy’s wealth actually exceeded that of the Habsburgs, making them one of the richest noble families in Europe.  At Forchtenstein I saw for myself the remains of their considerable wealth in two areas of the castle. The Esterhazy Gallery of Ancestors is a Baroque portrait gallery of the family that also includes other treasured items of interest. I also visited the Weapons Collection display, filled with room after room of martial accoutrements from the Baroque and Early Modern periods of European military affairs.

Aerial view of Forchtenstein Castle

Aerial view of Forchtenstein Castle (Credit: Privatpilot)

The Castle Of Fear – Faces & Phases Of Forchenstein
It is hard to describe just how many treasured works of art were on display in these exhibits. The amount and variety was astonishing. The exhibits included a family tree that was a stretch of ancestral imagination, a visual representation of the Esterhazy mania for genealogy. The connection with distant forebears was made explicit. Such notorious historical figures as Attila the Hun were portrayed in all their glory. Such a potential ancestor seemed patently absurd, but the intended meaning was clear, the Esterhazy’s had sprung from the roots of ancestral greatness. The most interesting painting for me had nothing to with an Esterhazy or their supposed forebears. Instead it was of all people, Vlad the Impaler. The Esterhazy’s had acquired the only painting ever to portray Vlad from head to toe. All other paintings showed only his upper body. The sheer novelty of the painting left me staring at it for quite some time. It also served to remind me of the sheer brutality of medieval life and warfare. That could easily be forgotten among all the Baroque treasures housed in Forchtenstein, but the castle’s notorious black tower (now white) at its center was a frightening reminder of what once went on at the castle.

Painting of Vlad the Impaler at Forchtenstein Castle

The only full body painting of Vlad the Impaler can be seen at Forchtenstein Castle

Forchtenstein had once been named the “castle of fear.” This was because those imprisoned in the castle would often be subjected to acts of sadism in one of the castle’s multiple torture chambers. One of the worst tortures involved being starved of food and water while strung upside down over the aptly named “Pit of Oblivion.” This would occur until death ensued. The Forchtenstein that exists today seems far removed from this world. The elegance and history on display is a paean to the House of Esterhazy, but one would do well to remember that the family first gained its wealth and acclaim as well as Forchtenstein Castle from their martial exploits.

 

 

Flights Of Freedom – The Bridge At Andau: Birdwatching & The Old Iron Curtain

The average person who lives to be 70 years old will take about 195 million steps in their lifetime, the equivalent of walking 99,000 miles. Some steps are much more important than others. A few steps can be the difference from a person living a life of freedom as opposed to one under tyranny. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the autumn of 1956 when historic steps were taken by Hungarian refugees to cross a small footbridge into Austria. What is known as the Bridge at Andau (German: Brücke von Andau Hungarian: Andaui-hid) was a bridge to freedom. Thousands fleeing oppression in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule used the bridge to escape westward. Rarely has such a small, remote place taken on such critical importance, acting as a passage from east to west for 70,000 people on the road to freedom. I traveled to the Austria-Hungary border this fall to visit the rebuilt bridge and try to grasp its historic significance. The bridge was not what I thought it was going to be.

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

Judging A Bridge By A Cover – Fleeing To The Free World
My iconic image of the Bridge at Andau comes from a painting on the cover of the paperback edition of James Michener’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name.  It shows a sturdy bridge with multiple buttresses crossing a modest waterway. The first time I saw the book’s cover I thought the bridge must be in Spain, for some reason Andau sounded exotic and like Spanish to me. I thought the book was probably some type of historical romance. The bridge looked like the kind of place lovers might stroll across. It is said not to judge a book by its cover. I might add that one should not judge a bridge by an artistic rendition. The actual bridge looked nothing like the one portrayed on the book’s cover.  Likewise, the title is misleading. There is no bridge at Andau. I discovered this after driving into the village under a beautiful blue sky interspersed with scattered, floating clouds. Andau is the village nearest to the bridge. To access the bridge from Andau requires a drive of another nine kilometers down a narrow, paved road.

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

The road had twice as many cyclists as cars traveling on it. Beside the road, ninety sculptures made out of wood and iron acted as startling counterpoints to the serene natural environment of the area.  One of these involved two wooden sentry boxes standing on either side of the road, each of them housing a bare chested, emaciated man dressed only in shorts. Another was of a naked old man carved out of wood. His hands placed over his midsection, with his face contorted in an excessively sorrowful expression. These sculptures go on and on and on, interspersed every hundred meters or so. The combined effect was of a sort of open air museum of human suffering. During the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956, this route was known as the Road of Hope. Because of the sculptures it has been given an added name, the Road of Woes, a stark reminder of the human toll that was paid by everyone fleeing to the free world.

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

Bridging A Historic Divide – Opening Borders
The sculptures were eerie companions that haunted every kilometer of the drive from Andau to the bridge. At times I wondered whether I was on the correct road or not. Finally a guard tower appeared in the near distance and then another, surely the bridge must be nearby. There was a small parking area adjacent to a very stout and well-built wooden bridge. It looked nothing like the scene portrayed on the cover of Michener’s book. From what I have been able to find through research, the present bridge looks nothing like the historic bridge, which was rickety and ramshackle. The current bridge was built to last, not for historical accuracy. I have been able to find only one photo of the original bridge from 1945, when much of it was in pieces at the end of the Second World War. The lack of pictures is not surprising. People running for their lives were not stopping to take pictures in 1956.

The bridge was there for one reason, to get over the narrow Einser Canal, a waterway that was not especially deep or swift, but a barrier that must be crossed. I walked across the bridge into Hungary and back across in a couple of minutes. It was that simple now to cross the border. 21st century Europe’s relatively open borders were the counter-reaction to a 20th century Europe where nations, regions and ideologies were closed off or compartmentalized from one another. The present ease of crossing borders was an historical anomaly. Just over a decade ago there was the usual border control. A political as well as a physical divide has been bridged. Unlike by the end of November 1956 when there was no bridge left here. The Soviets blew it to bits. The border was then closed until 1989. This serene natural area had once been a closely guarded segment of the Iron Curtain.

The Einser Canal - along the Austria-Hungary border

The Einser Canal – along the Austria-Hungary border

Natural Instincts – From Birder’s Paradise To A Human Yearning
Impregnable and dangerous for decades, the bridge was now nothing more than a small historic site, something of an afterthought, to the area’s main claim to fame as part of the cross border Neusiedler See-Seewinkel (Austria) – Ferto-Hansag National Park (Hungary), most notable for its wetlands and birds. An ornithologist from Scotland was on the bridge keenly watching with binoculars for some strange species of birdlife to suddenly appear. While telling me about the bridge’s Cold War history – including a mention of Michener’s book – he would suddenly spy a bird in the distance, shout the species name and study its flight path with prolonged interest. How ironic that just thirty years before men in guard towers were sitting with binoculars waiting to catch a person trying to cross this border. Now a birding enthusiast stood on the rebuilt bridge waiting for the next birds to take flight, a purely natural instinct, not unlike the instinct for freedom that drove so many Hungarians to cross the Bridge At Andau in 1956.