by Ron Bernthal
On warm summer nights in Austria’s eastern province of Burgenland, along the beautiful Neuseidler See (Lake Neusiedler), the music of Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) floats across the calm waters of the lake and into a starry sky. About a mile away the small guest houses, cafes and restaurants in the village of Mörbisch am See (population 2,350) are brightly lit, ready to welcome thousands of operetta fans who will arrive en masse after the evening concert.
For over 50 years Austrians and international visitors have been coming to Mörbisch to attend Die Seefestspiele Mörbisch, the Mörbisch Lake Festival, where they spend several days attending operetta concerts and exploring the region’s other summer attractions. Travelers sample the fine wine of Burgenland, especially the excellent, chilled Grüner Verliner whites, and the Blaufränkisch reds. Vineyards are planted outside of villages throughout the province, and visitors can easily explore the area by car or rented bicycle.
It is also common for tourists to bike or walk into Hungary, the neighboring country which Burgenland belonged to until the 1921 Conference of Versailles, which resulted in a complicated, but uncontested, land transfer. Along the bike trail to Hungary the official border is on the outskirts of Mörbisch. It is a rural and unmanned post, an aging Communist-era border sign welcomes visitors to Hungary.
The festival theater, which fills its 6,000 seats for every performance, overlooks Lake Neusiedler, which was created 13 million years ago by a receding glacier. The festival stage itself is actually constructed over shallow water, on the southwestern part of the lake just one mile from the center of Mörbisch. More than 200,000 visitors attend the festival every summer, booking rooms not only in Mörbisch, the closest village, but in guest houses and small hotels throughout Burgenland. Some visitors drive down from Vienna, about 40 minutes away by car via the A3 Autobahn.
“American audiences seem to be missing out on the great festival we have in Burgenland,” said Harald Sarafin, the festival’s artistic director. Mr. Sarafin, who turned 80 years old this year, is one of the most popular TV and music entertainers in Europe, and stars in several of the Mörbisch summer performances as well. “Most American tourists go to Vienna and Salzburg for sure, but not to Burgenland, even though it is so close to Vienna,” Sarafin said, as we met in his festival office before a performance of The Gypsy Baron. “They can come here in the morning, see the countryside, attend a wonderful operetta, have a good meal, and then be back in their hotel in Vienna for bedtime.”
Of course, by not staying in Burgenland’s guest houses or hotels visitors would miss out on the region’s well known hospitality. At Mörbisch’s Casa Peiso , owner Klaus Sommer offers three beautifully furnished, very affordable apartments, each with its own garden, in a refurbished 1890’s white-washed vintner house, in the middle of the village. In addition to the rustic, yet eclectic décor in the apartments, including a winding staircase leading to a cozy upper bedroom, Mr. Sommer and his family run dio – Weinkantine und Greisslerei, a gourmet food shop located in the building next door. Guests at Casa Peiso will enjoy talking with the owners about the region, borrowing a bicycle or two if they wish, and enjoying a gourmet lunch at one of the umbrella tables outside the shop. Ask for Mrs. Sommer’s homemade jam, her pumpkin seed puree, or the excellent wine and cheeses found only in the Mörbisch area.
“We have some great attractions in Burgenland,” said Peter Vargyas, the Burgermeister, or mayor, of Mörbisch. Only 35 years of age Vargyas was, until recently, the youngest mayor in Austria, and is trying to attract younger visitors to the area. “Our viniculture is well known in Europe, and the musical heritage here is truly amazing. Also, guests can experience Hungary very easily, as the Hungarian city of Sopron is very close to Mörbisch by good roads, or, for a younger person wanting a nice adventure, taking a bicycle along a marked trail that goes through the woods.”
Burgenland’s musical heritage goes back to the 18th century with the birth of Joseph Haydn in the village of Rohrau. Haydn became the house composer to the Hungarian noble family of Esterházy, who lived in a palace, Schloss Esterházy, in the town of Eisenstadt. Eisenstadt hosts theHaydn Festival every September, drawing classical music fans from around the world into this historic city.
Burgenland is also celebrating the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt, born in the town of Raiding in 1811. Raiding has only 836 residents, but the Franz Liszt Museum, as well as a modern, new concert hall next door, turn this small, pretty village into the center of classical music every year during its popular Liszt Festival.
On the other side of Neusiedler See, accessed by a convenient bicycle/passenger ferry from Mörbisch, is the village of Illmitz, where the Neusiedler See – Seewinkel National Park of Austria (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been designated a Unesco biosphere reserve. The 320 square kilometers of wetlands, including popular wild bird nesting areas, established in 1933, is unique among Austria’s national parks, since it is the only park that is not owned by the government of Austria, but by 1,200 local property owners, mostly part-time farmers or preservation organizations, who gave up their use of the land in exchange for its protection against development.
During my visit to Burgenland I was anxious to visit Gols, a town close to Illmitz, where Helmut and Herbert Bernthaler run the Bernthaler + Bernthaler Winery out of a small estate house in the village. I was hoping that perhaps the owners would be long-lost relatives of mine, but, alas, we only have a variation of our last name in common. However, after Helmut gave me a tour of the vineyards outside of town, where the Bernthaler family has been planting grapes on the hills of the east side of the Neusiedler See since the 1700’s, I was beginning to wish I really was part of this family.
The town of Gols is in one of Europe’s most fertile wine growing regions and, like most Austrian wine regions, the 100 wineries in Gols are small, family-owned businesses that share the land around them. The Bernthaler family maintains about 17 acres of white varietals, including Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as red varietals like Pinor Noir, Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, St. Laurent and Blauburger.
As a fragile, afternoon light bathed the vineyard in the sunshine of late summer, Helmut Bernthaler walked along a row of alte reben (old vines), the grapes ripening in the warm air, sounds of dried leaves and twigs crackling under his feet, as he talked about Burgenland and its long Austro-Hungarian heritage. “It is a shame that more Americans don’t visit this part of Austria,” he said, gazing across the lake as the sun dipped below the horizon, “we have so much to offer, with our food and wine, and of course the music from our famous composers.”
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