Austria Day 10: Castles and chocolates pair nicely

Unfortunately, as with so many of our stays in Austria, we only had one full day in the Ciringa / Südsteiermark region, so we had to make the best of it by seeing some of the cool attractions. We drove about 45 minutes or so away to the town of Riegersburg to visit their castle. If you walk up the hill to the top (instead of taking the funicular) and forego the castle museums, there are no fees involved. However, we opted to take the lift for €6 and to see all three museums for €13. The lift was rickety and a bit frightening, but we made it! The castle was really a neat experience, and the museums (one about the castle itself, one about witches, and one about medieval arms) were informative, but they were primarily in German. The English pamphlets only gave basic overviews of each room, so I feel like we missed out on a lot of the fascinating details. Though the castle experience was fun, I think it was a bit overpriced.

Südsteiermark - Riegersburg Castle entrance
Südsteiermark – Riegersburg Castle entrance

One of the most interesting aspects of the castle was the various ornate stoves in some of the rooms. I often forget that there was no such thing as central heating and cooling during these times, so it was certainly a must to have some form of heating throughout the castle during the winter months. These stoves likely provided ample heat for taking the chill out of the air, and at Riegersburg, they likely served as discussion pieces given their elaborate and intricate designs.

Südsteiermark - lovely tile stove inside Riegersburg Castle
Südsteiermark – lovely tile stove inside Riegersburg Castle

After going through the three museums, we spent a little time looking around the outside of the castle. The views of the surrounding areas were really beautiful and pastoral. Once finished with Riegersburg, we drove a little bit down the road to Zotter Schokoladen (a chocolate manufacturer) for a tour of their facility. It started with a really great video that outlined the chocolate making process beginning with harvesting the cacao pods. We then went through the factory with an English audio guide that explained every step of the process in a lot more detail.

Südsteiermark - one of many chocolate machines at Zotter Schokoladen
Südsteiermark – one of many chocolate machines at Zotter Schokoladen

During each stage of the chocolate production, we were able to taste the “chocolate”. I use the word “chocolate” loosely because at many of the stages in the process, it didn’t taste much like the chocolate that we’re all used to. We did, however, get the opportunity to taste a bunch of their finished products. Some were good, some were great, and a few were absolutely fantastic! Deb ended up getting this solid 72% Milk chocolate bar sourced from Peru, some white chocolate bark with pistachios and almonds, and we each bought one of the tasting spoons that we used throughout the tour. I didn’t buy anything because the one that I loved the most wasn’t available for purchase. It was called the White Goddess and was white chocolate with Tonka Beans and honey crisps. It looks like it’s available online, so I may consider it at some point. The other ones that I enjoyed were the coconut nougat and the white chocolate bar with coconut and raspberries. One aspect of Zotter that I really found fascinating was the number of vegan options that they had available.

Südsteiermark - some of the vegan offerings at Zotter Schokoladen
Südsteiermark – some of the vegan offerings at Zotter Schokoladen

At the tail end of the Zotter tour, there was a really great experience where they had large glass jars with various items that have rather distinct aromas (like rose petals, some baking spices such as cloves, and so on). The object of this particular hallway was to smell the contents of each jar and see if you could name the aroma without looking at the answer printed on the underside of the lid. Deb and I made it into a bit of a game by loosely keeping score, and I found it to be a lot of fun because many of the aromas that can be found in chocolate can also be found in red wines. As a side note, there was a really fun “chocolate bath” at the exit of the tour. Sadly, it was only for show, but I can imagine that chocoholics everywhere would swoon at the thought. 😛

Südsteiermark - the chocolate bathtub at Zotter Schokoladen
Südsteiermark – the chocolate bathtub at Zotter Schokoladen

The other portion of the Zotter tour is a farm / petting zoo, but darn the bad luck, it started raining so we didn’t get a chance to go through it. After Zotter, we went back to the same restaurant that we ate at the previous night (Kirchenwirt an der Weinstraße in Ehrenhausen) because we enjoyed it so much! We didn’t have the same waiter this time, and our waitress tonight spoke VERY little English. It made it more difficult to order, but everything came out like we wanted. We each started with the mushroom tartare (which was my favourite), and then Deb went with Wiener Schnitzel and I had a custom order similar to what she had the evening before. I ordered the Pork Medallions, but without the pork. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but I wanted the dish with just a boatload of trumpet mushrooms and some extra German pretzel dumplings. I ordered by using Google Translate on my mobile, and my custom dish came out just as I had intended. Success!

Südsteiermark - Ehrenhausen - Kirchenwirt an der Weinstraße - Mushroom tartare starter
Südsteiermark – Ehrenhausen – Kirchenwirt an der Weinstraße – Mushroom tartare starter

Südsteiermark - Ehrenhausen - Kirchenwirt an der Weinstraße - Trumpet mushrooms and pretzel dumplings
Südsteiermark – Ehrenhausen – Kirchenwirt an der Weinstraße – Trumpet mushrooms and pretzel dumplings

Back at the beautiful chalet, we enjoyed our wines of the evening. This time we went with two of the special, limited production wines from Weingut Tement. We wanted to compare two of their higher-end Sauvignon Blancs, so we had a bottle of the 2012 Zieregg “IZ” Reserve and a bottle of the 2015 Zieregg Vinothek Reserve. I thought that Deb would like the Vinothek and that I would like the “IZ” (which is made via a process similar to carbonic maceration [often used in Beaujolais]), but I had it completely backwards. I preferred the Vinothek and Deb liked the “IZ” more. I found the Vinothek to be a more pure expression of the grape and the place, which are two aspects that I highly value in wine.

Austria Day 9: Maribor Slovenia’s Oldest Vine Harvest and Weingut Tement

Today we woke up extra early (before the sun had even peaked over the mountain crest) to depart Hallstatt for Maribor, Slovenia. The reason for getting up before the rooster’s crow is that it’s a special day in Maribor—the annual Harvest Festival of the oldest grape vine in the world. We started out for the ~3-hour drive, but met a problem right off the bat in that the road leaving Obertraun toward Graz was closed due to an avalanche. Yes, an avalanche… let’s not forget that we’re in the Austrian Alps at the end of autumn. I had to figure out an alternative route, but fortunately we still made it to Maribor in time. Actually, right as we arrived in the city centre, we pulled in behind the pre-festival wagon complete with an accordion player! We parked the car, and saw the event from a fairly nice perspective on the side line.

Maribor - Harvest Festival - Pre-show celebration
Maribor – Harvest Festival – Pre-show celebration

Being an absolute wine fanatic, and one with a strong interest in viticulture and oenology, I geeked out a little bit at the Harvest Festival because it is the oldest fruit-bearing grapevine on the planet! Not only that, but we just happened to be heading to southeastern Austria on the same day; a perfect coincidence. The festival started with members of the Slovenian Wine Council (formally known as the PSVVS [the Business Association for Viticulture and Wine Production]) speaking to the quality of the country’s various wine regions. It was wonderful to see them take such pride in their indigenous grapes and wines!

Maribor - Harvest Festival - Slovenian Wine Council
Maribor – Harvest Festival – Slovenian Wine Council

After the speakers (including diplomats and industry representatives from foreign nations) discussed the impact of Slovenian wines on the global marketplace, the festivities continued with live music, dancers wearing traditional garb, and importantly, the ceremonial first cutting of the grapes. We didn’t stay too much after the first cutting as most of the activities were in Slovenian and likely lost in translation, but I’m glad that we were there to see it firsthand; it was very likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Maribor - Harvest Festival - first cutting of the grapes
Maribor – Harvest Festival – first cutting of the grapes

After the Harvest Festival, we went to Mestni Park (meaning “City Park”) so that we could climb to the top of Piramida Hill. It’s a high ground and, though not anything like the mountains we just saw in Hallstatt, it has quite a steep grade. The top of Piramida is considered one of the best views of the city. It was a fun hike, and the views certainly were impressive, so I’m glad that we took the time to do it. However, since there was a minimum of €15 for the Vignette pass (for driving on Slovenian motorways), it seemed a bit expensive just for the few hours of the festival and the park. Nevertheless, it was a good experience.

View of Maribor from atop Piramida at Mestni Park
View of Maribor from atop Piramida at Mestni Park

As it was mid-afternoon, we then got back in the car and drove up to the Slovenian-Austrian border for our stay at Weingut Tement. Tement offers a few different accommodation options, and we actually stayed on the only part of their property that is technically in Slovenia (the Winzarei Ciringa chalets) instead of on the Austrian side of the border. We had a lovely reception where we were able to taste some of their wines, and then saw our gorgeous chalet.

Südsteiermark - Weingut Tement's Chalet Ciringa - Living room
Südsteiermark – Weingut Tement’s Chalet Ciringa – Living room

There was a sizeable bedroom, full kitchen, extremely luxurious bathroom, and a lovely little breakfast nook before walking out the door to the patio. From our patio, we could readily see some of Tement’s vineyards, and even though they weren’t their esteemed Grosse Lage STK Zieregg vineyards, they were beautiful nonetheless.

Südsteiermark - Weingut Tement's Chalet Ciringa - our breakfast nook
Südsteiermark – Weingut Tement’s Chalet Ciringa – our breakfast nook

Südsteiermark - Weingut Tement's Chalet Ciringa - beautiful view from the patio
Südsteiermark – Weingut Tement’s Chalet Ciringa – fantastic vineyard view from the patio

We spent a little time just walking the Zieregg Vineyard (adjacent to the winery itself), and then headed to Ehrenhausen for dinner at Die Weinbank, which is directly affiliated with Weingut Tement. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it was closed despite the confirmation of our reservations. I looked on my mobile and found that there was one other restaurant named Kirchenwirt an der Weinstraße a mere block away from our car park, so we went there instead. We were expecting pub food, but boy were we wrong! It was elevated and outstanding, and our waiter was extremely accommodating by reading the entire menu to us in English. Deb and I shared some pumpkin soup, a salad with pumpkin, and mushroom tartare. She then ordered pork cutlets with trumpet mushrooms, and I went with pesto linguine with vegetables and, yup, more pumpkin. We ordered a couple pieces of house-made apple strudel to take away with us for later.

Back at our chalet, we enjoyed our wines of the evening. We each had the current vintage (2016) of Weingut Tement Zieregg Morillon (which is the local name for Chardonnay). It was a lovely mix of styles (not heavily oaky like many California Chards, but not as sharply crisp as Chablis either) and exhibited a character all of their own. The apple strudel was interesting, but I personally found it to be a bit like apple sauce inside instead of a strudel filling. It might have been better at the restaurant where it would be served warm and with vanilla ice cream, but neither of us like to have sweets before wine.

Austria Day 8: Leisurely Hallstatt photography and Bad Ischl

Today when I woke up and went downstairs for coffee in the breakfast nook, I noticed that it was completely overcast and foggy outside. I thought to myself “what a bummer,” because today was the day we had planned on going into Hallstatt to meander and take the infamous photo of the town from the north side of it (which includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church). Luckily, though, the sun started to peak out right around noon, and it stayed out for the remainder of the day. Crisis avoided!

View of Hallstatt including the Lutheran church
Infamous view of Hallstatt including the Lutheran church

We made our way into Hallstatt and parked in the P2 car park. The lots are generally always on the full side, and we had to wait to get in for a little bit. There are tokens that you take when you enter and you return them to a vending machine when you leave. The machine keeps track of the tokens that are in use, and can therefore determine the number of available spots in the lot. The gate simply won’t open when the lot is full. We only waited for about 10 minutes though, and were then able to park the car.

We spent much of the afternoon just walking around town (which is essentially a heavily congested tourist trap) and taking photos. Not only did we get THE photo of Hallstatt (above), but we also walked to the southern side of town and found this cute little park. From there, the views were arguably better, and there were significantly fewer people around. It was also a good place for getting a photo of this magnificent house on the eastern shore of Lake Hallstatt.

Hallstatt - mansion to the east of the lake
Hallstatt – mansion to the east of the lake

We spent some time walking up and down the little side streets and alleyways in the southern portion of the town, which seemed to be more residential and quiet. Though it was fun to see all the shops in the centre, this area was quite relaxing and tranquil. Best of all, there were some great opportunities for photos that could more accurately capture the quaint feel of the area juxtaposed with the grandeur of the surrounding mountains.

Hallstatt view from the southern portion of town
Hallstatt view from the southern portion of town

After the photo sessions, we drove up to Bad Ischl and walked around that town as well. I actually preferred it to Hallstatt by a long shot because it wasn’t as crowded and also had some lovely architecture. We stopped in at Zauner, which is a bakery and cake shop. We picked up a slice of their signature Sissy cake as well as this strange looking pastry ball, which turned out to be filled with chocolate marzipan. We bought them so that we could have dessert back in our room later that night.

Hallstatt / Bad Ischl - Zauner bakery's Sissy cake and Marzipan ball
Hallstatt / Bad Ischl – Zauner bakery’s Sissy cake and Marzipan ball

We then walked just a few blocks to dinner at Weinhaus Attwenger. Larry (the owner of Haus Hepi) recommended the place after finding out more of the type of ambience and food that we prefer. I must say that if we had known about this restaurant when we first arrived, we probably would have dined there all three nights! The food was absolutely outstanding! We started by sharing a salad with pears, seeds, and roasted walnuts along with some cream cheese filled gnocchi and sautéed vegetables.

Hallstatt / Bad Ischl - Weinhaus Attwenger - Walnut salad starter
Hallstatt / Bad Ischl – Weinhaus Attwenger – Walnut salad starter

For our mains, I got a combination of Char and Trout over a bed of vegetables in a yellow curry sauce, and Deb went with a salmon filet and shrimp (still in the shell) over a bed of tagliatelle pasta in lobster sauce. Both dishes were outstanding because the sauces were light and didn’t overpower the fish. With as lovely as the mains were, I think that the salad stole the show for both of us.

Hallstatt / Bad Ischl - Weinhaus Attwenger - Salmon fillet
Hallstatt / Bad Ischl – Weinhaus Attwenger – Salmon fillet

After dinner, we ventured over to the other location of Zauner (the one that is a restaurant and open later into the night), because they offer a dessert that I’ve wanted to try since we’ve been here: Kaiserschmarrn. Austrian Chef Wolfgang Puck, during an interview on the television show The Best Thing I Ever Ate, said that it’s one of his favourite foods. It’s basically shredded strips of pancakes that are lightly charred and crunchy on the outside, served with powdered sugar and stewed plums. It was delightful, but I think that I still preferred the salad from dinner. 🙂

We started on the ~25km drive southeast back to our room in Obertraun, and I had hoped to put fuel in the car before our early morning. However, the petrol station was closed. Oh well, there is always time in the morning. We enjoyed our takeaway desserts from Zauner, and of course, our wines of the evening. I went with the 2016 Domäne Wachau Pinot Noir, and Deb had the 2017 Domäne Wachau Federspiel Grüner Veltliner Terrassen. For me, this was the most ethereal and best of the Pinots that I’ve had on the trip… by far! Honestly, I had anticipated that the Schloss Gobelsburg Pinot Noir would be the game-changer for me, and though it was wonderful, this one from Domäne Wachau was able to compete with the featherweight elegance and precision of some of the great producers in Chambolle-Musigny!