Hiking Through The Vineyards Of Southwestern Styria

On a beautiful warm summer day and after a nice filling breakfast we got going early yesterday to embark on our Sunday excursion to the south-western part of Styria. I wasn’t particularly well-rested after a full day yesterday that included a hike, a local driving tour and a birthday party, but I was keen to explore the area west of Leibnitz, Styria’s foremost winegrowing region together with my brother Ewald, his wife Anneliese and our friends Luis and Isabella.

Distances in Europe are always on a different scale than in North America. Southwestern Styria is only about one hour from my home town of Weiz and nevertheless it is considered a different geographic region from my home area of East Styria. Southwestern Styria enjoys a favourable climate with Mediterranean influences and the temperatures are on average higher than those in the surrounding regions. The area is particularly well-known for its rolling hills, many of which are used as vineyards for growing mostly white, but also some red wines of the Zweigelt or Blauburgunder variety. The most well-known wine of this area is called “Schilcher”, a rose-coloured wine, whose special designation can only be applied to wines that were grown in this particular area and made from a type of grape called the ”Blaue Wildbacher”.

We stopped our vehicle on a parking lot just steps away from the “Weinbauschule Silberberg” (the Silberberg School of Viticulture). This particular schools features a 1.5 km long wine educational trail that provides informational background about the history of wine, about details related to wine-growing as well as a collection of old wine farming implements and tools. A 5 m high statue of St. Urban, the patron saint of the vintners, stands at the beginning of the wine educational trail, and further up the hill there is an oversized metal sculpture of an insect called the wine pest that was brought in from France in the 1800s and almost completely deciminated Styrian wine cultivation.

We slowly hiked up on pathways along the vineyards and had a beautiful view south, and westwards towards the mountain chain separating the Austrian provinces of Styria and Carinthia. Schloss Seggau (Seggau Castle), dating back to the 12th century, was clearly visible nearby, a structure that was once used to defend Austria’s border against invading Turks and Hungarians, but today has found new use as a hotel and conference centre.

Once we reached the top of the hill we climbed up the “Kreuzkogelwarte”, a lookout tower at an elevation of 496 m that provided a continuous 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. North of us was the provincial capital of Graz with a backdrop of the mountains of Northern Styria, south of us Slovenia, and west of us the Austrian province of Carinthia.

My brother pointed out a particular hill that also featured a vineyard and was apparently the property of famous Austrian tennis player Thomas Muster, who hails from the nearby district capital of Leibnitz. Thomas Muster, a former number 1 player, was one of the most gifted clay court players in the history of tennis and achieved 44 ATP tour titles throughout his career during the 1990s. Today Thomas Muster heads up his own fashion label called TOMS, runs a vineyard, has gotten involved in the production of high-quality Alpine spring water called TOMS Water, and not surprisingly, developed a tennis racquet called TOMS Machine in collaboration with the Kneissl company, released in 2005. A great tennis career can open many doors…

We continued our hike of the surrounding hills and walked by a so-called “Buschenschank”, a rustic local restaurant owned by a vintner who is able to sell his own wine as well as a variety of self-produced culinary products. This is a typical Austrian gastronomic establishment that was originally limited to selling only this-year’s wine and had strict limitations as to what type of foods they could serve. Today, many vintner’s obtain a full restaurant license in order to sell regular hot foods as well.

After an enjoyable hike along the ridge of a vineyards we started our descent into the valley and spent about 45 minutes walking down a forest road and then headed into a cool forest that took us back to our vehicle. A fifteen minute drive later we arrived at our lunch destination: “Buschenschank Koschak” is a popular local destination for good wines and excellent local Styrian food. We had reserved a table and sat outside under trellises covered with grapes and vine tendrils.

It was seriously time for a traditional Styrian meal: I started with a “Fritattensuppe” (a clear beef broth that features thinly cut pancake strips), my favourite Austrian soup. Then all five of us shared a big platter of Austrian Fried Chicken as well as a Rosemary Chicken with Rice. Austrian fried chicken is very crispy and less greasy than North American varieties and is a staple of traditional Austrian Sunday lunches. Traditionally, the largest meal is eaten at lunch time in Austria, although modern work routines have changes the traditional rhythms of food preparation and consumption as well.

The obligatory side dish is a mixed salad containing lettuce, tomatoes, beans and other varieties of vegetables, marinated with vinegar and pumpkin seed oil. Pumpkin seed oil is a popular Styrian speciality, a specialty oil made from the roasted seeds of pumpkins. Styrian pumpkins are unique: the seeds have lost their wooden shell due to a mutation about 100 years ago and only a tiny silver-coloured membrane protects the seed. This soft consistency of the seeds facilitates efficient pressing of the oil. The final product is a thick, dark green oil that has a nutty flavour and is used primarily as a salad oil, but also to refine soups and other dishes. You can even get a “pumpkin seed parfait” as a dessert, which is exactly what my brother ordered after we were finished.

Incidentally, pumpkin seed oil is the only Styrian delicacy that I buy in Austria to bring back to Toronto, or I might request someone traveling from Austria to bring me a bottle. As a passionate salad eater, Austrian pumpkin seed oil is my favourite salad dressing, bar none. And just recently I found a German delicatessen store that apparently carries Styrian pumpkin seed oil right here in Toronto. So thanks to Toronto’s multicultural culinary landscape I might actually be able to get my favourite Austrian delicacy right here without having to beg an Austrian visitor to bring me a bottle.

After a great meal I got really tired, especially considering the fact that I only had a few hours of sleep last night. I slept all the way home in the car and once we got back to my brother’s house, I crashed for a few hours. I woke up at about 7 pm, and just before having a light dinner, I hopped on Anneliese’s bicycle and went cycling for an hour throughout my home town.

Sunday night Austrian towns are traditionally very quiet since everyone is getting ready to go to work the next day, so the roads were nice and peaceful. When I came back my brother and sister-in-law were ready to go to bed so I turned in early to rest up for today. Well, unfortunately the weather today did not cooperate as planned and the entire morning was grey and drizzly. At noon time I visited my friends Andrea and Herbert, whose daughter Nina had stayed with my husband and me last year to as part of her Canadian stint to work as a nanny.

Andrea is the older sister of one of my best friends from school, and I had not seen her for at least 23 years. It was great to see her again, we had already chatted numerous times for free using www.skype.com, and I knew she had the same love for languages, travel and cosmopolitan thinking as me. She graciously invited me to join her family for lunch and I was listening intently to Andrea’s and Herbert’s travel stories from Rumania. Just in the last few weeks they had spent some time in Bucharest and in Transsylvania and learned much about Rumania’s interesting history as well as about the tyrannical Ceauscescu regime. We all agreed that we view traveling much differently as we get older, that today we really see travel as an opportunity to learn and to understand the world and its historic and environmental contexts.

We decided that we would jointly visit another local tourism attraction tomorrow: the “Katerloch”, a famous local limestone cave that is a popular regional tourist destination.

After a little walk in town I met my friends Luis and Isabella and their friend Wolfgang to play a couple of hours of tennis in an indoor tennis facility. The tennis club also features a bistro where we enjoyed a couple of pizzas afterwards and a beer. I thought to myself “these Austrians know how to live”. None of the Canadian tennis clubs that I have been at feature a bistro or any kind of gastronomic establishment. So I realized these Austrians have their priorities straight: you can work out and burn calories, but you have to cap it off with a nice tasty meal and a local beer because “Gemütlichkeit” (loosely translated as warm cordiality in a cozy environment) is an important factor here.

After about an hour I thanked my friends for a great tennis match and a cozy evening and headed back to my brother’s house to reconnect with him and to rest up for another eventful day tomorrow.