Austria – day 4 – 10th Sept (Melk – first Heuriger – indecision – Krems)

Tuesday didn’t start brilliantly due to frictions within team Tim-Leo as to what we wanted out of the holiday that morning!  We eventually wandered up to Melk Abbey which really is a spectacular building with lovely grounds – potentially very soul-restorative.  We’d already had the very majestic sight of the huge welcoming golden orange edifice rising up above the town as we’d cycled along the Danube towards Melk the afternoon before and equally enjoyed it lit up and watching over the square the previous night.  The actual museum aspect of it left something to be desired with relatively little information about the abbey but just wandering through and absorbing the abbey quarters, the actual church (pinks and golds seem to dominate Lower Austrian churches) and the grounds merited the visit in any case.

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Then, after a little local Melk shopping including a delicatessen and the odd gift shop, we headed off back to the north bank now passing through the Wachau vineyards with me occasionally sampling the odd tasty plum off various roadside trees.

We spontaneously stopped just outside of Spitz at a little local Heuriger.  Heurigen are local pubs which sell this year’s new wine and at very reasonable prices too.  We also enjoyed a plentiful array of cheese and bread while there overlooking the luscious grape-filled valley.  While there, a large piece of mystery fruit fell on me rather violently from a tree!  But it sparked rather a nice chat with a local family who picked it up, pulled off the seemingly rotten flesh to reveal a large walnut underneath.  I’m not normally a big fan of walnuts I must say but the fresh article turned out to be completely different – moist and tasty.

Heuriger hiatus

Heuriger hiatus

After the Heuriger, both a little tired and as we were already too late for the wine museum at our next stop, we then decided to call it a short day, stop at Spitz and enjoy a lazy evening and the following day, meander gently through the Wachau, sampling local wines, as far as Krems and then make our last day a mega-cycle (around 85km) back to Vienna.

We saw a fair few of these!

We saw a fair few of these!

What’s the saying about life being what happens when you make other plans?!  Spitz essentially turned out not to be all that so we opted to continue on and ended up going all the way to Krems that evening, the advantage we thought being that we could stay there two nights, unpack and do our wine meandering with a lighter load.  Also not to be.  The best decent value hotel we could find turned out to be the very edge of town (the other side) and booked up the second night in any case (and the town itself wasn’t anything on the smaller characterful villages).  However, a deluge of rain suddenly hit and we were just glad to have somewhere to collapse.

The journey had meant we’d passed through the Wachau at least and had a good idea of how we’d like to position ourselves the next day as we went back through it.  And the rain did ease up so we ventured out and found a lovely traditional gastropub where we enjoyed two different Grüner Veltliners (one of the most prevalent local wines) and, what do you know, bumped into two chaps we’d met that morning in the Melk delicatessen when Tim had rescued their dropped bike keys!  Then to one more hostelry for goulash, sausage and more wine before much needed bed.

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Austria – day 3 – 9th Sept (Ardagger Markt – Grein – Ybbs – Melk)

Having booked our Vienna hotels and our first cycling hotel, we decided to play the rest of the cycling trip a little by ear but the idea was to get to spend a decent amount of time in the Wachau wine region and before that, plan each day the night just before setting off/en route.

Monday was a rather grey day which constantly threatened rain.  After breakfast, I went for a breather in Ardagger Markt town square and immediately bumped into our new Swedish friends Peo and Lotte – they’d already caught up our 10km from the previous night (I did notice that we seemed to be rather late risers compared to other cyclists in hotels we stayed at!)  Only the night before I’d said to Tim that we would probably bump into people several times doing the same sort of route.  It was lovely to see them again and we caught up on our respective plans (Tim by then had joined us).

Then Tim and I explored the picturesque village a little more before setting off towards Grein (back on the north bank of the Danube).  There we visited the oldest town theatre in Lower Austria.  Still in use to this day, it had some pleasing oddities including a toilet separated from the audience only by a curtain (you could carry on watching the play while you were in there!) and front row seats with keyholes – the seats were essentially locked and you paid your subscription and in return were given the key to ‘your’ seat.  There were also a lot of interesting personal artefacts from years past in the small museum (see photos).

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Then after a short exploration of the church just next to the town square and a mini-picnic, we caught the shuttle ferry back to the south bank (rather than double back on ourselves to the bridge).

A healthy... portion of currywurst and chips

A healthy… portion of currywurst and chips

The next bit of cycling somehow seemed rather more endless than so far (tired limbs?) although it was lightened by the amusement of seeing yet more familiar faces – we overtook two walkers who had asked to borrow my cycle guide in the Wallsee pub the night before!  On the outskirts of Ybbs we stopped for a ‘currywurst’ (frankfurters covered in ketchup and curry powder – actually much more delicious than it sounds!) and chips.

Beautiful St Loirenz in Ybbs

Beautiful St Loirenz in Ybbs

And then on to Ybbs itself where we somehow managed to bypass the historic town centre and end up amid a swathe of industrial supermarkets.  Until then, Tim had expressed an opinion that possibly all Austrian villages were as beautiful and picturesque as each other!  Once in the old town, we located the beautiful church (St Lorenz) and cycling museum we’d been interested in visiting.

The latter really did managed to cover the history of the bike quite simply and clearly and had real bikes on display going right back to the hobbyhorse.  There were a couple you could sit on including one with an incredibly high front wheel.  (Before bike chains, the pedals were attached directly to the front wheel and the bigger the wheel, the faster you would go – the downside being you were so high off the ground that you couldn’t put your feet down to stop you falling you over if you came to a halt!)

From there, (once again passing our two walking friends who evidently weren’t stopping to take in the sights) with the weather brightening a good deal, we pushed on to beautiful old cobbled Melk where (with the help of HRS and TripAdvisor) we located an extremely good deal hotel right on the Rathausplatz (town hall square) and a surprisingly luxurious and spacious room.

Amazing room!

Amazing room!

So we had a lovely evening relaxing enjoying a beer in the square and another a different local hostelry and hearty meal back ‘home’ and a soak in the bath to top it off.  Limbs much restored!

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Austria – day 2 – 8th September (Vienna – Mauthausen – Mitterkirchen – Wallsee – Ardagger Markt).

An early-ish start on Sunday (made easier by the buffet breakfast at Hotel Bajazzo as opposed to waiting on waiters so to speak).  Leaving most of our luggage at the hotel for our return to Vienna, we set off with our full panniers and met our bikes at the Westbahnhof where we stowed them onto the train no problem but were told numerous bits of conflicting information about where we ourselves should sit.  We lucked out in the end with window seats in a compartment where Tim proceeded to throw magazines at his neighbour (albeit accidentally).

Our first bit of cycling (before reaching the cycle path).

Our first bit of cycling (before reaching the cycle path).

We also met a cyclist proper who happened also to be going from St Valentin towards Mauthausen and was able to set us en route in the right direction.  He rather amusingly went terribly slowly for us on his racer despite my assurances that ‘wir könnten schneller fahren’.  He obviously didn’t think much of us at first glance!

Once near Mauthausen (now on our own), we did have to contend with some pretty steep country hills up to the concentration camp, our first and most serious bit of ‘sightseeing’.  The audio guide very effectively painted a vivid picture of camp life without using judgemental tone, possibly making the facts all the more real.  The thing that particularly struck me besides the cruelty to and the dehumanisation of all the prisoners was the hierarchy within the different prisoners themselves and how, to an extent, some more ‘senior’ prisoners were tasked with doing various bits of dirty work (in turn allowing them better perks and a greater chance of survival).  The Nazis thus cleverly saved the cost of actually employing someone while also making sure schisms remained in the camp instead of strong united fronts being formed within the groups of prisoners who might have found it hard to know who to trust.  I also mused on the guards who would go on to attempt hiding all their wrongdoings when the allies arrived (gas chambers and so on) which seemed at odds with a regime that believed so adamantly in what it did and therefore might at least stand up for the evil acts it carried out.  Simplistic of me perhaps.  I thought the camp was well handled and very worth visiting.  For dear Tim, I think it was a little too much.  For me, it served as an important reminder to keep the past in mind in order to be sure of not repeating the worst of history.  I think I also felt it honoured the memories of the people who died or lost loved ones there, and not so long ago.  A very real memorial to their memories.

After an all-important picnic ingredients shop at a roadside Spar, we then found the cycle path along the Danube and had a lovely sunlit cycle on to Mitterkirchen.  There we went slightly off-piste to a local swimming lake – there was even a trampoline in the middle of the lake where we made friends with two German kids, Lydia and Leonhard.

Arrival at the swimming lake near Mitterkirchen.

Arrival at the swimming lake near Mitterkirchen.

Thus refreshed/exhausted, we crossed to the south side of the Danube and had another painful climbing cycle to the historic heart of Wallsee which proved to be totally worth it.  A beer out on the beautiful multi-coloured long square awaited us along with the company of two lovely Swedes we met, Peo and Lotte.

Deciding to hold off on dinner until our arrival at our hotel, we set off on the final 10km to Ardagger Markt – a good thing as part of our cycle even around 8pm ended up being in in darkness on country roads.  It was the right choice too as we were greeted by eccentric Bernhardt at the Schiffmeisterhaus, where we staying, with a great sense of near-overbearing warm hospitality.  After a restorative shower, we enjoyed Wiener Schnitzel and a tasty local speciality ‘Bauernbrandl’ which (we think) was pork with dumplings, cabbage in sauce, along with some delicious beer in the hotel’s beer garden and went for an exploration of the town before collapsing into bed.  We managed to amuse ourselves with about 10 minutes of ‘Sherlock’ (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman dubbed into German) before conking out shortly after 11pm (10pm in the UK – cycling and the previous late nights definitely took it out of us).

Bonus thoughts

A comedy point: all the dogs we met that day were called things like Lucy, Cindy and Amy.

I was pleased to find that my German seemed to be working pretty well despite not really using it for years and graduating nine over nine years ago!  Compliments abounded throughout the week which also helped the confidence levels.

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Austria – day 1 – 7th Sept (Vienna arrival)

So… my first blog in quite some time!  And where better to start than a new adventure – a holiday to Austria which included five days of cycling for someone who until about two weeks earlier only cycled about three metres every six months.

The plan: eight nights away – one night in Vienna, four nights on the road and then another three nights in Vienna.

J. Strauss is venerated everywhere in Vienna, particularly in cafe names and even on the wall of the airport behind the trolleys on our arrival....

J. Strauss is venerated everywhere in Vienna, particularly in cafe names and even on the wall of the airport behind the trolleys on our arrival….

The Gatwick flight all went pretty smoothly and in Vienna, we were greeted by sunshine and quickly located the airport bus that dropped us not far from our hotel (‘Bajazzo’ – it’s so ‘jazz’ that the ‘j’ in the sign is even turned the wrong way round) and Vienna Explorer where we were hiring our bikes for our jaunt into the country.  We stopped at the latter first just to try them for size, and have a quick cycle round – practising dodging trams –before heading to our hotel with our 30-litre panniers to be united with our bikes and sundries and the Westbahnhof the next morning.

Our bikes with fully-packed 30-litre panniers!

Our bikes with fully-packed 30-litre panniers!

But we’d already hit snag number one.  When booking our train with bikes online, I had specified bikes but it seems the ÖBB website hadn’t booked our bike places.  We might be alright but we agreed it was a risk not worth running so having arrived quite tired at the hotel immediately sprinted to the Westbahnhof via the U-Bahn which did at least give us a feel of the city network – it had been a while since I’d been here and Tim moreso on a brief interailing stopover nearly half his life ago!  But snag number two: while buying U-Bahn tickets, I left my debit card in the slot – partly due to helping T with the German and partly due to a tiny cultural difference that went against my British physical habits – in Austria it seems you get your tickets first and then your card back.  So on to a week of relying on cash I’d already drawn out, boyfriend and credit card.  Snag number three: my credit card then appeared not to be working either, courtesy of the Royal Mail telling RBS my parents’ address of 34 years was wrong.

So a slightly less relaxing start to the trip than planned.  But with the above items all sorted and after a quick shower back at the hotel, we felt better set for our outing to visit old family friend, Fritz Geyerhofer in the suburbs of Vienna (which in Vienna means about three U-Bahn stops out of the centre).  The route we chose also entailed a beautiful park walk at the other end. And then, there we were at the Geyerhofer household where I have many happy memories of being chased by Dracula (Fritz) along with little Seb and Mel and magnificent Easter egg hunts, and where numerous African artefacts are festooned (Maud, Fritz’s dear late wife, was from South Africa – a friend of and former babysitter of my mother!) along with every kind of wonderful quirky and naughty statue, loo seat, salt and pepper shaker and a cellar full of wine.  It was here that I tried and initially hated my first rum koko (I’ve long since seen the error of my ways) and also snuff, powdered and sometimes flavoured tobacco which you ‘sniff’ in.

And so ensued a pleasant evening of wine, multiple cold meats and other traditional bits and bobs along with much pleasant reminiscing not only of my childhood but of Mum’s youth, how Maud and Fritz met (he was playing his cello in Ulm and heard a fabulous-sounding second lady in die Zauberflöte and, looking round, found he also ‘liked what he saw’), and about Betsy and Tommy, Mum’s parents whom I sadly never met but have so much in common with.  Hopefully not too much reminiscing for Tim but rather an insight!  Great fun exploring the old house and most original garden I know, and lovely to see old Fritzl.  But then a taxi back in preparation for our big day 1 of our cycling trip.  (Not to mention a taxi driver whom we had to guide to reach our street correctly with our extensive Vienna knowledge!)

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Concert review – All Shall Be Well (Exultate Singers)

19th May 2012 St Pancras Church, Euston Road
Exultate Singers, David Ogden (conductor), Richard May (cello) and Richard Johnson (organ)

On the penultimate evening of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, the Bristol-based Exultate Singers and conductor David Ogden delivered a polished performance of works by John Tavener, Roxanna Panufnik, Knut Nystedt and Francis Grier.  The concert consisted of a thoughtful, complementary programme of challenging, haunting but often rich and luxuriant music with frequently pervading exotic Eastern tonalities, much of it the kind of contemporary music to convert the staunchest of early music devotees.

The performance opened with Svyati, John Tavener’s compelling interpretation of the Church Slavonic text used at most Russian funerals: ‘Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy on us’.   The low bass pedal drone underpinned the unearthly solo cello which seemed to engulf the audience from all around (the cello was positioned behind the audience), idling fretfully back and forth within Eastern modes and interplaying wonderfully with the rest of the choir’s rich, homophonic passages.

Roxanna Panufnik explained in her insightful pre-concert talk that, when approached to write a setting of the Anglican Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, she chose to combine the Magnificat words (Mary’s wonder at being the chosen mother of Christ and dedication of herself to God) with the not-unrelated words of the Catholic Ave Maria (‘Hail Mary full of grace’, Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary as repeated daily by Catholics in prayer).  So it was that the lower voice parts opened Panufnik’s Magnificat with bell-like A-ve Ma-ri-as syllabically spread across the voices (reminiscent of Arvo Pärt) while the sopranos made their Anglican annunciation over this choral accompaniment.  Panufnik’s Nunc Dimittis also combined both the Latin and Anglican text (‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’), seemingly bridging traditions ancient and modern.  The choir were most assured and expressive throughout.  Only at the very end did they seem slightly unable to produce the full force of volume that the piece required.

Not so in Nystedt’s challenging Stabat Mater, which depicted Mary’s pain standing at the foot of the cross as her son is crucified.  Nystedt and the Exultate Singers took us through a series of emotions: violent rage, deep empathy with Mary, despondence, the sense of a mother’s loss and finally our own joyous hope of paradise.  The searing, jagged cello opening later at times gave way to long, full, mellifluous passages alternating with choral sections which similarly conveyed this emotional range through quietly eerie chromaticism, simple, beautiful melodic writing, angry, dissonant, forte staccato crotchets and homophonic yearning.  On occasion, the singers did not seem quite as comfortable with this work in pitching terms, particularly some of the exposed soprano leads but for the most part they displayed a uniform richness of tone and excellent diction, performing with great aplomb.  Here and elsewhere in the concert, Richard May (cello) was a particular highlight.  His was a quietly star performance: he tackled virtuosic, highly chromatic passages with ease and vigour, he approached intense sections with great attack, soft, high harmonics with sensitivity and he played with deep feeling and beautiful warmth of tone throughout.

For me, the evening’s stand-out performance by the choir was of Francis Grier’s Sword in the Soul, a seven-movement work using texts from the eponymous drama by Rowan Williams, a dramatic meditation written for a Good Friday broadcast.  Up to this juncture, the choir had performed beautifully and sensitively but in this work, they discovered in themselves an earthy grit, a performance of true intensity conveying the sense of the drama.  For lovers of Grier, this was a piece of great interest, a soundworld very removed from much of his well-known choral work.  Its movements were hugely varied (helpful programme notes told us more about the source of the original texts) including a rhapsodic elegy – a ‘dialogue’ for solo cello and organ (Richard Johnson) – followed by an a cappella movement musing on the paradox of the cross as an instrument of torture and a metaphor for redemption.  Excellent step-out soloists brought a new dimension to the concert demonstrating further still the ensemble’s great versatility.

The final work of the evening was Panufnik’s two-choir All Shall Be Well, commissioned by the Exultate Singers to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which had deep resonances for Panufnik whose father had defected from Poland in the 1950s, only able to return in 1990, a year before his death.  Again, Panufnik married two texts, a Polish hymn, Bogurodzica, sung by medieval knights praying that Mary keep them safe in battle, and part of Julian of Norwich’s Divine Revelations including the reassuring words ‘All things shall be well’.  Thus Panufnik created a moving and hopeful dialogue between the two, a prayer and its answer, each represented by one choir over solo cello.  Once again the Exultate Singers acquitted themselves beautifully through concurrent major-minor and quasi-jazz progressions, and wave-like, rocking interplay building up towards a resolving climax of ‘paradise’ and ‘great joy’, sentiments very much echoed by the audience at the end of this wonderful evening of thought-provoking compositions, and all-round heartfelt and accomplished performances.

Leonora Dawson-Bowling
(Originally written for  Musical Opinion)

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Lemon ice cream pie

This gallery contains 19 photos.

Recipe | Handy hints | Slideshow An old family friend passed this recipe on and this has remained one of my favourite desserts for the last 25 years.  It’s light and fluffy and utterly delicious and lemony and it really … Continue reading

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My first outing into blogdom

The template title was ‘Hello world!’  And I suppose that’s about right.

Hello indeed anyone who chooses to follow my thoughts, meandering or razor-sharp as they may be.

My first blog is about… this blog.  Why am I writing a blog?  What are my motivations?

I think part of it is that in the last year or two, my focus in life has been rather overtaken by the stresses of job hunting and indeed unemployment at one point, money, flat moves, relationships and bereavements, all of which are of course important but I find myself focusing less and less on my passions or even on just those little things in life that perhaps really are the most important things: the feeling of enjoying a cup of tea/glass of white wine in the sunshine, a good conversation which sparks a thought, a humorous situation observed on the tube, that sort of thing.  Not deep philosophy perhaps, but the sorts of things that I found I enjoyed savouring when travelling or on my year abroad (in France and Germany) or when I first move to a new city – the period when one’s mind feels open to everything.  I hope that having the blog output will give me the motivation to prioritise focusing on enjoying these small delights along with my bigger passions in life, music and language, travel, loved ones and so on.  Not that it’s going to be a personal journal as such – rather more musings

On a couple of more practical notes, it will good to get back into the habit of writing again, something I don’t do enough these days.  My boyfriend also tells me that it was great for his memory when he started keeping a blog.  I can be super quick at picking things up and planning and proposing solutions (that sounds like I’m in CV mode) but my memory does leave something to be desired.  I can hear the most wonderful anecdote or read a fascinating article and then find I can only manage to relate the gist of it, not the detail to someone only a day or two later.  So let’s see if he’s right.

Now, do I write in florid beautiful language of a high-brow nature or should I go web?!  Perhaps I should write each blog twice or maybe there is a very clever stylesheet I can apply that will convert the ‘format’ of my blog from ‘highfalutin’ to ‘web’.

Whatever the case, happy reading.

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