A trip to the famous monastery of the Cistercian Monks, now equally famous for its wines and liqueurs

Off they set to see the Pope. They carried a liquid with them. They had been told by their superiors that they could drink it no more, but they decided that they would follow whatever the Pope had to say.

Perhaps after the long journey from Austria to Italy, the liquid had turned bad, because when the Pope tasted it, he made a face and said, “Yes, you can drink this.” And so to this day, the Cistercian Monks in their monastery in the Vienna woods drink their beer and it remains the thing that sustains them during the long period of Lent.

The Heiligenkreuz (Holy Cross) Abbey, set up in 1133, is now famous for its own wines and liqueurs too. So much so that visitors, when they step in and buy their requirements, need to be nudged by a notice just opposite the gift shop, “Don’t forget to take the tour too.” We certainly don’t, after the hour-long drive from Vienna through the ever-so-pretty Baden, with its luscious fruits, lovely roses, pretty houses and, one hears, every facility to make a tourist happy.

Of the art work in the monastery, what strike me most are the beautiful stained glass and the stark pews. The stained glass is not in the usual bright blues and reds, but in muted greens and browns. The pews are excellent examples of wood inlay work with panels on either side carved with floral motifs. The style, we are told, is Rococo. A tomb wherein lies buried a member of the Babenberg dynasty draws attention. It was St. Leopold III of this family who paid for the original building of the monastery in 1133. Members of the family are buried here. The monastery is on the route that pilgrims take to the famous holy spot of Mariazell, Austria’s most important pilgrimage site. It also houses a monument to the Black Plague.

Nearby is a hunting lodge, where, Rudolph, the son of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, committed suicide at the turn of the 20th Century. After Rudolph died, Franz Ferdinand, a nephew of the Emperor of Austria, was made Crown Prince of Austria. He is the famous Ferdinand, whose death at Sarajevo provoked the First World War.

Rudolph had a girlfriend called Mary Vetsera, who committed suicide along with him. There is a cemetery nearby where she is buried. Her grave was robbed twice – the Russians were the first offenders when they went in search of jewels. Later, someone tried to steal the coffin to get into the news.

En route lies the spa town of Baden. We stopped for lunch there. Sitting on a park bench, we ate the theplas I had carried all the way from Chennai, owing to my aversion to non-vegetarian food, along with fresh violet grapes bought from the fruit market that is present in every Austrian town. Baden is about half way to the monastery from Vienna and has a lovely rose garden. Austrians go there for a holiday in the summer when they don’t choose the Mediterranean beaches. Austrian beaches are too cold, lying by the Baltic Sea.

Even more beautiful is the rose garden in the centre of Vienna. We – my daughter and I –went there to sit awhile after taking in an operetta, which rather jolted us out of our wits. We, the only two Indians on the tour, along with Australian rival-friends who could not swallow the fact that India had won the World Cup, and lots of Americans who didn’t care about cricket, all went there dressed in our best. We sat down and grinned pleasantly and clapped politely when the singers came in.

The first piece began, and a shot rang out. We nearly jumped out of our skins, when another rang out. The audience was paralysed – one woman got up and ran out, while the others just stayed still. The lead violinist said the shots had been fired to Strauss’ waltz on hunting and a lady standing beside the drums flaunted a gun and fired one more shot.

Lovely Mozart followed but I flounced away in anger at the half-way point – perhaps we from this part of the world don’t appreciate such jokes. Fortunately there were quite a few people in the rose garden. The view of Vienna from there is most beautiful.

We stopped at a café as on this last night of the holiday as I wanted to taste some Sacher-torte. That’s an Austrian delicacy, which is very sweet. Soon after, a youth approached our table and said, “I am Singh.” The bearer serving us laughed and said, “Singh is king.” I asked the youth in English if he was from India. He replied, in Hindi, that he was from Punjab. He said in broken English that he worked in the kitchen. “I have been here for five years. I want to go back home.”

“Who are you staying with?”

“Brother, sister and sister’s child.”

“Brother-in-law?”

“No, only brother.”

“Well, come to Chennai and start a restaurant after learning Austrian and Italian cuisines,” I said cheerily and, much to my daughter’s dismay, sternly told the bearer, “Look after Singh.”

Keywords: Austria tourism

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012