A couple of months ago, I accompanied my wife to her conference in Salzburg, Austria. She was going there for a week, and one of the perks provided by the conference was an additional round-trip ticket. We had gone to the same conference a few years before, and had a great time, so it was an easy sell.
As you may have guessed, if you read this blog with any regularity, I enjoy traveling. Well, that is not entirely true–I enjoy being in other places, but I do not particularly enjoy the process of getting there. Long flights are generally horrible for everyone, but when you are 6’4″, they are particularly awful. Flights to Europe are even worse since I really have never slept on a plane. This particular trip started with a two-hour drive to JFK, where we experienced this:
The flight over was no picnic either–if only my lack of sleep were the only issue–somewhere over France, on the way to Vienna, there was a loud, prolonged rumbling that was a bit troubling. Moments later, the captain informed us that one of the two engines just failed and we were making an emergency landing in Frankfort in about 5 minutes. Nothing catches your attention more than the words “emergency landing”.
On the ground (after watching the fire engines speed up to the plane), the close to 350 passengers made a mad scramble in the Frankfort airport to grab a connecting flight to Vienna. We ended up getting on a flight to our final destination, Salzburg, a few hours later.
As I mentioned, we had been to Salzburg a couple of years prior, and it was nice getting to know the city again. I was particularly looking forward to visiting the tiny restaurant we had discovered on our last trip, which was just up the road, not far from where we were staying. It is a tiny place (seats about 15) and only serves one appetizer and one main course–that’s it (well, and copious amounts of Austrian wine). It is called Köchelverzeichnis, and is located in the Steingasse.
Andrea Hick is the proprietor and is wonderfully welcoming and chatty (even though she claims to speak only “A little” English). Andrea’s cousin, Maria, makes most of the wine that is served at the restaurant in the Wachau wine region, about 2 hours by car to the East. After our second trip to the restaurant, I was able to convince my lovely wife to accompany me on a drive to the region to visit Andrea’s cousin as well as a few other wineries along the way. My wife had her heart set on visiting Vienna on her only day off during the week, but, well, I made her feel guilty and got my wish.
We rented a car and set out on our way under rainy skies, iPhone GPS in hand. The weather was rather dubious, but as we drove further out, the skies cleared to brilliant sunshine. By the time we reached the Schloss Schoenbuehel (where we turned to follow the Danube), my wife’s mood had visibly improved.
That mood took a turn to the worse as we were both starving and it seemed like all the civilization in the area was on the other side of the Danube. We eventually found something to eat in the local version of a run-down Howard Johnson’s and then spent the better part of an hour trying to find Maria Hick’s winery. The iPhone took us down a rather sketchy goat path, eventually leading to a dead-end. I was then faced with trying to turn around on the car-wide path which was bordered by a rather deep and steep ditch on either side. I eventually decided to just drive backwards for the better part of a kilometer until I could safely back into an opening and turn around.
None of this helped to convince my wife that she wouldn’t rather be in Vienna.
I drove back into the town, hoping to find someone who could point us in the direction of the winery.
There was not a soul to be found.
Eventually, we found a guy on a bike (you can always trust the cyclists):
“Do you speak English?”
His English was actually excellent (in fact he sounded a lot like my cousin Bobby) and he lead us to the winery (which, as my wife pointed out, was a mere 50 meters beyond where we turned off onto the goat path–I tried to blame Siri, but well….).
Arriving at the winery, we found no one.
Andrea had told her cousin we were coming, and in fact taking back several cases of wine to Salzburg for Andrea, but we were about 45 minutes late (thanks Siri), and just as I thought we were witnessing the Austrian consequences of tardiness (and the potential need for some marriage counseling), we found Maria’s mother.
“Do you speak English?”
Which was a lie. Other than those two words, of course.
(It was at this point that I realized that when I ask an Austrian if they speak English, every last one of them responded with these precise words: “A little”–so much so that I am convinced that it is what they teach them to say in school. It makes no difference if their English is impeccable or if you had just reached the limit of their vocabulary, “A little” is the response, so there is no way of knowing after asking that question if there is any chance that they will understand a single word you say.)
I do speak a little German, or at least I thought I did, but it took quite a bit of time (and a few puzzled looks) to convey that we were looking for her daughter.
Eventually, Maria emerged and, after her “A little” response, well, let’s just say that Maria’s personality was the complete opposite of her bubbly, engaging cousin. What followed was perhaps one of the most uncomfortable wine tastings I have ever had. I tend to be a bit chatty and like to engage the wine maker, but, perhaps due to her lack of comfort with English, or a less than ebullient persona, trying to get anything out of Maria was, well painful. (No, it was not lost on me that Julie Andrew’s character in the Sound of Music was named, yes, Maria).
After the 1 minute and 37 second tasting, we loaded up the car with Andrea’s wine (and a few of my own–it was my first taste of an Austrian Smaragd Chardonnay and it was quite wonderful [In the Wachau, they classify wines by the level of ripeness of the grape when picked, similar to parts of Germany. “Smaragd” is the designation for grapes that are at the top end of the ripeness scale for dry wines.]) and took off down the Danube.
The first five minutes or so were rather quiet as I tried to develop a strategy to suggest stopping by another winery.
And try to avoid any mention of “Vienna”.