I remember walking up the stairs from the basement at Conni’s family’s house. Sue and I were quartered there as was Aunt Laurie in another room. It was cool and comfortable for us and it beat the summer heat. I was heading up to join the others on the patio and I stopped short of the landing and stood for a moment. I had just turned 49 years old and here I was with my beautiful family 6000 miles from home with friends I would never have met were it not for a number of unforeseen events like the fact that our attempts at adoption failed. If we had succeeded, the chances of us having ever met Conni a foreign exchange student who came to live with us-and therefore her family-are slim to none.
I was in Europe-fabled and historic places I’d only read about were now brought into sharp relief as I walked over Roman roads, stood in awe before spectacular cathedrals and abbeys and saw history from a perspective I’d never dreamed of before. But now, we were about to cross the border that used to define the frontier of the west with that of the east. So much has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union-and now, the border between Austria and Hungary is nothing more than a sign on a road:
Two of our excursions led us to places most Americans never go. The first was Sopron (pronounced-“sho-pron”), Hungary. Rainer and Michaela had arranged for all of us to attend a two-day wine festival in Deutschkreutz, a countryside of rolling vineyards, lush and dense forests and really, some terrific wine. I was hired by Drink Me Magazine to write a profile on Austria’s wine-growing scene and since we’d done the Wachau Valley, with its stunning beauty, terraced vineyards and delicious white wines-Rainer wanted us to experience the Rotwein–or red wine festival, where even the kids got to sample some things, mostly non-alcoholic grape juice and the like.
The event is densely packed, by Austrian standards. For those of us Californians, it simply wasn’t that crowded though– if you’ve ever been to the Paso Robles wine festival or any of the Central Coast tasting events. There were no rooms available on the Deutschkreutz side of the border. So Rainer got us rooms in Sopron and we headed across the border to stay at Hotel Lover (umlaut above the o in Lover-pronounced more like loo-vah), a fine if somewhat cranky and settled establishment above Sopron proper.
It was a lovely old hotel with a basement swimming pool run by a very dour middle-aged woman who looked at you bitterly as you approached and ordered you to put plastic shoe coverings over your shoes. This was, ostensibly, to keep the dirt off of the wet tile. The practical effect, however, was that it made the floor about 30 times more slippery and dangerous and there were stairs everywhere. I chalked it up to one more thing you’d never find in the U.S. and probably an attempt to kill-or perhaps just maim-the guests that the dour middle-aged woman didn’t like.
Our first night there had some tension, I’m afraid. We Americans were, at this point, more worn out than we’d expected to be. Exhausted by the sheer gravity of the trip and hearing so many languages and simply not used to it all, we were a bit reluctant to join the others for dinner as they headed into town to see the Hungarian sights. This is a former communist country and the tensions that exist here as a result, the weak economy, the poor condition of the roads, the rather constant sense that the younger and older generations of this country don’t see eye to eye, is absolutely fascinating. It would have been great to see more of it–but we couldn’t muster up the strength to do it. So, while the Storers stayed behind to eat an unsatisfying Hungarian buffet at the Hotel’s restaurant, the Englisch family went off to explore Sopron.
I got into a bit of hot water at the restaurant because, unaccustomed to how things worked and completely unable to speak the language, I forgot to sign the check and have it billed to our room. No waiter presented him or herself in a timely fashion and tired as we were, we simply got up after dinner and headed back upstairs. When I came back down to the lobby later in the twilight of evening (it doesn’t get dark in summertime here until 9:30 or 10:00) to get some bottled water, I had an official finger wagging and an angry Hungarian restaurant host telling me, I think, what a bad customer I was. I apologized in first English and then German (Es tut mir leid)-but to no avail.
Back upstairs to our room where the hotel had BBC World News. We didn’t watch a lot of television, so it was nice to hear English so far from home. We all collapsed into bed and slept hard that night.
We spent a total of two nights in Sopron, the second being far more relaxed after a day of wine tasting, meeting new people with whom I’m still in touch at the Kirnbauer and Strehn wineries among others. The eight of us walked down from the hotel to a great little restaurant sitting amongst the trees as cool evening breezes rolled in. It was the perfect antidote to the previous evening and included a walk down to an even nicer hotel to see what we were missing. Of course, the nicer hotel had a higher price-tag too.
The second place we went after returning to St. Polten for a night was Fuschl Am See near Salzburg at an absolutely wonderful bed and breakfast–but that deserves it’s own post and so stay tuned for Austria VIII: Fuschl.