Thursday, February 12, 2009

Styria no longer in the 'wrong' end of Austria

The Styria region is a little untouched gem. When the Iron Curtain fell it suddenly wasn't a place at the "wrong" end of Austria.

Sitting on my sunny terrace munching juicy peaches and looking out over a field of vibrant sunflowers at a temperature of over 30C, I could be in some romantic idyll in the suny south of Europe; in fact, I'm right at the heart of it.

This is the scene that greets me every harvest time here in Styria, southern Austria, my new home since my husband and I left our home in a small village on the Pelopponese in Greece in June 2005. Now, instead of harvesting olives in winter and enjoying our own olive oil, we harvest pumpkin seeds in autumn and press these to make pumpkin seed oil – not as good for cooking as the olive variety, but a delicious salad dressing.

Styria is a little untouched gem. When the Iron Curtain fell it suddenly wasn't a place at the "wrong" end of Austria, going nowhere except towards the Eastern Bloc, but a glorious land of world class spa resorts and medieval towns. There are award-winning boutique wineries where the wine is already sold out before it is even harvested, hiking trails round long extinct volcanoes – oh, and of course all those sunflower fields.

Styria is so unknown that on going into a travel agency in Scotland, my home country, during the move the travel agent looked at me rather strangely when I asked about flights, thinking I'd moved to Syria in the Middle East. They do both have one thing in common, though – their hospitality. When my parents visited for the first time, my neighbour Maria was up at the crack of dawn to bake doughnuts which she very kindly presented to us for breakfast.

My mum and dad were impressed and so was I. In fact we sometimes think we must look underfed as baskets of food regularly appear on our front step – juicy purple aubergines, home-made bread, apples and of course bottles of pumpkin seed oil.

So why Styria? My "Mann" is a Vorarlberger – from that part of Austria next to Switzerland and Liechtenstein that is terribly mountaineous, terribly built-up and terribly cold. So when hubby wished to return to his homeland for health reasons – he has bad kidneys and liver and the Greek hospitals didn't exactly inspire confidence should he ever need dialysis – I, having got used to the Mediterranean lifestyle and especially the sunshine, said: "OK but we need to come back to the sunniest part of Austria" – and this is it!

Temperatures can reach the high 30Cs in summer – in fact we once measured 43C – but there's enough rain in between to irrigate the crops, and the growing number of golf courses in the area. And, of course, fill the pool without feeling guilty about the farmer down the road who has no water for his goats. In summer the climate tends to be subtropical and in winter we can sometimes enjoy lunch on the terrace or just as easily celebrate a white Christmas!

One thing is for sure, though; your euro or pound goes a lot further here than in other, more well-known parts of Europe. Our local Gasthaus does a super two course lunchtime menu with salad for under six euros. However, by far the most atmospheric places to eat are the buschenschanken or wine taverns, conveniently located next to the vineyards so you can enjoy breathtaking views while you have a mile-long-sandwich covered in locally produced meats or cheeses and some fine wine for under five euros.

But you have to hurry as buschenschanken are only open as long as they have enough of their own wine to sell. Many have their own rooms to let and "Urlaub am Weinbauernhof" (living with the winemakers) is fast becoming a popular experience. What's even more interesting is the price. Our local, the Erlebnisbauernhof has apartments for two with kitchen, WC, bathroom, living and dining area, bedroom and use of sauna for €32 per night. That's not per person but per apartment and also includes use of a pool with views over the vineyards. Bed and breakfast in a private house or Gasthaus can be had from €16-30 per person per night.

My greatest fear about the weather has not materialised; in fact, I look forward to some rain to water the garden. This is a very rural area with picturesque villages on golden hillsides and people who have a close connection with the land. It seems almost everybody here is self-sufficient to some degree with many having pigs, hens, goats or hares in their back yards and a garden full of fresh organic veg.

Property is much cheaper than more well-known parts of the country and also comes with a lot more land and space. Agricultural lands sells for about three euros per square metre and building land for about €11. Friends of ours are selling their farmhouse, with around 7,000 square metres of land, for €127,000 (details on

Our "new" neighbours are Slovenia to the south, a favourite haunt for super fish meals even cheaper than in Austria. In fact on the new motorway we are a mere two and a half hours' drive from the Venetian jewel of Piran on the Slovenian coast. About 90 minutes away is another jewel, this time in Croatia; if you can't make it to Vienna, Varasdin is a good second best.

You feel as though you could meet Franz Josef, the last Habsburg emperor, around any corner. The border with Hungary, and its excellent Sunday markets, is under an hour from here too, so its actually possible to experience four countries in one day. Not bad for the "wrong" end of Austria!

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