Travel logs
2019 Austrian Music Festivals
Innsbruck – August 14-16, 2019
Our Austrian festivals tour started off on a beautiful evening with an exquisite dinner at a panorama restaurant: a delightful experience in style, ambiance, view, and creative culinary dishes. Our hotel, located next to the City Hall, was designed by renowned architect Dominique Perrault, who redesigned the old building of the city hall and its public square as well, linking all these elements by a sleek gallery. Our personable guide Barbara took us on a leisurely three-hour stroll through the town, which boasts 50 churches, gorgeous medieval (Gothic) architecture, houses with Salzach-style bay windows and extra pillars added for protection against earthquakes.  We learned that Innsbruck was a very important (and wealthy) town as it was on the commercial trade route from the north to the south, and merchants had to pay a higher tax if they didn’t overnight there. So most did, leading to a proliferation of inns, many of which still exhibit exquisite wrought-iron signs and frescoes of St. Christopher, who protected travelers from sudden death. The most famous personality of Innsbruck is Maximilian I, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Innsbruck in 1508, who made this town his seat of power. We learned about his life, marriages to Maria of Burgundy and then Bianca Sforza of Italy, and his obsession for being remembered – which led to the building of the Court Church, where his tomb was to be located. Completed 40 years after his death, the impressive tomb does not contain his remains; the church itself stuns with 28 life-size bronze statues of exquisite craftsmanship, portraying family and admired heroes (of the 40 he had originally wanted). A side chapel acquainted us with the romantic story of Archduke Ferdinand II, governor of Tyrol, and his “unaccepted” commoner first wife Philippine, both of whom are buried in the chapel, close – but not next to each other.

We attended Handel's "Triumph of Time and Disillusion"  at the Innsbruck Festival of Ancient Music.  The event was well attended (not a seat left unoccupied) - and the performers, while not among the "famous," delivered an effective and stylish performance. The music was sublime and though the event lasted well into the night,  everyone went back to the hotel musically enriched.

Salzburg - August 17 to 21, 2019
On the way to Salzburg, we stopped in Kufstein, the second biggest Tyrolean town, mainly famous for its hilltop fortress. Lunch was at a lovely fish restaurant next to Chiemsee lake in Bavaria, where we had fresh fish of course (pike perch with potatoes and sautéed vegetables); however, the dessert, chocolate mousse with berries, stood out as well! We arrived in Salzburg in time for tonight's optional performances at the Salzburg Festival: Enescu’s Oedipus Rex and a concert by the Camerata Salzburg at the Mozarteum.
The next day was fully dedicated to the rich performance options at the 99th anniversary of the Salzburg Festival. Of the 6 new opera productions offered this year, 5 were performed during our four days in Salzburg: Enescu’s Oedipus Rex, Handel’s Alcina, Cherubini’s Médée, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and Mozart’s Idomeneo. The lineup at this year’s festival was exceptionally good, and, as noted by a critic of the New York Times, it will be hard to top next year, at the 2020 centennial celebrations.
Our Salzburg walking tour started in “New Town” (19th century, so not exactly modern) at the Saint Sebastian Cemetery, where we learned about the most well-known figure of the times the town was ruled by prince-archbishops, Wolf Dietrich von Reitenau. His grand vision to transform Salzburg into “the Rome of the North” included the building of the Cathedral, the Residenz, and Mirabell Palace, all in the Italian Baroque style (under the supervision of Scamozzi, his chief architect). He had 15 children with the love of his life, Salome Alt, and this liaison prevented his becoming a cardinal; later, it caused his imprisonment in the fortress above the town (where he eventually died). His elaborate, mosaic-tiled mausoleum in the cemetery was designed by none other than himself. Our walk then continued in Old Town, discovering its spacious squares, ornate Baroque churches, Getreidegasse (Salzburg’s most attractive and most visited shopping street with its high, narrow houses dating back to the Middle Ages, and romantic courtyards), as well as the Festival Halls of the renowned music festival.
Following the walking tour, we were honored that Hans Graf, former music director of the Houston Symphony, and his wife Rita joined us for lunch of Austrian specialties.
One day was focused on Hitler’s residence and command complex in the mountains of Bavaria, the second seat of government during the Third Reich. Hitler actually spent more time here than in Berlin, and it was also here that he launched the invasion of Poland. The scale of the complex stunned us: houses for Hitler’s main officers, large SS barracks, a residential area for SS officers, a coal bunker (which contained enough fuel to continue burning for more than six months, when set alight near the end of the war), guest houses, farm buildings and farmland.  Barbed wire surrounded the entire compound, and there was a system of underground bunkers with intersecting tunnels, some large enough to accommodate trucks. It was also surprising to learn that the construction only started in September 1943 (and it had to be stopped as a result of the April 1945 bombing raid that destroyed most of the above-ground structures), and that no slave labor was employed. In fact, the German, Italian, and Czech workers were highly skilled and well-paid, probably so that no state secrets could be gotten into the “wrong” hands. After we explored the Documentation Center and some of the underground bunkers, we took a special bus to Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s tea house for guests, located some 6000 feet above sea level. Unfortunately, as the bus climbed higher, we ascended into the clouds, and we couldn’t experience the spectacular view.
We then descended into the valley below for lunch at a panorama restaurant whose gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains was not obstructed, toasting Bonnie Bauer’s birthday to the accompaniment of a German singing card, “Hoch sollst Du leben” (May You Live Long”). Good times and food were had by all!
Bad Ischl August 21-23
On a rainy day, we left Salzburg for our next destination, the Salzkammergut area, the lake district of Austria. Our first stop was the imperial villa in Bad Ischl, the summer residence of Franz Joseph. Much to our surprise, we were the first American tour there this year! Our knowledgeable guide walked us through the pretty villa with original furnishings, thousands of the Franz Joseph’s hunting trophies, portraits of Elisabeth’s favorite horses, clothing belonging to the imperial couple, and other memorabilia. This is where the emperor declared war on Serbia in 1914, sealing the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy; the manifesto declaring war, titled “To My Peoples,” is also on display. We walked in the rain through the tiny spa town to the other side of the river, where we visited the Lehár Villa. The famous Hungarian operetta composer lived and worked here during summers until his death in 1948. The villa contains valuable paintings, furniture, memorabilia, some original scores, and an original Steinway from Hamburg.
Lunch was just next door at a restaurant that opened just for us. The surprise was the main course, schnitzel “Old Vienna style”: a slice of well-beaten beef seasoned with horseradish and mustard, breaded and then fried, served with spinach, cranberry sauce, and parsley potatoes.
We spent two nights at a lovely spa-hotel on the shore of Lake Wolfgang, giving everyone a full day at leisure, to depressurize following our intense stay in Salzburg. Most crisscrossed the lake on the scheduled people-ferries, visiting the picturesque towns that grace its shores, hiking or biking along the lakeshore and mountain trails, or taking the inclined railway to the top of one of the peaks that surround the crystal-clear lake.
St. Florian on the way to ViennaAugust 23
On the invitation of the artistic director of the Bruckner Days or “Bruckner Tage,” we stopped at the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian, the resting place of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. Bruckner was a choir boy at the monastery and later its organist, and we had the privilege to hear the powerful “Bruckner Organ,” built by the priest and organ-builder Franz X. Chrismann from Ljubljana in 1774. The mighty instrument has 4 manuals, 103 stops, and 7,343 pipes. The artistic director the festival also showed us the Imperial Hall and the crypt where Bruckner is laid to rest; unfortunately, the stunning baroque library was closed because of filming.
Vienna – August 23-26
We arrived in Vienna in time to change quickly and walk to the Musikverein where we took a designated bus to Grafenegg, about an hour north of Vienna. The Grafenegg Festival is a major classical music event, established by Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, on the grounds of Grafenegg Castle, where two venues were built: the open-air stage Wolkenturm (seating 2,000, it was opened in 2007); and the new concert hall Auditorium (seating over 1,300, it was opened in 2008). The program included an all-Tchaikovsky evening with the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev and this year’s winner of the Tchaikovsky violin competition; a Mozart and Beethoven evening with Rudolf Buchbinder featured as both soloist and conductor with the Mariinsky Orchestra; the Basel Chamber Orchestra in a mixed program of Mozart, Poulenc, and Satie; and the Shanghai Symphony playing Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. Before the concerts, many of us picnicked on the lawn of the castle park, feasting on regional delicacies and wine.

Our wonderful lecturer of long-standing provided two Vienna sightseeing tours: one focused on Gustav Klimt and his contemporaries, the other on Vienna’s rich musical history.