Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Wine Tasting Outside Vienna

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Hugh Agnew is a Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. He has taught courses and published books and numerous articles about the Habsburg Empire, the Czech national identity, and Czech heritage and history.

This fall Hugh led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on a tour of Old World Europe.


A classic traveler’s dilemma: here you are in a lovely, historic, culture-filled place and you have only a limited amount of time to devote to activities. Do you try to devour as many galleries, museums, and historic buildings as you possibly can, or do you take a little time to step off the treadmill and relax, perhaps in some way capturing an echo of how the locals relax when they are off the treadmill themselves? Of course, in any major tourist center there are practically no places “untouched by tourism” because tourism is an essential part of the economies of such places. Yet even now it is possible to experience moments where the impact of tourism is lightly-felt, if at all noticed. That’s one of the things I like about Vienna.

Vienna is a major tourism hub, and it is also a very international city with institutions such as OPEC, the United Nations, and the European Union (among others) housing many offices and headquarters here. But it is also home to thousands of Austrians, and in their own ways they continue to live as Austrians and relax as Austrians.

The green lungs of the city, the famous Vienna Woods (Wienerwald), are one place where everyday Austrians like to go to relax. And thanks to Vienna’s world-class transportation system, park-goers simply hop on one of the several tram lines that run from the center of the city, ride it to the edge of town, and begin walking.

And once you’ve started walking, typically it isn’t long before you find yourself among vineyards – and if among vineyards, then how much farther is it to one of the informal Austrian wine garden restaurants? In the villages that used to be outside the city, and which are now being swallowed up as its extended suburbs, the local winegrowers have had the right, since Emperor Joseph II confirmed it in 1784, to offer this year’s vintage for sale in their own establishments. In the southern German dialects, of which Austrian German is a standardized version, the term heuer means “this year’s” – and so these institutions have come to be called “Heurige.” When the year’s vintage is ready to be released, the vintner typically hangs a bunch of pine twigs over the entrance to the courtyard or house to let everyone know that he is open (“hat ausg’steckt,” as the Viennese would say).

The Viennese microclimate seems to me (not an expert) to be kinder to white wine varieties. Rieslings and Austrian varietals, such as Grüner Veltliner and Müller Thurgauare, are becoming better known abroad. Reds are typically the central European varieties such as Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger), St. Laurent, or a successful cross between the two: Zweigelt.

Austrians share the famous Heuriger locations with tourists by the busload, especially in centers like Grinzing, perhaps the best known of the winemaking former villages, or Beethoven’s summer retreat in Heiligenstadt. Slightly further away, and therefore less crowded but still easily accessible from the city center, is Nussdorf. This is where I, and a few other travelers, went on this journey. Even though it was not the best weather for sitting in a Heuriger garden, we still enjoyed this year’s Gemischter Satz “gespritzt” with carbonated water. Typically the new wines are also accompanied by a buffet of light dishes, with some institutions offering hot meals (including gluten free and vegan!). We stayed with the classic snacks: a few spreads (Aufstriche) including the famous Liptauer cheese, a salad of salsify in a creamy sauce (Schwartzwurzel Salat), Austrian-style potato salad, and a wonderfully sour Viennese rye bread. We ended the afternoon fortified for the evening’s cultural activities and in an overall mood that could only be described as “gemütlich.”


Classic Viennese Snacks- Smithsonian Journeys. Photo courtesy of Hugh Agnew


Read more about our small group journey to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic here.

One Traveler Honors Her Family Lost in Auschwitz

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Thomas Emmert Thomas Emmert, professor emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus College, is a historian of Central and Eastern Europe with a research focus on the former Yugoslavia. He received his B.A. in history from St. Olaf College and his Ph.D. in Balkan and Russian history from Stanford University.

Recently, Thomas led a Smithsonian group on a trip around Old World Europe. One of the most important and moving visits brought the group to Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, where one of the travelers had a chance to honor family members lost in the Holocaust. See his post from the visit below:


No one is ever truly prepared for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For a generation born in the years just before or after the Holocaust, this inexpressible horror of the twentieth century continues to haunt us even as we move fully into our new century with all its possibilities.  We left Warsaw early in the morning and drove through the lush, rich countryside of south central Poland, eventually catching our first glimpses of the Tatra mountains on Poland’s southern border. It was a warm, sunny, infectiously beautiful, late spring day, and one could be forgiven for wishing for a lovely, leisurely picnic instead of contemplating a visit to a concentration camp. We were all so very quiet that morning, deep in our own thoughts, reflecting perhaps on our memories of reading Wiesel, Levi, Borowski or the memoirs of some other Auschwitz survivor. We were steeling ourselves for the shock and the tears even as we knew that nothing could really prepare us for this experience.  As we drove into Oświȩcim and caught sight of the first red barracks of Auschwitz, I reminded everyone that we came here to honor the memory of all those who suffered and perished in this nightmarish place. The silence continued.


Auschwitz-Birkenau main track. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

I don’t know if it’s easier to come to this place when the sun is shining and the weather warm and inviting. I have seen it in pouring rain and in deep winter when the bitter damp cold freezes the tears on our faces, and we cannot imagine a single minute in this place without adequate clothing and food. But the sun and the warmth could not distract us from the reality of what we were seeing.


Zorica and other Smithsonian travelers reading a psalm at Auschwitz. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

Zorica, our fellow traveler, was as ready for this day as she could be. All her life she had waited for this moment to honor all the members of her family who never returned from this earthly Hades. The tour was almost finished when she gathered us together as a group next to the train tracks and the unloading ramp at Birkenau where Zorica’s relatives and millions of others experienced their last moments of life. Embracing Zorica in a circle we together read a Psalm and listened as some of the group said Kaddish. Finally after almost seventy years, Zorica’s relatives and, for the rest of us, these representatives of the millions, were honored and given their own short funeral.


Aushwitz-Birkenau track entrance. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

Afterwards, everyone was silent for a very long time on the drive from Auschwitz to Cracow. Silvija, our Tour Leader, played a CD of some meditative violin music for us. As we approached Cracow, I spoke briefly and reminded everyone of Primo Levi’s admonition to us all. He said that we must not leave Auschwitz despondent and without hope. If we are to honor truly all those who died and suffered there, then it is our duty to live our lives as beautifully, honestly, and justly as we can. I know that  these words were very cathartic for all of us.  We had made our pilgrimage and were humbled beyond words by the experience. But we had indeed honored the millions and we accepted the admonition to live good and just lives. A great burden had been lifted from Zorica’s shoulders, and together we were ready to continue our great adventure into Central Europe.

We’re One Year Old!

Thursday, January 28th, 2010


A baby mountain gorilla celebrates his birthday in his own way.

It’s the 1st birthday of our Smithsonian Journeys blog! In honor of our big day, here’s an anthropological look at birthday traditions in the United States and around the world.

  • In Russia, children receive a birthday pie instead of an what we know as a birthday cake.
  • In Canada, the birthday kid’s nose is greased with butter. As a result, the child is too slippery for bad luck to catch him.
  • In Vietnam, everyone celebrates at the dawn of the New Year, but the actual day of birth is not celebrated. Each child receives a red envelope with “Lucky Money” to celebrate their aging, and when they are asked their age they respond by using the appropriate symbol to the lunar birth year.

Then there is the United States, where we have parties where the birthday girl or boy receive a cake with candles, gifts, and there is the traditional singing of “Happy Birthday.” This tradition actually started in Europe many centuries ago, when people believed that evil spirits were particularly attracted to people on their birthday.  To protect the person, friends and family would visit to bring good wishes, which evolved into today’s birthday party. Giving gifts chased off evil spirits even more effectively.

We want to thank you for reading our blog and commenting this past year! There’s always something to write about when you travel as much as we do.

What cultures do you want to see us write about on the blog? Share below.

Don’t know where to start? Take a look at our Around the World by Private Jet tour.