One of Austria's best-loved summer playgrounds is in Carinthia, the country's southernmost pro-vince. Our Doug Linton has just spent a few days in the area scouting good hotels and restaurants.
By Doug Linton
Just west of Klagenfurt, in the Austrian province of Carinthia, sits the Wörthersee, a beautiful 17-kilometer-long lake. It's warm waters, surrounding greenery, and views of snow-capped mountains have soothed and inspired European vacationers for decades. Composers, especially, seem attracted to the lake. Brahms wrote his 2nd Symphony while summering here in the 1870s. Gustav Mahler composed five symphonies in just seven summers on the lake, as well as his Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children (OK, so inspiration is not always cheery). Alban Berg, too, owned a cottage nearby, where he worked on his racy opera, Lulu, as well as his twelve-tone violin concerto.
Great composers weren't the only ones to gather around the lake during the autumn of the Habsburg empire. By the end of the 19th century, the Wörthersee blossomed as a summer resort for Austria's rich and powerful, who flocked to the lake to enjoy the summer sun and the warm, swimmable lake water. They snapped up lakeside property and built luxurious villas and manor homes. With the collapse of the empire, most of these grand homes were sold off and converted to hotels, thereby giving the modern-day visitor a wonderful choice of architecturally-attractive lodgings.
Even today, the Wörthersee continues to attract Austria's idle rich and others who spend their summers boating on the lake or soaking up the sun on the docks. In the evening, they make a splash in the lake's casino or at one of the plentiful nightspots. This all gives the Wörthersee a glitzy beach-town quality that has led some travel writers to label it the St. Tropez of Austria.
The three main resort towns on the lake are Maria Wörth, Velden and Pörtschach. Though a small two-lane road rings the lake, the best way to get from town to town is via ferry boat. The best is a converted 1909 steamboat that in summer runs a couple of times a day. The steamer trip from Velden to Pörtschach is about $10, while a trip to Maria Wörth is about $13. Other boats charge approximately $7 for the one-hour trip, which operates hourly from 9am until 5pm. An additional night ferry runs at 8pm and 11pm. If you have a license, there are motorboats and sailboats for rent. If you don't and still have an urge to pilot your own skiff, you can putter around in a little electric boat for about $18 an hour.
Located on a small peninsula, Maria Wörth is the smallest and the most historic of the lake's three prime resort towns. The main attraction is its picturesque church, which dates from the 9th century and is located on a small, meditative rise above the lake. The setting is attractive and tranquil, although less so when overrun by those multifarious tour groups.
At the far west end of the lake is Velden, considered to be the hippest of the three, with its yacht harbor, casino, and an attractive castle. It also has a sweeping harbor promenade, which is particularly pleasant in the evening.
My own favorite is Pörtschach. It has an old beach town atmosphere, a lively main strip, and a large, tree-shaded park with long promenades.
I also spent an evening at a small streetside club listening to the best boogie-woogie, barrelhouse piano player I have ever heard, a young Austrian whose frizzy shock of hair, blissful expression, and fiery playing made him seem like a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Bozo the clown. I can't guarantee he'll be there every night, but if he's not someone else is sure to be. It's just one example of the summer surprises found on the Wörthersee.
Another surprise was this place. Certainly there are other, more chic, lodgings on the lake, but none has the welcoming, homey charm of this graceful, early 20th-century villa.
Located on the lake, just a short walk from Pörtschach, the Villa Miralago occupies terraced, tree-shaded grounds that include a large grassy lawn and an ornate wooden boat house and dock. The lake view is particularly nice; a small island just offshore gives the impression that yours is the only house on the lake.
The villa was run for more than 40 years by a genteel Austrian lady. When she died at age 90, it was sold into the friendly and slightly chaotic Semmel-Werzer family who had the good judgment to give the rooms a new coat of paint, and then more or less leave it as it was. Consequently, the Miralago retains the charming authenticity of an aging villa hotel: high ceilings, beautiful double doors with graceful brass fixtures, decorative tile floors, and antique furniture that ranges from almost regal to slightly scruffy (some might call it character).
Breakfast is served in a sunny, spacious room overlooking the lake. Afterwards, guests can take up a sun chair on the lawn, splash around the boat dock, or just enjoy the view from one of the villa's spacious porches (one even has a telescope for an evening look at the stars). The latter provide ample space for lounging, which is why most people come here.
Guests are extremely loyal. I met a man who first came to the villa as a boy in the 1950s. He has been back just about every year since then and was visiting with his son's family.
The hotel's 13 rooms have interesting shapes and sizes. Number 3, which overlooks the water, is good for families with children, as it is quite spacious and has an extra sitting room. Number 17 is on the top floor with a great view of the lake, an enormous WC, and a quirky little sitting room in one of the villa's towers. A number of rooms also include balconies.
If you want noble and immaculate, try the Seeschlössel. But if you want a regal B & B offering great value, this is the one.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $55, doubles from about $150
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20
Given its reputation and its rates, I had high expectations for the Leonstain, reputedly one of the Wörthersee's best hotels. It certainly has a loyal clientèle that fully books the hotel during the season. It even has an impressive claim on history. Brahms stayed at this 17th century castle during his visits to the lake, and it is here he composed the aforementioned 2nd Symphony. The exterior is inspiring, with thick, whitewashed walls covered in vines, topped with a spire and a sloping, terra cotta roof. And verdant gardens enclosed by peaceful, porticoed walkways are meditative enough to strike just about anyone with the Muse.
It is only when one gets to the guestrooms that the sour notes start to chime. Most accommodations are rather small and Spartan with heavy furniture and a type of green felt carpet that would look more appropriate on the fairway of a mini-golf course.
The staff has also developed a complacency that often follows success. Maybe they treat repeat customers better, but I'll never know because I'll be staying somewhere else.
Contact: Schloss Leonstain Leonstainerstrasse 1, A-9210 Prtschach, tel +43/04272/28 160, fax 28 23.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $115, doubles from about $180
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 11/20
The Seeschlössl is a charming retreat located in a small Baroque castle right on the lake.
The small front porch of the Habsburg-yellow castle opens to a dark reception room with beautiful parquetry floor, a small desk on one side and a wide staircase on the other. Accommodations are nobly decorated with a mix of reproduced and original antiques, hardwood floors with Persian rugs, and fabrics in bright peach and sea green. The tile baths are spacious and modern with double sinks and large tubs.
Breakfast is in a traditional wood-paneled room dominated by a large, knobby porcelain stove. The cast-iron framed back porch, facing the lake, is scattered with rattan sun chairs and cloth sunshades. After the long green lawn, at the water's edge is a small beach next to a large boat dock.
The exceptionally pleasant staff will have you feeling right at home, even if you don't live in a castle.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $100, doubles from about $155
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 15/20
After hearing many good reports about it, even from waiters at other pricey places around the lake, I can now attest to my own sublime experience at Restaurant Schiffwirt.
They take an artistic approach to seafood preparation at this restaurant, treating it as though it were some kind of profound mystery. There is even a small brochure of arty photos spiced with recipes and "thought-for-day" kind of sayings.
By its name, I expected to find Schiffwirt housed in some sort of boat replica, but fortunately it is more tastefully located in a small house in a quiet corner of the lake. The atmosphere is comfortably nautical with a touch of elegance and a wry sense of humor. I sat in the small room in the front of the house that was decorated with a surprising number of fish heads mounted face forward, mouths agape as if shocked by what the restaurant serves. There was even a little mounted eel head.
Appetizers included two delicious choices, a plate of smoked freshwater fish for about $12 and a grilled plate of Mediterranean shellfish brimming with scallops, calamari, octopus, clams, mussels and scampi for about $13. A slightly peppery fish soup ($5) also contained a potpourri of mussels, clams and a scampi which had flung one of its claws over the edge of my small soup tureen. Then came a salad of mixed greens and marinated tomatoes with side dollop of vinegary potato salad. It was included in the cost of the main course, but served separately as not to distract from the full majesty of the fish.
Guests unsure of what to order may suddenly find the Schiffwirt's owner presenting them with a large platter of assorted fish from which to choose. He will even discuss options for cooking it: grilled, poached or pan fried. I picked the trout ($18), which was lightly breaded with spiced flour, then pan-fried whole and served with a lemon wedge and a rosette of garlic butter. The flavor was extraordinary: fresh, firm, fleshy, excellent.
Other fish choices include locally-caught pike and carp, as well as a wide selection of saltwater fish flown in from the sea, all served whole and therefore more suited to groups of two or more.
Dessert of choice is chocolaty nut crêpes for about $6. This was my final Wörthersee meal, which is unfortunate as it deserved a repeat visit.
Contact: Schiffwirt, Klagenfurter Strasse 172, A-9210 Prtschach, tel. +43/04272/22 71, open Mon.-Thur. 5pm-midnight; Fri.-Sun. 11am-3pm and 5pm-midnight.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 17/20
Since this restaurant also came highly recommended, I was surprised to find it completely empty. It didn't take long, however, to realize it was the season's first really sunny day and everyone with any sense was stretched out near the lake soaking up sun. Since I had driven a long way and was hungry, I decided to stay despite the awkwardness of being the only guest.
For a fairly pricey restaurant in such a beautiful location, the atmosphere at the Tschernitz is rather dull, even imagining it full of customers. It is located in a simple, somewhat modern house with a small patio, both of which are huddled close to the busy two-lane road that runs around the lake. Consequently, outdoors there is just enough traffic noise to be bothersome, while indoors one is left thinking, "Here I am at this beautiful lake, stuck eating indoors!"
Not surprisingly the service was crisp and responsive. After all, I was the only customer.
The food was good, though not great value. I started with Triestiner fish soup ($7), a mildly flavored broth containing chunks of tomato, onion slices, and flakes of salmon, pike and stockfish. Other starters included Tafelspitz - slices of Austrian-style boiled beef and vegetables - jelled in aspic and served with a creamy chive sauce. The cappeletti pasta stuffed with mushrooms and served with browned butter ($13) also looked good.
Main courses include fresh Wörthersee pike ($25) and roast lamb with rosemary potatoes ($26). I settled for Wiener Backhuhn ($17), a small chicken boned, breaded and expertly fried so that it was crispy on the outside and juicy but not at all greasy on the inside. It was fantastic. Accompanying it was about a kilo of sticky and much too finely-diced potato salad, topped with arty sprigs of fried parsley. Dessert was at an ice cream shop in town.
Except for the fried chicken which I frequently find myself thinking back on I don't know what the big deal is about the Tschernitz. Unless you are looking for exceptional fried chicken served in a formal atmosphere, you will do better at the other restaurants reviewed here.
Contact: Tschernitz, Sduferstrasse 112, A-9220 Velden, tel/fax +43/004274/3000, open Wed.-Mon. 11am-midnight.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 10/20
Alt Wiener Hof
Most restaurants at the Wörthersee cater to a captive audience of tourists, and for that reason aren't particularly good.
The Alt Wiener Hof, however, is an exception. Located in a little village just a short drive from the lake, it is one of those good Austrian places one finds in the countryside, with hearty dishes served in large portions and at reasonable prices. The Bürger family rolls out a warm welcome which makes the restaurant a pleasant and homey place to visit.
Soups run about $3, while main courses - bread dumplings with wild mushrooms and Schnitzels and such - hover just above $10. The portions are truly enormous: I heard one table gasp with astonishment when their Speckkndel mit Linsen (a large bacon dumpling served with lintels) arrived looking like someone had dropped a large softball in a bowl of bean soup.
This is also a good place for dessert, particularly the colorful plate of cream cheese dumplings served with wild berries and whipped cream ($6).
Contact: Alt Wiener Hof, Roseggerstrasse 119, A-9220 Velden, tel/fax +43/04274/51347, open (May-Sept.) Wed.-Mon. 11:30am-10pm and (Oct.-April) Wed.-Mon. 11:30am-2pm and 5:30-9:30pm.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
A Buschenschank is a farmer's stand that offers only locally produced food and drink, a country version of a Viennese Heuriger although serving Most (apple cider) rather than wine. Usually it's a little she'd or farmhouse, with a half dozen or so wooden tables set out under apple trees, serving thick slices of bread piled high with shaved ham or salami, made to be washed down with a mug of yeasty apple cider. The Most is served pure or diluted with a half measure of apple juice.
Although only about a 10-minute drive from Velden, this Buschenschank seems like another world. Turn off the main road and soon you are enveloped by rolling green fields dotted with small farmhouses, and, on the horizon, smoky-blue, snow-capped Alpine peaks.
Clientèle is a nice mix of farmers, people from the surrounding towns, and a couple of swank holiday-makers fresh from the lake.
The fare is simple but very good. Osokollobrot ($4) is a long, thick slice of dark, chewy brown bread covered with thin slices of air-dried beef and topped with a wedge of egg, a slice of tomato, and a crinkled Italian pepper. Belegtes Brot ($3.50) is bread topped with a sampling of the different meats the house has to offer.
Larger appetites or groups can order butcher blocks served with mounds of sliced meats, bread spreads, pickles, and a basket of bread for $6 - $7. Those who don't like ham can try the tasty Haussulz; meat and vegetables in aspic splashed with roasted pumpkinseed oil ($6.50), or the Essigfleisch, a large pile of marinated beef and onion slices ($5). Most is served by the quarter, half, and full liter, for from $1.00, $2.50 and $4 respectively.
Good food, convivial drink and a relaxed atmosphere make the Kakl a wonderful place to watch the day's sun go down.x
Contact: Kakl, Unterjeserzerstrasse 18, Velden, tel/fax +43/04274/46 86, open Tue.-Sun. 5-10pm, April 1 June 23 and July 8-Sept. 29 and Oct. 14-Nov. 15.
A final note: for good coffee and pastries you can't go wrong at either the Julischka Politzky (Corso 3) in Velden and Café Wienerroither (Hauptstrasse 145) in Pörtschach.