February 2002 issue

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"Don't bother looking at the view – I have already composed it."

Gustav Mahler, 1860-1911, Austrian composer and conductor

Landlocked by eight countries, Austria was for cen- turies at the heart of an empire that played a pivotal role in the political and cultural destiny of Europe. Under the rule of the powerful Habsburg family, which presided over the country from 1278 until the outbreak of World War I, Austria was considered the most dominant political force in central Europe, and this legacy is still evident in the majestic architecture and rich cultural heritage of its imperial cities.

Austria is renowned for its musical traditions, which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries when countless European composers, including Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, were drawn to the country by the promise of a generous patronage from the Habsburgs. Today, the spirit of musical endeavour lives on through the Vienna Philharmonic, the renowned Vienna Boys' Choir and the Musikverein (concert hall and society).

In 1963, the Alpine hills of southern Austria became, quite literally, alive with the sound of music, when they provided the backdrop for the Hollywood musical of the same name. Some of Austria's most dramatic Alpine scenery can be found in the mountain province of Tirol, close to the Swiss and Italian borders, where wooden chalets with colourful window boxes pepper the slopes of the snow-capped mountains. Innsbruck, the capital of the Tirol region, is a popular holiday destination, which has twice played host to the Winter Olympic Games. The region is generally covered in snow from mid-December to April, making it an ideal playground for winter sports such as skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding and bobsleigh rides.

Austria's capital city, Vienna, has an established tradition for cultural and artistic achievement and it still is one of the undisputed capitals of art, literature and philosophy. Vienna's Hofburg (Imperial Palace) is a monument to Austria's cultural heritage and contains a 14th-century Augustinian Church and the Imperial Treasury housing religious relics from the Crucifixion. One of Austria's most famous sons, Sigmund Freud, started his medical career at the University of Vienna and the Freud Museum is located in the apartments nearby where he lived and worked.

Salzburg, which shares a border with Germany, is widely regarded as Austria's most picturesque city. The breathtaking Baroque spires of the old town punctuate the skyline, while the Festung Hohensalzburg, the largest, fully preserved fortress in central Europe, provides outstanding views. The main thoroughfare in Salzburg is the bustling Getreidstrasse, a pedestrianised avenue lined with expensive boutiques and exclusive restaurants. Number nine Getreidstrasse was the birthplace of Mozart, and it is now home to an exhibition of the composer's work, including the baby-sized violin he used when he was a child.

Located almost exactly between Vienna and Salzburg, Linz is Austria's third-largest city and a thriving cosmopolitan centre. The main square and the old town provide a window on the past with their original Roman foundations and vaults dating back to Medieval times, while Linz's most famous attraction, the Pöstlingberg Adhesion Railway, is the steepest railway in the world and affords some spectacular views of the city. However, it is at night that Linz really comes alive when enthusiasts of the famous pub scene add a completely new dimension to city life.

The southeastern corner of Austria is a combination of sub-alpine terrain and sun-baked plains. The focal point of this region is Graz, a perfectly preserved medieval town, which played an important role in Austria's military history. Graz also offers a wide range of entertainment opportunities from theatre and opera to music and art installations.

As in much of central Europe, the Austrian diet relies heavily on meat and potatoes in many of its national dishes, while Austrian desserts are widely regarded as some of the best in the world. Most notable among them is the Strudel, a baked pastry dessert filled with a variety of fruits and sprinkled with raisins and cinnamon. Austria was also the birthplace of PEZ sweets. Invented in Vienna in 1927 and originally sold as breath fresheners, the name came from the first, middle and last letters of the German word for peppermint, Pfefferminz.