What do you think when you think of Austria?
You will stand in awe at the magnificence of the snow-covered Alps. You will stare, unconscionably dissecting the intricate architecture and admiring the grandeur of the palaces and churches strewn all over the nation. You will experience a distinguished culture, filled with tradition yet changing everyday as it adapts and contributes to a global society. All of this and more is what awaits you in Austria.
Before I further continue with this article, I would like to take a moment and introduce myself. My name is Stefan Harrigan and I am an Austrian-American. My dual citizenship comes from the fact that I, as well as my parents, were born in America and the fact that my grandparents hold Austrian citizenship. Although I was born and raised in Ohio, an American state, I lived in Austria for several years before returning to my hometown to attend high school. While I lived in Austria, I was a member of the Vienna Boys Choir: a 500-year-old institution that provides an exceptional musical education and that has four choirs that travel the world to perform. Attending the school not only provided me with an international perspective, but also gave me the opportunity to experience and partake, first hand, in Austria’s infamous musical culture. It allowed me to see Austria “behind the scenes”, so to speak,whether at the state opera house with Ricardo Mutti or the Parliament meeting dignitaries; and it is this experience that will, I believe, allow me to give you a very unique perspective on Austria. So, without further ado, I would like to share with you a bit about Austria’s rich history.
Austria is made up of nine states or, Bundeslander, which are further divided into districts and municipalities. The states of Austria are as follows from greatest population to least: Vienna, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Styria, Tyrol, Carinthia, Salzburg, Vorarlberg, and Burgenland. Vienna, the capital of Austria, used to be a city within the state of Lower Austria until 1921 when it was legally changed to become a state, much like what happened with Washington D.C. in the U.S. In all nine states there is an elected legislature known as the Landtag. Every five years, six years in Upper Austria, elections are held for new representatives of these state legislatures. The members of the Landtag also elect the Landeshauptman,which is basically the governor of the state. I can tell you today with certainty that the people of Austria are very proud. Not in an obnoxious, overbearing way, but they are proud of what their country stands for, proud of its extensive culture, and proud of what the nation has been through. Austrian people are also, to be blunt, very outspoken. Even during the days of the monarchy Austrians protested and rioted if they believed they were being oppressed or maltreated, and today is no different. They will give you their candid opinion whether you agree with them or not. In case if you didn’t already know, the national language in Austria is German and the majority of the populace there comes from a Germanicor Hungarian background. Most Austrians are also Catholics or Lutherans and, particularly the elderly, place a great deal of value on attending church regularly. However, it should be noted that religion in Austria is not some kind of “social club.” Austrians really don’t care as much if you personally attend church regularly, for them it is strictly a place for reflection, not judgment by others. I also just wanted to briefly touch on some of Austria’s current social programs, just to give you an idea of what life is like there. Much like other European nations,Austrian citizens fall under a nationalized healthcare system, which, by the way, is ranked as the ninth best health care system in the world. If you pay taxes to the government there, you are automatically supporting the Austrian health system.However, Austrians do have the choice to either be covered by the public program or pay to go under a private one. Either way, both systems are fantastic, and I can say that from first hand experience. Another fantastic part of Austria is the educational system. Under this system students are required to attend four years of elementary school. After those four years, students split up to attend either a vocational or higher institution, known as a “Gymnasium.” Completion of the gymnasium is followed by an examination to determine if you are eligible to receive your “Matura,” which is essentially your diploma. This examination consists of three to four written essays that last about four hours each as well as three to four oral exams. Most schools also require their students to learn English, a subject that tends to be first taught in elementary school. Higher education in Austria is also something that is very unique and widely accessible. Austrian law provides that all EU citizens may study at Austrian universities for free if they complete their respective program in the minimum amount of time. I now want to introduce you to some of Austria’s most prized towns and cities.
1. Vienna As the capital of Austria, Vienna is also the most populated city and state in the entire nation. Vienna is also considered by many to be the cultural center of Europe, if not the world, and I must say, with good reason. People like Schubert, Strauss (pictured below on the left), Mozart, Haydn, and Bruckner used to perform in the many musical halls of Vienna, attracting thousands of listeners sometimes in one evening. Mozart’s The Magic Flute even premiered at a theatre in Vienna while Strauss’ infamous waltz The Blue Danube is a tribute to the majestic river that flows through the city. But Vienna isn’t just known for its distinctive musical heritage. It is also a major center for art. It might not be the home of Mona Lisa, but famous painters like Durer, Klimt, Monet, and Picasso all have their works hanging anywhere from in the modern Albertina museum to the former palace that is now the Kunsthistorisches museum, or “Art History Museum” in English. Vienna is also home to countless palaces, the national library (the largest baroque library of Europe), and The United Nations Office in Vienna (which is one of the four major UN headquarters around the world). Oh, and don’t forget that Vienna is also probably the coffee house of the world – in all seriousness, you cannot walk one block without seeing at least two cafes/coffee houses. Vienna has also been ranked number one in terms of quality of life for the past three years in a row and has been listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. The palace and gardens of Schonnbrunn, seen both below on the right, have also been added to that same list to emphasize their importance.
2. Hallstatt This quaint, tiny, typical Austrian town is one that is known worldwide for its unique culture and breathtaking views. Everything from the surrounding mountains, to the shimmering lake, to the brightly colored, old fashioned houses never cease to impress the thousands of tourists that come to experience this one of a kind place. Having its roots way back in Roman times, Hallstatt has traditionally been a wealthy salt mining town that has been supplying Austria and Europe with the raw material for centuries. In 1997 the town was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The current population of the town is 794 according to the January census of 2012. Hallstatt is also home to what many consider to be the oldest pipeline in the world.
3. Salzburg If you’ve ever seen the infamous The Sound of Music then you’ve already been somewhat introduced to Salzburg and its surrounding areas. In a sense, Salzburg is very similar to Vienna. It too contains many palaces and castles, it is a cultural center, and it has been home to many famous Austrians. The picture of the left below is actually the house where composer Wolfgang Aadeus Mozart was born. But Salzburg does have a very distinctive identity that makes it such a unique place. Situated on the Salzach River, the city is known for its annual SalzburgerFestspiele (a music and drama festival), its championship winning soccer team FC Red Bull Soccer, and its old town, baroque style charm. It is also the capital of the state of Salzburg and is home to three universities. In 1997 Salzburg was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2006, the city was being considered to host the 2014 winter Olympic games. Walking down the narrow, cobblestone roads, passing the renaissance style houses, the grand churches, the colorful gardens of palatial estates, you’ll realize that Salzburg is a city of its own kind, set in tradition and history.
4. Bad Gastein Imagine the beauty of the Alps right in your back yard. Imagine the sound of water rushing down the mountainside, passing centuries old building. Imagine pristine white snow covering quaint and charming homes surrounded by evergreens. In Bad Gastein, you don’t have to imagine any of that; you get to live it everyday (well, except for the snow, which melts in the warmer months). Situated in the Hohe Tauern National Park, within the province of Salzburg, Bad Gastein is a renowned spa town that has much to offer. During the winter months, skiers, snowboarders and tourists alike flock to the town in search of some of Europe’s finest slopes, or for the abundant natural springs fed by mountain water. Some might even prefer the winter hiking trails or the excellently maintained cross-country ski paths. But the wintertime isn’t only what drives this spectacular town. During the spring and summer months Bad Gastein provides dozens of hiking opportunities across the lush, green landscapes of the Gastein Valley, a very popular tennis championship, golf courses, bike trails, and traditional festivals for all to enjoy. Bad Gastein is simply something you have to experience. It’s not some bustling, big city with skyscrapers and stadiums or the like. It’s a place where people can go to really recover and experience alpine nature at its best.A traditional Austrian town truly unlike any other.
5. Innsbruck So around the time that I am writing this, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London are taking place, and, as you can probably imagine, there is a certain amount of Olympic fever going around. To appeal to that current fever, and hopefully the future ones to come, even if they are separated by two years, I’m going to introduce you a little bit to Innsbruck. As the capital city of Tyrol and a distinguished center for winter sports, Innsbruck has hosted the Olympic flame five times: twice for the Winter Olympics of 1964 and 1976, twice for the Winter Paralympics of 1984 and 1988, and once more for the first ever Winter Youth Olympics in 2012. But that’s not all that this historic city is known for. Innsbruck is also home to three prominent universities, including the University of Innsbruck and the Innsbruck Medical University, as well as Tyrol’s busiest train station. Noteworthy sites in the city include The Golden Roof, pictured below, which was built in the year 1500 in honor of Maximilian I, the Imperial Hofburg palace, not to be mistaken with the Hofburg castle in Vienna, and the Ambras Castle, home to a priceless collection of art detailing thousands of years of European history.
6. Graz As Austria’s second largest city and the capital of the state of Styria, Graz is another one of Austria’s traditional cities, filled with culture, educational opportunities, and one of Europe’s most well preserved city centers. Joining the likes of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in France, Stonehenge in the UK, and the Swiss Alps, Graz was added to the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1999. In 2003 it was also named Cultural Capital of Europe and in 2008 received the title of City of Culinary Delights. Graz is also well known for its six universities, the iconic clock tower, its opera house (the second largest in Austria), its museum of modern art (pictured on the top right), the mausoleum for Emperor Ferdinand II, and for its many cathedrals and churches. It is also the home to the StyrianLandhaus, a palace where the state legislature convenes and conducts business, and SchlossEggenberg, another palace, first constructed back in the middle ages, which today serves as the home to several invaluable Austrian and Roman collections. The city prides itself on combining its rich history with modern influences to create a dynamic and ever changing environment that appeals to everyone. It is well known as a fantastic city to grow up and live in as well as a wonderfully welcoming place for tourists.
7. Velden/Worthersee Area
Are you familiar with the beaches of Nice, France, or Hilton Head in the U.S.? Well, those are examples of some major summer tourist spots, and, as we all know, every country has a few. For Austria, that place is the Worthersee area: an immaculate lake surrounded by castles, beaches, and rolling hills thickly covered by forests. It is essentially THE summer destination for most Austrians and even many foreigners. Small towns containing quaint hotels,bed & breakfasts, and small marketslie on the shores of the lake and provide a tranquil, refreshing environment. Velden is a particularly popular vacation spot on the lake that tends to attract many affluent Austrians. Known for its expensive hotels, casino, and renowned culinary options, it’s a charming, yet busy area. The most infamous “landmark,” so to speak, of the town is the palace pictured below on the left. Inhabited by the Habsburgs in the 1400’s, the structure serves today as a luxurious hotel and spa only feet away from the water. But you can still enjoy the beauty of the Worthersee even if you can’t afford the posh lifestyle of Velden. The area is simply all around breathtaking that it doesn’t matter if you’re in the bustling, social center or the remote bed and breakfast on a peninsula.
Before having read this article, you might have believed that such a small nation like Austria couldn’t have contributed much to humanity or the world. And while it is true that Austria is well known for being a major tourist spot, there’s much more to it then castles and mountains. The following categories are where I believe Austria has made tremendous achievements, weather in benefit of the country or for other countries as well.
I’m well aware that I touched on this subject earlier, but I just wanted to reiterate how phenomenal this system truly is. This is a proud achievement of Austria because it serves as an example to other countries wishing to reform their health care system, the people, INCLUDING medical workers, absolutely love it, and it was ranked as the ninth best health care system in the world by the World Health Organization. Nobody has to worry about how they are going to be able to afford, say, heart surgery or cancer treatment in Austria, and I find that to be a remarkable achievement for the betterment of citizens’ quality of life.
2.Technology & Pharmaceuticals
The technology, pharmaceuticals, and service available through the system is absolutely top notch. The system is based on the idea that doctors should be doing everything in the best interest of their patients, not the pharmaceutical or insurance industries.
Music There is no arguing that Austria has been one of the world’s greatest musical contributors. From composers and musicians such as Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert, to Bruckner, Strauss, and Mahler, Austrians have written some of the most well known classical pieces of music. And, I mean, what other country can say that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote their national anthem? No, Austria is not the pop, rap, or jazz capital of the world, but it is where the foundation of musical culture was made. You can see it in the 500-year-old Vienna Boy’s Choir, the Vienna Philharmonic, the hundreds of theatres and operas strewn around the country, and the musical archives holding thousands upon thousands of original manuscripts. Music is simply a part of Austria and, however corny it might sound, you can truly feel its influence in any corner of the nation that you may travel to. ? Science/Medicine ? You might also be surprised to learn that Austria has contributed a great deal to our understanding of various scientific fields. Have you ever heard of the neurologist and father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud? What about the physicist and founder of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrodinger? Or Gregor Mendel, who is considered the father of genetics? Well they are all Austrians, and each of their contributions has generated a greater understanding in their respective fields. Additionally, Austrian engineers such as Ferdinand Porsche, creator of VW’s Beetle and founder of Porsche car co., Josef Madersperger, inventor of the sewing machine, and Viktor Kaplan, inventor of the Kaplan turbine used in rivers to generate power, have all contributed in ways that have changed our life on this earth.
Sports As I mentioned before, around the time that I am writing this, the Olympics of 2012 are going on. And as much as it pains me to say it, Austria is not one of those medal grabbing countries, at least not in the summer Olympics. Surprisingly though, despite its quite limited pool of athletes as opposed to other, larger nations, Austria always seems to fair quite well in winter sports. Austrian Olympians such as Herman Maier, MarliesSchild, and Benjamin Raich have been considered to be some of the best alpine skiers in the world! Soccer is another major sport in Austria and for many years, the Austrians were considered to be one of theteams to beat in European and international competitions. Although they haven’t been as successful in recent years, soccer still remains a major part of the Austrian culture and is a sport that has very traditional roots in the country.
When I first started thinking about misconceptions people have, I was kind of stumped because, quite frankly, most people that I talk to didn’t even know Austria existed. But no worries, I have a compilation that I think will reverse any preconceived notions you might have out there.
1. Austria is not a kangaroo’s natural habitat – that would be Australia
2. Austrians do not walk around in Lederhosen all day while playing polka music – just doesn’t happen
3. If you go to Salzburg, you will not see the von Trapp family running around singing
4. Austrians, and Germans for that matter, do not spit on you while speaking their native tongue – a true Austrian will enunciate and speak very clearly and the native Viennese, I have found, will speak with an accent that foreigners will never be able understand.
5. Tourism is not the only industry that thrives in Austria.
6. Edelweiss is not the national anthem of Austria, however it is the national flower
7. Your title (Dr., PhD., etc.) is very important in Austria – if you have a masters, you are not simply “Mr.” or “Ms.,” instead you are “Magister” and then your name. It’s a sign of respect and recognition.
Now those are just some of the common, silly misconceptions people tend to have about Austria, but I hope you won’t mind if now go into a few more, serious ones now.
8. Austrians are not Nazi’s nor do they approve of the horrendous acts of that time period– this is something that many people are unable to understand, because of what they have been taught and the overall assumptions they make about the WW II era. Let me first make something very clear: there were many Austrians during that time period that supported Hitler, but there were also many who did not. The fact of the matter is that history is history. Us Austrians do not deny, nor do we attempt to cover up what happened during WW II, but we are trying to move on. Do not define us or judge us by the mistakes that SOME of our ancestors made. Your respective countries have made bad decisions as well, but that doesn’t mean that everyone from your country is a terrible person. It is ignorant, disgusting, and derogatory to label us like that, so please, respect Austria and its citizens for what it/they stand/s for today.
9. Many people believe that countries with nationalized health care systems are slow, inefficient, and attract less medical professionals. Let me tell you something to be very clear: that is not at all the case. First off, Austria is overflowing with qualified doctors. There are so many students studying medicine or already certified medical professionals that the Ministry of Health has had to, so to speak, place doctors on hold until positions become open. Secondly, the Austrian system works as smooth and quickly as possible. Yes, you might still have to read the newspaper in your doctor’s office at your yearly check up, but what’s fifteen minutes when you are receiving excellent care for free? Well, in a sense free. The point I’m trying to make is that nationalized health care, when done right, can be an efficient and successful program that benefits the people, not companies, as it should.