by Bob Brooke
Austria conjures up visions of gingerbread houses and feathered hats, waltzes, white slopes and the fading echo of a yodel. It isn't easy to perceive this alpine tourist mecca as the center of a once vast European empire. Not long ago all roads led to Vienna. Ostarrichi, Austria's original name, was eventually Germanized into Osterreich, the destiny of which was tied for almost six centuries to the dynasty of the Habsburgs.
The story of Austria resembles a fairytale that begins with "once upon a time" and ends with "and they lived happily ever after." First settled by the Celts, it became an outpost of the Roman frontier, remaining under Roman control for over five centuries. The arrival of Germanic tribes hastened the decline of Roman power and eventually Charlemagne, as leader of the Franks, took control in 768 A.D. and established a more civilized culture.
After Charlemagne's death, the Babenbergs ruled Austria until 1273 when the reign of the Habsburgs began. As Holy Roman Emperors, their troops fought in every conflict that erupted in Europe for the next 600 years. But it wasn't until the Habsburg army defeated the Turks in 1623 that Austria emerged as a major European power.
The collapse of the Central Powers — Austria, Germany, Turkey, and Bulgaria — at the end of World War I, forced the last Habsburg monarch to abdicate the throne, creating the separate republics of Austria and Hungary. However, the Republic of Austria fell to German hands in 1933 when Hitler's Nazis invaded the country and proclaimed it a province of the Third Reich. At the end of the War, the Allied Powers signed a treaty once again recognizing Austria as a sovereign nation and restoring its borders to their pre-1938 positions.
Except for the fertile valleys of the Danube, and the section of eastern and southeastern Austria that borders on Slovakia and the great Hungarian plain, almost three-quarters of the country is mountainous. Although natural beauty prevails in all three of these divisions, the highest peaks and longest glaciers are in the central region. The western part of country around Innsbruck has become a popular alpine playground.
After its mountains, Austria's great defining feature is the Danube, Europe's longest river into which most of the country's creeks, streams, and rivers empty. Gliding along on a river cruise is an ideal way to see the countryside. Austria is also graced with many freshwater lakes, noted for their natural beauty and popularity with sportsmen. In addition to their natural diversities, each region of Austria, from Salzburg, the city of Mozart, to the Tyrol to sophisticated Vienna, has its own history, cultural identity, and — in some cases — dialect.
When the Turks stood at the gates of Vienna and threatened the heartlands of Christianity in the late 17th century, the Austrians convinced even its European enemies to bury their grudges and come to the aid of the Empire. The proverbial Austrian wit coupled with a reverence for tradition, for the old, for the beloved, be it the emperor or an opera singer, is what makes the Austrian people so warm hearted.
To understand Austria is to grasp the meaning of baroque, for it's beyond just an architectural style. It also defines the character of the people — flamboyant, theatrical, and extravagant. In Austria, the old and the new are inextricably interwoven.