After breakfast our guide from the previous day, Marie, met us in the hotel lobby for an excursion to Vienna Woods. The woods, only a short 30 minute bus ride from the city, are a highland area forming the northern border of Vienna to the Alps and the transition point between the Eastern Alps and the Carpathians. This was one of two optional tours for the day, the second being a trip to Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburgs’ summer palace in Vienna. I was palaced and cathedraled out by this point, so I ended up deciding to take the afternoon off to rest and do a little light reading in the hotel room. The first morning stop was Heiligenkreutz (Holy Cross) Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in the 12th century. This is the oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world.
Cistercian monks focused on self-sustaining labor and often relied on agriculture and brewing beer to support themselves. A later reform movement in the 1700s, led by the Abbot of la Trappe, resulted in the Trappists, which focused on more strict observance of the Cistercian code. Trappist beer is still a big deal for beer nerds such as myself. There are 11 Trappist breweries in operation today, and one of the caveats to labeling a beer this way is that it must be brewed within the walls of a monastery, either by monks or under their supervision. The other two requirements of the International Trappist Association (ITA) are: 1) the brewery must be secondary to the monastery; it cannot take priority, and 2) it is not run for profit; the earnings from sales are to cover the monks’ living expenses and those to run the monastery, with the remainder going to charity. I believe I have tried beers from 7 of these 11 monasteries, so there’s still work to do, which I look forward to.
Heiligenkreutz takes its namesake from the alleged piece of the “True Cross,” a relic presented to them in 1188 by Leopold V of Austria, which had previously been gifted to him by the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV. Additionally, the monastery had funding from Austria’s ruling family at the time, the Babenbergs. Consequently, the abbey is home to thirteen Babenberg tombs, including that of Duke Frederick II the Quarrelsome, the last family member to rule. Words can’t really do justice to the beauty of this monastery. The obvious age to everything is undeniable, and one of the best artifacts to that effect is the fountain in a small octagonal room in one of the gardens. The mineral deposits in the fountain had to have built up over many hundreds of years, and they add such a naturally ancient feel to the place.
Hand built wooden cabinets, pews, and myriad other furniture can be found in most rooms; things which are not built in a matter of days, weeks, or months, but years and decades. Museums would drool at the prospect of displaying these pieces among their collections, but instead they rest where they were crafted over the centuries and still serve a functional purpose. Today the monastery serves as a training ground for men entering the priesthood, as well as junior monks from other monasteries. It also was one of the first to develop an online presence.
After the tour wrapped up we took another short drive to Baden, a small spa town near Vienna. I was getting hangry, which was again exacerbated by the cold wind gusts. I managed to find a small café where the server only spoke German. My tired mind would have to navigate die Deutsche Sprache as best it could given the circumstances. I ordered a coffee for my grandpa and a double espresso for myself, followed by another. I had the schnitzel and some pommes frites, which slightly recharged my batteries, enough to walk next door and get a slice of orange tart before getting back on the bus and heading to Mayerling, the last village we’d visit on the morning trip. The energy I took in from caffeine and junk calories didn’t last long. When we hopped back on the bus, I said something to Marie in German, and she commented on the fact that I’d spoken nothing but German to her since the group met her the prior afternoon. My brain was running on fumes, so I wasn’t interpreting her German. I responded in German, but I have no idea if it related to her question at all. Judging by her response, it did not. So from that I recognized that it was time to take a break from the endless sight seeing. When my brain is that tired, I know I’ll get very unpleasant very quickly. Rule of life: recognize your own bullshit and act accordingly. But first we had to stop at Mayerling.
We had just enough time to hop off the bus for some photos and hop back on. Mayerling, a small village and hunting lodge, was once owned by the Habsburgs and is famous for the Mayerling Incident. This is a very interesting and easily overlooked incident in history that could lead to countless “what if’s” since the late 1800s. Briefly, the story goes that Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, only son and obvious heir to Franz Josef I’s throne, and his young mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, an Austrian diplomat’s daughter, were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide at Mayerling in 1889. The prince was 30; the baroness 17. Several forensic examinations of the Baroness’ remains occurred in the 20th century, eventually arriving at the conclusion that it was her, but that evidence that she’d been killed was inconclusive. However, in 2015 letters were released by the Austrian National Library, apparently penned by the Baroness to her family, detailing her plans to commit suicide along side Rudolf for love. A sad tale, indeed.
I look at this as a lover of history, even more specifically the period from WWI – WWII, and I wonder what effect the absence of this event may have had on the first half of the 1900s. As a result of Rudolf’s death, the crown would instead pass to Franz Josef’s brother, who only a few days later renounced his succession rights in favor of his son, Franz Ferdinand. For anyone unfamiliar with this name or with WWI or perhaps with what single event led to the commencement of the Great War, you need look no further. It was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that set in motion the beginnings of that monumental (in many ways) period in history. But what if Rudolf had never killed himself? What kind of ruler would he have been? In 1914 he’d have only been in his mid-50s. What kind of track record would he have had? Who would he have pissed off? Would there have been an assassination attempt on his life? And if WWI may have been avoided as a result of this, what would that have meant for WWII? Would the Nazis have ever been so adamantly opposed to the Versailles Treaty and so absolutely vicious toward an entire group of people? No to the former, because the Versailles Treaty may have never existed. Would the Nazis have, therefore, ever existed or come to power? And without WWII, what would have brought the US out of the Great Depression? Perhaps not the onset of military industrialism. See, it’s easy to go down historical rabbit holes because of one little ripple in the timeline like Mayerling. And who says history is boring? Re-read that if you think it is, and if you come away mind-unchanged, then maybe you’re boring, not history.
Pawel had us back to the hotel in no time. Judging from how exhausted I felt and no matter how much caffeine I ingested that morning, I decided eight and a half days straight was enough to earn a little break, so while the rest of the group freshened up and got back on the bus to go see Schönbrunn Palace, I stayed in the room, turned the lights out and tried to sleep. Very little sleep came, so I mainly just laid there in the dark, quiet room until someone started banging on the door, inserted a key, and began to come in. Some hotel staff had the wrong room, and quickly realizing his mistake, he apologized and left. That didn’t do much for my rest period, so shortly after that I flipped on the TV for the first time on the trip and found an English language channel, which was re-airing some travel show from the late ‘80s or early ‘90s judging by the attire and poor image quality. Other than that it was an entirely uneventful evening, and I did end up sleeping very well that night, which was a great thing because had I woken up the next morning as exhausted and grouchy as I felt that afternoon, I’d have never found my backup retirement spot.