Heart of Europe | Monocle

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What’s your impression of Austria? Was there a moment last week when you paused in the middle of your daily routine to consider the small but lanky nation that stretches luxuriously across Central Europe? It’s OK if your mind wandered off to consider other countries (Italy, Japan, France and Spain are all acceptable) but if, like me, you grew up with rich dollops of Austria influencing your childhood, there’s a strong chance that later in life you’ve found yourself drawn to the people, products, designs and destinations of Republik Österreich.

I can pinpoint the start of my Austrian connection back to the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My father was working for the Olympic committee and I recall the excitement of the planning for the two-week trip to cheer on Team Canada. Unfortunately I wasn’t part of the delegation and recall waving my parents off from Montréal’s Dorval airport on a snowy evening in February. Two weeks later they returned with a treasure trove of swag and it seemed as though my mother had cleared out all the shops in Innsbruck and Bolzano. There were toy soldiers and medieval weaponry, coloured pencils and notebooks, chunky knitwear, stickers, playing cards and picture books. A couple of days later the photos came back from the lab and we sat down at the dining table to go through snaps of the opening and closing ceremonies, slope-side shots of the ski races and images of elegant town squares and flared rooflines atop handsome buildings.

Not long after, we started going to a nearby Austrian restaurant (schnitzel became a midweek treat) and the following summer my mother took me to a matinée screening of The Sound of Music. At about the same time I also asked for knickerbockers, sturdy boots and a loden wool jacket – not exactly what my other classmates were wearing in grade three at Suddaby Public School but who was looking sharpest in the class photo?

Despite my fascination with the finer trappings of Mitteleuropa, it wasn’t until Christmas 1990 that I touched down on Austrian soil for the first time. My aunt and uncle had moved from Essen to Vienna and the invitation to spend the holiday with them was hard to pass up. For a week we dined at the best restaurants, filled the shopping trolley at the nearby Julius Meinl, stuffed ourselves on cake and, by the time I flew back to London on Lauda Air (will we ever see economy-class catering like that again?), I realised that the Austrians had a knack for hospitality and the good life. Shortly afterwards, I was in and out of Vienna more often as reporting assignments in Beirut had me connecting on Austrian Airlines through Schwechat. And in the summer of 1996 the first edition of Wallpaper* came together thanks to the talented art direction of Herbert Winkler and the emotional support of Austria Tabak (never have more cigarettes been smoked in such a condensed window).

This summer will mark 25 years since I made my start in the business of magazine editing, so it’s perhaps fitting that we return to Austria to celebrate the best that the nation has to offer. Given our Zürich base, many of us have had opportunities to scoot across the border for weekends on its lakes or longer stays in the mountains. Another of our outposts – in Merano, South Tyrol – has allowed us to spend time exploring Tyrol and Vorarlberg and meeting the people behind the hotels, restaurants and ateliers that make these regions unique. Further east our correspondents have been covering Austria since monocle’s launch and Vienna has long ranked as one of our most-liveable cities – it played host to the second Monocle Quality of Life Conference.

For this issue we’ve attempted to cover as much ground as possible, even going beyond the republic’s borders to chronicle Austria’s enduring influence on territories now under different management. Aside from the fine hospitality, the national talent for being able to pull off wearing both a cape and a jaunty hat as part of one’s ensemble, and its championing of the return of overnight rail travel (danke öbb), we like Austria because it’s a rule-breaker, it’s louche and it’s geopolitically important. At a time when most states are ever more nanny in their approach to governance, the Austrians like to leave things a bit more open to interpretation, don’t mind showing their naughty side and are proud that they still wake up every morning with the hangover that comes with empire.

Cheers (in fine Riedel glasses) and thank you for your support. Travel tips can be supplied by dropping me a note at tb@monocle.com.

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