Introduction to Austria

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007 at 12:00 am

austriaBeing part of various European empires throughout history, Austria has become a link between East and West possessing a rich cultural past and present. The country’s vast cultural opportunities include historic architectural monuments, modern-day graphic art exhibits, theater productions, music concerts, local festivals, and traditions. Also, world-famous choirs like the Vienna Boys’ Choir as well as orchestras such as the Wiener Symphoniker have helped spread Austria’s fame throughout the world.

Austria’s culture centers mostly on its love for the high life, mainly because of its very high standard of living. Its thriving economy, stable political system, its beautiful countryside, and cultural diversity all contribute to the country’s high-quality lifestyle for locals and tourists alike.

For one, Austria has a deeply-rooted tradition of balls, or formal social dances. These dance events are held between January and February, when balls are held nearly every weekend in different locations. To attend a ball, you at least know how to waltz, which is the basic step in ball dancing. Other forms of social dances are also performed by couples such as foxtrot, cha cha cha, and jive. These balls range from cozy and familiar to festive and stately.

Austria is one of the few countries where the opera, ballet, and classical music are still alive and well. The Vienna Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) is one of the leading opera houses in the world. Situated in the city’s first district, the State Opera house was built between 1861 and 1869, and it has since become one of the greatest opera houses in the world and guarantees the most impressive performances. The house’s programs are changed daily, presenting 50 operas and 20 ballets on 300 days a year.

If one cannot afford to witness the opera, tourists and some locals flock to the Vienna City Hall to watch various films connected to opera while being projected on a massive screen. This film festival has no entrance fee and it includes various international cuisines.

Skiing is one of the most popular sport in Austria, as it is practiced by people of all ages here. In fact, people here say that one cannot be a true Austrian if he or she does not know how to ski. It is not much of a surprise that Austrian professional skiers are among the top of the world rankings.

The country has various ski resorts of different altitudes and price ranges, most of which situated on the Austrian Alps. Aside from skiing, other snow sports are also practiced such as snowboarding, where a lot of ski resorts accommodate. Skiing has also extended into a lifestyle as various ski resorts offer exciting nightlife options, parties, and other fun activities for everyone to enjoy.

The Christmas season plays a vital role in every Austrian. Their version of the Santa Clause tradition has two different personalities, each judging what you have done the whole year. While the "Krampus"-dressed in fur and a masked or painted face-aims to punish your wrongdoings using a birch stick, Saint Nikolaus-in a red get-up and a white beard-makes amends to families the day after by sending bountiful gifts, but only if you can recite a poem.

Advent season (four full weeks prior to Christmas) makes families gather around the traditional wreath with four candles. Each Sunday one candle is lit, oftentimes followed with singing of Christmas carols, drinking tea, and getting a first taste of Christmas cookies. Aside from St. Nikolaus, children also get lots of Christmas presents through the "Adventkalender" (Advent Calendar), featuring 24 little bags or windows that they open one by one starting at December 1. Each bag contains little presents, usually images or chocolates. Christmas has arrived with the opening of the final bag. Children are also encouraged to compose a list of wishes addressed to the "Christkindl," which gathers all lists from the windowsill and leaves a small surprise present in exchange.

But of course, parents in Austria cannot just rely on St. Nikolaus or the Christkindl to send presents for their children. Oftentimes they troop to "Christkindlmärkte," various Christmas gift shops that begin sprouting on every corner of most Austrian cities as early as November. Christkindlmärkte also offers various food, some hot punch to beat the cold, and "Glühwein," a sweet and heated mulled wine. Some of the most popular and frequented shops are located in Rathausplatz (the square in front of Vienna City Hall), Schöenbrunn Palace (former summer residence of Austrian emperors), and Spittelberg (considered as the most authentic Christmas market).