Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Guest contributor Duncan JD Smith conjures up the spirit of an Austro-Hungarian borderland when he visits Burg Bernstein - a fortified country house in the rippled hills of Austria's Burgenland region.

article summary —

Straddling the border between Lower Austria and Burgenland, Austria’s easternmost state, lies the Bucklige Welt. This “hilly world”, where the last ripples of the Alps give way to the Puszta, was for centuries the fortified borderland between East and West. Here were the marchlands of the Holy Roman Empire, where sturdy castles (Burgen) and buttressed churches protected Western Europe — Christendom — from Avars, Magyars, Mongols, and Turks. Hungarians call the place Örvidék: the Land of the Sentinels.

Of the fortified castles in this region, the most alluring is Burg Bernstein. Some say it is named after the Bernsteinstrasse (Amber Road), an ancient trade route used to transport amber from Baltic shores down to the Mediterranean. Attractive though this notion is, the geography just doesn’t fit. Others have suggested the name is derived from the Old German for ‘burning stone’ but proffer no reason as to why. What is certain is that, until the end of the First World War, when the area was ceded to Austria under the Treaty of Trianon, Burg Bernstein lay squarely in Hungary, hence its original name, Borostyánkö. The sleepy village of Bernstein im Burgenland sits on the Kaltenecker Landesstrasse, a gloriously scenic road that runs south from the Vienna-bound B55. It comprises little more than a cluster of houses, two churches, a café and a mineralogical museum. Beyond the tiny main square, a tree-lined avenue sweeps up to the red-roofed castle, perched aloft on its wooded crag.

The story of Burg Bernstein and those who have lived here is a long and tumultuous one. The bare bones can be found in history books but the real colour can only be gleaned first-hand. Fortunately the guardians of Burg Bernstein have for almost a century welcomed travellers, regaling them with intriguing tales of the place. The current incumbents, Alexander and Andrea Almásy, are no different. They welcome their guests warmly in the castle courtyard — itself already a world apart — where the story of Burg Bernstein begins to unfold.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 54.