When most people think of Austria, they imagine Vienna in its heyday, a glittering city of romance and gaiety, enchanting waltzes, luscious pastries, the operetta, and the Danube (and no one conjures up these images of 19th-century Vienna more than Johann Strauss, Jr., of "Blue Danube Waltz" fame). But there's another side to Austria: the spirit of the mountains. You'll find this especially in Tyrol, a land of rugged individuality and independence, where previous generations eked out an existence amid a mountainous terrain and harsh climate.
Austria's capital, Vienna, the royal seat of the Hapsburgs for 600 years, has always stood out as a center of art and music, as well as architecture. Visitors today will find a newer and brighter Vienna, a city with more joie de vivre than it's had since before World War II. It's still the city where the music never stops. In spite of two world wars, much of the empire's glory and grandeur remain. Its treasures now stock the museums, and its palaces are open to visitors. Vienna has been called an "architectural waltz" -- baroque buildings, marble statues, lovely old squares, grand palaces, and famous concert halls are all still here, as if the empire were still flourishing. In fact, to understand Austria is to grasp the meaning of baroque -- though in this sense it's not merely an architectural style, but a defining characteristic of the people: flamboyant, theatrical, and extravagant.
When it comes to politics, however, Austria is deeply polarized. The establishment of the far-right Freedom Party in 2000, pushing what critics considered an anti-EU and anti-immigrant platform, brought Austria worldwide condemnation. In contrast, many citizens of Vienna, and Austria in general, are among the most liberal, advanced, well informed, and tolerant on earth.
As one example of the more left-wing Austria, environmental awareness is on the rise. Recycling is more evident than in any other European country, with recycling bins a common sight on city streets. Another highly visible example is the low-cost public housing, called Gemeindebauten; it's estimated that about a third of the population of Vienna lives in government-owned apartments.
Birthplace of Mozart, Freud, Hitler, and the Wiener schnitzel, Austria defies easy categorization. As Wolfgang Seipel, who waits tables in a local cafe, told us, "We have our guilt, the famous Viennese schizophrenia. We've condoned atrocities, and there have been some embarrassing Nazi revelations. If Freud were still with us, I'm sure he'd wear out a couch every month. But in spite of it all, Vienna still knows how to show you a hell of a good time."
Austria and its people are moving deeper into the new millennium. But to appreciate its present more deeply, it's necessary to look back at its rich classical, culinary, and historical legacy. In this chapter you'll be introduced to a delightful people, the Austrians, as we briefly discuss, among other things, their history, art, famous citizens, music, food, and folklore.
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