Friday, August 03, 2007

Graz Update 30 July

We didn't send an email last weekend, because it was too hot to do anything during the prior week--so we didn't. And it didn't seem right to send an email detailing our unpleasant, sweaty doldrums, and getting sweat all over the computer keyboard is pretty gross. So, there, in three sentences, you know everything you need to about the week before last.

Our latest local adventure revolves around meat. This last Sunday we decided to check out something new, a festival. There are lots of locals festivals here in Styria and many of them are celebrations of something specifically agricultural, and usually food-oriented. (If we haven't said it before, we'll say it now: These people are hobbits.) For example, there will be a Kürbisfest pretty soon to celebrate the pumpkin crops. The event we went to on Sunday was the Vulkanland-Schinkenfest, an unabashed celebration of the high-cholesterol diet, in the form of ham. The Vulkanland part refers to the extinct volcanoes in that part of Styria and the Schinkenfest literally means ham festival. We both like a good ham so we figured it would be worth checking out.
For €10, we were able to (both, on one ticket) take the train from the Graz Hauptbahnhof out to Feldbach (about an hour away) which is the closest thing resembling civilization in the area of Auerbach, where the festival was actually being held. Feldbach is a lovely town, which probably would've preferred that a tractor not drive up the middle of it and ruin a perfectly good Saturday morning like that. (You'll read about the tractor in a minute.)

Actually, it was not quite so straightforward as it sounds, to take the train out and back. Some work is being done on the tracks, so we actually got as far as the Graz Ostbahnhof (one stop) before being kicked off the train and stuffed into a bus. This took us just outside of town where we picked up a second train. This whole process happened in reverse on the way back.
The courtesy "shuttle" which took us from the Feldbach Bahnhof to the festival was actually a three-car pseudotrain that moved rather slowly and shook surprisingly much. In fact, it looked suspiciously like a tractor dragging three diner booths--there were even tables, with cut-out holes for the ashtray and everyone's drink. Three miles and 25 minutes later, we arrived at the festival site. The route had been well-marked wtih 15 foot plywood ham signs. Along the way, our fellow passengers discussed at length their plans and expectations for the festival. They seemed to have three basic priorities:
1) Ham.
2) Beer.
3) Additional ham.

As you'll see, we were totally able to conform to this program.

Since the farmland is very hilly, there was not a large enough flat piece of terrain to accommodate the entire festival. Instead it was strewn up the side of a hill with the shuttle going up to the top and back. There was also a horse-drawn carriage performing the same service. We decided to ride to the top and work our way down. (Replace any verb with "eat" to get the full effect of the festival...)

The first vendor station we went to was near the top of the hill and we picked up our first Schinkenteller (ham plate). It had a fair amount of prosciutto-reminiscent smoked ham, a boiled egg in some sort of (sweetish? cheese? sauce?), some bread, a couple of peach slices, and two prunes that had been subjected to alcohol (plum kerosene?). Unfortunately the bee situation was a bit intense up on the hill. It may have been due to the nearby apiary, which in turn explained all the honey for sale. Bees are apparently interested in alcoholic prunes. Make a note. (Also possible our sunblock was attracting bees. Either way, we got some extra exercise, probably for the best, all things considered.)

After Ham Plate 1, we went to the very top of the hill to discover a small observatory overlooking a great view. At the base of the observatory, was a stand selling LAVA beer. This reminded us of the volcanoes and we are further reminded when we saw the centerpieces on the tables. They were big chunks of lava rock with wheat stuffed into holes and tied with a ribbon bow. Go figure. The LAVA beer was tasty, but the bees kept us moving.

We went down the hill and enjoyed a second beer while listening to what-would-have-been a string quartet, had not the viola been replaced by an accordion. They played some lively local music which sounded, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar to both Bavarian and Italian folk music. Not long after we sat down to listen to the band, they paused to knock back a few glasses of wine and proceeded to climb into the horse carriage and spent the rest of the day riding up and down the hill while playing. Probably for the best, considering what a chore it must be to drag a cello around while half crocked.
Further down the hill we discovered a large pit had been dug in the sand and a temporary bar had been constructed. There was another band (2 accordions, guitar, clarinet, and euphonium) playing and we each had a red beer which tasted strongly of rye. The steep walls of the pit served the important purpose of giving the patrons' children something to run full tilt up, over and over and over again.
We also ordered Ham Plate 2, which consisted of something like sopressata, a zesty dried sausage, some extremely garlicky butter, hearty Landesbrot (literally, Rural Bread or County Bread, but seems to mean Farmer Bread) more Rohschinken, tomatoes, some mysterious soft cheese, and some Wollschweinspeck. (A Wollschwein is a wooly pig... a local delicacy of sorts. The curious reader is invited to do their own investigation, but don't blame us if you get arterial blockage just reading about it, just know that we accept that our shorter lives are better for having tasted the stuff).

At the bottom of the hill we had some Polish beer that was being sold by some Polish guys, who possibly did not speak German. Also, it seemed possibly that their grannies were selling homemade pastries and gestreicheln brot, which is farm bread with pork fat and salt slabbed over it. This beer was also good, although the local brew was a bit more to our liking. They was also a Polish band wandering around and presumably playing, but we didn't get to hear them since the largest band (around 20 musicians) was playing at the base of the hill. After some time, we had Ham Plate 3 which was a actually an assortment of beef, deer, ham, and wild boar. We've both been curious to try wild boar since we were planning on coming to Austria and now we have (victory!) We toddled up the hill one more time for one more of those red rye beers and then had an ice cream before calling it a day. (All the beer was to clear our arteries, naturally...)

It was pretty clear that many people were in this for the long haul--most of the seating areas were set up with party lights and ample seating. We were probably there on the early side, in fact. We only arrived around 1 p.m. (the event began at 10 a.m.), and was scheduled to go until "???" according to the pamphlet.

So, that was the ham fest. Probably for the best that they only do that once a year, but definitely worth going when it happens.

Our other local news is minimal. They just held the "Alpen Woodstock"--the poster makes us laugh every time, mostly because Austrian contemporary music in almost all styles except jazz is considered crap, even by Austrians. They're still hung up on Falco, if you see the situation?

And, last week's unreasonably hot weather (100F almost every day, sometimes more) has ceased. In fact, it probably did not get above 65 today, and probably won't pass 70 tomorrow. For July, that's completely reasonable!

-Holly und Greg

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